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The case against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

ByAron Rosenthal

Apr 5, 2020

On March 23rd, Rose Chacko wrote an article for The Student, calling for further education on the Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement in the hope that ‘Israel will be pressured into respecting international law with regards to its treatment of the Palestinian people’. In this article, I will steer clear of the historical complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict and attempt to outline why the BDS movement is not a politically constructive or morally viable campaign.

As a university publication, The Student encompasses a whole spectrum of political viewpoints, enabling two students from The University of Edinburgh to argue on opposing sides of the same motion. This is the natural and celebrated consequence of freedom of expression. The BDS website justifies its academic boycott of Israeli universities in light of the fact that they are ‘major, willing and persistent accomplices in Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid’. Language aside, universities in non-tyrannical countries are not and never have been homogeneous units. 

Indeed, many Israeli academics are among the most critical and progressive voices in the country. The boycott of university academics in Israel is so all-encompassing that it seems almost devoid of logic. It includes Israeli universities outside the settlements and, though it clarifies that the boycott is of ‘complicit Israeli academic institutions not individuals’, it simultaneously denies research and development projects, speeches, academics enrolling at a complicit Israeli institution, and publishing in their respective journals. The ultimatum for Israeli academics would appear to be silence or emigration.

In a 2007 article in The Times, Alan Dershowitz and Anthony Julius outlined the academic principles which BDS violates. These include not discriminating against academic colleagues on the basis of factors extraneous to their academic work, presumably including their nationality. This standard is in the interests of scientific innovation being of potential benefit to all mankind, the idea that a scientific contribution ought to be judged on its own merits, and that to deny or limit self-expression is an attack on what it is to be human. If the BDS movement valued free discourse and the pursuit of knowledge, it would not attempt to suppress speakers, but allow both sides to be heard and listeners to reach their own conclusions.

Israeli raids into Gaza have often been condemned as a form of collective punishment for the transgressive behaviour of the few. Checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza strip have the express purpose of enhancing Israel’s security by preventing those who wish to cause harm or smuggle weapons into the country from passing through. In the process, thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians must endure regular impediments to their daily life. By boycotting Israeli academia, culture and even sport, the BDS movement aims to collectively punish civilians for the actions of the Israeli government. 

Not only is this hypocritical but also misguided in its supposition that the Israeli government will be pressured into changing its policies. Uri Avnery, founder of the Gush Shalom activism group and believer in the illegality of the West Bank occupation, suggested that Israeli policy could not be influenced by ‘pressure from the outside, except perhaps from the White House and US Congress.’ In a visit to South Africa in 2005, President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, told reporters, “No, we do not support the boycott of Israel”, clarifying that “we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements”. Is BDS interested in practical compromise and supporting official channels of communication, or does it pursue unrealistic ideals which will not come to pass?  As Dershowitz pointed out in a 2014 article for Haaretz, support for the BDS movement on European campuses ‘emboldens Palestinians to reject compromise solutions to the conflict.’

The BDS movement cannot expect to be taken seriously by the Israeli government because it is rooted in threats and it demands too much. One of its three demands, asks that the Palestinian refugees of 1948 be permitted ‘to return to their homes as stipulated in UN Resolution 194’. Presumably this would include their ancestors, entailing an influx of millions of Palestinians to Israel. This would undermine the Jewish majority in the country and consequently dismantle Jewish self-determination. The immigration demand is widely perceived as a euphemism for the destruction of Israel and since resolution 194 is not legally binding, it is not a feasible aspect of any solution. 

Finally, the fact that the BDS movement is directed solely at Israel is rather telling. I appreciate that when Israel is the subject of debate, international comparisons sound deflective, but in this case they are relevant. Israel is boycotted where China is not, although it has occupied Tibet since 1950. In the same vein, Iran and Saudi Arabia are violent theocracies, both responsible for countless human rights violations, yet receive a fraction of the attention directed towards Israel. As Rose herself points out, there are ‘more UN resolutions condemning Israeli expansionism and aggression than on anything else’. Indeed, more than any of the serial human-rights violators inside the Middle East alone. 

Exclusion of Jews has a considerable history, from being used as scapegoats for the Black death, to the anti-Jewish riots inside the Russian Empire and the boycott of German Jewish businesses in 1933. Attempts to boycott Israel are attempts to undermine Jewish self-determination and cripple the Jewish State. Of the various channels through which to support the Palestinian plight, the BDS movement is surely not among them. 

Image: Takver via Wikimedia Commons