When Noam Chomsky thinks the Left has gone too far, it’s probably time for some reassessment. The famed intellectual and linguistic philosopher wrote an article last year in The Nation condemning the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment from Israel movement [BDS]. The article, however, was no endorsement for the policies of the State of Israel: In the article, “On Israel-Palestine and BDS”, Chomsky still criticized Israel’s “reactionary nationalist tide” that has devastated Palestine, disenfranchised Arab-Israelis, and shakes Israel (already fragile) republicanism.
Chomsky outlines multiple reasons for why BDS is a bad idea. One, the people who will suffer most from a boycott, embargo, etc. will not be the Israeli military, or the far-right businessmen and nationalists who support them. It would be Palestinians, and to a lesser extent, poor Israelis, including Arab-Israelis. When the spigot of trade goes dry, it is the workers who suffer, not the capitalists.
Second, the point of any campaign against Israeli occupation should be based on ending the occupation, while many BDS activists have the stated goal of delegitimizing Israel entirely. Chomsky, an anarchist, believes the state itself is a bit of a crime; but in an international state system, he says, it is hardly fair to attempt to destroy any state.
Finally, and inevitably, the parallels to South Africa are brought up. Admittedly, there are some disturbing similarities between South African apartheid and Israeli occupation. However, BDS advocates will put forward the idea that sanctions (vetoed by our sainted President Reagan) destroyed the apartheid regime. This argument ignores the near-continuous struggle by the African National Congress and other groups for over half a century to bring equality to South Africa. It ignores the tens of thousands of ANC (and Cuban) activists and soldiers who died fighting apartheid. These people were responsible for De Klerk’s fall and Mandela’s rise, not the sanctions brought against South Africa by the rest of the world, though they may have helped.
If, heaven willing, a just and peaceful agreement is ever reached between Israel and the Palestinians, it would be arrogant to give credit to BDS activists. It is self-congratulatory and arrogant to believe that boycotting Tel Aviv University is the masterstroke that will defeat the occupation.
There are also concerning hints of anti-Semitism in the campaign to delegitimize Israel. I have never said, and never will say, that criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic. That is ridiculous. But I have heard Judaism referred to as a “brutal” religion (as though the others weren’t!), and been told to “step off” when talking about the issue and raising my anti-nationalist, two-state stance. I’ve heard blatantly anti-Semitic statements disguised by calling out “Zionists” and “Israelis” instead of Jews. The mistaken question put to Bernie Sanders about his nonexistent Israeli citizenship contained a dark undertone as well. The reason I bring these things to light is not to point fingers, but to indicate that we, as social justice advocates, need a better paradigm on this issue.
A potential solution to this problem, I believe, is to shift our focus from boycotting and “punishing” Israel to supporting progressive forces within Israel and Palestine. Israel is home to many leftist organizations open to, or in clear support of, peace with the Palestinians. These include Peace Now (which itself is opposed to BDS), and the Geneva Initiative.
Palestine, too, has progressive voices. The constant tension, and the human rights abuses committed by both Hamas and Fatah (no one has elected Mahmoud Abbas in a decade) has overshadowed groups like the Palestinian Democratic Union and the Palestinian People’s Party. Unfortunately, the Palestinian Left has been in decline for some time and exerts only a tiny influence on Palestinian society. Still, these are people whose ideas reflect our own: democracy, good government, and racial and economic equality. Perhaps foreign support could help them become more prominent. Or, perhaps, the nominally leftist Fatah is not completely lost: If reformed to become an actually democratic party, Fatah might be a force for peace and social justice.
Finally, as citizens of Israel’s most important patron, the USA, we are in a unique position to affect Israeli policy. We should not adopt an isolationist stance, attempting to end support to Israel because “my tax dollars shouldn’t fund them.” We should use our financial sway over Israel (not to mention the Palestinian Authority, to whom the United States also gives half a billion dollars annually) to bring this horrible conflict to an end. I said above that international support cannot end the conflict alone; this is true, but the United States can certainly make inroads towards a just peace, as a left-wing Israeli noted recently. I would tie this in with my earlier comments by asserting that the way towards peace is through supporting progressive Israelis and Palestinians, not through undermining the State of Israel.