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The Problems With BDS | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

The Problems With BDS

I grew up three blocks from the now famous Park Slope Food Coop. Although my parents never joined, their liberal politics and proto-foodieism were similar to the values of its members. Support for Israel—perceived at the time as a lonely stronghold of democracy, socialism and gender equality in the Middle East—was uncontroversial in this milieu.

No more. As Kiera Feldman reported for The Nation on Thursday, a meeting of the Coop entertained a motion to hold a vote on whether to join BDS (boycott/divest/sanction), a movement dedicated to weakening Israel economically and thus forcing it to behave as its critics would want it to.

Feldman claims that the motion losing by twenty-two points—the vote count was 1,005 against and 653, or 61 percent to 39 percent—constitutes a victory for BDS. Implicit throughout her piece is that progress for an anti-Israel boycott would be a good thing. I think she is only half right on the first point and entirely wrong on the second. 

“It might once have been safe to assume that in Park Slope, Brooklyn, progressive Jews would side with their more conservative co-religionists on matters pertaining to Israel. No longer,” Feldman triumphantly writes. “BDS had permeated even Park Slope—’the heart of the Jewish crunchy liberal establishment,’ in the tongue-in-cheek words of Jewish Voice for Peace activist Jesse Bacon.”

There's a tendency within activist movements to narrow their field of vision to create a misleadingly positive frame. That is reinforced in this case by the overrepresentation of young liberal writers in or near Park Slope. That has led to a disproportionate amount of coverage of the proposed boycott and a failure to consider how such a measure would go over just a few miles in any direction.

The Park Slope Food Coop is more lefty than the neighborhood as a whole. If 40 percent of the Coop supported the measure, you can assume it would poll even worse in the rest of the neighborhood. Indeed, many of the Coop members don’t even live there. Like any organic food collective it attracts a very self-selecting group.

Park Slope is more lefty than New York City as a whole, and the City is more lefty than the country. Nor is the Slope a Jewish neighborhood as such, Bacon’s misleading description notwithstanding. People do not live in Park Slope because they are Jews; they live there because they are liberal yuppies. In New York many liberal yuppies happen to be Jews, but just as many are not. If you want to see how a boycott of Israeli products would play out in a grocery store in a Jewish neighborhood, try holding that vote in Riverdale, Midwood or Forest Hills. BDS would lose by more than they did on Tuesday night, and probably by more still in Scarsdale or Great Neck. In the real “heart of the Jewish crunchy liberal establishment," the Upper West Side, no boycott of Israel would stand a chance of passage.

The shift in Park Slope, to the extent that there actually is one, is probably a story of demographics more than gathering strength for Israel’s opponents. Younger progressives have grown up with an image of Israel as an occupying power and they are less sympathetic to it than is their parents’ generation. In recent years Brownstone Brooklyn has been swamped with young recent liberal arts graduates. As Peter Beinart argues in his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, slackening support for Israel among this cohort poses a threat to its long-term interests. I agree with Beinart that withdrawing settlements, respecting Palestinian human rights and offering the concessions necessary for a two-state solution is therefore a practical as well as moral imperative for Israel. And, like Beinart, I think boycotting democratic Israel, within the Green Line, is not the appropriate mechanism to promote this. Beinart’s proposed “pro-Israel boycott” of settlements in the West Bank may not be a practical solution either, but at least he—unlike BDS—is making the important distinction between Israel proper and the West Bank. 

If you want to boycott Israel itself, then you need to explain why you’re not calling for a boycott of other countries in the Middle East that oppress their own citizens worse than Israel does anyone living within the Green Line. Plenty of countries violently suppress internal dissidents and persecute ethnic minorities but are virtually never criticized by the American left, much less boycotted. And if your answer is “because the Israeli government is occupying the West Bank,” I’d like to know why BDS activists didn’t call for boycotting American products during our occupation of Iraq.

The response I routinely get from BDS supporters when I point this out is that countries such as Bahrain, although they are privileged US allies, are not recipients of massive US foreign aid packages. That is both a valid point and irrelevant. If you oppose US aid to Israel then you should write to your congressman and ask him to vote against it. The United States could at least use its power over the purse strings to force Israel to make more concessions. Why doesn’t BDS address a political problem with the appropriate political solution?

You don't have to be a fan of Israel's current government, or its policies in the West Bank, to think that boycotting Israeli products is counter-productive. Consider, for example, academic boycotts of Israel in Europe, which punishes one of the segments of Israeli society most critical of the occupation. How does making Israelis feel besieged and disdained by leftists abroad make them more likely to moderate their treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank? If anything, it risks bolstering Bibi Netanyahu and his party, who argue that Israel is confronted everywhere by enemies who seek its destruction and thus it has no choice but to cling together while projecting strength outwards.

And Israel's destruction is indeed what BDS seeks. Calling for a Palestinian "right of return" is, as Feldman acknowledges, calling for the demographic abolition of Israel as a Jewish state. A lot of people have fled persecution over the years. I have no right of return to the Eastern European countries where my ancestors feared pogroms, nor do Israelis. Native Americans cannot reclaim the land in Brooklyn that the Park Slope Food Coop currently occupies.

Even if you think a right of return for Palestinians is just in the abstract, it's a nonstarter when negotiating an agreement whereby Israel withdraws from most of the West Bank and dismantles the settlements. They simply won't agree to a right of return. No matter what you think is right, you're talking about a country with one of the best military and intelligence operations and nuclear capabilities. You will have to offer them a deal by which they continue to exist, or there will be no deal.

Therefore I fail to see how the BDS movement will succeed in forcing Israel to reform. Boycott proponents fondly reminisce about the boycott of South Africa that helped bring an end to Apartheid. But there are plenty of boycott/divestment/sanction efforts that have proved futile, from Cuba to Sudan.

Feldman is correct that many younger progressives, including Jews, understand that Israel should not be given carte blanche to trample human rights. I hope they find a better strategy than BDS to fight for what they know is right. 

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