North Africa, West Asia

Critique of the boycott divestment sanctions movement, from a Jewish supporter of the Palestinian cause

The moral degeneration of Israel must not have as its indirect consequence the moral degeneration of the Palestinian solidarity movements, for in a desperate struggle there is such a danger as all sides losing at once. Here are arguments supporting sanctions against Israel, and opposing a cultural boycott.

Arturo Desimone
27 September 2014
A BDS protest against Israeli goods in Whitechapel, London.

A BDS protest against Israeli goods in Whitechapel, London. Hubert Libiszewski/Demotix. All rights reserved.I consider my politics to be pro-Palestinian. I attended gatherings of the BDS movement, and this year was arrested along with a group of fellow demonstrators during a civil disobedience action in the Hague outside the Department of Defense, when we protested the Dutch government's foreign policy support of Israeli aggression in Gaza.

We blockaded a tramway and public street and were arrested and held in cells (for only a day.) I signed the petition of IJAN, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, which in August published a letter in the New York Times, with the signatures of 300 holocaust survivors and of children and grandchildren of survivors in the paper to condemn the Israeli attack, as well as Eli Wiesel's ad where he accused the Palestinians of ‘Child Sacrifice’. I signed my name as a grandson of a survivor of the Polish ghetto of Czestochowa.

But though I agree with most of the letter, I am opposed to a ''cultural boycott'' of Israel. I decided to write this and submit it to you after I read defences of BDS in openDemocracy.

Boycott the cult of choice, and then boycott the ethnic cleansing of Palestine

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement has gained popularity worldwide as the most easily accessible response for European outrage at the sight of Israel's bellicosity, this latest time reported without the media filters that were more formidable in earlier decades of the occupation.

It is important to see the evolution of the 40-year long occupation and its foreign support through the prism of fetishistic behavior around products, brands and consumerism. Some of the more progressive American Jewish elites are today acting as if they never were fervent supporters of the lobbying enterprises, AIPAC and Jstreet, with utter disregard for both the Arabs and the evidence presented for decades by the “self haters'' of the Jewish left.

Today they are distancing themselves from what the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement has in its at times neoliberal terminology called ''brand Israel,'' a brand needing to be dropped without any further involvement or responsibility by those who through their incessant lobbying aided Israel in its steadily rightward militarization.

A large part of the American liberal-left intellectual establishment's former support for Israeli warfare has turned, perhaps quite fortunately for the world, to condemnation, and even the New York Times no longer functions as Eli Wiesel's anti-depressant of choice.

The pro-Palestine activist Norman Finkelstein for years predicted ''the breakup of American Zionism'' and most recently made a fitting analogy in an essay published in Guernica where he confronts some of Israel's former defenders among the American left. Before moving on to the critique of Ari Shavit's latest defense of Israel, the scholar describes the momentum of BDS popularity, in its new logic: product Israel was sold to them like the tobacco industry and Philip Morris' cigarettes, but today the Zionist product is exposed as a health hazard.

This consumption-morality way of thinking about this issue began with the BDS movement, particularly among the European, mostly non-Jewish former supporters of Israel. These were converts from philo-zionism, who had joined the BDS movement claiming that they had been deceived when they flocked to the kibbutzim during the 1960s and 1970s, braving in bunkers the Yom Kippur war's momentary turbulence and helping with volunteer-work to build what they considered a progressive beacon.  This way of thinking suggests that Israel's former supporters are really victims and not major players in the conflict, whether the support came from guilt-motivated European non-Jews or from American Jewish elites hungering for an identity politics that was also conveniently aligned with American foreign policy interests.

Victim identity politics are in demand in contemporary western culture. Unfortunately the support for Palestinian solidarity has had to pass through the prism of victim identity politics—despite the irony of Palestinians being the victims of a state that has justified 40 years of brutal and humiliating occupation by politicizing a sentimentalized victimhood and a tyrannical misuse of the holocaust memory.

On the other side of the new cold war lines, the Russia Today state-broadcast company recently announced skyrocketing sales of new ''Boycott-apps'' for phones. Purchases soared in St Petersburg and Moscow. There is irony in this Russian popular condemnation of a state of Israel armed and supported by its official cold war enemy, the United States. Israel has committed atrocities similar to those of Russia in recent Chechen wars, using ''war on terror'' rhetoric. The normalization of discrimination against Muslims in Russia can only be surpassed by the traditional normalcy of anti-Semitism, in a city where Jews were once typically forbidden from having living quarters.

