The BDS Ceiling

New York City Students for Justice in Palestine

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has been the most high-profile and successful aspect of the solidarity movement for Palestine in the West in recent memory. It is fair to say in the present conditions BDS is by and large the standard organizing tool of organizers outside Palestine. The BDS movement calls for the world at large to boycott israeli goods and cultural institutions, divest from israeli capital, and sanction the state of israel until it returns to the 1967 borders, dismantles the ever-expanding apartheid wall, recognizes equal rights for Palestinian citizens of israel, and honors Right of Return for Palestinian refugees as stipulated by UN Resolution 194.

Though it is only ten years old, the BDS movement has had a powerful impact upon the israeli economy. It is estimated that over the next ten years, the movement has the potential to cost israel up to $47 billion. More and more academic associations, religious institutions and universities are voting to support at least one facet of BDS. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the momentum and speed with which the BDS movement has won victories and raised consciousness about Palestine to an unprecedented level, at the very least within college campuses.

And herein lies one of the most significant obstacles currently facing the movement for Palestinian liberation outside of Palestine: the near-exclusive focus on BDS has resulted in it becoming the paramount strategy of solidarity organizers in the United States. This brings a slew of other issues to the table, issues that have been unconsciously created by the insistence of adhering to the BDS framework without using BDS as it was meant to be used—as a tool in a toolbox, not the toolbox itself. This article is not a polemic against BDS or BDS organizations, but an analysis of where Palestine solidarity organizations currently find themselves, and how BDS has manifested itself as the entire strategy of Palestine solidarity organizations.

Often, the experience of international solidarity against apartheid South Africa is brought up in discussions on BDS and how we participate in the struggle against Zionism. This argument rests on the often-repeated myth that international sanctions and boycotts resulted in the fall of apartheid in South Africa. In fact, it was the mass movement of indigenous people led by the African National Congress who ended apartheid, not a international law body or economic sanction. This also implies that the white-supremacist state in South Africa had the same relation to the indigenous population as israel does. While the indigenous South Africans were used as a cheap, exploitable labor source and the resources in the land were exploited for European companies, Zionism has no need for Palestinian labor, or the resources itself. The colonization of Palestine is primarily an ideological endeavour, rather than a capitalist-imperialist exploitation of the market. Zionism as a project has no desire to maintain a Palestinian population, and while there are many Palestinians from the West Bank who work within israel’s borders, israel is facilitating a growing importation of foreign labor from countries from the former Soviet Union, the Philippines, China, Thailand, etc. Looking at the last massacres in Gaza, and the ever-growing settlement project, it’s clear than israel’s plan for Palestine is nothing less than expulsion and genocide. Our response as international solidarity organizations must reflect this fact, and not reduce it to unsound comparisons with South Africa.

Palestinian Civil Society

One reason that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is so widely celebrated and practiced by solidarity organizations is because it was called for by the seemingly monolithic “Palestinian Civil Society.” The uncritical acceptance of “Palestinian Civil Society” has mythologized the organizations who lend their name and resources to supporting the call for BDS, which has material effects that go far beyond BDS. This in itself is not the primary issue facing organizers in the US, although the NGO-ization of civil society has been written about in depth by a multitude of authors. Previous to the Oslo Accords, mass-based civil society had overwhelmingly founded their work on politics of liberation, rather than bread-and-butter issues which seek to disconnect themselves from root of these issues, the Nakba, which has determined all other factors in the historical development of Palestine. This process of depoliticizing civil society is a hallmark of the introduction of a capitalist-imperialist process into previously inaccessible markets, which creates conditions favorable to neoliberal exploitation by attempting to neutralize mass consciousness on liberation, and create a dependency on foreign capital flow. After the 1993 Oslo Accords, the international aid that streamed into Palestine was oriented towards developing a social welfare structure that acted independently from the resistance movement, going to “post-conflict projects”, leaving a political vacuum in their wake. By taking even a cursory glance at Palestine, it is abundantly clear that the reorientation of civil society has not weakened the resilience, determination and resistance of the Palestinian people.  What it has done, however, is weaken the political power of organizations, institutions, and aspects of society that rejected the “peace” (surrender) process and continued resisting in whatever form they took.

Within the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States, the term “Palestinian Civil Society” is invoked with such reverence and awe that one would be led to believe that “Civil Society” is in fact a monolith with consolidated theoretical understanding of the settler-colonial reality in Palestine, with a coherent strategy to not just petition internationals to boycott and divest, but to build power in Palestine to lead a revolutionary struggle against Zionism. In reality, the actors within Palestinian Civil Society with the loudest and most powerful voices are the NGOs with the biggest pockets filled by international aid money, distributed by politicians within the Palestinian Authority or by international organizations themselves. When these supposed authorities on Palestine are questioned, too often is it dismissed as ultra-leftism, or even confused for a Zionist argument.

