Review: BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights
By Glen Pine, znet
Roughly four million Palestinians live under a brutal and illegal US-backed Israeli occupation. Approximately 1.5 million Palestinians live inside Israel, where, although they face less dire circumstances than those in the occupied territories, they nevertheless endure substantial and increasingly vicious racial oppression. And according, five million Palestinians worldwide are “registered” refugees whom Israel denies the right of return; roughly one third of them live in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the occupied Palestinian territories. Given this appalling situation, those concerned with social justice have sought to aid the Palestinian cause, producing many contending views of how best to proceed. Omar Barghouti’s book contributes to this discussion.
BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions is a collection of essays and interviews that denounce injustice towards the Palestinians and promote “BDS” as “the most ambitious, empowering, and promising Palestinian-led global movement for justice and rights” (16). Since many excellent writings already exist that detail the dramatic injustice in the region — and Barghouti’s book, too, is hard-hitting and compelling in that regard — this review focuses on Barghouti’s arguments advocating and defending BDS, particularly with respect to organizing in the United States.
Although an overwhelming majority of Americans have probably never heard of “BDS,” it has gained a strong following among portions of those involved in Palestine-related activism, both in the US and internationally. The book’s author has himself gained a notably elevated status among many solidarity activists. With that in mind, and given the pressing urgency of the circumstances facing oppressed Palestinians, the book deserves rigorous examination. Some aspects of the book are commendable, but I find that it suffers from several profound confusions and flaws.
Although this review is critical, I do not intend it as a general critique of the strategies of boycott, divestment, or sanctions. I am personally involved, through New York University Students for Justice in Palestine (NYU SJP), in a divestment campaign known as the TIAA-CREF Campaign.
I focus below on five topics. First, I examine the issues that arise from the book’s conflation of movements and strategy. Second, I draw attention to some of the problems Barghouti faces in his attempt to show that BDS has been, and will be, “effective,” and I take issue with how the book applies an analogy between Israel and South Africa. I then do the same for whether BDS is a “moral obligation.” Fourth, I insist on a distinction between principles and advocacy, and I argue that BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions in important ways fails to make this distinction. Finally, I examine pitfalls in the book’s approach to what solidarity with oppressed Palestinians entails.
Conflating movements and strategies
On the one hand, “BDS” stands for “boycott, divestment, sanctions,” which are three different broad strategies. The July 2005 “BDS Call” appeals for the use of these three strategies against Israel until certain conditions are met, and Barghouti often refers to “BDS tactics.” On the other hand, Barghouti refers to “BDS” most frequently as a “movement,” sometimes in dramatic terms: BDS is more than just a “concept” or “vision,” and “it is not all about strategy. It is all of those, for sure, but also much more.” It is “above everything else a deeply rooted yet qualitatively new stage in the century-old Palestinian resistance….” (60-61).
The book does not consider the negative implications of this conflation of movements and strategy. As Barghouti is aware, what constitutes effective strategy for a solidarity activist group varies based on the particularities of the societal position in which the group finds itself. What works for student-based groups may not work for workplace-based activists; what works in Florida may not work in Canada; what works for a local group may not work for a national coalition. For this reason, strategic and tactical decisions should be tailored to the situation of the group. Meanwhile, group strategy needs to flow from specific objectives, which in turn arise from a combination of principles and an assessment of what is possible for a given group to achieve at a given historical juncture.
A “global movement” for justice in the Middle East therefore has no reason to be anything but agnostic about strategy and tactics in the abstract, judging them only on a group-by-group and location-by-location basis (excluding tactics that are morally unacceptable, like terrorism). The notion of a “BDS movement,” as compared to, say, a “justice movement,” is unhelpful in this sense. On the one hand — unlike “justice” or “self-determination” — “boycott,” “divestment,” and “sanctions” are not ends unto themselves; they are not goals that movements wish to achieve. On the other hand, Barghouti does not seek to demonstrate that boycott, divestment, or sanctions of Israel are superior strategies for all groups irrespective of context, or why activists should desire a separate movement for these strategies alone.
As a concrete example, consider the May 2010 flotilla action. The violent Israeli response sparked outrage and protests that led to the slight easing of the economic blockade of Gaza. The flotilla was not a boycott, divestment, or sanction, but it was easily among the most effective international solidarity actions in recent years. Reasonable activists pursuing boycott, divestment, or sanction strategies might not see any reason to view the flotilla action as separate from their movement, and vice versa.
