A couple of months ago I asked Mike Desch to do a piece on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) for The American Conservative. My sense of the movement was little more than impressionistic: I knew of the campaigns to bar Israeli films from being shown at festivals; of efforts to force universities to divest from companies involved in the occupation; of local initiatives to protest stores that sold products manufactured in the occupied territories as “made in Israel.” I had mixed feelings about some of these, enthusiasm for others. But clearly BDS was succeeding in educating and mobilizing people, clearly a necessary first step for changing the Israeli/Palestinian status quo.
I wanted TAC’s piece to be a realistic assessment, not cheerleading. Desch, an international relations scholar at Notre Dame, has long been attuned to the injustice in the region. But he is a realist, not an activist. He produced a smart essay laying out the reasons why he felt BDS would not accomplish very much. I urge readers of this site to read it: it rests on a different platform of presuppositions than the debate here between Jerry Haber and Ahmed Moor, but is probably closer to current mainstream of American opinion than either of them. My own reaction was that for the first time I didn’t agree with Mike’s assessment of an issue.
I concur with Desch that BDS is probably not going to succeed in engendering the kind of economic sanctions that will force Israel to change course. He gives a compelling overview of when sanctions might work, when they don’t (political scientists who have studied the matter historically conclude that they seldom do, and hardly ever when they target the core system of a particular regime). Even in the propitious case of South Africa, sanctions were a secondary or tertiary factor in bringing down the apartheid. I think he is correct to conclude that Israel’s major trade partners –Europe and the United States—are not going to impose economic sanctions on Israel: Europe is too divided, and given the political culture of the United States, such a turnabout is virtually unimaginable. So, he concludes, BDS is something of a waste of energy: better to concentrate on changing the US government’s policy on the Mideast. David Petraeus’s bleak assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian impact on American security considerations—emphasized by Joe Biden when he was in Jerusalem—is the argument most likely to succeed.
This assessment may be true so far as it goes. What it misses is the potential of a social movement to educate, to force people off the fence, and to eventually mobilize a critical mass that views the question in a new light. The American South was eventually transformed by actions which began as educative, symbolic protests. A few dozen black students getting themselves arrested at a lunch counter could hardly change much. But they could set a thousand times their number on the path of reading and thinking about segregation, eventually producing a national consensus to end it. Israel’s system of occupation law is different, but certainly more restrictive and brutal than George Wallace’s Alabama. But Israel is dependent on American indifference to the occupation as the South was on Northern readiness to content itself with lip-service exhortations about equality under the law. But active protests forced more and more people to realize lip service wasn’t enough.
I’m not sure how Mike views the recent divestment battle at UC Berkeley, where the student government came up just short of the super majority needed to overturn the president’s veto of a divestment measure. In my view, the campaign was anything but a failure. How many people on campus did the debate reach? How many considered, perhaps for the first time, what the Israeli occupation means and what is America’s role in subsidizing it? The raw number might still be relatively small—but I would feel safe betting it’s ten times those that existed before the divestment campaign. Multiply that by every campus where a divestment initiative takes place and BDS has created an educated cadre of activists that will be influential for years to come.
To a great extent politics –including foreign policy– is a matter of the heart. Sad to say, realist assessments of American interests in the Middle East have seldom governed American policies; Eisenhower’s presidency may have been the only time they came close. This explains why the divestment campaign is so unsettling to Israel’s government: it targets Israeli policies on a moral level, and it is on moral level that Americans will one day change their minds. BDS brazenly pushes a competing narrative about Zionism: not a “land without people for a people without land” but a state built on ethnic cleansing and apartheid. One doesn’t have to accept this analysis hook line and sinker; nor does one have to accept all the positions of BDS. One can (as I do) continue to believe that a fair two-state solution is the most just outcome that has any chance of being accomplished in this generation. BDS campaigns, to the extent that they concentrate energy and passion on the issue, can’t help but open up minds for all the arguments, including nuanced and realist ones, about where America’s national interests lie.
For these reasons, BDS is a substantial net plus. As an embryonic movement it has already managed to engage thousands of people. It gives those who seek actively to oppose injustice a focused outlet for their energies. By challenging Israel on moral grounds, it targets the occupation at its most vulnerable point. Israel’s military is dominant, and a frightened US Congress may sign on to AIPAC-drafted resolutions forever. But Israel remains vulnerable precisely because its occupation of the West Bank, its blockade on Gaza and its system of checkpoints and bureaucratic ethnic cleansing are profoundly contrary to America’s values. The BDS campaigns have, with bluntness and passion, begun to force this basic fact into the American conversation. My largest regret about the movement is that it didn’t start twenty years ago.