Fighting the anti-BDS backlash

October 3, 2016

At the World Social Forum in Montreal, Wael Elasady, a member of the International Socialist Organization and Palestine solidarity activist, spoke on a panel titled "Fighting for BDS: Facing Down Israel's Backlash." Here, he provides an overview of both the opportunities and challenges facing the struggle for Palestinian liberation, in an edited version of his speech.

THE BOYCOTT, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is at a critical juncture. On the one hand, the movement is more successful and has a wider potential audience than ever before. On the other, it is facing the biggest challenge since its inception in the form of a coordinated onslaught by its opponents.

To face down the anti-BDS backlash, it's important for our side to understand how we arrived at this moment, the depth of the challenge and peril our movement faces, and the real opportunities that exist for expanding the struggle to challenge Israeli apartheid.

Paradoxically, the opportunity to enlarge the struggle is, at least in part, a consequence of the increasing repression--because of the potential that pro-Israel force will overreach and inadvertently generate broader awareness of and even sympathy for the BDS movement.

TO UNDERSTAND the current backlash facing the BDS movement, it's worth remembering where the question of Palestine stood before the call for BDS was made by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) in 2005. At that time the dominant understanding for explaining what was happening in Israel and Palestine was through the framework established by the Oslo "peace process."

Student members of the growing movement to boycott Israel
Student members of the growing movement to boycott Israel

The "peace process" discourse had reduced the question of Palestine to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, while the demands of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of Israel were left behind, further fragmenting the Palestinian national movement.

Furthermore, this narrative served to hide the reality of Israel's ongoing ethnic cleansing and colonization of the Palestinians. Instead, the framing of the "peace process" posed the issue as a border dispute between two "states" equally responsible (usually more blame was placed on Palestinians) for ongoing violence because of "extremists" on either side or lingering "ancient hatreds."

Palestinian solidarity activists therefore operated in an environment that was incredibly difficult. Opinion among the American public was solidly behind Israel, but the challenges for those committed to justice for Palestinians went beyond marginalization in the mainstream.

At some universities, for example, administers required pro-Palestinian activists to speak alongside a pro-Israel speaker in order to give "both sides" of the issue--the equivalent of asking a civil rights activist in the 1960s to appear with a segregationist in order to provide appropriate "balance."

Activism was often limited to bringing Israelis or Jews and Palestinians into "dialogue," which served to normalize Israel's occupation and provide cover for Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

Even among those on the left, the question of Palestine was considered a third rail of American politics. At the height of the antiwar movement, for example, there was a refusal to take up Palestinian rights as a demand of the movement among the majority of its organizers.

Today, three factors--the exposure of the "peace process" as a farce after 20 years, Israel's rightward lurch and barbaric war against the people of Gaza, and crucially the emergence of the BDS movement--have transformed the terms of debate. The Palestinian movement is now fighting on much more favorable terrain in Western countries.

THE BDS movement has successfully shifted the discourse to one that accurately identifies Israel, at minimum, as the aggressor and chronic violator of international law and human rights. At best, the movement has created an environment in which the idea that Israel is a colonial-settler state engaged in ethnic cleansing is now common sense in some circles.

By placing the demands of all sections of the Palestinian people as central to its program, it has helped to restore the demands of two previously forgotten segments of the Palestinian people--Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of Israel--to their proper place.

In the process, the strategy of BDS has helped to restore unity to a fragmented national movement. BDS has also helped to expose the U.S. not as a neutral arbiter, but as centrally complicit in maintaining Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people.

And the tactics advocated by the BDS call have served to recharge activism by spurring the movement to go beyond endless dialogue with hostile forces and a futile reliance on the "international community" to mobilizing everyday people at the grassroots level to help end support for Israeli apartheid.

The building of BDS campaigns during the past 10 years has forged one of the most organized social movements in the U.S. today--with an experienced cadre of activists, public intellectuals and sophisticated movement publications like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss helping to propel this work forward. Today, there are more than 200 Student for Justice in Palestine chapters on campuses across the country, and Jewish Voice for Peace is now the fastest-growing Jewish organization.

Palestine, far from being exiled from the left and activist spaces, is now a central element, and most on the left understand the importance of challenging Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people and support the BDS movement (although the labor movement is a particular weak spot in this regard).

Yet the opening for BDS goes far beyond the existing left and activist core. Support for Israel is beginning to seriously erode among a wide layer of young and liberal Americans. According to the Pew Research Center:

The number of liberal Democrats sympathizing more with Palestinians rather than Israel has nearly doubled over the past two years, from 21 to 40 percent...Among the supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, however, a plurality--39 percent--are more favorable to the Palestinians, while just a third stand with Israel.

Meanwhile, the share of young voters born after 1980, often referred to as millennial voters, who sympathize with Palestine more than Israel has tripled in the past eight years, "increasing from 9 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in July 2014 to 27 percent today."

