Last week, the Israeli high court upheld a 2011 anti-boycott law. The Law for the Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel penalizes those who advocate for boycotting Israel, by opening them up to lawsuits and imposing financial penalties for their actions. The law presents a challenge to boycott movements, most notably the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, by effectively criminalizing much of their work in Israel/Palestine. Despite this setback, however, BDS remains the most viable and potent force for change in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
The BDS movement has come under criticism many times, mostly from those who ignore the stark power differential created by the Israeli occupation. There is no parity between Israel and Palestine, thanks to the racist and anti-democratic cultural, economic, academic, political, and legal institutions that Israel has used to create a system of apartheid in the OPT. Israel consolidated its power decades ago and now controls the lives of millions of Palestinians.
As British writer Robert Cohen argued in Mondoweiss, “Israel operates parallel and discriminatory judicial and policing systems” and institutes “strikingly different planning and house building regulations” for Palestinians. These include segregated road systems and other limitations on freedom of movement for Palestinians. “You may object to the use of the word ‘apartheid,’” he added, “but what other label would you care to give it?”
The BDS movement acts against this system by imposing economic, cultural, and academic sanctions on Israel. While some say this stifles intellectual discourse, this again presumes a neutral, open space in which sincere dialogue occurs between interlocutors who have equal influence and power. But, this space simply does not exist. In fact, Israel has repeatedly ensured no such space can develop, by using measures like the 2011 anti-boycott law and prohibitions against discussing the Nakba in Israeli schools to silence opposition to its policies.The BDS movement is one of the only nonviolent political tools that can spur— and, in fact, force—honest debate. In this way, repressing BDS is actually counterproductive to fostering truly open intellectual discourse.
Though at times the site of meaningful debate, academic institutions in Israel are complicit in the subjugation and continued occupation of the Palestinians, in part through their involvement in developing weapons and technology that facilitate illegal Israeli Defense Force operations in places like Gaza.
Other criticisms against BDS include claims that boycotts disrupt the peace process. Of course, this falsely assumes that such a process is actually underway. The peace process has been derailed many times. This is a result of dishonest brokers, such as the United States and other Arab states, as well as Israel’s consistent violations of international law, including through the building of settlements, and complete disinterest in negotiating with the Palestinians in any meaningful way.
As Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad wrote for Electronic Intifada, “since the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, all the ‘solutions’ offered by Western and Arab governments and Israeli and PA [Palestinian Authority] liberals to end the so-called ‘Palestinian-Israeli conflict’ are premised on guaranteeing Israel’s survival as a racist Jewish state unscathed.” Any proposals that threaten this objective stand no chance.
For Palestinians, waiting for the peace process to work or for NGOs and development agencies to improve or fix the apartheid system is not a viable political choice and only helps the Occupation gain momentum. Israel’s posturing and inaction gives it more time to grab Palestinian land and dislocate the Palestinian people, which has left the peace process and so-called “two-state solution” dead in the water.
As Lamya Hussain wrote in Muftah, “In denying the political aspirations of the Palestinians and taking a neo-liberal approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, development agencies have only perpetuated military-settler occupation. There are, nevertheless, possibilities for real change that can support sustainable local economies, while also furthering the political rights of Palestinians.” These possibilities lie in the BDS movement, which creates powerful economic incentives for Israel to end the Occupation.
Professor Talal Asad argued in Savage Minds that BDS also represents a necessary “moral education” for Israelis that will “help dismantle the self-imposed delusion under which Israelis now labor.” BDS does this by breaking away from the problematic liberal paradigm that assumes equality and neutrality between Palestine and Israel.
The BDS movement responds to this paradigm’s failure by creating a path toward Palestinian liberation. It is not premised on false assumptions. Nor does it uphold and further entrench the status quo. Rather, in acknowledging and accounting for realities on the ground, BDS is able to affect change. By recognizing disparities in power, it helps dislodge and disrupt the power differential between Israel and Palestine, by disrupting its source of power. As professor and activist Tithi Bhattacharya wrote in Electronic Intifada,
Israel’s anti-boycott law is likely to adversely affect boycott movements in Israel. It cannot, however, stifle international boycotts, which continue to gather momentum, including among academics and artists. People everywhere are beginning to take note of Israel’s egregious human rights violations against the Palestinians and declaring their support for BDS.
By Eman ElSheikh
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