For much of the last 2 years I have spent my time within the BDS camps. I go to their events, I network with their delegates, talk to their speakers and socialise with them on Facebook. I’ve sat next to some of the leading lights of BDS and discussed strategy 1:1. When I am there, they think I am one of them, a BDS activist.
So when I write about BDS, it comes with the experience of having embedded myself within the BDS camp. What I say doesn’t reflect what they place on glossy promotional material, but rather what they believe and what they say amongst themselves.
So what is BDS?
In the beginning, Zionists fought for the right to statehood. Then Israel fought for the right to exist and then survive. The opposition in these fights were those who simply sought to deny that right or existence. They fought and violently opposed Jews in mandatory Palestine, fought in the civil war of 48, the first Arab Israeli conflict of 1948 and 1949 and so on. They kept fighting and kept losing.
Eventually, after decades of war they came to realise that as it stands. Israel cannot be defeated militarily. This is the resignation stage, the basic understanding that currently Arab armies are not going to be able to remove Israel from the map.
Therefore, two main options emerge, acceptance and non-acceptance. The acceptance is what we saw emerge through Egypt signing a peace deal with Israel, through the noises the PLO began to make, onto Madrid, then Oslo, the peace deal with Jordan and into the peace talks over a two state solution.
Then there is non-acceptance, the marriage between an understanding Israel cannot be defeated military with the desire that Israel has to be destroyed. As the acceptance group moved onto negotiations, non-acceptance sought the opposite.
This can be seen in the ostracising of Egypt by the Arab states following the peace treaty, the actions of Hamas and the bus bombs during Oslo, the intifada, Hizbullah, and persistent diplomatic actions to demonise Israel on the global stage.
So we have two entirely different narratives. The first one of negotiation, acceptance, potential peace. The other, constantly seeking new strategies to fight the Jewish state.
As Oslo collapsed in the second Intifada, a new strategy began to form in the non-acceptance camp. Based on the success against Apartheid South Africa, they reasoned that if Israel could somehow be projected as the New South Africa, global grassroots could possibly bring about what Arab armies could not.
Emerging from the anti-racist conference in Durban in 2001, the first signs of these global networks began to appear. Within months the first academic boycott began, in the UK with an advert in the Guardian newspaper. Not because of a call from Palestinians over the occupation, but from antizionist Jews who simply want the state of Israel to end.
Over the next couple of years, boycott movements appeared and faltered. Not least of all because Israel is not South Africa and apartheid doesn’t exist there. They also had little academic grounding, no basis in international diplomatic circles within the west and no visible support from within the PA itself.
Two separate strategies were worked upon. Both came from the international anti-Israel movements. The first was an academic battle, an attempt to delegitimise Israel through the application of pseudo-science. If, in a post-colonial world Israel can somehow be transformed into a settler colonial state, then its existence and legitimacy can be questioned.
The second was the realisation that the Palestinians themselves had to call for boycott. That this movement needed to appear as if it were a civil call, from within. So in 2005, as ‘instructed’ by internationally based enemies of Israel, scores of civil groups within the PA areas called for boycott. Thus BDS was born.
BDS has 3 central aims. They list them in this order: 1st, an end to the presence of Israel in the west bank (note BDS does not specifically state that ‘occupation’ refers to the west bank and not Israel). Like most of its suggestions, BDS prefers to remain ambiguous, not wishing to deter the moderate, but holding on to the extremist aims.
For those who have considered entertaining BDS because it could possibly mean only the ‘occupied land’ of the West Bank, they have been fooling themselves. Imagine if you will a lynch mob charging down with their torches to someone’s house. Those who join at the fringes, those who become part of the mob but aren’t really seeking to do the man much harm, will not have a say when the punishment is given out. All they have done is empower the elements at the front who are determined to use extreme violence.
The second is a call for equality within Israel itself, and the 3rd a call for the rights of the refugees to return.
BDS place the issue of the occupation and the wall first, because of course this is the one that most moderates, students and liberals will identify with. To a degree it also has international diplomatic support. Most pro-Israelis believe that the 3rd aim, the one regarding the refugees is the most insidious. They think it means that Israel will be flooded with millions of Arab Palestinians.
I believe these aims are deliberately listed out of order. To understand better what BDS is about, we need to rearrange their listed aims.
Now, the occupation is listed 3rd, with the refugees 2nd. Why have I placed them in this order? Because they highlight just what BDS is taking ownership of.