What's clear is that the same generation that prefers socialism to capitalism and supports the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender rights is also rejecting Israel's violence against Palestinians.

In other words, the question of Palestine must be understood within the context of the broader radicalization and polarization we are seeing in U.S. society.

THIS SHIFT is what has most frightened the Israeli establishment and unleashed an unprecedented backlash against the BDS movement. It has prompted the Israeli government to organize against BDS at the highest ministerial levels, resulting in millions of dollars being allocated to stem the rising tide of BDS.

This money is being used to double down on a public-relations campaign to misrepresent BDS activists as anti-Semitic and to fund of dozens of pro-Israeli organizations to counter BDS organizing on the ground.

The Israeli government has gone so far as to threaten BDS leaders living under Israeli occupation with "targeted civil eliminations," declaring that they should "pay the price" for their work. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has been specifically targeted by the Israeli government with restrictions on his ability to travel abroad.

The Israeli government has also contracted the help of Western officials in its attack on BDS. Anti-BDS motions have been brought to parliaments in various countries in Europe and North America. In the U.S., 20 such laws have been introduced in state legislatures, while New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order cutting off state funding to any organizations involved in boycotts of Israel after the state Senate failed to pass a similar anti-BDS bill. Another law being proposed in New York would create an official blacklist of supporters of the BDS movement.

Meanwhile, at the top of U.S. politics, the commitment to defending Israel and attacking BDS has never been higher. Hillary Clinton, for example, made a campaign promise to defeat BDS, while the Obama administration is concluding its eight years in office by awarding Israel, which committed countless war crimes in Gaza during Obama's tenure, with the largest military aid package ever handed out by the U.S.--$38 billion over 10 years.

What's clear is that our movement is not only facing the combined efforts of the Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., but also the active support and involvement of the American state and political establishment in this coordinated attack.

The reason the U.S. showers Israel with billions in military aid and helps to suppress the free speech of its critics at home was laid out by Ryan McNamara in a recent article in Jacobin, which argues that "the glue that binds the U.S. and Israel together is their shared commitment to maintaining the current balance of power in the Middle East."

In other words, the U.S. is willing to carry out a McCarthyite witch hunt against its own citizens because it cannot risk any constraints in its ability to maintain its support for Israel, which is a pillar of its domination of the Middle East.

In sum, we are facing a coordinated and united crackdown from above at the same time as real cracks in support for Israel have emerged from below. Our strategy for defeating this backlash rests on our ability to understand both of these aspects of the moment that the BDS movement is facing and how they can inform our response.

I WANT to draw out four concrete points that I think flow from this analysis.

First, we need to conceive of our fightback as building a backlash to the backlash. Israel's anti-democratic war of repression against our side can provide our movement with further exposure and newer audiences and can allow us to expose the undemocratic and repressive nature of the Israeli state and its supporters.

For example, those who may not support BDS may recoil at the heavy-handed tactics of pro-Israel forces. Therefore, we should aim to build broad coalitions in defense of the right to free speech and political action of those targeted by McCarthyite tactics, and through that process we also gain a wider audience for the argument that Israel is an apartheid state that must be isolated.

Here are a few examples of how this dynamic is already unfolding: Representatives of the Swedish, Irish and Dutch governments have publicly defended the right to campaign for Palestinian rights under international law through BDS. Organizations, including Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union, have done the same.

More than 23,000 people signed an appeal to the UN regarding the #RightToBoycott, and BDS activists gave testimony at the recent UN Human Rights Council. And in early July, the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial titled "Boycotts of Israel are a protected form of free speech."

Most recently, as a result of pressure from pro-Israel groups, the administration at the University of California-Berkeley suspended a student-led course titled "Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis." The move was widely condemned by students, professors and academic groups as a violation of academic freedom, and a campaign was quickly organized to adopt the syllabus and teach the course at universities around the country. The campaign compelled UC Berkeley to reverse its decision and reinstate the course, an important victory for our side.

These types of results aren't automatic, of course, and setbacks such as the recent passage of the anti-BDS law in California pose very real legal and strategic questions for our movement that we must be able to answer.

Whatever the specific law or tactic that we must confront in our work, we cannot be intimidated. Instead, we must carry with us the confidence that building widely and openly to win support among all those committed to academic freedom and the right to political protest such as boycotts can defeat this backlash.

MY SECOND point is that in the midst of fighting such repression, we cannot lose sight of the real opening that exists. As laid out earlier, sympathy for Palestinians has never been higher, especially among young Americans.

As we build a backlash to the backlash, we must continue our own offensive--building BDS campaigns on campuses, in faith communities, and elsewhere--while figuring out how to break through in labor unions. When we bring the question of Palestine out into the open, we win--or at least set the ground for future victories.

Third, we must continue to defend the framework laid out by the BNC call. The flip side of the repression being meted by the ruling class against our movement are the attempts to try and co-opt and neutralize our movement through appeals to engage in "dialogue" and "collaboration" to lower "tensions" and "divisions," rather than boycotts and divestment.

