Not Buying It
by Julia Kassem
BDS poses a narrative threat to Israel, not just an economic one
IN April 2017, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement set important precedents, passing resolutions among the Tufts University student body and at a Cupertino California community college. BDS also scored its first victory in calls to create an investigative committee at the University of Michigan in Dearborn - a campus situated in the United States’ most concentrated Arab and Muslim city. But the largely student-led initiatives cannot in themselves guarantee the University’s faculty boards’ compliance with their demands. Meanwhile, BDS has not yet levied a blow to Israel economically, evidenced by Bloomberg’s June 2016 report that its foreign investment hit a high that year of $285.12 billion.
But the initiatives received no shortage of impassioned opposition, including vocalizations of “anger” and “hurt.” Tufts’ Passover-day resolution was denounced by student groups such as the Tufts Students for Two States and the Tufts American Israel Alliance. Likewise, University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein (D) condemned the related action on the Dearborn campus as “an intellectually bankrupt, morally repugnant expression of anti-Semitism.”
City councils and state governments rushed to pass reactionary anti-BDS legislation. Numerous pro-Israel groups, lobbies, and foundations issued anti-BDS statements and campaigns in their movements and missions. Strong condemnations by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley against the campaign’s alleged denial “of Israel’s right to exist” infused vows to buckle down on threats to the state.
For a movement that bears little legislative or institutional leverage, and fails to tangibly impact Israel’s economy, BDS’ symbolic implications are nonetheless highly salient. For a nation whose leading US lobby, AIPAC, is a public relations organization and not a political action committee, positive press remains a top priority.
Israel’s premise rests on a myth: the adage of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” The narrative is reminiscent of Western neocolonialism, which waxes poetic a ‘modern manifest destiny.’ This ethos is made palatable by rhetorical appeals to ‘democracy’ and human rights in an otherwise orientalized region cast as inherently archaic and uncivilized.
If political movements begin with a myth, they end when the myth’s core plot holes are exposed. For a generation too young to remember either Intifada, a stark departure from the default Zionist preceding status quo is evidenced in a 9-month plummet in approval for Israel in 2016: coinciding with young liberals ‘feeling the Bern.’ Therein lies BDS’s true power as a movement victorious: Not through the succession of boycotts or divestments that it can accrue, but in its power to myth-bust a dominant narrative that has directed and rationalized foreign policy for nearly seven decades. As a statement against BDS on campus in an AIPAC pamphlet from May 2016 itself forewarns:
... Despite the efforts of Israel’s detractors, no US college or university has divested from Israel or companies doing business with Israel, and none is likely to do so. Rather, the real focus on BDS on campus is to create skepticism in the minds of students about Israel’s legitimacy. Seeds of doubt are intended to bloom decades later when graduates hold positions of power and authority and can withhold tangible support or even contest Israel’s right to exist.
AIPAC is right about one thing—today’s young adults are less guaranteed to be tomorrow’s investors. As movements like BDS embolden the case against settlement expansion, present and future generations are less inclined to provide financial support. Though a majority of the Jewish population across all age groups in the United States reports at least some connection to Israel, nearly one-third agree that settlement building hurts the country’s security – a conviction that had been held by up to 44% of American Jews in 2013. They follow a trend unsullied from that of their other younger American, mostly liberal, counterparts increasingly skeptical of offering an unconditional and pathological support for settlement building and militarization of a nation that takes no responsibility for their own country’s social, economic, and political interests.
Americans no longer have to be keffiyehdonning ardent pro-Palestinian protesters to be less and less inclined to subscribe to the narrative that places American interests as contingent upon – and evidently subordinate to – Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. Even Donald Trump recommended that Netanyahu slow down settlements, echoing Trump pick and Defense Secretary James Mattis’s caveats against settlements that could engender ‘apartheid.’
Five decades of official US opposition to settlement building—despite overall unconditional support to Israel—culminated in the US’s anomalous abstention from the December 2016 UN Security Council vote to condemn Israel on settlement activity.
The language of the BDS movement recognizes the nuances, and attempted reconciliation, between Israeli support and opposition to settlement expansion, while seizing the opportunity to question a method of occupation that ultimately defines Israel’s existence. In 2015, in a move to refuse enforcement of anti-BDS legislation on the West Bank, then-US State Department spokesperson John Kirby professed no qualms with a BDS that specifically, and conditionally, solely targeted occupation and settlement expansion.
Language remains BDS’s most powerful weapon. By targeting occupation and settlements, and issuing condemnations resembling South Africa apartheid-era moral appeals, BDS both convolutes Israel’s claims to modern democratic sovereignty as well as its myth of sanctified Jewish connection to the land.
Still the scourge of Zionists and Zionist apologists, BDS was vilified at the 2017 AIPAC conference as “the most serious threat to Israel,” according to former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In the same breath, Harper made numerous entreaties to the waning sense of “shared values” and “security” between the United States and Israel. BDS reflects the true source of Israel’s existential crisis, couched in the expansion of settlements across arbitrarily defined parameters. These parameters are drawn not just materially, but rhetorically—and BDS can make them disappear.
This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 0. MEDIUM.