A few months back, I talked about numbers, pointing out that in campus debates regarding the Middle East members of the “pro- and anti-Israel camps at most universities never tops more than 5-10% of the student population, with the other 90%+ viewing activists on both sides as mostly engaged with talking to themselves or shouting at each other.”
Actually, I would go even further than that and say that within the 5% of the population choosing to take a side, just a small percentage of those activists are what I would call “hardcore.” The rest (possibly the majority) are people who feel an injustice is being done (Palestinians are suffering or Israel is being attacked) and – as idealists – they don’t feel they can sit idly by and do nothing.
A very thoughtful commenter who joined a discussion on this site recently highlighted that this is why she took a stand in favor of BDS at UC Davis earlier this year, not because BDS is a cause to which she has dedicated her life but because in the face of so much suffering in the Middle East she felt that at least those pushing divestment were offering a way of doing something that stood a chance, she hoped, of making the situation better.
Now I could make this the shortest posting ever written on this blog (don’t get your hopes up) and say that the solution for people with this burning desire to “do something” is to participate in one or more of the many organizations dedicated to peace and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, or development in the West Bank via micro-loans and other investment vehicles. In fact, my visitor responded very well to suggestions that she follow this route – as well she should since these options represent good uses of time and effort in and of themselves.
But I fear if we leave things there it will give the impression that BDS is just one of a number of reasonable alternatives for improving the situation in the Middle East, possibly louder and more aggressive than helping to start small businesses on the West Bank or contributing to summer camps for Arab and Israeli kids, but still a peaceful alternative to conflict (i.e., violent conflict).
Needless to say, I reject this characterization and completely reject the notion that the BDS self-characterization as being the heirs to Gandhi, King and the struggle against Apartheid. For if Israel is NOT such a loathsome place that it (and it alone) deserves to be boycotted and if Israel is NOT the sole (or even primary) reason why there is no peace in the Middle East, then BDS is a means to characterize it as these negative things, even if these characterizations are not true (which they are not).
And why portray Israel in this light by making it a target of BDS? In order to create the impression that it IS loathsome and Apartheid-like, that it IS the main (possibly the one and only) reason why there is no peace, even though those accusations, as I said, are false. In other words, BDS is a combat technique, one that involves propaganda (a crucial part of any war strategy, going back to the Persian Wars). It is designed to create the impression that one party to the conflict is getting what it deserves when the violent “arm” of the movement springs into action (which it does routinely) and to de-legitimize any violence Israel takes in response (characterizing it, for example, as a “war crime”).
If, as Einstein said, you cannot both work for peace while preparing for war; you cannot simultaneously be part of a non-violent, peaceful movement and a propaganda effort. As a supporter of Israel, I have no problem battling against those who declare themselves to be Israel’s enemies who want to see it weakened or even destroyed. After all, they have honestly identified where they stand (as have I).
But I do object to those who dress up their propaganda campaign as something other than the warlike effort that it truly is, and I especially loath the fact that they use this inaccurate characterization of themselves to lure in idealists, good people, with promises that BDS offers a way of helping others when, in fact, is dedicated to doing just the opposite.
So I guess I would advise people like my visitor to learn more (from people on both sides of the conflict, as well as from “neutral” observers – yes, they do exists) before taking a political stand either anti-Israel (such as BDS) or pro-Israel (such as the work I do here). I don’t know where you’ll come out at the end of such a journey, but at least the road will be mapped out with more information than comes out of a BDS fight. And I have yet to meet someone who has truly taken such a voyage who came out with the kind of one-sided view of the world that characterizes any divestment debate.
Absent that (or possibly in addition to or as a result of that journey), committing to help smaller-scale reconciliation and development efforts is a fine way to go, both as a way of doing good in a troubled part of the world, and as a way to make a contribution to truly peaceful activities (activities BDS proponents often attack as part of their “de-normlization” efforts, BTW). In addition to contributing to the greater good (albeit in small increments), it also provides a way to avoid doing harm either inadvertently or by being manipulated by people who ultimately do not have the interest of Israel, the Palestinians or you in mind when they try to recruit you to their cause.