BDS unites the movement in concrete action

November 5, 2015

Tim Adams responds to a discussion of the BDS campaign against Israel.

I AM writing in response to the Readers' View from Elizabeth Dean and Seth Uzman ("Expanding the debate on BDS") about the strategy and tactics of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in solidarity with Palestine and their arguments in defense of the New York City Students for Justice in Palestine (NYCSJP) statement "The BDS Ceiling."

In their second document, NYCSJP states, "No movement makes forward strides without important debates and struggles over differences, and we look forward to principled debates, criticisms and engagements that aim to sharpen the movement." Similarly, Elizabeth and Seth argue that the political intervention of NYCSJP represents "constructive criticism that seeks to enhance rather than dismantle the framework of BDS."

It is undeniably correct that a vibrant and growing movement against oppression cannot exist without vigorous debate and discussion. It also is appropriate that a thorough debate on crucial political questions is developing now, following the tenth anniversary of the BDS movement earlier this year--a decade that has seen many impressive victories internationally. Following the call for principled debate and constructive criticism, I will outline what I believe are serious errors within the letter written by Elizabeth and Seth and argue that we must reject the arguments made by NYCSJP.

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ELIZABETH AND Seth summarize many of NYCSJP's key arguments. The first point regards the demands articulated in the Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS, released in July 2005.

The BDS Call demands that Israel end its occupation and colonization of Palestinian land and dismantle the apartheid wall surrounding and dividing the West Bank, recognize the full equality of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and promote and protect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194. The BDS Call asks that international supporters of the Palestinian movement demand economic sanctions, boycotts and divestment against Israel until it accedes to those demands.

Elizabeth and Seth argue that these demands are "necessary, but insufficient conditions for the liberation of Palestine from a Zionist settler-colonial regime." Rather, they are "meant to serve as a basis for anti-Zionist struggle, not as a limit or 'ceiling' to the struggle's highest political goals."

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However, quoting the original NYCSJP statement, Elizabeth and Seth argue that this struggle has been constrained by the political perspective that "we do not have the mandate to push the politics of a one-state solution, much less the necessity of national liberation." As they note, our analysis of the position of Zionist settler colonialism within global capitalism and imperialism underscores "the necessity of a single, secular and democratic state."

These arguments sound reasonable, but they make the crucial mistake of confusing the analyses that we as revolutionary socialists bring to movements with the broader politics on which a mass movement must be based. Although we believe it is necessary to bring anti-Zionist politics into the BDS movement, we should recognize that the movement was not created to be and is not yet a "basis for anti-Zionist struggle."

Instead, as members of several student organizations based in Gaza noted in their response to NYCSJP, the BDS Call was crafted in such a way so as to build the largest international solidarity movement possible on the basis of concrete demands. In doing so, the argument goes, the international movement can shift the global balance of forces so as to "contribute significantly to creating conditions that are favorable to Palestinian emancipation and self-determination."

We should recognize that the BDS movement, like any social movement, necessarily encompasses a wide range of political tendencies. This includes revolutionaries like us, but also liberals and even self-identified Zionists who are outraged by the most recent atrocities of the Israeli state, but do not yet recognize that such violence is intrinsic to the Zionist project.

To "push" the endorsement of a one-state solution, as NYCSJP describes its efforts, would only limit the scope of the movement at a time when far more pressing questions face Palestine solidarity activists in the U.S.--such as the recent move by the Obama administration to increase aid to the Israeli state even more.

This does not mean hiding our politics or opportunistically capitulating to the dominant politics of the moment. We can and must make our arguments--and insist on freedom of debate. But we must do so in a patient and strategic manner that both clarifies for others the fundamental political questions facing the movement now and establishes a stronger political basis for that movement.

We would be doing ourselves a major disservice to focus our energies on the question of one-state versus two-states now, when Palestine solidarity activists on campuses across the country are facing systematic repression, when members of unions and religious organizations are arguing for support of BDS, and when the Palestine solidarity movement and the movement against anti-Black racism are building stronger and deeper links.

MORE FUNDAMENTALLY, this question centers on how we as socialists in an oppressor nation relate to the struggles of people in an oppressed nation.

We must develop an analysis of the failures of the two-state strategy and the neoliberalization of the Palestinian Authority, but our foremost job is not to advocate for a certain political form that should follow the liberation of Palestine. Rather, our job is to defeat the imperialism of the U.S. government, which makes that liberation virtually unattainable, while supporting in any way possible the efforts of our comrades in Palestine, as well as working-class struggle throughout the Middle East.

