One of the things that makes debate over whether BDS is winning or losing so confusing is lack of common agreement regarding what constitutes success and failure.
For example, this year we saw more BDS votes in student government than in previous years, and more of those votes go in favor of the BDSers. Needless to say, a movement like BDS which demands we treat everything (including defeat) as wins for them insists that more student government votes going their way constitutes unstoppable momentum for their cause. And, from our side, it’s difficult to totally dismiss more student votes against Israel as irrelevant.
Yes, school administrations have held the line by condemning and insisting they will never act on the non-binding requests made by this year’s Student Senate. And after two decades of effort, it is relevant to point out that all BDS has to show for itself are some toothless measures passed by transient student leaders through votes often taken behind the backs of constituents (meaning they cannot be said to represent campus opinion).
But this assumes that the goal of the BDS “movement” is to actually cause financial harm to the Jewish state. While that may be an ultimate desire or dream, their main or current goals might be different, requiring us to tease these out before measuring success or failure (or selecting our own strategies and tactics to fight them).
The most obvious goal the boycotters are trying to achieve is to brand Israel as a racist, repressive state akin to South Africa (which, it should be noted, ended its Apartheid system years before most of today’s college students were born). Given this, anything they can do to poison the minds of the young against the Jewish state represents furthering their actual goal. So even if a student government vote does not go their way, the speeches they make and letters in school papers condemning Israel in harsh and unfair terms represent the actual political activity they are engaged in designed to further their real goal of making Israel seem so loathsome that its elimination should be seen as virtuous rather than horrifying.
Another goal was best labeled by William Jacobson at Legal insurrection who described BDS as a “Settler Colonial Ideology” which strives to colonize and dominate the entire Left end of the political spectrum and make anyone who considers themselves left of center subservient to their will.
This goal has received a boost over the last year as anti-Trump “resistance,” coupled with the emergence of the ideology of intersectionality (which insists all progressive causes be linked), provided the most aggressive activists (which tend to be anti-Israel partisans) the opportunity to make demands on those with whom they join in “common cause.”
The scare quotes I just used around “common cause” was meant to illustrate that for a Settler Colonial Ideology like BDS, finding common cause is a one-way street. This is why women and gay groups must sign onto the anti-Israel agenda to be considered intersectional partners in good standing, while those pushing the intersectional agenda will never mention – much less fight for – women and gays repressed throughout the Middle East (including in “Palestine”).
In many ways, ground-level successes – such as the aforementioned student government votes – are a result of the success the BDS colonial project over the last year. And, as we have seen in the UK, the fully colonized anti-Israel/anti-Semitic Left can end up just one election away from obtaining genuine power.
So now that we know what the most important goals of the BDS project really are, how best to fight it? Having our own goals clearly articulated is a first step, a subject I’ll discuss next.