The flotilla action was not BDS, but the book gives BDS credit for harnessing the flotilla’s aftermath, writing that because of years of “the BDS campaign’s awareness-raising about Israel’s … oppression and the [BDS] movement’s call for creative practical action to contribute to justice and peace, moral indignation at Israel’s latest bloodbath was bound to be channeled into pressure measures that are more effective than the same old demands that have been ignored again and again by Israel and its hegemonic partners” (207). Although Barghouti offers examples of divestment, boycott, and sanctions activity that occurred after the flotilla incident, he provides no compelling evidence or argument for how the international response, led by the Turkish population, would have been significantly less potent without the presence of “the BDS campaign” per se.
The flip side of this issue is that, despite its references to “context sensitivity,” Barghouti’s book does not adjudicate among BDS tactics on a group-by-group basis or any basis, so any tactic under the BDS umbrella appears moral and effective for any organization that has used it (33). For example, devoting activist resources to the cultural boycott of Israel appears equally efficacious and moral whether it happens in the US or Belgium. Or for example, for all groups, campaigning for boycott of Haifa University appears just as efficacious and moral as campaigning for divestment from Northrop Grumman. But since strategy and tactics must be contextual, the book has an uncritical feel on this front — a topic to which I return below.
Is BDS “effective”?
Barghouti argues that activists should support BDS primarily because it is “effective” and “a moral obligation,” but both of these claims are in some ways questionable.
To demonstrate BDS’s past effectiveness requires a carefully crafted historical analysis that shows precisely how “the BDS movement” has made inroads towards its three main goals: ending the occupation; full equality for Palestinians inside Israel; and full right of return for Palestinian refugees. Barghouti states that the “most consequential achievement of the first five years of the BDS movement was indeed to expose the ‘essential nature’ of Israel’s regime over the Palestinian people as one that combines military occupation, colonization, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid” (11). But he makes no serious attempt to prove that “the BDS movement” per se accomplished this feat. Nor, for that matter, does he explain exactly to whom Israel has been exposed, aside from “many in the West.” Nor does he demonstrate how this accomplishment, even if true and BDS can rightfully take credit for it, has brought Palestinians meaningfully closer to justice.
Barghouti claims that BDS has “dragged Israel” and its allies “into a confrontation on a battlefield where the moral superiority of the Palestinian quest for self-determination, justice, freedom, and equality neutralizes and outweighs Israel’s military power and financial prowess” (62). But given that both the occupation and Israel’s internally racist regime have only worsened since the 2005 “BDS Call,” including since the publication of Barghouti’s book, one needs to take such rhetorical flourishes over BDS’s achievements towards helping Palestinians with a grain of salt.
Israel’s economy chugs along, and US political and military aid arrives in ever-larger quantities. Some of the small victories to which Barghouti points — such as embarrassing Veolia and helping to thwart its potential contracts over its racist Jerusalem Light Rail — are meaningful and not to be discounted. But the “BDS movement’s” overall effectiveness at aiding the oppressed has not yet been demonstrated, and Barghouti offers insufficient evidence in support of his bold claims.
At the book’s worst, it partially resorts to proof by assertion — repeating throughout the book that BDS is “effective” — as well as proof by appeal to authority, with elaboration at length on the various groups and prominent figures that support the BDS Call, most frequently Desmond Tutu.
More important is the book’s lack of distinction among the different tactics within BDS in terms of their potential effectiveness. For example, whereas Barghouti demonstrates how the divestment campaign against Veolia achieved modest but appreciable results, the book does not convincingly show why international activists concerned with making good use of their time should pursue the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Barghouti repeatedly offers a moral defense of the academic and cultural boycott, but even if activists accept this defense, it in no way follows that they will find that boycott tactically expedient and efficacious towards materially improving the lives of the oppressed.
Barghouti frequently asserts the effectiveness and potential of anti-Israel boycott using an analogy to apartheid South Africa. In a section discussing how to obtain “justice and full respect for human rights,” Barghouti writes that boycotts “work in reality and in principle, as was shown in the South African anti-apartheid struggle. There is absolutely no reason why they cannot work in our case too.” (173). However, the book does not elaborate on how much “work,” relative to other phenomena, the boycott actually did towards ending South African apartheid; nor does it consider whether some of the boycott tactics used against South Africa may have been more effective than others.