This point echoes the statement from Gaza student organizations:

The BNC [Boycott National Committee] is not, and never claimed to be, the political leadership of the Palestinian people and therefore cannot decide on behalf of the people what the acceptable political outcome of our struggle should look like. Self-determination means that the Palestinian people (including Palestinians in the 1948 territory and the refugees) must democratically determine a solution that is deemed acceptable and just.

Elizabeth and Seth caution that we should not take the BDS Call as representative of the wishes of all Palestinians, as there is "no body that is truly representative of the Palestinian people," and thereby foreclose the possibility of considering alternative tactics. Although this is technically true, it is not clear who is arguing otherwise. They also fail to make note of the point raised in the statement from the Gaza student groups, which clearly agreed that the leadership of BDS is not the political leadership of the Palestinian people and never claimed to be such.

Even so, the fact that 170 civil society organizations signed on to the call does represent the fact that the movement is supported by a large number of Palestinians in Palestine. Yet NYCSJP attempts to delegitimize this support, claiming it represents the "NGOization" of Palestine activism:

[R]eliance on international aid distributors, the Palestinian Authority and Western charity organizations [has] effectively replaced the pre-Oslo mass-based civil society that were at the forefront of the First Intifada. By assigning sole legitimacy to represent the Palestinian people to international NGOs, student-based organizations hand the reigns of solidarity to those who are accepted by international imperialists and fail to look past the trap of NGOs and international law.

This is a very serious claim, and if it were true, it would mean that the BDS movement from the beginning has been influenced by and even in service to the interests of imperialism. Such a movement certainly would not be capable of helping Palestinians win any kind of justice. However, a cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates that their argument is plainly false.

It is not merely liberal, non-profit organizations that have signed the BDS Call. For example, all major Palestinian trade unions were signatories. Are they also subordinate to "international imperialists"? Most certainly not.

If we are going to discuss the influence of NGOs that are, in fact, dedicated to the interests of Western imperialism and capital, we need to be clear about the roles of specific organizations with concrete evidence and not speak in vague generalities about a large number of truly diverse organizations. Unfortunately, NYCSJP does not provide any evidence to back up their assertion.

Furthermore, if this claim were true, why has the Israeli state labeled BDS a "strategic threat"? Why are politicians in both the Republican and the Democratic Parties attempting to crush it? Why would "international imperialism" be frantically seeking to destroy a movement that is in its own interest? How has the BDS movement won so many victories so quickly if it is incapacitated by the influence of imperialism? NYCSJP's claims are contradictory and do not hold up to reality.

ONE LAST point in Elizabeth and Seth's letter concerns NYSJP's argument that the "unclear political objectives" of the BDS movement leads to a general depoliticizing of the movement:

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.

The tendency for divestment campaigns to narrow their focus to divestment only, and not include broader historical concerns has been noted by activists at many universities, and that is a real problem that must be addressed. However, I disagree with the notion that this depoliticizing effect is the result of the movement's supposedly "unclear objectives." After all, its objectives are outlined clearly in the original BDS Call.

Rather, I believe that it reflects the tendency of all reform struggles--whether they are focused on higher wages, police brutality, reproductive rights or any number of other issues--to narrow their scope to the immediate issues in question only. A major role that we as socialists can play is challenging this narrow focus and encouraging more political debates and discussions by organizing movement reading groups, teach-ins and panels. This will broaden the perspectives of the movement and build a stronger basis for solidarity with other struggles.

I agree wholeheartedly with Elizabeth and Seth that we should not mistake tactics for political analysis. Indeed, we must always subordinate the former to the latter. That is why I believe it is absolutely crucial that we reject the analysis underlying NYCSJP's position and wholeheartedly support the BDS movement as the most effective means for those of us outside of Palestine to support the Palestinian struggle.

BDS alone is not enough; the liberation of Palestine will depend on the struggle within Palestine and the struggle of the Arab working classes in general. As Wael Elasady argued recently:

The road to Jerusalem still lies through Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh. Today, the BDS movement shows us that it also winds its way through Paris, London and New York. More than ever, it's clear that this road will only run through these cities' streets, and not through their presidential palaces.

Nevertheless, BDS remains central to that effort. This, I believe, must be our orientation, even as we continue to engage in debate and discussion on the best way forward.

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