A recent “policy paper,” written by McGill History professor Gil Troy and AICE”s Mitchell Bard, has been aggressively circulating around the internet. Supposedly to be presented at a meeting of Jewish scholars and activists in Israel, it condemns the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a “full-blown political, economic, cultural, ideological struggle against the…existence of Israel” and provides several recommendations for a strategic attack campaign to undermine BDS.
While questionable, the paper highlights a striking characteristic of BDS. The authors claim the campaign draws a “line in the sand” in which “progressives, no matter how critical of Israel, who condemn the BDS movement, prove their pro-Israel bona fides.” It goes onto claim that the movement “implicitly” moves the “debate from Israeli policy to Israel”s right to exist.” While this part of the discussion is certainly erroneous, the “line in the sand” characterization brings to light an extremely prevalent weakness in the general international Palestinian solidarity movement: the Litmus Test. The Litmus Test is a non-verbal, non-written test given to virtually all active members of any solidarity movement which tests an individual”s “actual” commitment to the cause, whatever it may be.
BDS is a great strategy for any campaign and cause, beyond the State of Israel and its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, amongst its general treatment of the Palestinians. Yes, of course there is a double standard in the way Israel is treated in comparison to other countries which are engaged in similar or worse atrocities. The difference is that these other countries do not claim a certain pedestal, to be the beacon of democracy in the region where they are situated, and do not make themselves generally comparable to present-day Western governments. Yes, we, here, have our historical blood-soaked hands we can never fully wash ourselves of and our own issues of illegal occupation, human rights violations and racism, but nothing to even a vaguely similar extent as Israel – at least in the present tense. For this reason, the BDS campaign as a grassroots movement which also seeks a top-down approach (Sanctions) is the best route. And we know it works: history is our greatest testament.
There are, of course, problems with the campaign that make it extremely vulnerable. For one, there is no real leadership. There is a failure to provide, at least sufficiently, required materials and clear approaches to understanding what BDS is and what it entails. BDS is not boycotting Indigo or Victoria”s Secret – it is a holistic strategy that aims to both economically and symbolically undermine the government of Israel by placing upon it the sort of pressure our governments have failed to provide. And then there is the issue of the academic boycott, with which even some of the most fervent BDS supporters, in academia, have problems reconciling.
But what hurts BDS the most, just as it hurts the general solidarity movement, is the previously-mentioned Litmus Test. Much like the One-State/Two-State divide which has pierced the movement, the BDS campaign has come to either verify or question one”s “commitment” to the “cause.” Amongst those who are involved in the leadership component of the solidarity movement for Palestine, there seems to be very little desire and room for discussion, critique and/or dissent on issues of BDS and One-State/Two-State .
While the Two-State settlement route is certainly resonant of begging for a ride on a deceased and decaying horse, and while the BDS movement is a smart strategy, disagreements and dissent on these two issues, in particular, should not serve a source of division within the movement. As soon as Litmus Tests are administered for activists and their commitment to the cause, we begin dismantling support base. Thus, this division only advantages one group: the Israel apologists.
But are these divisions and Litmus Tests all that surprising? Not really. All of this is indicative of an old and now growing problem within activism, where essentialism, dogmatism, and ideology reign supreme. We no longer just feel compelled to act but we feel compelled to achieve. The worth of our activism seems to lie solely in our ability to achieve something. We focus on the “right answer” without ever really questioning the way we arrive to that answer and its implications. The right answer may be the most moral route, but it does not necessarily make it the easiest. Thus a sort of essentialist approach is created to a cause, a dogma and ideology grow and dissent from these puts one outside the sacred community, into the profane.
For instance, the One-State solution is the right and just solution for the sixty years of the persisting oppression of the Palestinians. But that is easier believed than done: South Africa, post-Apartheid, is still shaking with several grievances. Apartheid is gone, but the inequalities and antagonisms continue. The potential implications of the One-State solution, such as civil war, strife and political despotism, are not often addressed, usually due to dogmatic and essentialist reasons.
We shouldn”t step down from the “right” answers but we shouldn”t also avoid any discussion of possible negative and perhaps inevitable implications. We should be avoiding creating frameworks to discussions within movements that actually stifle debate. Dissent is always necessary. It helps us realize that no solution is ever really a solution. And in a way, our own humanity is undermined if a solution ever proved to be completely a solution. To err is, after all, to be human.
In the final analysis, Ghassan Kanafani once wrote, man is a cause. We create the momentum required for change, for the “effect,” whatever that “effect” may be. Activism for Palestine is not about One-State/Two-State or BDS or the origins of hummus. It is about a commitment to justice. It is about patience. The result, the effect, will be what it will be. Our control is, ultimately, over ourselves as the cause.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a South African prison. That is activism. The fifteen minutes he spent leaving those gates, heralded as a heroic moment for anti-Apartheid activists, was not. Those fifteen minutes ultimately held the sort of power that they did because of the three decades Mandela spent in waiting, with patience, with a commitment to justice – knowing that his freedom had no guarantee. And this is what activism is: it is not about a goal or a solution; it is not about dividing ourselves in the face of disagreements and dissent; it is about a commitment to justice regardless of whether its deliverance is guaranteed.