A potential danger lurks in a mirror image: the moral degeneration of Israel having its shadow in the moral degeneration of pro-Palestinian solidarity efforts which increasingly embrace a consumerist logic, as courage becomes less of a requirement in order to publicly condemn Israel, and the liberal elite's ideological fashions switch from ‘the Israeli product’ to that of ‘cultural boycott’. The more courageous path is that of pushing for the big resounding ‘S’ in B-D-S: state sanctions. These have been declared by the majority of South American states, including perhaps most importantly, Argentina. Argentina has the third largest Jewish community in the world. And indeed, pressure upon the state is vital, both for a US arms embargo, and for the labelling of all products proceeding from settlement enterprise as the equivalent of blood diamonds.

The European Union announcing their markets' divestment from all settlement-related businesses was a far greater and more resounding achievement than anything achieved by the activists who stood outside Jewish and Israeli theatre festivals in European cities, protesting that they must not sell apartheid in the candy-wrapping of art. This logic implies a post-politics, an embrace of neoliberalism and the pragmatic belief that such glibness of art-as-therapy can somehow substitute for doing actual politics. It cannot be expected of every actor, dancer or painter to embody a direct political activism in the creative process, and it is doubtful that most politically activist art today has any real resonance outside the insular circles of the art world. The BDS pressure on artists to manufacture placebo politics inevitably falls into a general conformism that is already prevalent in the contemporary art world, which despite its artivism is steadily less supported by its audiences.

“Poetry cannot serve as an emotional bandage for the blood and guts of warfare; such an industry is doomed to dishonor the dead as well as the living”, as the poet Yusuf Kumunyakaa wrote in his letter to Poetry magazine, criticizing the US army's MFA program, (called Operation Homecoming, part of the promotion of 'creative writing' as therapy).

The boycott app phenomenon alone might be a sign that the ''internal criticism'' made of BDS within the Palestinian solidarity movement has strong moral grounds, even though Chomsky and Finkelstein have been much maligned by the BDS. In a recent openDemocracy article, Chomsky was even called ''perverse'' for doubting the efficacy of BDS, despite the fact that he argued for state sanctions as being more important than a consumer or cultural boycott and insisted that the comparison often made by the Boycott Divestment movement to South Africa is unjust—mostly because Israeli expansionism is much worse than the violence of the Apartheid state.

The first time I directly encountered the rage of BDS movement activists against Chomsky's supposed reticence, was when he gave a lecture in February 2011 in Amsterdam. Most Dutch BDS activists were witnessing a live broadcast of his speech, not in Amsterdam but on a screen in the neighbouring city of Utrecht, so as not to be present at his lecture, perhaps thereby safe from violating the ''boycott'.

There was an explosive rage at how Chomsky had spent 40 minutes talking about the entirety of the Arab world in revolt, with cases like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and the violently repressed uprisings in Bahrain and Gulf states, and only 20 minutes on Israel Palestine. This was denounced as a sign of Zionism and preferential treatment for Jews, despite the relevance of Arab uprisings that had made history only a month earlier.  

The boycott divestment sanctions movement insists on a comparison to South African apartheid for a number of reasons. Here are about three that were listed for me by Norman Finkelstein when I sent him an email asking about his views on BDS. The scholar, who has often criticized BDS while he calls for sanctions against Israel, answered:

“ It would take a long time to dissect the reasons for BDS's popularity. Among them, I would include these:


(1) Seeing the Israel-Palestine conflict through the prism of the struggle against South African apartheid, which was the last great battle of the global left;


(2) It provides a practical program of action that goes beyond lectures and demonstrations;


(3) Because there is a leadership void among the Palestinians, any Palestinian can claim to represent the Palestinians (or "Palestinian civil society"), while the global left has historically genuflected before so-called Leaders of the Oppressed (even when they are transparent hucksters and charlatans).


The goal of eliminating Israel arises from #1 above, and also the fact that many Arab nationalists still subscribe to the notion that Israel is "Arab" land, and Jews have no right to be there. This includes everyone from Shaykh Nasrallah (whom I respect) to Omar Barghouti.”1 

Elsewhere Finkelstein has added that the movement's priority of not wanting any compromise on a two state solution, unwilling to settle for anything but the disappearance of a specifically Israeli discriminatory and ethnic state, even if it means ignoring chances for a Palestinian victory on the terms stipulated in UN proposition 242, can only mean that anti-Semitism is one magnet for attracting a form of consumer activist to BDS.