In fact, although none would argue that the South Africa boycotts were unimportant, other factors dwarfed their significance in helping to end the apartheid regime, most notably black worker-led internal resistance. This sustained worker militancy was possible because in a crucial respect, South Africa is not like Israel: white South Africans relied on black labor, while Israel does not rely on Palestinian labor from the occupied territories. In short, the book does not offer compelling evidence to suggest that, through an analogy to South African apartheid, one can demonstrate the potential effectiveness of boycotting Israel.
Is BDS a “moral obligation”?
The “comprehensive boycott of Israel and its complicit institutions,” Barghouti writes, is “not only a moral obligation but also an urgent political necessity” (35). Roughly a third of the book’s chapters are explicitly devoted to defending and advocating the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, primarily on moral grounds.
But as Barghouti deftly exposes the moral bankruptcy of Israeli institutions and the hypocrisy of certain critics, he misses an important moral consideration: the moral obligations of activist groups vary based on factors like their political, economic, or geographic positioning. Moral obligations do not exist in the abstract, they exist for — and vary among — concrete groups and individuals. Also, the morality of a given strategy is, to an extent, contextual; it depends in part on what else a group is capable of doing with the time and resources devoted to implementing that strategy.
Most notably, consider the case of activists based in the US, which Barghouti properly describes as the “main sponsor, supporter, and protector of Israel, diplomatically, economically, militarily, and otherwise” (80). Without this US backing, the occupation would likely end, and at least some symbolic number of refugees might be allowed back into Israel — an unquestionably dramatic improvement for the lives of millions of people, as Palestinians themselves agree.
Tactically speaking, US-based solidarity activists are uniquely positioned to target culpable institutions in the US, the primary enabler of Israel’s aggression. Belgian activist groups, for example, are for obvious reasons ill-suited to change US policy as compared to US-based groups.
This tactical point relates to a moral consideration. US-based activists may feel a strong moral obligation to help the Palestinian cause, especially given that many US institutions — such as the US government or US-based corporations profiting from the occupation — are profoundly implicated in the oppression of Palestinians. However, this moral obligation to help facilitate Palestinian self-determination does not translate into a “moral obligation” to use the strategy of campaigning for the “comprehensive boycott of Israel and its complicit institutions.” Given their unique opportunities, some US-based activists may instead justifiably choose to devote their highly limited resources towards targeting US institutions instead.
In short, activists living inside of Israel’s “main sponsor” have both unique tactical opportunities and special moral obligations and responsibilities. Activists living in, say, Iran, which has notably worse relations with Israel, have different opportunities and obligations.
Similar logic applies, for example, to those who participated in the flotilla action mentioned above, or to Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer when she courageously stood in the way of its destruction of Palestinian homes. These activists undoubtedly felt a sense of moral obligation to aid the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. And by participating in life-threatening — and in some cases life-ending — non-violent direct actions, they more than fulfilled this obligation. They seized their distinct, context-specific opportunities to aid the cause. One cannot fairly suggest, then, that they also had a particular “moral obligation” to devote their energies towards the strategies of boycott, divestment, or sanctions of Israel.
Confusion between principles and advocacy
As suggested above, one can accept Barghouti’s arguments regarding the culpability of Israeli academic and cultural institutions but still question the tactical efficacy of campaigning for a boycott of them. With boycott organizers constantly plagued with protestations concerning academic and artistic freedom, Barghouti underplays the importance of whether, in the US context, anyone outside of a small cadre of purists is anywhere near ready to accept such an approach. In this sense, Barghouti avoids the issue of the extent to which organizing academic and cultural boycotts of Israel in the US may be an irresponsible strategy that serves mainly to marginalize US-based solidarity activists.
The issue above relates to the crucial distinction — well articulated in writings of Noam Chomsky and others — between principles and advocacy. Supporting the academic and cultural boycott in principle does not justify advocating for it without accounting for political circumstances.
The book fails to make this distinction in another important context as well. Although “the BDS movement … steers away from the one-state-versus-two-states debate, focusing instead on universal rights and international law,” Barghouti personally contends that “a two-state solution was never moral, and it’s no longer practically attainable either”; he is also “completely against” a bi-national state (51-52, 180, 177). He instead “is calling for a secular, democratic state” (178).
