Why single out Israel?

BDS proponents generally deny that they are singling out Israel unfairly. I have run across the following five, and while there may be others, whatever they are, they don’t figure prominently:

  1. You have to start somewhere
  2. Activism is always selective since we have limited capacity and time
  3. Has the highest return on investment in terms of likelihood that activism will lead to change
  4. We were asked to
  5. By claiming Israel is a democracy and respects human rights, it sets itself up to higher standards and shouldn’t whine when challenged on them

You have to start somewhere – This was most famously uttered by the head of the American Studies Association (ASA) as a justification for the adoption of boycott of Israel. This is perhaps the most dishonest, because 1) it still doesn’t explain why Israel needs to be picked as the start, and 2) nobody involved with BDS on either side, and most certainly not the ASA have any intention of picking up target #2.

Activism is always selective – while the justification above may have been an aberration, this tag line is ubiquitous in BDS campaign literature. But it suffers from the same tautological problems as the one above. To say activism is selective is to say nothing else than the fact that you selected a particular target. It still begs the question of why Israel. Why not start with Saudi Arabia? If your answer is that you need to start with where passions are, you have simply added an emotional dimension to the tautology. The question then becomes why are activists more passionate about Israel than Saudi Arabia? In other words, the answer leads to the same question rephrased.

Israel has a high potential ROI for change – this argument has some merits to it. The calculation that demonstrating against or calling for boycott of Saudi Arabia, Russia, or China will likely have exactly zero effect and therefore not worth the time of an activist makes sense as a matter of cold logic a la rational choice. Israel then seems like a much better target exactly because it is much smaller, dependent, and vulnerable, and there is a higher likelihood that pressure can effect real change. I find two problems with this line of argument. It doesn’t reflect the actual passion that drives activists on this issue – hardly a matter of cold logic – nor is this logic reflected in the actual BDS approach. If the aim is to effect maximal policy change, the BDS literature would be replete with analysis of what types of actions would bring most change, what mechanisms work best, which achievable goals are likely to be adopted by which institutions if pressured hard enough etc. You would end up with a sort of metric of relative social justice achieved per actions applied. But BDS have taken great care to make the objectives as high level and ambiguous as possible to preserve the symbolic nature of solidarity over achievable goals. Metrics of policy changes are the last thing you will see. This principle is especially stark in the academic and cultural boycotts, where objectives are designed to be vague, unattainable, and lack any verification mechanism to lift the boycotts (“until they are no longer complicit with the occupation”).

We were asked to – usually followed with “by Palestinian Civil Society” or some variation thereof. I see this more as a powerful discursive trope, and not a justification. After all, while it plays on an almost universal desire to help those who reach out to ask, it is also what every imperial regime claims as justification right before invading a country. But regardless of the authenticity and consensus of the request, and the assumption of a unitary motive, it is at best a necessary condition, but hardly a sufficient one. Presumably, any cause on behalf of others involves a request or desire by those oppressed to seek assistance from activists to help that cause.

Israel claims itself to uphold rights and be a democratic country and should therefore be hold up to its own claimed standards – I haven’t actually seen this argument that often on the strong BDS side, mostly because it tacitly acknowledges that Israel compares rather favorably to the abysmal neighborhood it is situated in, and because it would recognize that, at least aspirationally, it is light years ahead of not just its neighbors, but Palestinian quasi-governmental institutions and procedures in Hamas controlled Gaza, and Fatah controlled West Bank. It can be an effective argument by the more mainstream Zionist left as well as European and American political officials, but I don’t think it does the BDS campaign much service, and I am not convinced that this is the way campus activists see the situation. Their passions are moved by what they see as an intensely unjust and brutal treatment of Palestinians, not as a democratic regime failing to live up to its own standards. And while I do think that the Israeli counter-parts to BDS such as Boycott-from-within and Breaking-the-Silence do care enormously about pushing back on the Israeli state and its legal and political institutions to force increased civil and human rights, this is not something that really excites the American and European BDS movement.

So why are BDS supporters picking on Israel? I think that requires teasing out who we are talking about. From an identity politics perspective, Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs see their identities as deeply entangled with how Palestinians are treated and what rights they have. From that perspective, this is a no-brainer. But from the perspective of Americans and Europeans who are not directly entangled, there is a different identity politics at play. Minorities can seize on the Palestinian cause as homologous to their own “Israeli state to Palestinians is equivalent to Majority Establishment to discriminated minority.” But that does not explain why Israel/Palestinians is such a potent symbol in the first place, nor why progressive activists, including Jews, embrace BDS with such passion. The reason, as I have elaborated on in a different post, is that Israel is over-identified with as a vestige of Colonial/Imperial logic of the West, and that it is the urgent moral responsibility of those progressives with privilege to rectify this symbolic anomaly. This logic is also why such BDS activists, including Jewish ones, are not particularly sympathetic to arguments that BDS is an attack on Israel itself and delegitimizes the rights of Jewish Israelis to have their own state. I think most would either agree with that determination or see it as irrelevant within the context of a human rights frame.

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