Is BDS a defensible position?

There’s this guy on the Huffington Post, named Rabbi David Wolpe. He basically argued that there are two strains of thinking regarding Israel (among Jews) that are beyond the pale: Boycot/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) on Israel, and “throw the Arabs out of Israel”.

His argument leaves me really leery of the standard journalistic trope of false equivalency: One faction (let’s call them the Right) is proposing horrible idea X, and I can only point that out if I find another opposing faction (let’s call them the Left) proposing an equally horrible idea Y. If I can’t find such an opposing faction, I’ll just pretend that the Left’s ideas are just as horrible as idea X, for the sake of “balance”

The main thrust of his anti-BDS argument is this:

These same people who anathematize Israel do not march against China for its rape of Tibet, against North Korea for its threatened obliteration of the South, against the Arab nations that have barred other religions from practice and discriminated in vicious and consistent ways against women, homosexuals and dissidents. No, they reserve their protest for a thriving, imperfect democracy that has a parliament with Arabs as well as Jews, a justice system where the chief judge in the trial condemning a former President of Israel is an Arab Israeli, where a completely unfettered press criticizes the government with vigor. Disagreeing with Israel is a time-honored tradition. Seeking to boycott it is to function as an anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism is making human faults (real and imagined) the special preserve of the Jews.

Now, that’s just ridiculous, isn’t it? The organized Jewish establishment is obsessed with creating connections between young Jews and the country of Israel. One of the Jewish community’s self-defined biggest challenges has been to give young American Jews a feeling like they have a stake in Israel. Congrats – it’s working. And now that they have a sense of identity with this country, these young women and men feel a stake in making sure that they approve of what’s being done there.

So the “why not march against China” argument is bogus for two reasons.
1. We don’t feel as much of an emotional stake with the Chinese as with our own kin/co-religionists
2. American Jews qua American Jews have much more leverage over the government and society of Israel than they do over the society of, say, Darfur.

Anti-semitism argument is wrong on it’s face, too. He sounds like someone playing dictionary games to argue that affirmative action is racist.

I still believe in the sub-argument of the article: that BDS are not only counterproductive but morally wrong. Is anyone out there making an actual, well-reasoned argument for that position? Not this guy.

What do you think of the article?


3 responses to “Is BDS a defensible position?”

  1. Jon

    I agree with you, Sahar: this article takes false equivalence and runs with it. Wolpe’s condescending tone is unhelpful in setting the boundaries for discussion because it refuses to recognize the legitimate concerns of the parties he describes. This is made all the worse because he is writing for the Jewish community at large, yet wants to explicitly exclude many Jews from this discussion.

    Since I assume we all agree that expulsionists suck, I would like to address his arguments against BDS, which I find underwhelming. He notes, correctly, that the expulsionist argument rests on a vision of an ethnically-cleansed Greater Israel, reserved for Jews and Jews alone. This is in contrast to…what, exactly? Weirdly, he isn’t interested in the goals and aspirations of BDS practitioners, who (both Jews and non-Jews) want to see peace and justice in the region. BDS is not directed at any ethnic group, but instead at transforming an imperfect (and worsening) Israel of today into an Israel/Palestine that thoroughly respects the human rights of all inhabitants. This fundamental difference in orientation, I think, should clearly merit BDS supporters a place at the table.

    In terms of tactics, Wolpe doesn’t address the specifics of the BDS campaign, particularly the varieties and targets (academic, cultural, economic etc.) that diverse movements use for diverse purposes. Instead, he attacks it by comparison (with Nazi boycotts of Jews) and by the absence of other boycott movements (against China, North Korea or ‘the Arab nations’). Firstly, it escapes me why a tactic should be forbidden because other movements are not currently employing it, particularly when it has a diminishing possibility of effectiveness in other contexts. Secondly, by denying the legitimacy of a nonviolent movement like BDS he gives very little scope for other protest tactics. His claim that BDS ‘singles out’ Israel falls to the same logic: what protest against Israeli policies isn’t, obviously, ‘singling out’ Israel?

    This is not to say that I’m thrilled with all of the manifestations of BDS. Personally, I feel a boycott of settlement goods and companies that benefit from the Occupation are the most effective, although I recognize that that leaves the society of Israel proper off the hook. Regardless, however, it is incontrovertible that the BDS movement has raised awareness about Israeli policies, and has forced the Jewish/Israeli establishment to take notice. It will succeed when there is serious reform of the conflict and an equitable solution forged. Until that time, BDS deserves a place in the conversation as an acceptable tactic to oppose Israeli occupation.

  2. I’m saying that the close connection means that of course they care more about Israel than, say, Niger. Thus it’s silly to say “you aren’t organizing around country X which is worse than Israel. Therefore you are anti-semitic”.

    It’s wrong because I don’t think BDS is warranted, it’s collective punishment, and also it leaves the realm of jews-talking-about-jews.

    If Jews care deeply about Israel enough to take extreme steps to challenge it, great. If Governments start singling out Israel, then it’s a different story. They don’t have that connection or that excuse. Then Wolpe is right and it is singling out the Jews for special treatment.

  3. Alex N.

    I’d like to dig into your arguments a bit more here. I don’t really understand why the American Jewish community’s closer connections with Israel lead to more legitimacy for the BDS movement. Rabbi Wolpe is not arguing against criticism of Israel, he is arguing against calling for economic measures against Israel. In that sense, the fact that American Jews have a greater connection with and more leverage against Israel doesn’t really hurt his argument. In fact, it may help it: If American Jews have an emotional stake and some way of exercising their voices against Israel’s policies, why resort to BDS?

    Also, if you reject the antisemitism argument, why do you think BDS is morally wrong?