I propose here a new paradigm: Israeli state militarism resembles Turkish state nationalism, with its occupations and ethnic cleansing against Kurds, its destruction since the mid-1980s of at least 4000 Kurdish villages, and its origins in the violent programs of Turkification that nonetheless sought to build a state that would provide refuge and a secular identity to all Turkic nations of the world, from the diaspora of the Turks of Crimea in the Ukraine to the Uyghurs of China who still persecuted today by the Chinese government. Attaturkism justified its ethnic cleansing and military state with the project of unifying and westernizing the Turkic diaspora. For this reason, Ben Gurion, who studied law in Istanbul (then a Mecca for Jews fleeing Europe) later modeled himself on the leader of Turkish modernization, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement would not welcome the comparison—it prefers to see the Israel-Palestine conflict through the prism of today's simplified and Manichean colour and gender identity politics, the Israelis have to be presented as ''white'' and the Palestinians as the equivalent of South African blacks. This is complicated as not only is the oppression of Palestinians more extreme than South African Apartheid, but the Israeli majority cannot be defined as ''white'' when more than half descend from the Arab Jewish immigrations to Israel that began during the 1950s and which Ben Gurion and other Ashkenazi, Polish and Russian-born Zionists lamented and criticized at the time as the ''Levantinization'' of Israel.

This leftist criticism has overlooked the internal politics of both Palestine and Israel: the extremist positions of the Israeli majority stemming from how they have been moved to the right by the racism, classism and exclusion of a refined Ashkenazi elite. It was right wing politicians like Menachem Begin who found the wounds in the identity and grievances of the Arab Jews, listened to them and gave them a promise both of revenge and inclusion in the Israeli establishment, when the Zionist left wing ignored them and the global left outside of Israel, supporting Palestinian Jews, generalized all Israelis as being nothing more than sabras and European colonists. A cultural boycott only further expresses the desire not to learn anything more about the occupier's society, despite the fact that such knowledge must be of interest to those who want to end the Israeli domination over Palestinians.

Pressure the US state into an arms embargo, with a European and American boycott

The call for state sanctions and official condemnation, as in those declarations by the majority of South American states, was a genuine and positive response to the atrocities. It is easy to scoff at Morales describing Israel as a terrorist state or the condemnation coming from Ecuador. These rising economic powers, with Brazil at the forefront, may be helping to establish a BRICS alternative world bank: but it remains to be seen whether this non-aligned world bank, if founded, will make a loan to the Palestinian people.

However, the importance of Argentinian sanctions cannot be underestimated. For all the Kirchner-led government's shortcomings, the decision to forbid any Argentinian citizen from enacting Israeli military duties will resonate. Argentina, having the third largest Jewish community in the world after New York and Israel, has been a prime source of new “olim” or immigrants to Israel, who then serve in the army.

Few European condemnations have yet had any comparative effect despite their greater geographic proximity and affluence. The western world and its left has usually only noticed the existence of American Jews, Israelis and to a lesser extent the enclaves of Jews in western Europe. For this reason the boycott divestment sanctions movement, unable to notice the reality of being Jewish in eastern Europe today, made mantras of the equation of Jews with white privilege. This was before the news coverage of the Hungarian regime, the rise of Front National in France and the prominence of anti-Semitism in east European right wing parties set the record a little straighter. Meanwhile, Argentinian Jews' existence was for this left always an obscure and eccentric reality.

But people should think – a successful “cultural boycott'' can have quite an adverse effect on Israelis who fit in least in a militarist Israeli society. Ballet dancers, for example, or orchestral musicians and theater groups who are not part of military culture: they should have their chance to perform and tour in the west. To risk sounding naive, they are ideally the servants of art and not of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as BDS lecture-circuit stars have claimed with such quick dismissal.

Though the comparison to Furtwangler might be apt in the dark hours of Israeli jingoism and bloodbaths in Gaza, it must be remembered that there are many young Israeli artists, dancers and musicians who have every intention of beginning a new artistic career outside Israel. Maybe they do not yet have the freedom won by renown and recognition to begin anew in a foreign country - unlike the great Argentinian-Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, now in his 60s, who recently announced his move to Argentina in response to the horrors of the most recent attack on Gaza.