The issue of land in the west bank is an issue that can exist within the 2 state paradigm. In fact, to a degree it is the essence of the two state solution. The question is merely one of where the eventual borders are drawn and of course security. We can date this aim as belonging to post 1967
Similarly, the refugee issue will eventually need to be solved through negotiation. Theoretically it can be solved without harming Israel. The refugees in Jordan simply become Jordanian. The nonsense of a Palestinian inside PA areas calling himself a refugee can also be set aside. Perhaps a symbolic number can move to Israel. And a compensation agreement that is built to also include compensation for the near million Jewish refugees that fled or were expelled from Arab lands can bring an end to all these claims.
When lead by extremists this particular aim does mean the end of Israel, but theoretically, it could exist within the two state paradigm. Once again BDS relies on ambiguity. As it concerns the refugees, we can date this aim as belonging to 1948-9.
And then we come to the Arabs of Israel. The democratic state of Israel provides freedoms that Arabs throughout the region can only dream of. Without much argument Israeli Arabs are in a healthy position vis-à-vis their freedoms. And yet BDS has visibly crossed the international Israeli border to begin to make demands there too. And in doing so has explicitly declared itself as part of the rejectionist, non-acceptance camp.
They would argue first that Apartheid exists there. Which it doesn’t. They suggest that Arabs are not equal, citing a few laws that set Arabs apart. In this they count laws that benefit soldiers and anything related to the star of David or the Israeli flag. It is a nonsense. A desperate attempt to cloud over what they have done. They have ignored Israel’s international border. This aim has to be dated pre-1948. Before Israel’s creation.
They may try to argue that it isn’t about borders, it is about human rights. They become ‘universalists’ who simply seek equality amongst all peoples. And yet, they went westwards towards Israel and crossed the border, but did not go east. Had they gone East they would soon have found Jordan. A state created *at the same time* as the British mandate of Palestine from the very same lands. A state that has many Palestinians living within. A state that isn’t democratic. If they had gone North they would have arrived in Lebanon. A state the practices Apartheid against Palestinians. Yet in these cases BDS stopped at the international border. Universalists they are not.
There is only one international border BDS ignores. Israel. It has nothing to do with human rights or universalist principles. They have explicitly targeted the most liberated Arabs in the entire middle east simply because they live in the Jewish state. BDS is therefore not a pro-Palestinian movement. It does nothing to build, create, invest, assist or promote Palestinian interests at all. It doesn’t even operate in some areas where Palestinian suffer grave oppression. We have seen BDS cause Palestinians in the West Bank to suffer from the loss of jobs. BDS is a movement that is explicitly anti-Israel and focuses only on that. It exists well within the non-acceptance camp. It seeks as did the Arab armies, the destruction of the Jewish state. And just like 1948, these extremists do not care what price the Palestinians have to pay for it.
Misconceptions about BDS
A few short words about BDS and misconception. BDS is not a thing. There is no HQ, no leadership. They have stars, that is people who are articulate who travel to speak at universities and so on, but they are not an organisation with an internal structure. This is their strength. They act like a religion, using areas were condensed groups of potential converts exist. The university space is a perfect example, unions are another. Anti- war groups, movements that are anti-west. anywhere that people congregate that might be disposed to aligning, for whatever reason, with BDS goals.
BDS has flattened the conflict out of existence. Note they almost never talk about peace. If they were to mention peace, they’d have to explain the conflict. If they explain the conflict, it quickly becomes apparent there are problems with the story. So BDS simply talk in keywords of justice and human rights. Peace isn’t relevant.
Within these areas, BDS can spread as a cult does, using scripts that are devoid of context, devoid of factual elements and simply regurgitate mantra. From here, anybody can begin a BDS action. They can choose whether they only attack settlements, the west bank, the Golan, Jerusalem, or Israel proper. Some have even targeted Zionists living abroad.
It also allows for different groups, such as LGBT and the Islamists to absurdly stand under the same umbrella. BDS can ensure that elements that would offend each other never have to meet. Right wing Nazis and Left wing communists. Each group operates independently and within its own world paradigm. Jew haters, universalists, Islamists, communists, Nazis. BDS becomes all things to all people. It is a brilliant strategy of deception.
So not everyone who is anti-Israel is an antisemite, but antisemitism is a glue that holds the entire movement together. The effective PR, turns the cause of the destruction of a democratic state into a left wing humanitarian ideal that virtue signallers on social media are happy to be identified with.
