I support BDS, mostly, but . . .

I support BDS, mostly, but . . .

Marilyn and Fred’s arguments in support of Boycotting (and Divestment and Sanctions against) Israel are compelling, and I am fully behind them. But …

There are a few things about BDS that makes me uncomfortable, and prevents me from unreserved support.

There are few things in life that match my beliefs and values 100%. Even though I am a committed Green Party activist and will always vote for them, I don’t support every last one of their policies or initiatives, and am frustrated about their lack of staunchness; but I accept that mostly they are on track, and, unless another party comes along that is better, I donate to, vote and volunteer for them.

With BDS there are a few of their positions (reading from their web site) that don’t sit well with me.

These relate to their boycotting of any Israeli academic, cultural or sports person who may wish to travel and ply their trade outside of Israel, unless those individuals openly and clearly proclaim their opposition to the occupation. This is problematic, and unfair, I feel, and a sanction against freedom of speech and expression.

The rational for this position given by BDS is that, for example, an academic who wishes to give a speech or lecture overseas or at a conference inherently supports the occupation by virtue of their being part of a University or institution that does the bidding of the Israeli Government, e.g. by participating in research that may be used by the military to oppress Palestinians. This paints every person who works or holds a position at an academic institution with the same brush. But clearly many if not most lecturers work there because that is the University where they live, or where their academic discipline is strongest.

I suppose if one works for a tobacco or oil company, it would be fair to hold that person responsible for the harm done by their employer. But that can’t fairly be said to apply for, say a philosopher or ancient history professor or psychology researcher, even if their institution, or one part of it, is complicit in collaborating with the Government in activities that directly enhance the control over and therefore the harm to Palestinians under the occupation.

I was never an employee, but as a Masters student at Victoria University of Wellington, or a B.A. student at the University of California, I hardly (if at all) knew what that institution’s policies were regarding Israel, or the US military, or research into nuclear power or whatever nefarious activities their Board of Governors or donors were up to. Indeed, where I was aware (as at UC Santa Barbara re nuclear power research) I joined public protests against involvement in such activities. Should I have refused to attend those schools and instead find another institution that was more ‘pure’ and fully aligned with my values? Even if I knew, should I be guilty of their crimes or associations? If I buy petrol from BP, am I collaborating with and therefore equally responsible as those who criminally destroy the planet? OK, bad example.

But where is the choice of an Israeli resident who needs an education, a job, or wants to play tennis or violin for an academic, cultural or sporting institution in Israel, where they live?

These people should not be treated as criminals or collaborators to be banned from lecturing on their expert subject to a New Zealand public that is interested in hearing what they want to say. They should not be excluded from a sports competition because their citizenship is Israeli, or refused a venue to perform a classical piece of music. None of these activities has anything to do with actively supporting the illegal and oppressive occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands and people.

There should not be a litmus test for artists, thinkers or sportspeople to declare their political stance against the occupation or on any issue. We should be an open society, and free to choose who we see, listen to and cheer for. Or not to. If someone has abhorrent views, let them come and be seen in the full light of day, and lets protest about those issues. But don’t ban them, or exclude them.

That is where I depart ways with BDS official policy and means, while fully supporting their position on the occupation and the appropriate targeting of those directly culpable and responsible for Israeli Government oppressive actions.

5 thoughts on “I support BDS, mostly, but . . .”

  1. David, glad to read that you mostly agree, and I agree with you that individuals, culture and culpability are difficult to reconcile in protest.
    You raise two hard questions for me. How can I justify a protest that holds all of Israel’s Jewish population responsible? I assume that Israelis do (or at the very least, should and choose not to) know that their lifestyle is predicated on the occupation. I agree that boycotts draw simple lines, and I would challenge you to make your finer distinctions workable. But for now, I take your point. Second, I make a point of reading widely, and how can I preemptively justify avoiding Israeli writing? What about the excellent Israeli anti-occupation scholarship and activism, such as Eyal Weizman or Jeff Halper? What about religious scholarship?

