BDS Dead End (Interview with Omar Barghouti)


After batting around arguments with friends and colleagues more amenable to soft forms of BDS, I finished reading this interview, which you can read here, with self-appointed movement-leader Omar Barghouti firmly persuaded that Movement-BDS is hard core and narrow. (By Movement-BDS I mean to identify the work of U.S. and European activist circles who seek, in Barghouti’s words, to turn Israel into a pariah state. To the best of my knowledge, Movement-BDS has had had no direct influence on Institutional-BDS, i.e. decisions made mostly in Europe by large economic concerns and political institutional bodies that target Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.) About the interview, my firm sense is that Barghouti’s thinking is:


On the one hand, Barghouti claims that BDS is “[a]nchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the BDS movement is a human rights based, non-sectarian, inclusive movement that rejects all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Israel’s tens of racist laws. BDS calls for equal rights for all humans, irrespective of identity.” By far, this is the single most and strongest rhetorical point upon which Movement-BDS hopes to secure broad support. On the other hand, Barghouti also states that “the BDS movement, which is led by Palestinians, asserts basic Palestinian rights and gives voice to Palestinian aspirations.” While it turns to the language of universal human rights, Movement-BDS remains a tactical wing of a nationalist movement based on maximalist principles. Its interest is no more universal and no less parochial than the Zionism it rejects.


Barghouti’s critique of political Zionism represents a brittle form of essentialism that is devoid of historical context. “Political Zionism is, again, being revealed to world public opinion as an inherently racist, exclusionary, colonial ideology that has always been the main source of legitimization for Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid against the indigenous people of Palestine.” Cherry-picking Jewish support from the anti-Zionist left is an easy thing to do. But at no point does Barghouti acknowledge how Zionism might have served historically or how Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority and recognized as such by the international community might continue to serve genuine, as opposed to nefarious, Jewish interests. The concepts deployed by him are so unfalsifiable as to preclude rational debate. Barghouti sees the world in black and white.


Not unlike the most ardent rightwing Zionists, Barghouti remains uninterested in actual political give and take.  “The rights stated in the BDS call are non-negotiable, as they constitute the minimal requirements for the Palestinian people to exercise its inalienable right to self-determination. But the tactics and actions of boycott, divestment and sanctions are of necessity context-sensitive.” His interviewers ask him about the prospect of securing support from liberal or soft left Zionists, whom Barghouti writes off as “irrelevant,” “racist,” and “not welcome.” While there are supporters of BDS who understand the need to reach out to those so-called soft Zionists, Barghouti’s own leadership lends itself to a more static positioning. All terms and conditions have been predetermined from the very start. Aside from the rhetorical arts of pure assertion, there remains not much about which to talk. It’s why I suspect most liberal Jews and liberal Zionists will continue refusing to join up with Movement-BDS.


To concede as Barghouti does that tactics are context-sensitive is as if meant to obscure the gross fact that successful BDS initiatives, such as they are, tend to fall outside Movement-BDS parameters. Focused on the 1967 occupation, those initiatives are unhooked from the anti-Zionist rhetoric of Movement-BDS. They make no mention whatsoever of the Right of Return, a central and non-negotiable plank of Movement-BDS for which there seems to be zero international support and behind which there would seem to be no momentum.


Despite small advances here and there in this or that pocket of academe and the liberal churches, Movement-BDS is nowhere near its South Africa moment. Do you want to blame that on the “Zionist lobby”? It’s not so much Movement-BDS that’s been giving Israel problems these last 6 or 7 years as much as the growing move towards Institutional-BDS. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies on the right, Israel has been its own worst enemy. That’s why Barghouti commends them for being “honest.” The Israeli and Jewish right present such easy targets, Barghouti’s argument goes nowhere without them. Were it not for the policies of the last three Netanyahu governments, I don’t understand why people would consider taking Movement-BDS seriously. Outside narrow activist circles, I’m not sure anyone does. I say this with no satisfaction. Movement-BDS is a destructive phenomenon, but nowhere near as destructive and as self-destructive as the State of Israel under its current political leadership. With no effective political force actively promoting a political resolution based on mutual recognition, Israel and Palestine and the discourse about them remain stuck in a dead end.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to BDS Dead End (Interview with Omar Barghouti)

  1. Milx says:

    Is current political leadership in Israel actually as toxic as advertised? I constantly hear about how Bibi’s governments have created more economic opportunity in the West Bank, slowed down new settlement growth, etc. His rhetoric, especially on Iran (and on election day) is bellicose, and he owns Operation Protective Edge. But is it really ‘destructive’ and ‘self-destructive,’ or is it just unapologetically pursuing the interests of the State of Israel in a time when even lukewarm support for Zionism has become controversial in certain quarters?

    • zjb says:

      That’s one perspective, but not one that I share. the general sense that Israel can manage the occupation is most likely not a viable option in even the medium term. At some point Israel is going to have turned itself into a binational entity in control of both Greenline Israel and the WB with responsibility for Gaza –and increasingly isolated as such. I think you’re probably right about the status quo. I don’t think Netanyahu is a devil but I do think his remarks about Arabs in the run up to the elections were at the very least devilish. And his coalition partners are terrible. That’s my opinion; and not just mine. Thanks so much for the critical pushback

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