You cannot destroy an idea but you can render it meaningless. There are four main ways to defeat BDS. One is education, to let people know the real narrative, the second, legislation, to restrict the ability of BDS to operate. The third is to find those that financially support BDS and object to the funding, and finally, the fourth is to toxify it – to highlight what BDS actually is and to make people wary of associating with it. Effectively to expose the truth and poison the brand.
So when you come across it, how do you oppose this hatred?
The central BDS argument
BDS is underpinned by 3 main issues.
- Apartheid, that is Israel is the new South Africa
- Naqba, that is in 1948 the Jews simply expelled the Arabs
- Settler Colonialism, the product of the academic pseudo-science fight against Israel, the idea that Jews are simply Europeans who invaded a random nation in Asia.
These are all false and yet form the very basis of the argument for BDS.
The Apartheid argument is absurd and a horrific insult to black South Africans who actually lived through an apartheid regime. The Arabs inside Israel as mentioned earlier are the freest in the entire region and all vote. If only all the Arabs in the Middle East were as free as the ones in Israel. You may see racism, as you do everywhere, but there is no apartheid.
The west bank and Gaza are conflict situations. An issue that needs to be resolved between Israel and its neighbours. Nothing to do with Apartheid. Hiding behind the Apartheid label to con western youth to associate the Jewish state with Apartheid South Africa is a vile strategy.
The underlying ‘racist state’ argument is no less vile and no less false. Israel was a nation built to provide independence and freedom to a persecuted people. Those that followed the Zionist call escaped persecution across the globe. It was the fundamental pillar of the mandate and the moral imperative that led to Israel’s creation. The international community created a Jewish state to provide a refuge for the Jewish people. Even now, people, movements such as BDS still attack it. You can no more call Israel a racist endeavour than you can attack a refuge for abused women, victims of domestic violence as being sexist. Neither accusation is morally acceptable.
Then there is Nakba. The argument over the events of 1948. As part of their activism, people such as Illan Pappe produced works that attempted to entirely rewrite the conflict. What occurred in reality was a civil war. The united nations offered two states for two peoples and the Jews accepted. The Arabs did not. Within days Jews were being attacked, within weeks foreign Arab troops had entered into British Palestine, and civil conflict opened up throughout. To replay this as an pre planned expulsion of innocent Palestinian civilians is nonsensical.
The Nakba narrative is entirely false. At one event I went to a speaker named Rivka Bernard from a group called ‘War on Want’ knew so little, she ludicrously suggested both sides rejected the partition. This ignorance from a person willing to actively promote the destruction of a democracy. At another event I heard a narrative where the partition wasn’t mentioned at all.
Like any civil conflict it was bitter and bloody. No doubt massacres of some description occurred on both sides. No doubt too that in some areas controlled by both sides, people were forced to leave. With Arab irregulars operating in some towns and Zionist supply lines threatened, clearing an area for military advantage can be a logical and required step. Several areas on the Arab side were entirely cleansed of Jews. This was an existential fight. The vast majority of Arabs fled voluntarily. Anyone who doubts that needs to look at the refugee crisis today. All you need is civil conflict. People run, it is what people do in these situations.
In reality the Nakba is that Israel didn’t lose, that the Jews survived. For some, like those behind BDS this is the catastrophe. In truth the Arabs started a conflict that sought to destroy the Jews and they lost.
And finally Settler Colonialism. A pseudo science, the academic attack. To make way for the removal of Israel through the rejection of its legitimacy, the soul of Zionism has to be destroyed. The Jews, persecuted throughout history and seeking the right of self-determination, returning home to the birthplace of their people. Zionism is a national liberation movement. Instead to BDS, Zionists become just a group of white Europeans seeking a random Asian nation to invade and settle.
This paradigm is so false that you wonder how it is even supported in the minds of the extremists that promote the idea. It comes along with accusations that Jews are descended from Khazars, anything that unravels the ties of Jews to the region. It is far removed from historical reality yet remains a science financially supported on campus by international anti-Israeli movements.
Facing the hatred
When fighting against this type of hatred, remember:
- You do not actually have to fight. Sometimes, it is better just to walk away. Their core argument is so flawed that if you engage with a true BDS Zealot, you might just be wasting your time. It takes a lot of stupidity to believe the world is flat. Sometimes, all the truth, all the science in the world, wont shift a true believer. Pick your battles.