    For that mass of individuals, let me restate the question: how much day-to-day normality shall we accept before we hold them responsible? I have to say that Israel’s lifestyle is not normal, it’s deeply distorted – but that’s a tangent. Individually, I tend to think that we should make ethical choices when we can, and at the least, we should acknowledge when we are falling short. So, how many Israelis really acknowledge that their present power arrangements are illegal, in the eyes of the world as assembled at the UN and in the laws of states? How many are voting, protesting, expressing objections, declining to live in confiscated buildings or play in the parks that were planted on emptied Palestinian villages? How many join an organization that works for some form of justice? By any such measure, the bulk of Israelis are normalizing, voting for more, and not protesting.

    Of course there are exceptions. How can I justify penalizing them?

    I was raised with a tribal understanding of Judaism, so that question becomes easy when I ask, what if the ethnic positions were reversed? What if Jews and Palestinians traded places? Would we protest the dispossession, the diminished prospects and shortened lifespans, the apartheid legal system, the structural and high-explosive violence, if it were being inflicted upon our fellow Jews? Oppression does not make those fine distinctions. It is a volume exercise between whole communities. If we were the oppressed, I think we would want the whole world to jump up and intervene right-this-fucking-now. Well, it’s happening and Israelis happen to be the beneficiaries rather than the oppressed … so, nu … let’s protest because it’s being inflicted upon human beings, in our name and with the assumption of our acquiescent enabling.

    BDS is a clumsy tool for anyone fond of nuance, and I’m sure I will make my share of exceptions and allowances. But I will add my name to the growing list of names of people who will not turn their face away and prop up blockade walls with their backs. When enough of us stand up because the thought of doing nothing makes our skin crawl, then Israel will be brought back into our moral universe and this thing will get sorted. Peace is the only credible outcome, but it’s an open question how much death and suffering the world will tolerate before we require a just peace to be found.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you say, Marilyn, it is a question of where the nuances lay. I don’t disagree with your argument in the general, but have trouble with the specifics.

      For example, Trump’s government is hateful, racist, and deserving of opposition. But is every American complacent and deserving of the same treatement? Do we visit the sins of the wealthy and powerful on the punters out there struggling to get along under an insane and heartless elite? I have many freinds and relations who voted against Trump, abhore his administration, and while they might continue to ‘benefit’ from Trump’s America, it would not be right to lump them in the same septic tank with the Trumpers.
      I don’t have friends in Israel, but i know many Israeli residents did not vote for Occupation parties. Some refuse to serve in occupied lands and suffer the consequences. For the rest, yes they benefit from Israel’s wealth and power, but aside from protesting or holding their own boycotts, what else can they do? They just want to play the fiddle.
      I do understand how boycotts work, and that it is hard to distinguish righteous individuals from the herd. So I will continue to support BDS as the best (perhaps only) practical and effective protest. But I will argue the point with them on their cultural, sporting and academic boycotts, and remain uncomfortable with that.


      1. Understood. I do think that Israel is differently – integrally and in my name – implicated in its occupation regime, but I also see that it’s a broadside from of protest.


  2. Hi,
    these are sensible points to raise, but they’re addressed by BDS: https://bdsmovement.net/academic-boycott
    Although disentangling academics and institutions is easier in some cases than others, the principles are clear: individuals employed at Israeli universities are as welcome as those employed at any other university provided they are not representing their institution in an official capacity or sponsored by it. As we know, Israel makes maximum use of cultural and academic exchange for purposes of image sanitising, and accordingly often pays for trips – e.g. to conferences – that would normally be covered by host institutions anyway. From the perspective of an academic host organiser, it’s no big deal to cover the expenses of an Israeli guest if it’s covering those of other international guests. The BDS campaign takes considerable pains to emphasise that it does not target individuals, and any people who do so are not acting in accordance with its central tents.


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