The Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement
Portions of the BDS call have been unsettling even to longtime advocates for Middle East peace. Its support for the refugees' right of return is a deal breaker for many liberal Zionists, who believe Israel needs to maintain a Jewish majority. Other activists have said BDS should focus primarily on the US role in the conflict. Israeli writer and activist Joseph Dana says that while the campaign has informed people around the world about the issue, almost all US military aid to Israel winds up in the United States with military manufacturers, so "it would be more productive for the BDS campaigns to focus on these companies," especially if American citizens are doing the pressuring.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the BDS movement, even for some supporters, has been the call for a cultural and academic boycott. Organizers of the boycott explain that it is directed at institutions, not individuals, meaning that people are encouraged to boycott academic conferences, events or products (i.e., films, talks or performances) sponsored by the Israeli government or Israeli universities but not individual academics based on their politics. MIT scientist Nancy Kanwisher recently circulated anonymous letters of support for an academic boycott from two colleagues. One colleague said that while refusing to support Israeli academic research, "I will continue to collaborate with, and host, Israeli scientific colleagues on an individual basis."
Alisa Solomon, a noted critic of Israel's actions and editor, with Tony Kushner, of Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, says she supports BDS but draws the line at academic boycott. "I believe in and support a lot of [the BDS movement]; I just see a lot of different strains and approaches and am enthusiastic about some (economic boycotts against settlement products, companies participating in and profiting from occupation, plus think we should cut military aid, etc.), generally supportive of others ("don't play Sun City" efforts), and have qualms about academic/cultural in this direction both for the free expression reasons and because it requires declaring some people kosher and some not," she wrote in an e-mail. "I prefer direct to symbolic action, so taking money away from occupation seems to me a far better effort than denouncing, say, a choreographer."
For their part, supporters of the academic boycott say that Israeli universities are implicated in the occupation because they are intimately connected with the Israeli government in ways that outstrip even American university contributions to the Vietnam War effort a generation ago. The argument was lent support last year when Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University, attacked faculty member (and frequent Nation contributor) Neve Gordon for advocating BDS in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Gordon had crossed "the boundaries of academic freedom," Carmi said, and she questioned his ability to work at the school: "After his...extreme description of Israel as an 'apartheid' state, how can he, in good faith, create the collaborative atmosphere necessary for true academic research and teaching?"
The controversy came to Tel Aviv University this spring when novelists Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh were named as recipients of a $1 million prize from the Dan David Foundation, which is headquartered at the university. Boycott activists, including students from the besieged Gaza Strip, implored Atwood and Ghosh to refuse the award because of its relationship to the university. In the end, the writers accepted the prize and criticized the activists in their joint acceptance speech: "the all-or-nothings want to bully us into being their wholly owned puppets." They also quoted Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center, who said, "We have to stand, as we have stood from the very beginning, against the very idea of a cultural boycott. We have to continue to say: Only connect." After she got home, Atwood wrote a piece for Ha'aretz saying that Israel's greatest threat was now internal: "The concept of Israel as a humane and democratic state is in serious trouble."
Another prominent focus of the BDS campaign has been on musicians. In recent months Leonard Cohen played Tel Aviv despite an appeal to him to cancel, while Gil Scott-Heron and Elvis Costello pulled out of their Israeli appearances. Costello explained on his website that his decision was "a matter of instinct and conscience" and that "there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung." The Forward recently quoted an anonymous music industry insider who said more than fifteen performers have recently refused to play in Israel, and in the week after the flotilla attack three more popular groups—the Klaxons, Gorillaz and the Pixies—canceled upcoming performances to protest the raid.
In the end many in Israel, and its supporters in the United States, return to the fear that BDS is advancing the likelihood of the dissolution of the Jewish state—the delegitimization issue. "The BDS movement seems dominated by those whose endgame is one state, not two," Meretz USA executive director Ron Skolnik wrote in Israel Horizons, a liberal Zionist publication. The movement "apparently wishes to build on legitimate international opposition to the 1967 occupation in order to undermine Israel's independent existence."
Rebecca Vilkomerson says that is not the case. Her group, Jewish Voice for Peace, does not take a position on the two-state versus one-state solution. Many Jewish students who spoke out against the Berkeley measure, she said, objected in highly subjective terms, saying, "We feel marginalized, we feel scared, we feel intimidated, we feel alienated" by the legislation. According to Vilkomerson, the best response to this came from Tom Pessah, an Israeli PhD student at Berkeley and co-author of the bill, who said that it was "OK" to have such feelings. He says he also felt uncomfortable when he first learned how much of his freedom in Israel was based on Palestinian dispossession—and so he feared what justice would entail.
Such anxieties would seem to accompany any transformative social movement, and BDS supporters are beginning to acknowledge them. Palestinian leader Mustafa Barghouthi addressed the issue in his appeal to the Berkeley students on grounds they might best understand. He has lived his life under occupation, he wrote; he and his community seek freedom: "Do not stand in the way like those angry Alabama students 50 years ago blocking integration. You have, I trust, nothing in common with those students but misplaced fear."
The Berkeley bill failed, but the all-night debates only seemed to give the movement confidence that the next vote will go differently. We might not have to wait long to find out: six more American university student bodies are said to be taking up the call in the near future.