- Historical facts are the killer blow to BDS. They avoid debate because of them. Theirs is a story that only works in a vacuum where truth and knowledge must not enter. If you engage, go for the soft underbelly. The two state scenario only arose in 1936 because the Arabs wouldn’t stop killing Jews fleeing from the nazis. How would someone look today if they started killing refugees fleeing Syria. The 1947 rejection of partition, the civil war, the Arab irregulars, the lack of a Palestinian state between 1949-1967.
- Always attack BDS, don’t defend Israel. This isn’t about whether or not Israel is guilty of some things. Israel doesn’t have to be perfect. The question is the legitimacy of the BDS argument and the aims of the BDS movement.
What BDS does is deflect. When it engages, it doesn’t come to argue the facts. BDS is not a trial. BDS is a punishment. So imagine if you will this situation. A group of people come to you in the street and tell you that you’ve been sentenced to death.
“Why” you ask.
“Because you are guilty of theft” they respond.
“Which theft” you ask.
In taking this approach you not only empower them, you give credit to their argument. The problem is not what you may or may not have done. The problem is who are they? What do they want? Where is their justification for gathering together in the first place? Who made them the judge? When was the trial?
Perhaps the weakest point of BDS is the idea that it can work and bring about the results real humanitarians and people who want peace would want to see.
Israel is a nation built from a persecuted people. Those that ran from the pogroms, those that escaped growing fascism, those that escaped the Nazis, those that survived the genocide, those that fled or were expelled from Arab lands, those that escaped famine or the persecution inside the USSR. From their perspective, the anger outside is identified as Jew hatred. The louder that crowd grows, the more locks Israel will place on the door.
From the Arab perspective, why negotiate? BDS seems to be offering the Palestinians everything. There is absolutely no reason for them to come to talk but rather to sit and wait to see what happens.
Both sides therefore are clearly demotivated by BDS. Israel will never succumb to boycott (it isn’t like the Jews aren’t used to people boycotting them), the Arabs will never negotiate whilst BDS holds promise. The stronger it gets, the further away peace becomes. As those behind BDS are fully aware of these issues, this is part of the deliberate strategy. BDS seeks conflict, not peace.
The rabbit holes of BDS
BDS use all of the conflicts arguments to support their cause. They’ll talk about settlements for example. BDS do not care about settlements. Settlements are part of the argument within the two state paradigm and have no relevance to BDS. When you begin to discuss settlements with a BDS activist you have entered a rabbit hole. An argument designed to simply get you lost in the warren and make it seem as if you are defending the indefensible.
All these issues are rabbit holes. Gaza, child prisoners, the occupation, checkpoints. All of these discussions are part of the two state paradigm. Israel’s behaviour inside the west bank has no relevance to its right to be an independent state.
To those undecided who listen on the side to the exchange, the argument has no context, they don’t understand the conflict. All they hear is that a settlement has been built, a wall has gone up, a child was arrested and then they hear you trying to justify it. There is no point. Don’t defend Israel’s actions post 1967. BDS is not an argument about post 1967 Israel. Attack BDS.
When you do this you come off script. In general, the people pushing BDS do not have a grounding in the conflict. Those that do, only take their information from one sided and extremely dubious sources. I was at a BDS training event, and they role play with would be activists. It was informative because it was accurate. They know the pro-Israeli argument. So they deflect.
They have standard responses to accusations such as the one that suggests they are antisemitic. One line responses that are learnt parrot style. If they deflect this criticism and then regurgitate a few statistics about child prisoners, they are on their way to seeking new converts. They want you and expect you to use the argument that you can’t boycott Israel because it makes too many things. For them, this type of argument is great. You seem to be saying Israel is guilty but too powerful to boycott.
Confrontation is not something to be scared of. The *vast majority* of BDS activists would not last a minute in a discussion on the conflict. They have a leaflet that says Israel is guilty of genocide. That’s enough for them. Truth doesn’t matter. So it is easy to expose this ignorance by simply driving home the real narrative, talk facts and history.
When you argue, highlight the contradictions. Refugees are always a good one for this. Talk about the abuse of Palestinians in Lebanon. Over the last 70 years, those Palestinians remain the most abused. If bds is a humanitarian cause, why not push for Lebanon to give rights to those born inside its borders. Use the democracy arguments, there is no rational response to this.
Highlight the violence of the mandate, or the rejection of partition. Stick to the historical narrative, it supports Israel and exposes BDS. How many times have the Arabs had the chance for peace but rejected it? Why do BDS pick and choose which international rules are important and which ones are to be ignored? Why was ‘Palestine’ not created before 1967? Again. If it is post 1967, leave it alone. You are not arguing with someone over the solution to the conflict within a two state scenario.
