Before the academic year comes to a close, I thought it might be useful to discuss topics regarding strategy and tactics in the fight against BDS. I’m kicking off a week-long series on the subject with some thoughts on language.
When talking about a political clash between two opposing sides, it’s inevitable that language gets drawn from a military vocabulary. Offense and defense are indispensible terms, as are words and phrases that indicate opposing sides such as the other side, opponents, or even the most challenging term of all enemy.
I acknowledge that this type of terminology makes many people feel uncomfortable, especially: (1) those whose ultimate goals are not militant; or (2) those whose ultimate goals are militant, but who seek to cover this up by using only neutral or positive terms (such as “human rights” or “international law”) to describe their motivations and actions.
While my motivations put me squarely in group (1), I also prefer to use the best words possible to describe things accurately, including terms deriving from argumentation to discuss what is essentially a political debate (albeit a heated one).
Now I could be coy and point out that a military vocabulary used to describe a legitimate debate between opposing parties to a conflict masks the fact that such argumentation can be (and often is) a cooperative enterprise. Parties to an argument, after all, have agreed to engage with each other over a matter of importance and the give-and-take between the parties (which might seem adversarial, especially if described in terms of “attack” and “defense”) can nevertheless lead to a full or partial resolution that would satisfy both parties (or at least provide insight to an audience to such a discussion).
In the case of the fight against BDS, however, claiming that both sides are engaged in an ultimately cooperative enterprise would be inaccurate. I can (and have) taken part in genuine (i.e., honest and mutually beneficial) arguments with people who support positions in the Middle East that I opposes, discussions that opened up new avenues for both of us to explore our own thinking. BDS, however, does not open dialog, but rather closes it.
BDS asks you to accept their premise of Israel’s guilt, and only seeks discussion over when and how it punishment should be administered. BDS advocates are not open to new ideas or new information. In fact, they become enraged when information is presented that challenges their truncated view of history or self-serving definitions of human rights or international law. Intimidation and even threats of violence (on display so vividly within the University of California system these last few years) are clearly in the BDS toolkit, which alone makes their claims to being participants in an honest debate suspect.
More importantly, there is a wider context into which the debate over BDS is being played out. To illustrate this by example: this weekend my son’s 5th grade Hebrew School class presented work they’ve been doing for the last several weeks to highlight various organizations in Israel trying to bring together Jews and Arabs via fields such as sports, children’s theater and medicine. Now there exists reasonable disagreement over how effective these grassroots mechanisms for building bridges can be, but I would never question the value of good faith efforts to exhaust all methods for bringing people together in the ultimate hope that this will eventually lead to peace.
BDS, however, takes an opposite view of such peace efforts, branding Israelis who participate in such activity as deceivers and Arabs who take part as collaborators or traitors. That is why they seek to shut down all cooperation between Arabs and Jews in the region. That is why they seek to end cooperation between Israelis and everyone else in the world by protesting not just Israel’s economic ties to other countries, but academic and cultural ties as well.
In other words, for the efforts of real peace activists to be successful, BDS must be exposed for what it is and, ideally, swept from the battlefield if efforts to create a real peace are ever to take root.
Thus the fight against BDS (even if is described in military-sounding language) turns out to be the true battle for peace, while BDS (which never hesitates to wrap itself in the mantle of peace-making and justice) is actually a form of unjust warfare that must lose in order for peace to win.
Funny thing language.