As it transpired, the brouhaha surrounding Brooklyn College’s BDS event was a good deal of hullabaloo over not a lot. Roughly 300 people turned up to listen to Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti speak about the need to boycott and divest from Israel, while outside the hall 150 protested either in favour of or against the event and the movement. In the end, those proposing that the event be shut down were made to look rather foolish.
Far better, perhaps, that Alan Dershowitz and others sought to negate their right to speak redirect their efforts and energies into cautioning against BDS’ even tacit acceptance by those liberal Zionists who earnestly wish to see the end of the occupation of the West Bank and the coming about of two states for two peoples. BDS, it has become apparent, has no interest in this – indeed, as a movement and an idea, it is fundamentally incompatible with Zionism.
That much is evident from its manifesto. For, in addition to advocating an end to the occupation, the dismantling of the Security Barrier, and the recognition of full rights for Arab Israelis, BDS demands “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” At present, there are five million Palestinians – one third residing in villages and camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding states – who are refugees according to the UNWRA standard.
Setting aside the impracticality of the proposition — would the Israeli authorities evict Jewish families from their homes in Haifa and Yafo? — permitting the influx of that many Palestinian exiles would only serve to undo and end the Zionist project. Instead of there being one Jewish and one Arab state between the river and the sea, there would instead be two Arab-majority states, and with time, one state. As such, and as Yair Rosenberg has argued, the right of return and BDS is “antithetical to the two-state solution, the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accepted by majorities on both sides and the international community.”
In other words, BDS is incompatible with liberal Zionism because it has adopts an unsympathetic attitude towards its main concern: the establishment of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. Indeed, BDS actively opposes the sort of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian authorities, NGOs, and academic institutions which might help bring a two-state solution about. Ali Abunimah – one of BDS’s principal proponents in the United States – has called Salam Fayyad a “quisling,” while BDS successfully pressured al-Quds University into severing its collaboration with Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
Those who spoke at Brooklyn College have both been clear on their opposition to Israel in the past. Omar Barghouti labels the idea of two states an “immoral solution,” supporting instead a single secular and democratic Arab-majority state in Palestine. Judith Butler – who, as Gershom Gorenberg helpfully highlighted, doesn’t know much about the Middle East at all – describes Israel as a “settler” and “colonial” state, asserting without evidence that a one-state solution would “surely improve prospects for democracy in that region.”
And therein lays BDS’ original sin, the principal reason it should not and ought not attract the support of liberal Zionists: that it is far from being interested in the peace process. Its principal concern is bringing about its demise and that of Israel to boot. It seeks to delegitimise Israel by way of a blanket punishment against all Israeli companies, institutions, and indeed people, regardless of whether or not they in fact support the status quo. It is entirely irrelevant to BDS supporters whether you are a bureaucrat in the Civil Administration, a professor at Ben Gurion University, or an employee of Intel in Kiryat Gat: what matters is that they are all Israeli, and therefore they must be castigated.
For liberal Zionists to join with BDS and impose “broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel” would be therefore unacceptable, and its effect would be to alienate and further open up the ideological and cultural rift which exists between Jews in the Diaspora and those that reside in Israel. In helping to isolate Israel economically and diplomatically, Israeli society would turn ever inward, and be more likely to ignore or reject calls from liberal Zionists in the United States and elsewhere to renew the peace process or do more to tackle income equality and encourage religious pluralism.
It would be grave mistake indeed, then, for liberal Zionists to take on BDS as a worthy cause. In fact, Zionists of all stripes would be remised if they did not actively combat this movement, which very deliberately seeks to stigmatise, separate, and then wipe away the Jewish state under the all-too-agreeable auspices of equality and fairness. Frustration at the lack of progress in the region is understandable, but liberal Zionists must continue to campaign for two states and can do so through existing channels like Peace Now, Yachad, and J Street (amongst others) and for greater cross-border cooperation via One Voice.
BDS is not the answer — and nor shall it ever be, either.