This problem regarding how contemporary Palestinian Civil Society relates to BDS is how organizations here in the West have created a total and complete dependency on such actors to give them a license to push a specific kind of politics. A narrative has been established that we practice BDS because Palestinian Civil Society has asked us to. Again, the issue arises when organizers use that conversation to effectively censor politics that cross the boundaries of what the reverence surrounding Palestinian Civil Society has effectively set up. This creates a reliance on international aid distributors, the Palestinian Authority, and Western charity organizations that have effectively replaced the pre-Oslo mass-based civil society that were at the forefront of the First Intifada.By assigning sole legitimacy to represent the Palestinian people to international NGOs, student-based organizations hand the reigns of solidarity to those who are accepted by international imperialists and fail to look past the trap of NGOs and international law. Discussions on what Palestinian Liberation means are stunted from the beginning, because of the unwillingness of movement leadership to accept anything beyond BDS on an organizational level. We are repeatedly told we do not have the mandate to push the politics of a One-State solution, much less the necessity of National Liberation beyond what any Oslo Accord could accomplish.

BDS: oriented to who and what?

BDS was framed so as to cast a large net, with intentionally ambiguous demands that may interpreted according to what is politically viable in any given organizing space. The demands seek legitimacy in the pages of UN Resolutions and in the possibility of international sanctions against the state of israel. As an apparatus of global imperialism, the United Nations legitimizes the state of israel by responding to israel’s atrocities with only the ink of a pen and a wagging finger, while its peacekeepers lounge on Syrian land in the israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and its guns and tanks point at the people of Sudan, Haiti, the Ivory Coast and more. Appealing to this conglomeration of imperialists to reign in their own Zionist outpost is a futile endeavor and prevents us from even articulating a liberated Palestine.

The three demands are so vague so as not to mention anything about the borders of a future Palestinian state. As a result, liberal and progressive organizations and individuals center the targets of boycott on commodities that are linked with the israeli army, or industries in settlements in the West Bank. Organizing against Sabra and Tribe hummus, SodaStream, and israeli produce have become the principal focus for BDS, especially on campus. If our goals of practicing BDS is to put political and economic pressure on the Zionist hummus and at-home soda industry, then we are well on our way to victory. Instead, we should aim to aid in the struggle to confront and defeat Zionism, not only negotiate with its consumer goods. The ‘successful’ campaign against SodaStream exposed the logic in targeting only settlement products: the settlement factory shut down, and set up shop in the Negev. Is the Negev not Palestinian land? Is exploiting the labor and land of ‘48 Palestinians somehow more tolerable than exploiting Palestinians in the West Bank? Because the BDS movement is largely fixated on the end of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the two-state position is implied in practice to be the end goal of the most mainstream BDS practitioners. In theory, the 2005 BDS call to action demands the return of the over five million refugees to wherever their home is, in ‘48 Palestine or the West Bank and Gaza. Taken to the logical conclusion, this means the eventual establishment of a single Palestinian national state covering all of historic Palestine.

We as New York City Students for Justice in Palestine embrace BDS, and consider it one of the most material contributions we can make to the Palestinian struggle. We engage in boycott campaigns of Zionist consumer goods and israeli public figures, and some of our initial work as an organization targeted israeli dates in the Arab neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. We understand a boycott’s greatest contribution (whether academic, commodity, or cultural) is the politicization of a university or community on the Palestine question, as an introduction to anti-imperialist organizing. Zionism’s hegemony on campus has eroded since the BDS call was issued in 2005, we should celebrate this fact and continue the work.

Many divestment campaigns have passed through student referendums and student government resolutions, but all but a few have been purely symbolic. No actual divestment, and no real boycotts against israeli universities have been established, except by a handful of academic associations like the American Studies Association. Practically, if every israeli produce company was thrown out of U.S. markets tomorrow, what material effect would it have on the struggle for Palestinian national liberation? While successful at raising political consciousness, organizing for BDS as the ceiling of our work has proved to be little more than a revolving door, churning out similar petitions and events each semester with little to no focus on escalation or movement building in general.

