This will hopefully be my last post about BDS and the American Studies Association, at least for a while. As an empirical test case, one good outcome will be that we’ll be able to see what an academic boycott of Israel actually looks like in real time, as opposed to in theory. My bet is that it won’t be as universal or as coherent as the South Africa boycott, and that will say a lot on its own terms. If the boycott remains limited to the ASA, it will just make the ASA a small outpost. This then will raise questions. If the boycott is not universally extended, does that mean that there’s something basically not right about the fundamental comparison between Israel and Apartheid. By the 1980s, no one beside Margaret Thatcher and the GOP was defending South Africa, which was non-democratic and friendless. The same is not yet true of Israel, although this too might change.
Already there’s blowback, which you can follow at “The Future of American Studies.” Two or three American Studies programs have split off from the ASA and the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Maryland, Princeton, Wesleyan, Boston U., UC San Diego have all voiced their opposition to BDS. You can blame that opposition on the part of university presidents on the need to curry favor with Jewish donors, but don’t be surprised if that line of argument takes you down into a shithole of anti-Semitism.
The more fundamental problem with BDS is political. If the purpose of a political act is to create broad alliances and coaltions, then this one might turn out to be a failure. The problem is that to do this, the goal of BDS gets obscured. “Everyone” wants to end the occupation, but there’s no definite agreement as to what “the occupation” means and how to end it. By “the occupation” does one mean the settlements in the West Bank or the creation of a “settler-colonial state” in 1948? Does ending the occupation mean a two state solution or a comprehensive right of return and the creation of a one state solution with a Palestinian majority? Leaders of BDS tend to express nothing but contempt for “liberal Zionists,” but this contempt for a middle compromise-consensus position is why BDS is unlikely to make any broad traction. A case in point is this little bit by David Lloyd, a leader of BDS at the American Studies Association.
In trying to broaden its appeal beyond a more narrowly anti-Israel base, we are told that BDS is a big tent organization that includes different point of views, and that one can get behind BDS while supporting the compromise creation of a two state theory. That sounds like obfuscation. In the historical political lexicon, “useful idiot” is the term for people who seek to secure more moderate aims by attaching themselves to what are, in deed, uncompromising radical causes. I would like to use this term not as a term of abuse. Historically, “the term has been used to refer to Soviet sympathizers in Western countries. The implication was that, although the people in question naïvely thought of themselves as an ally of the Soviet Union, they were actually held in contempt and were being cynically used. The use of the term in political discourse has since been extended to other propagandists, especially those who are seen to unwittingly support a malignant cause which they naïvely believe to be a force for good.” (Wikipedia)
Perhaps the most cutting argument in favor of BDS is to put the question back on the critic of BDS, especially on “liberal Zionists.” “How then do you intend to end the occupation?” Liberal Zionists such as myself tend to stammer helplessly, pointing to more “open debate” and more limited forms of sanction that target Israeli concerns in the West Bank, where the situation is truly apartheid like. But the better answer is this. Maybe it’s not always up to “us” to effect change. A spent force, “liberal Zionism” is out of new ideas. It has said what it could say and has done what it could do in terms of changing the political discussion. But it has no leverage with which to dislodge the right from power. I put a lot more stock in the canny work of politicians like Mohammed Abbas or even Benjamin Netanyahu. They hide their cards. As for “Palestinian civil society,” maybe it’s time to come up with a more effective political program than “resistance,” i.e. uncompromising opposition to Zionism. Maybe then “liberal Zionism” might have something “useful” to contribute, brought into a genuine conversation and coalition. Until then, we’re all on our own.