Expanding the debate on BDS

November 3, 2015

ON OCTOBER 4, the New York City Students for Justice in Palestine (NYCSJP) published "The BDS Ceiling," a critical perspective on the liberal rhetoric and activism emerging from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses across the country. Several days later, the BDS National Committee (BNC) published a response, later reprinted at SocialistWorker.org, flatly condemning the NYCSJP statement as an "attack" on the BDS movement.

We believe the NYCSJP statement is a valuable and constructive intervention into the Palestine solidarity movement in the U.S., one that socialists should engage with and encourage as the Palestine solidarity movement grows both in numbers as well as political acumen.

First, the NYCSJP statement is not an "attack" on BDS. Both "The BDS ceiling," as well as NYCSJP's follow-up, "Our debate, like our struggle, knows no borders," explicitly recognize the necessity for and power of the call for boycott, divestments, and sanctions.

The article states: "It's difficult not to be impressed by the momentum and speed with which the BDS movement has won victories and raised consciousness about Palestine to an unprecedented level." Further, the members of NYCSJP "embrace BDS, and consider it one of the most material contributions we can make to the Palestinian struggle."

Image from SocialistWorker.org

If these are the words of an "attack," they are poorly written. Rather, they are a preamble to a constructive criticism that seeks to enhance rather than dismantle the framework of BDS. The NYCSJP statement testifies, in fact, to the strength of the BDS movement, whose far-reaching success has rendered it strong enough to withstand healthy debate among its activists.

THE NYCSJP statement itself raises several important points.

First, the three demands of BDS--ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194--are necessary, but insufficient conditions for the liberation of Palestine from a Zionist settler-colonial regime.

The three demands were, therefore, meant to serve as a basis for anti-Zionist struggle, not as a limit or "ceiling" to the struggle's highest political goals. Yet within the current ranks of the BDS movement today, NYCSJP remonstrates "[w]e are repeatedly told we do not have the mandate to push the politics of a one-state solution, much less the necessity of national liberation."

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Because of the International Socialist Organization's understanding of Zionism and its historical and ongoing relationship with capital and imperialism, our tradition maintains the necessity of a single, secular and democratic state. Indeed, the recent appalling violence by the Israeli military and the settlers it protects should serve as bellwethers of Israel's true intentions of turning statecraft with the Palestinian Authority into war craft on Palestinians.

We should, therefore, treat the BDS call as a useful but incomplete document. To treat it otherwise, as the one true, authentic expression of Palestinian aspirations, ignoring the fact that there is, at the present time, no body that is truly representative of the Palestinian people, silences debate necessary to advance the cause of Palestinian liberation. It allows space for rhetorical moves like the BNC response, which characterized NYCSJP's call for forthright advocacy of a one-state solution as displaying a "patronizing colonial mentality."

The second issue is the BDS movement's problematic appeal to international law. As Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie argue at Jacobin, "[l]aws have no enforcement agents except for the states they regulate." International law and its "enforcement agents" serve, as they were designed, to guarantee the project of U.S. imperialism, for which Israel dutifully serves as both a neoliberal and military arm.

If anything, Israel's long history of flagrant and unpunished violation of international law should serve as proof of the need to go beyond this framework. Furthermore, BDS's appeal to international law locates it, just as its three "ceiling" planks do, in a nebulous political space with debilitating effects on Palestine solidarity activism.

Third, NYCSJP argues that BDS's unclear political objectives depoliticize Palestine solidarity activism, encouraging activists to seek symbolic victories at the cost of material gains and movement building. In our experience, if "divestment" becomes an end in and of itself, rather than a tool to dismantle the state of Israel, the temptation is enormous to avoid controversial issues, like the history of Zionism, imperialism and the Palestinian right to resist, and, instead, present Palestine solely as a humanitarian issue.

It additionally drains time and resources that could be more efficiently used to build the movement from below, directly engaging the student body with a revolutionary perspective. The divestment fight on our own campus of UT-Austin was enormously important in building our organization, in politicizing the issue on campus, and recruiting new members, but it also revealed the limits of what a movement built on a BDS blueprint, rather than scaffold, can offer.

We read "The BDS ceiling" as a constructive criticism of the BDS movement in practice, not in principle. We, therefore, cannot let our tactics, like boycotts, divestment and sanctions, become replacements for our political analysis.

To defend BDS, as the BNC does, as a flexible tactic, allowing for a variety of political approaches, and then condemn NYCSJP for arguing the same thing is contradictory. BDS ought to be a tactic, and many of those who participate in BDS actions understand it is to be so, but that does not erase the fact that it is often treated as the end rather than the beginning of struggle.

We conclude with an excerpt from a statement released by the Progressive Student Labor Front of Gaza, who later retracted their name from the BNC response:

NYC SJP's statement is part of a necessary conversation and debate on the systematic and damaging impact of NGOization on the Palestinian national liberation movement and, most importantly, the solidarity movement. It is also part of needed political discussion about how we can fully assert and struggle for all of our rights and all of our liberation, for Palestine from the river to the sea.

Elizabeth Dean and Seth Uzman, Austin, Texas

Further Reading

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