But if a “two-state solution” is not moral, and a bi-national state is unacceptable, Barghouti’s “call” for a unitary secular democratic state is also problematic. The two-state and bi-national state options are not morally ideal, but neither is a unitary secular democratic state that entrenches colonial boundaries and leaves capitalist property relations intact. Why, then, should we “call for” a secular democratic state on the grounds of moral principle — as Barghouti does — and not instead “call for” dismantling all colonial boundaries and establishing libertarian socialism throughout the Middle East and beyond, with full worker control of production?
While I support my more robust “call” in principle and could articulate why I feel it is more moral than Barghouti’s call, most people would react with utter incredulity if I insisted on advocating such a thing and rejected any lesser settlement as immoral. One can recognize the superiority of a two-state settlement, not “solution,” compared to the existing horrors — almost everyone in the world does, including most Palestinians — while still supporting in principle a bi-national state, a unitary secular democratic state, or a global libertarian socialist syndication. The immediate tactical issue for international solidarity activists is what sort of advocacy will be most effective at easing the suffering of the most oppressed without losing sight of principles and broader goals.
Confusion over what it means to be in solidarity with Palestinians.
Assuming the “BDS Call” represents a unified Palestinian voice — a topic to which I return below — the question arises of what it means for international activists to be in solidarity with oppressed Palestinians.
Barghouti argues that:
“a call signed by more than 170 Palestinian political parties, unions, nongovernmental organizations, and networks, representing the entire spectrum of Palestinian civil society — under occupation, in Israel, and in the Diaspora — cannot be ‘counterproductive’ unless Palestinians are not rational or intelligent enough to know or articulate what is in their best interest. This argument smacks of patronization and betrays a colonial attitude that we thought — hoped! — was extinct in the liberal West.” (144, emphasis added).
Indeed, for solidarity activists to oppose the principle of self-determination for Palestinians would be “patronizing” and “colonial,” and meaningful support for self-determination entails the assumption that Palestinians are best-suited to make decisions about their own form of governance and economy.
However, oppressed Palestinians are not best qualified, morally or tactically, to decide how international solidarity activists should go about fighting in their own countries for Palestinian self-determination. Again, for obvious reasons, US-based solidarity activists, not Palestinian civil society groups, should know best how they themselves can pressure their own institutions to withdraw support from the occupation and other injustices.
Similarly, if US-based activists (including Palestinians who live in the US) deem generalized boycott of Israel to be a counterproductive tactic despite the BDS call, the decision is not necessarily “patronizing” or “colonial” minded; it might instead be a tactical choice made to facilitate Palestinian self-determination. Whether operating locally or as a cross-national coalition, international solidarity groups must support Palestinian self-determination and should work towards this goal by creative means appropriate to their own situations.
Incidentally, even if one accepts Barghouti’s conception of what international solidarity entails, the book does not demonstrate the extent to which the “Palestinian civil society” groups behind the “BDS Call” actually represent the Palestinian people at large, given, for example, that the leaders of these groups are not elected by the population as a whole.
This issue is more pronounced with regard to the BDS National Committee (BNC), BDS’s Palestinian-run leadership and coordinating body. The BNC “guide[s]” the “principles and overall strategy” of “solidarity groups advocating BDS tactics” (227). According to Barghouti, “the BNC is a broad coalition of the leading Palestinian political parties, unions, coalitions, and networks representing the three integral parts of the people of Palestine”: refugees, Palestinians in the occupied territories, and Palestinian citizens of Israel (61). But he does not attempt to show whether the BNC, which currently has nineteen member groups, is a representative body, with democratic and transparent accountability to all of “Palestinian civil society.” In other words, the book does not convincingly show whether the BNC can legitimately speak on behalf of “Palestinian civil society,” let alone the “people of Palestine” at large.
A justice movement
Like the others in NYU SJP, I feel that the TIAA-CREF divestment campaign is a great way to leverage our position as NYU students to help end the occupation and increase the degree of justice in the region. By assessing their social-structural positioning and waging campaigns accordingly, groups like NYU SJP — in my personal view, as part of a justice movement, not a BDS movement — may modestly but meaningfully contribute to the facilitation of Palestinian self-determination.
Barghouti’s book is compelling and useful in many ways, for example, in its exposure of Israeli injustices, the moral bankruptcy of those who support oppression, and the fraudulent US-sponsored “peace process.” But it is unconvincing on the key issues described above, suggesting the need for a more nuanced consideration of how we can best advance the Palestinian cause.
Glen Pine is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at New York University and an organizer with NYU Students for Justice in Palestine.