His return to Argentina, and his timing in leaving Israel, are both to be celebrated. But a younger artist in Israel might not be in the same fortuitous position, especially as the opportunities for all artists and not only Israeli ones have become more restricted, internationally, due to academic gatekeepers and the right wing crackdown on the arts which is taking place globally. Blaming artists for the crimes of ''brand Israel'' is far too well in accordance with the momentum of global right wing sentiment: from Europe to Russia, from Turkey to Israel and the newly arisen Islamist governments, the arts are altogether treated as not being useful to society. For the German painter Max Beckmann, exile, the decision to leave Germany meant that he could go to Amsterdam, where he lived for years across the Rhine river. For the Israeli who decides to exit his society, the choice is more limited, unless he is of affluent means or has possibilities in Europe. The only step readily available is that which some courageous members of the left and Hadash communist party have made, moving to Ramallah or to Gaza to be activists and witnesses supporting the Palestinian cause.

The truncated career of a young dancer or actor cannot possibly compare to the destruction of all of Gaza and the casualties of murdered children. But the strategy by activists is too similar to the ways of vigilante jingoists, to blame the arts for the crimes of regimes and elitist parties under whose governance the artists have performed. Jingoism blames artists for not having taken direct action in response to the suffering of a people, for being ''elitist'', expendable in a time of manufactured economic crises, and therefore justifying a pragmatist right wing party that eliminates them, to the detriment of all. I make this unusual connection after having witnessed a salafi riot that attacked the “Printemps des Arts'' exhibition in Tunisia in 2012, rallied by the right wing of both the Islamist and the ousted RCD party, when I lived in Tunisia for a mere, too brief 8 months—too brief but long enough to learn of the genesis of right wing democratic victories because of successful propaganda in the face of an arrogant liberal elite.

The violence against artists that I saw when Tunisia went again into a state of emergency announcing curfews is not unique to the Arab or Muslim countries. Nor is it particularly a sentiment confined only to right wing movements. False anti-elitism expresses itself in blaming the ''high arts'', and it is also a problem in left activist circles and in academia around the world.

Discrimination is often about association: a member of an ethnic, cultural or national group is associated with negative behavior and taken as representing the entire group. Arabs and Palestinians know the effect of discrimination all too well. For a Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement to punish young Israeli artists trying to make it into the west, especially when they are not openly advocating their state's politics, is as immoral as if western activists had picketed and boycotted Soviet artists when these toured outside of the USSR during the Cold War, damaging their hopes of career beyond the narrow controls of the regime.

And, as tempting as it may be to chant a hilarious ''your tutu cannot hide/brutal Israeli Apartheid'' as a BDS group led by David Lippmann sung outside the Brooklyn theater where the Israel ballet performed, it was undeniably more interesting and more courageous when American activists tried to prevent a boat with US arms shipments from disembarking from the harbour on its way to Israel. Wasn’t it both awe-inspiring and hope-inducing, when a UK activist group occupied a Manchester arms and munitions factory for supplying Israel? And it must be even more effective than these courageous performances, to pressure American and European governments to impose arms embargoes on companies and sectors trading with Israel.

The boycott needs to address the state and use the state, or it is colluding with the neoliberal belief in the ''minarchism'' or neoliberal minimal and impotent state that Ayn Rand stood for, and whose arguments Milton Friedman echoed in his watered down extractions, his fake statistics and fake models. Use the state. This is the position of a leftist, not a right wing anarchist: let us use the state, while we have it as a weapon.

But a boycott that plays out in western supermarkets, relies instead on post-politics and on the consumers’ frigid aggression for its activism.

Choosing the path of consumer boycott reinforces neoliberal ideology because it agrees with the neoliberal implicit logic that pressuring the state is meaningless, and that the state is to be considered a minor and harmless entity, next to the corporation that produces, imports or exports the wrong product. If European markets need to label any products from the settlement's factories as African blood diamonds, the moral dimension in any trade with the settlements is arguably of a similar gravity. European states need to be pressured to enact this regulation.

