Since 2005, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has been on American college campuses recruiting students to join a movement to isolate Israel.
Much has been written about BDS and I will not revisit here the debate over its merits. Instead, I will home in one aspect of its character: its espousal of nonviolence. That BDS supporters call for economic, academic, and cultural boycotts, rather than for violence, has been among its most important selling points. As Corey Robin of Brooklyn College put it in a post challenging BDS critics, Palestinians “have taken up BDS as a non-violent tactic, precisely the sort of thing that liberal-minded critics have been calling upon them to do for years.”
But the nonviolent tactics of BDS may be nothing more than a smokescreen for its organizers’ real intention—to takedown Israel by any means.
Although the BDS movement is not centralized, the response of movement leaders to the recent increase in violence in Israel and the West Bank can illuminate what the BDS commitment to nonviolence means in practice. Consider the October 10 statement by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which bills itself as “the Palestinian coordinating body for the BDS campaign worldwide.” Bear in mind that by October 10, the violence was targeting Israeli civilians, not only in disputed territories but also in central Tel Aviv.
That October statement, entitled “Solidarity with the Palestinian popular resistance: Boycott Israel now!” begins: “whether the current phase of Israel’s intensified repression and Palestinian popular resistance will evolve into a full-fledged intifada or not…a new generation of Palestinians is…rising up en masse.”
The Palestinian BDS National Committee, speaking for a movement whose mainstream acceptance depends on its commitment to nonviolence, concedes that the new generation it is praising is engaged in violence, then calls for solidarity via boycott. That is, the statement calls for boycott not as an alternative to violence but as a means of expressing solidarity with Palestinians engaged in violence.
Other organizations promoting BDS piled on with equally misleading propaganda. The U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel promptly issued a statement that began:
Palestine is in flames. At this moment, racist lynch mobs are marching through the streets of Jerusalem, chanting “death to Arabs,” and hurling threats and insults at terrorized and bleeding Palestinian children and youth, left to die surrounded by dozens of Israeli soldiers, when they are not summarily executed on their way to or from school.
This overwrought and misleading beginning is followed by the observation that "Palestinians are rising up." With breathtaking dishonesty, the Statement suggests that the uprising is a response to the unprovoked killing of young Palestinians, rather than the real reason young Palestinians, cheered on by their elders, are getting killed: not while walking to school, but while participating in deadly attacks on Israelis. Certainly, some Israeli actions have been deplorable, but if Palestine is indeed in flames, the U.S. Campaign is propagandizing for those who have set it on fire.
Indeed, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, in full awareness that some Palestinians are trying to and sometimes succeeding in killing noncombatants, chose to justify these attacks as “the resistance” and call for solidarity with the resisters. Here, too, the purported nonviolence seems merely a strategy to complement, not a substitute for, violent resistance.
This should surprise no one. Some of the most violent groups in the Middle East are BDS backers. First among the endorsers of the 2005 Palestinian call for BDS is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, described as a “coordinating body for the major political parties in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
The NIF coalition was formed during the Second Intifada (2000-2005), the period of violence to which the present violence is being compared. It includes under its umbrella such groups as the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas that are committed to violence, including violence against noncombatants.
The NIF is also listed first among the members of the aforementioned BDS National Committee. The 2005 “call,” far from being a minor part of the BDS movement, is relied upon by nearly every organization that supports boycott or divestment. This includes groups as varied as the American Studies Association, which voted for its own boycott in 2014, and the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which claims to be “responding to the call of Palestinian civil society.”
The 2005 call, by supposedly emanating from “civil society” and asking for “nonviolent” measures, broadens its appeal to academic moderates. Such moderates, when they hear the term “civil society,” think of the vibrant and pacific United States described by Tocqueville. And when they hear “nonviolent,” they think of Martin Luther King. Those are clearly the impressions the call is trying to make.
But civil societies contain illiberal elements, and when those illiberal elements embrace nonviolence, we have reason to wonder whether that embrace is merely tactical. When we consider the genesis of the BDS call, there is very good reason to see the continuity between its embrace of nonviolent tactics, and the present calls for solidarity with people and groups who are prepared to fight Israel by any means necessary.
Violence and nonviolence each has its tactical uses and a group’s espousal of the latter bespeaks a commitment to nonviolence no more than an army is committed to nonviolence because it deploys certain nonviolent tactics such as propaganda. One example is an invitation extended to Ali Abunimah, the editor of the Electronic Intifada and a frequent campus speaker on BDS, by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality at the University of Michigan. The purpose was for Abunimah to defend an ultimately failed resolution urging the school to investigate and ultimately divest from certain companies said to benefit from violations of Palestinian rights. On March 31 of this year, Abunimah stood up with students for whom the nonviolence of their resolution was an important part of its appeal.
But when, on October 1, an Israeli couple were shot dead as they sat defenseless in their car, their four children in the back seat, Abunimah reported: “Two Israel colonists killed in West Bank clash.” His use of the politically charged term “colonists,” along with the transformation of a drive-by shooting into a “clash,” tells us all we need to know about Abunimah’s stance on violent resistance.
Did Abunimah’s view change between March 31 and October 1? It hardly seems likely. Instead, Abunimah takes the perfectly coherent position I have already described: nonviolent boycotts are a useful strategy to defeat Israel, and so is violence against soldiers, and so is violence directed against civilians. It would seem they are all individual tactics of a multi-faceted campaign.
That BDS espouses nonviolence as a tactic rather than a way of life does not, of course, dispose of the debate over it, since relatively few people think that violence is never justified. Furthermore, some people on and off of our college campuses think that the Palestinians are suffering oppression of a sort that has justified violent revolution in the past.
But it is likely that many fewer think that deliberate and murderous attacks on Israeli civilians are warranted. That might explain why, in expressing solidarity with the present “uprising,” BDS supporters were a bit vague about its character. But we have a duty, especially at our colleges and universities, to debate the real issues. If the real issue is whether students and faculty members should sign on to nonviolence as a means of supporting violent resistance that targets noncombatants, let’s debate that issue. And not some “straw man” issue that isolates BDS as a purely non-violent response to a violent Israel.