BDS and the Israeli Left

PACBI Column
BRICUP Newsletter #20
September 2009

The recent declaration by Neve Gordon, an Israeli academic at Ben-Gurion University, in support of BDS [1] has generated a great deal of commentary and controversy, ranging from demands that he be dismissed from the university to a celebration of Israeli democracy and the upholding of academic freedom. Here, PACBI takes a sober look at Israeli support for BDS and comments on its potentials and pitfalls.

Israeli support for BDS, and in particular academic and cultural boycott of Israel, is to be welcomed. Long before Gordon”s statement supporting BDS, staunch Israeli supporters of Palestinian rights such as Rachel Giora, Ilan Pappe, Haim Bresheeth, Oren Ben-Dor and Tanya Reinhart had embraced boycott and defended it against Israeli critics particularly leftists in the academy [2]. Israeli artists” and academics” endorsement of concrete boycott actions called for by international academics and artists in the past few years is well known. The recent formation of the group Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within [3] is particularly noteworthy, as it unconditionally accepts BDS as defined and guided by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, BNC, unlike some “BDS supporters” in Israel who are trying to set their own, restrictive parameters for the campaign or qualifying their support for it to serve their political agendas.

PACBI believes that increasing Israeli support for BDS or a recognition of its inevitability as a strategy in the struggle against Israeli colonialism and apartheid is an indicator of the growing legitimacy, moral superiority and success of the Palestinian-initiated and led BDS campaign. It shows that persistent and effective pressure on Israel, particularly in the form of BDS, has a real potential for generating political change within Israel, beginning with academics, artists, and other public figures. However, it is important to distinguish among different variants of such support or recognition, particularly insofar as they relate to the Palestinian call for BDS, including the PACBI call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

First, it should be noted that some Israeli supporters of BDS studiously avoid the political framework set by the Palestinian BDS movement by casting their support for BDS as a strategy to end only the 42-year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For example, while some Israelis do employ the term colonialism or apartheid, they limit these terms” application to the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967, not to historic Palestine which now encompasses the state of Israel. Such a formulation sidesteps the issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, as well as that of the legalized and institutionalized system of racism and discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of the Israel It thus not only fails to adhere to the comprehensive rights-based approach adopted in the 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, but also ignores the UN-sanctioned rights of the great majority of the indigenous people of Palestine. The Palestinian call advocates nonviolent punitive measures to be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to selfdetermination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands 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 [4].

This raises an important issue concerning the leadership of the BDS movement. Palestinians assert their right to set the parameters and overall strategy of the BDS movement and to remain at the forefront of the movement as its legitimate frame of reference and its anchor. Some Israeli attempts to restrict the scope of BDS, whether in geopolitical or tactical terms, can only be seen as an instance of the well-known Israeli “Zionistleft” penchant for defining the terms of the struggle and authorizing appropriate solidarity actions to bring about an end to Israel”s oppression of the Palestinian people, as they define it, irrespective of the aspirations and needs of the Palestinians themselves. We reiterate the need to keep this a Palestinian-centered movement in terms of basic principles and overall strategy, supported by the international BDS movement whose diverse, context-sensitive and often creative actions and tactics are critical to the success of the overall BDS strategy, as well as being valued as a form of principled solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Some of the Israeli discourse about BDS betrays a related attribute of the Zionist left”s political discourse, which is its Israel-centered rationale for supporting BDS. In this view, the underlying principle and main justification for calling for BDS is to “save Israel from itself,” out of a concern for the country’s future, including the prospects of normalizing Israel”s presence in the Arab world. Such an overriding concern for guaranteeing Israel”s future, without questioning its apartheid and racist character, reveals that not all members of the Israeli left or “peace camp” can be counted on as solid allies of the Palestinian and international BDS movement. However, we believe that the formulation of the need for BDS in these terms vindicates one aspect of the logic of the BDS movement, which is to make Israelis realize that nothing short of sustained pressure on Israel will bring about a change in the political status quo. Whether out of Israeli self-interest or based upon a principled commitment to comprehensive Palestinian rights, such Israeli support for BDS cannot be ignored and is to be welcomed.

[2] See, for example, Tanya Reinhart”s 2002 letter to Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling at

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