Liberate the University, Liberate Palestine

On campus, repeating the same events and handing out the same flyer on its own will not advance the movement or our analysis of the Palestinian struggle. When participating in united fronts and coalitions with other progressive student organizations, BDS can provide an anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist lens with which to view a collective goal of the student movement. For years, the topic of connecting struggles has been on the tongues of Palestine solidarity organizers around the world. This usually materializes in a panel discussion, a workshop, or joint cultural nights.

WIMG_0749hen the NYPD has offices in Tel Aviv, when G4S builds checkpoint technology in the West Bank and private G4S security patrols the border with Mexico, what is the need for abstract discussions on “joint struggles”? When the NYPD and IDF learn from each other, train with each other, and have very real relationships that go beyond a panel, why wouldn’t we learn from and directly organize with organizations fighting gender oppression, surveillance, deportations, police brutality, gentrification, and so many more struggles?

SJP is primarily a student movement, but it cannot be divorced from a larger, off-campus movement that organizes for the progressive demands of the people, regardless if those demands are related to the university. Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, when framed as a tactic in a strategy to serve the people, is not only fighting to drop israeli investments, but is fighting to change the content of the Zionist, imperialist education itself, by engaging in a struggle to liberate the university and democratically administer it to serve the oppressed communities from New York City to Palestine. Solidarity with Palestine must go beyond symbolic divestment, which appeals primarily to the people and institutions that facilitate exploitation all over the world. If we do not continuously question and revise our overall strategy with guiding principles that go beyond the BDS demands, we risk becoming an NGO masquerading as an anti-imperialist solidarity organization.

“BDS, of course, on the international level, is very effective.

But it doesn’t liberate land.”

-Leila Khaled

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7 thoughts on “The BDS Ceiling

  1. Bravo – great article. The gatekeepers of the BDS movement keep the focus on the occupation and Israeli goods manufactured in the West Bank. There doesn’t appear to be any scientific analysis to identify the most important and most vulnerable sectors of the Israeli economy – the main source of funding for the Zionist project. If you don’t know how much it costs to sustain the criminal regime and exactly where that money comes from you can’t target your resources where they can have greatest impact. Symbolic victories may be good for morale but they don’t change facts on the ground and that’s painfully evident every day.
    Given that diamonds are Israel’ No.1 export commodity, accounting for 25% of manufacturing exports worth nearly $20 billion gross and $10 billion net/yr., far more important than arms or electronic exports and far more vulnerable to association with Israel’s bloody brand, why is it that the BDS movement hasn’t targeted the global diamond industry which facilitates the trade in these blood diamonds that fund a regime guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity?

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  2. “In theory, the 2005 BDS call to action demands the return of the over five million refugees to wherever their home is, in ‘48 Palestine or the West Bank and Gaza. Taken to the logical conclusion, this means the eventual establishment of a single Palestinian national state covering all of historic Palestine.”

    It’s more than a “theory”. The original BDS “call” by Palestinian civil society was to end the occupation of ALL Arab lands (not just the lands occupied since 1967). How the first objective to end the occupation became compromised is a story that indicts the BDS movement and gives credence to this fine article that analyzes the “ceiling” . Thank you for this excellent description and analysis.

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  3. I am a member of Jewish Voice for Peace NYC, but on the far left fringe of that group, and glad to read your perceptive article. Sorry I did not read it sooner. I agree with your fundamental point that BDS has been of great value as a tool for education and raising consciousness, but that some have come to see it as being too significant as a weapon to actually topple Zionism. We should continue to use it as a way to raise the issue of Zionist crimes.
    However, I would go even farther as to the limitation of the struggle. It is correct to say that the boycott was of minor importance in So Africa as compared to the mass struggle there. But the real tragedy is that the ANC led mass struggle settled for a victory in terms of civil rights only, being content to continue in a capitalist society with a few positions of civil power changing from white to black. As a result, inequality remains nearly the same as before the end of apartheid. In fact, the willingness for forego economic demands is probably why the “transition” was peaceful.
    A similar problem lurks in Palestine, and many other places. Not only is Israel a highly inegalitarian capitalist society, but so is Palestine. Even though occupied and oppressed, Palestine is dominated by a small elite who eagerly cooperate with Israel politically and militarily. Thus the question goes beyond aiming for one anti-racist state to building a non-capitalist one, a communist society. Only this is in the interest of the great majority of Palestinians, as well as Israeli workers. Although not something immediately ascertainable, the goal is a guidepost for current organizing: relying on rank and file leadership, uniting on the basis of class rather than ethnicity within Palestine and throughout the world, infusing smaller immediate struggles with the long-range goal and building international working class unity.

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