- BDS exists in the ‘destroy Israel’ paradigm
- BDS has no central ‘brain’
- BDS is contradictory and hypocritical
- BDS needs to convert people, not tell the truth
- BDS deflates the atmosphere for negotiations and peace.
- BDS is anti-Israel, not pro-Palestinian
- BDS is not supported by the historical narrative – the opposite is truth.
(This entire piece was delivered as a talk on 29/6/2016 for ‘Agiv’ in London. A slideshow with audio is available on YouTube)
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9 thoughts on “Fighting BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions)”
Antisemitism, with BDS at its heart, is always founded on distortions of history, from the trope of the Jews killing Jesus (based on a later insertion by antisemites, ditto with Josephus “History of the Jews”). Yesterday, Holborn & St. Pancras Constituency Labour Party was faced with a motion (happily postponed until the next meeting) with the usual platitudinous condemnations of “Antisemitism and Islamophobia” with the following as its second paragraph: “Rejects the accusation that opposition to Israel’s policies of building settlements, walls, and other features of military colonisation of Palestinian lands is by definition anti-semitic”. This is proof positive that the antisemites don’t even realise they are being antisemitic!
Brilliant analysis David,and a thumping good read!
David: excellent points and suggestions. I would, however, differ with your statement that “the international community created Israel”. While the int’l community awarded Britain the Mandate, it did nothing to actually create the Jewish state. After it endorsed the partition plan in Nov 1947, neither the UN nor the West lifted a finger to stop Arab states from first arming the Arab irregular forces and then invading. And their “arms embargo” only affected Israel, not the Arabs.
Israel was created by the bravery and will of its people. And, as with many countries worldwide, by force of arms.
This is not a trivial point– if the international community created Israel and its legitimacy stems from that, then what if a vote in the UNGA decides to repeal resolution 181? Is Israel at that point no longer legitimate? Of course not!
I accept in part your criticism. It is always possible to read things several ways. However, I do not think you should discard the international legal underpinnings of Israel. Israel is not only a legitimate state because it won a war. It is also legitimate because international underpinning had been given to the Zionist project. By 1936, because of Balfour and the Mandate, the Zionists were already a state within a state. So I am not trying to belittle the Zionist victory, nor dismiss the fact that to an extent, the international community had betrayed the mandate. But it remains important that the ‘creation’ of a Jewish home in the 20th century, was absolutely an international project. I do however accept that Israel of 1948 (as oppossed to the theoretical Israel of the mandate) was indeed created *DESPITE* international betrayal.
we’re completely on the same page here. I should have made it clear that my comment was referring specifically to 1947-48. I often see the charges from BDSers that “the UN created Israel”, with the corollary that therefore UNGA 194 carries as much legitimacy as Israel’s existence.
Thanks for attending all those BDS mtgs! As you know better than most, “it’s all about the narrative”. You know the sitn. better than I, so perhaps this may help others :-
When meeting (left wing) BDistas, I try to ensure they learn that :-
a) Zionism is anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist at its very core and so
b) Zionism should be right at the top of their list for supporting, as a national liberation movement, that helped end British imperialism in the Middle East.
If they’re still listening, I add that Zionists ended the British colonialist occupation of Palestine, via a largely peaceful intifada, until 5 Arab states invaded to wipe out (mostly) desperate, penniless holocaust survivors.
This is only for left-wingers. Yes, it’s pretty simplistic, because they often indulge in stark, simplistic slogans, due to having very little substance and knowledge of the conflict.
Kol hakavod and thanks again for sitting through endless hate-fests.
Can I reply to myself?
I purposely use “intifada” to try to hijack and defuse their pathetic and juvenile sloganeering.
I hope that you can try to end the support given by “the great and the good” to Gaza and Hamas. People like Sir Geoffrey Nice who lectures at Gresham College and spewed out all sorts of anti-Israel hate having been invited to Gaza, and the recent Desert Island Disks invitee, a surgeon, who had operated in Gaza and perpetuated the myth on air that Israel was responsible for the Al-Shifa hospital bombing when in fact it was a Hamas own goal and he was caught in the crossfire while Hamas terrorists were safely sheltering in the basement operating theatre.
If you visit the Israel Embassy website as I did over the weekend, there are three “comments”, one of which reads “”Racist scum of the earth zionist scum.” I telephoned the Embassy, no one replied but left a message to get them to remove it, and I also sent an email. No other country would EVER be subjected to this kind of disgusting filth.
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