Derided by some in the Palestinian solidarity movement as a “cult”, a radical fringe undermining the push for a so-called two-state solution, the international movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel has – since the end of 2013 – burst into the mainstream of US politics.
As I’ve discussed before on this blog, the US-brokered “peace process” is rigged: Whether or not the talks achieve their goal of “two states for two peoples”, they’re set up in a way that lets Israel continue to settle on the most valuable Palestinian land, leaving a future Palestinian state without the natural resources or infrastructure it would need to be economically viable (and therefore meaningfully independent of Israel).
The alternative to the peace process is BDS, a tactic that – as is well known – played a huge role in the eventual success of the movement against apartheid South Africa. We can’t wait for Israeli Jews to voluntarily negotiate away the first-class citizenship they enjoy in a system of segregation, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing.
The international community, as the leaders of nation-states are sometimes called, have failed to hold Israel to even a modicum of accountability. So it’s up to us – the real “international community” to heed the call of Palestinian civil society for BDS.
Through the severing of economic and cultural ties, BDS seeks to bring external pressure to bear on Israel, letting its government and its people know that their archaic regime of ethnic privilege – both in the Occupied Territories and Israel proper – comes with a hefty price tag.
The targets of BDS fall into three categories: the state of Israel, those Israeli institutions that refuse to speak out against their government’s policies, and companies that profit from apartheid. BDS has three core demands:
- That Israel end its occupation of Palestinian land conquered in 1967.
- That Israel end its ethnic discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.
- That Israel accept the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.
In December, the American Studies Association voted by a 2:1 margin to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, meaning that the organization refuses to cooperate, financially or otherwise, with Israeli academic institutions.
It’s crucial to stress that the academic boycott doesn’t target individual academics, but rather, institutions. Like universities in the United States, Israeli universities actively collaborate with the government in a wide range of areas. From engineering weapons systems and armored bulldozers to planning policy solutions to the growing threat of Palestinian birthrates, Israeli academia is complicit in their government’s crimes.
The ASA also cite Israel’s suppression of academic freedom and freedom of movement for Palestinian scholars and students as reasons for their act of solidarity. The backlash from Zionists and their allies in the US has been as incoherent as it is knee-jerk, indicating that the ASA’s vote was a tipping point for BDS as a political issue in the US.
The Israeli government spends millions every year on lobbying and hasbara (propaganda), nominally to combat Israel’s “image problem” abroad. But unfortunately for Zionists, when you have to pour 100 million shekels into propaganda, you don’t have an image problem. You have a reality problem.
Many of the major battle sites are college campuses, where faculty and students allegedly make Jewish students feel uncomfortable with their discussion of “facts” and “history”. In a political culture where criticism of Israel is often equated with anti-Semitism, the pro-Israel machine increasingly depends on the argument that support for Palestinian rights somehow violates the freedom of Jewish students to feel “safe” voicing their opinions on campus.
Now, with BDS picking up steam in the US, Israel apologists are in panic mode. After the initial wave of predictable statements by university presidents and media commentaries denouncing the boycott as an assault on academic freedom, the reaction to the ASA vote took an alarming turn with the introduction of a bill in the New York state legislature. The bill, which targets academic organizations like the ASA, would cut off state funding to any group that endorses BDS.
Not only would the bill prevent state funds from going directly to the ASA, it would also prevent a university from using state funds to cover, say, the travel and lodging expenses of a scholar attending an ASA-organized event. As Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin points out on his blog, the bill “is not about defunding the ASA so much as it is about stopping individual faculty from participating in the ASA.”
According to the logic of this proposed legislation, a boycott of institutions complicit in apartheid is an attack on academic freedom, but preventing individual academics from working with a boycotting organization is…a defense of academic freedom.
The NY bill was sidelined after fierce outcry from academics, activists, and other New Yorkers, but it was reintroduced into the State Assembly this week after undergoing an (extremely slight) revision. The substance of the bill – that state funds can’t go towards the activities of groups that support BDS – remains the same.
A similar bill has also been introduced in Maryland, and two Congresspeople from my home state of Illinois are leading the bipartisan charge on an even more extreme federal version. The ludicrously named “Protect Academic Freedom Act”, which is being pushed by former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, cuts off funding to institutions if
the institution, any significant part of the institution, or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement, or otherwise formally establishes the restriction of discourse, cooperation, exchange, or any other involvement with academic institutions or scholars on the basis of the connection of such institutions or such scholars to the state of Israel.
The bill sanctions a university/department if “any significant part” of it “issues a statement” in support of BDS. Why so draconian?
The mainstream of US politics tends to see academia as a haven of left-wing sentiment, to be tolerated as long as it remains mired in ivory-tower irrelevance. Moreover, the Democratic Party and discourses around American Jewish identity have fostered an ideological environment where it’s okay for people who identify as liberals to be PEP – Progressive Except on Palestine.
But as this round of legislative attacks makes clear, the terms of the US debate on Israel-Palestine are shifting, both in the mainstream conversation and within the solidarity movement. BDS can no longer be dismissed as more-radical-than-thou navel-gazing, a utopian distraction from the long, hard, pragmatic work of politics.
On the contrary: Thanks to the ongoing work of activists – not to mention the endless photo-op that is the peace process – BDS is now the vanguard of a struggle that has never looked stronger. And Israeli apartheid’s days have never looked more numbered.