An article in the New York Times titled "Students and the Middle East Conflict" made exactly these arguments, negatively contrasting student activists committed to the BDS movement to the approach of bringing Palestinian and Muslim students to work together with Israeli student groups.

Pro-Israel groups are banking on the idea that the appeal to engage in dialogue and drop sharper criticism of Israel or a BDS campaign are more tempting when the alternative at your campus can mean suspension of your student group, a call to your employer, or the loss of a job if you are a professor.

But "dialogue" is not simply a softer form of Palestine activism that our side can engage in while we weather the storm. It is a form of normalization aiming at an entirely different goal--namely, covering up Israel's crimes and returning to a framework that portrays both sides as responsible for Israel's crimes while neutralizing any concrete actions that may bring political pressure on the state of Israel.

FOURTH, SOLIDARITY is not an added extra but central to our ability to win. The BDS movement as explained above faces powerful and determined enemies. This includes not only the state of Israel and its supporters, but also the American state and the political establishment, which are committed to maintaining their alliance with Israel as part of their strategy to dominate the world's most oil-rich region.

Challenging U.S. support for Israel will therefore require our movement to continue the important work of knitting our struggle together with the struggle of other oppressed and exploited groups in this country--with the goal of cohering a powerful enough ensemble of social forces to pose a challenge to American imperialism.

Participation and support of Palestine activists in the Black Lives Matter movement has been central in this regard, and the recent list of demands released by the Movement for Black Lives, which includes opposition to Israel's oppression of Palestinians, is a major step forward that we must continue to build on.

While important steps in this direction are being made, we should recognize that it is not a given that the politics of solidarity will prevail in our social movements. Neoliberal ideology is still a powerful force that tries to separate and isolate our struggles and constantly feeds us the line that we are all on our own and can rely on no one else in our day-to-day struggles.

For these reasons, undertakings like the Black For Palestine Tour, the Arabs for Black Power, as well as the solidarity being expressed with the struggles of Native Americans around the Dakota pipeline resistance are absolutely essential.

Our movement has to build solidarity not only with social movements here at home but also with democratic and revolutionary movements in the Middle East. Today, as a result of the triumph of counter-revolution in the region, the Palestinian people are more isolated than ever.

The Palestinian Authority is a junior partner in Israel's apartheid regime while Hamas is bereft of a winning strategy. The Israeli state continues to expand its settlements and ethnically cleanse Jerusalem while fragmentation of the Palestinians continues unabated. The situation in Palestine has not been this severe since the Nakba of 1948.

In addition, states in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, after drowning in blood their own or their neighbors' rebellious populations, have dropped even the pretense of opposition to Israel and are entering into more open and explicit alliances with Israel to counter-balance their shared rivals in the region.

Meanwhile, the Syrian state, Iran and Hezbollah are engaged not in resistance to Israel's occupation, but in carrying out mass murder against the Syrian people to defeat their uprising. Plus, the rise of the reactionary and sectarian ISIS has created a new archenemy seen as the largest crisis facing the region.

The defeat of the Arab uprisings that began in 2011 has been a tremendous advantage for Israel. It is today less isolated than ever before. Ideologically, it can point to ISIS and the Syrian regime's actions to whitewash its own crimes and try and position itself as a fledgling democracy in an area otherwise overtaken by "extremism."

Furthermore, the isolation and fragmentation of the Palestinians and the improvement of its own position in the region is allowing Israel to turn its attention to attacking the one area where it is feeling real pressure, the international BDS movement. It would be hard to conceive of Israel increasing the pace of its repression of Palestinians and carrying out an attack on its international critics, as it is today, had the movements of 2011 not been beaten back.

It's more clear than ever after these past five years that the allies of the Palestinian people have always been the masses and their democratic struggles and not the states that mouth support for Palestine but have historically repressed and betrayed the Palestinian people.

No matter how many gains our solidarity movement makes in the West, the liberation of Palestine will continue to be beyond reach until the region is transformed and the authoritarian rulers that defend the status quo are overturned.

IN OUR movement, we often quote the words of Mahatma Gandhi to describe the trajectory of the BDS movement: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

This certainly describes the gains we have been making, but winning is not predetermined and cannot be taken for granted. The other side has taken off its gloves.

Yet if we aren't intimidated; if we expose pro-Israel tactics for the undemocratic maneuvers that they are; if we can keep our eye on the opportunities that exist to bring a young and sympathetic audience into our movement; if we can deepen the connections with movements like Black Lives Matter, the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock and the labor movement; if we can maintain our independence from the Democratic Party, which is committed to defending Israel, and from liberal Zionist organizations determined to absorb our time with efforts to normalize Israeli occupation; and finally, if we can overcome the legacy of seeing some rulers and states in the Middle East as the allies of the Palestinian cause and instead build solidarity with the people of the region, then we will be in a position to forge a movement with the social weight necessary to fight and win.

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