Home Perspectives Opinions Decoding BDS’ carefully constructed ambiguity

Decoding BDS’ carefully constructed ambiguity

BDS motions considered at MLA conference
The Modern Language Association conference voted down a pro-boycott resolution and passed another urging the group to refrain from a boycott.

The key to understanding the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is to notice how it differs from previous campaigns on the left criticizing Israel. Rather than call for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as its capital, it tends to focus on Israel proper. Its official website calls for greater equality within Israel, the return of Palestinian refugees and an end to the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” That wording is cryptic considering the essence of the conflict is a dispute over precisely where Arab lands end and Jewish lands begin.

Rather than demand sovereignty over Palestinian territories, the BDS campaign takes no position on the central question of one versus two states. That is, it remains neutral on whether a Palestinian state should exist alongside Israel or in its place.

This attempt at constructive ambiguity is a marked departure from a previous generation of activists, many of whom remained committed to a two-state solution despite voicing fierce, even vicious, criticisms of Israel. A decade ago, Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz clashed bitterly over whether Israelis or Palestinians had behaved worse in war and which side was more committed to peace. And yet when it came to endorsing mutual recognition, the argument devolved into a tiresome squabble over who had been the first to embrace the two-state model.

Experienced pro-Palestinian activists seem to sense BDS is not serious about statehood. Chomsky has impugned it for being a “feel good” movement that would rather energize activists than help Palestinians. Norman Finkelstein has been even harsher, calling the movement a “cult” whose appeals to international law are insincere. Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has spoken out against BDS for failing to distinguish between settlement activity and Israel proper.

Some moderate left-wingers have attempted to get ahead of this divide by refocusing on the occupation. One group – including Kai Bird, Todd Gitlin, Bernard Avishai, Peter Beinart and Michael Walzer – has proposed a targeted boycott of settlement products as an alternative to a blanket campaign against Israel. In response, BDS stalwarts denounced the signatories as “liberal Zionists,” a phrase coined by Columbia University professor Joseph Massad to describe anyone who would “co-opt” BDS for any purpose other than unqualified opposition to Israel as a whole.

And with that, the carefully constructed ambiguity of the BDS movement came apart.

It’s been said that when leftists organize a firing quad, they start by forming a circle. What’s unusual in this case is that the political neophytes – those who make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in information – seem to gravitate to the more extreme side of the divide. This new lot is determined but not quite focused.

When SodaStream left the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim, for example, the United Church was ready with a fresh list of complaints, from the new facility’s potential impact on nearby Bedouins to the resulting layoffs of Palestinian workers. Once guilty of operating in the West Bank, the company is now guilty of having ceased to operate there.

It may be tempting to dismiss the BDS movement as just the latest posture of the anti-Israel left. But that would be a mistake, because BDS poses a real threat to moderate pro-Palestinian voices and the two-state solution, too. It isn’t going to unmake Israel, but it may succeed in undermining the goal of two states for two peoples, if it hasn’t done so already.

David Gruber is a writer and lawyer in Toronto.