But boycotting any piece of fruit or biscuit that might originate in a part of Israel other than the settlements, is misleading. It implies that a fruit from Indonesia was not also harvested on land seized after a recent genocide, for example. It leads the public to miss the point of why action towards Israel need be prioritized: a forty year long military occupation that is still ongoing, a prison made possible by tactical, military and economic support from the United States and to a significant but lesser extent from European support and aid.

A boycott in the supermarkets and shopping malls reinforces the neoliberal corrosive belief system that a citizen votes by his purchases, his pocketbook and buying behaviour, instead of by doing politics or by putting any pressure on the government. The moral degeneration of Israel must not have as its shadow and indirect consequence the moral degeneration of the Palestinian solidarity movements, for in a desperate struggle there is such a danger as all sides losing at once.

Acknowledging supermarkets as theaters for the shifting of foreign policy amounts to further endorsement of the liberal fetishism of choice. Such choice was once elevated as liberalism's individual freedom but today appears as no more than a glorified, fetishized menu of options, as consumption becomes the sole standard of citizenship and inclusion.

Avoid the academic boycott’s danger zone

Though there are more arguments for academic boycotting of Israel, given the current prominence of social scientists and academics in all affairs of state, the academic boycott's danger is one of allowing Israeli scholars who want to do PR for Israel a heroic limelight they neither need nor deserve. It will allow them to claim the position of vain self-comparison with Camus and Solzhenitsyn, when in fact they are acting more in resemblance to what Heidegger did during the holocaust, as the Nazi party eliminated Jewish professors in the path of his academic career.

The discourse of academic boycott potentially allows Israel to once again change the subject, this time to ''academic freedom''. By responding to the bullying of Arab academics like Steven Salaita with a renewed fervour of academic boycott towards Israel, this can only follow the Putinist logic of reacting to western aggression and imperial arrogance simply by doing the same thing back to them, indiscriminately, to ‘see how they like it’. It is better to fight head on than succumbing to the indirect channels of compensatory aggression made so conventional and acceptable by academia's cowardly identity politics.

Finally, an academic boycott might backfire, in that BDS campus activists are too uninformed about Israel to know when they are boycotting an Israeli who might be interesting for the Palestinian cause, despite the fact that such an Israeli scholar might happen to stay living in Israel and thereby still identify as some form of obsolete Zionist.

It could mean boycotting scholars like the novelist AB Yehoshua, who wrote the television show Aravim Tovim, the sarcastically intended ''Good Arabs'' mocking Israeli racism towards Israeli Palestinian citizens. It is easy for academic boycott leading to an attack on someone like him, who is doubtless the best in Israel, when the best in Israel is necessary for the success of the cause of Palestinian self determination. In the hypothetical situation where Yehoshua would, on a foreign lecture tour, cross paths with BDS groups on a campus, one of the most progressive elements within the otherwise politically disappointing and self-praising “Schalom Aschav'' movement, could so easily be dismissed by a BDS university activist as yet another so-called-left, Labor Zionist who pretends that he is developing an Israeli auto-critique.

Would a BDS academic boycott be able to tell the difference? Have they ever seen episodes of Aravim Tovim or ever read a novel by Yehoshua? Do they know he supported Sayyed Kashua, or even that Sayyed Kashua is a Palestinian Muslim famous for shockingly writing novels in Hebrew, or that Sayyed Kashua the Palestinian novelist just left Jerusalem with his family for sombre eexile in Illinois? Without doubt, Kashua has been exiled, not only from birth as a Palestinian Arab born within the bureaucracy's ‘48 borders, but once again after a luminous novelistic career in Jerusalem where he articulated and defended his Palestinian-Arab-Israeli experience. Kashua has had to leave the Leviathan that Israeli society has become under the rule of vigilante extremism. In all likelihood, the majority of supporters of cultural boycott do not know of him either. The majority of academic supporters of BDS who only read deconstruction's jargon and may never bother with reading Kashua, might end up boycotting him as a Hebrew author.

Better by far then, to exert activist pressure on governments in the west towards an arms embargo, and to call for state sanctions, rather than deploy the means of neoliberal activism or ''cultural'' boycott.  If consumers, academics and cultural boycotts misfire, then they will easily play into the hands of the enemy, who has won enough. But if military support to Israel should finally misfire or backfire, then all the better and all power, I say, to pro-sanctions activism.

 This article is being translated into Farsi to be published on Arseh Sevom.

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