Is the BDS Movement Too Alienating to Make Real Change?

Photo: Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Big Thief, a popular indie-rock band, recently announced a pair of concerts in Tel Aviv, Israel, where one of the band members is originally from. Shortly afterward, the band was roundly condemned by fans and activists who support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate Israel economically over its history of violence against the Palestinian people. In a statement defending its decision, the band said it was “well aware of the cultural aspect of the BDS movement and the desperate reality of the Palestinian people” and couldn’t “claim to know where the moral high ground lies and we want to remain open to other people’s perspectives and to love beyond disagreement.”

The rage against Big Thief only intensified. Leftist publication Mondoweiss accused the band of “violent complicity” with the Israeli government. Some fans of the band flooded it with furious comments online. Days later, Big Thief canceled the shows and apologized for the “recklessness and naivete” of their prior statement. “We oppose the illegal occupation and the systematic oppression of the Palestinian people,” the band said. Palestinian activists welcomed the decision, and the firestorm died down. It was, in every sense, a victory for BDS advocates.

Yet Big Thief’s reversal raised uncomfortable questions that leftist activists will soon have to reckon with, as Israel itself shows no signs of giving ground in its decades-long oppression of Palestinians. While BDS has undoubtedly made striking gains in U.S. and global left-wing spaces — earning the sort of acceptance that was unimaginable even a decade ago — it is not close to achieving its ultimate aim of Palestinian liberation. Backers of BDS point to the example of the boycotts against South Africa that drove the collapse of the apartheid regime, but the racist white minority there enjoyed far less global support than Israel does today. If BDS, founded in 2005, exists in the spirit of the movement against South Africa, it cannot claim such a level of influence. It may never be able to.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear if conventional liberals and moderates have been persuaded to join a cause that associates Zionism with genocide. To dramatically change Israeli politics, where reactionary right-wing lawmakers hold great power, it will take the U.S. government, Israel’s greatest patron, to force that change. BDS risks being too alienating, tactically and rhetorically, to make that happen.

While two pro-BDS politicians, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have been elected to Congress, there is no substantial alliance between leftists and more liberal Zionists that could alter the U.S. government’s staunchly pro-Israel bent. The greatest sea change in U.S. foreign policy toward Israel in the last decade actually came before the BDS movement entered the political mainstream and the Democratic Socialists of America, the strongest electoral vehicle for BDS-backed politicians, rose to power. In the mid-2010s, Barack Obama, who supported Israel (like other U.S. presidents), brokered the Iran nuclear deal over furious opposition from the entire Republican Party, many Democrats, and the united front of the Israel lobby. Donald Trump would later shred the agreement, but it was a remarkable achievement in the short term.

Many liberals in the U.S. have soured on Israel for obvious reasons. Until recently, Benjamin Netanyahu, a corrupt conservative ideologue, was the nation’s inordinately powerful prime minister. He lashed out at Democrats and pulled closer to Trump, who grew into a virulent Israel hawk. There is no longer a viable leftist or even left-of-center movement in Israel, a nation where socialism once had purchase and a young Bernie Sanders could credibly live on a kibbutz. Netanyahu veered to the right to keep power, as ultra-Orthodox politicians gained clout. A centrist government that came together to oust him is now collapsing. After snap elections, Netanyahu could be back in the fall.

The question becomes how supporters of BDS, in this daunting environment, will conceivably achieve their aims. The goals of BDS are a blend of the pragmatic (Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories in compliance with international law) and the radical (gaining the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return and claim the property they lost during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and 1967 Six-Day War). The radicalism of the latter goal lies not in whether it’s just — believers in pluralist, U.S.-style democracy should welcome the idea of a binational state that treats Palestinians and Israelis equally — but in the cataclysm it would likely unleash. Israel, a parliamentary democracy that was founded to be a Jewish state and safe haven for those facing antisemitic violence across the world, will never accept a nation that is not fundamentally Jewish in character. It doesn’t matter that democracy and theocracy should be incompatible. No major western nation would accede to an Israel with a Jewish minority. A civil war of the likes that killed more than 100,000 people in Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s could be the darkest outcome of the one-state solution if it ever came to fruition, though more optimistic scenarios might come to pass.

The trouble, of course, is that increasingly conservative Israeli governments have continually violated international law and failed to uphold the terms of the two-state solution, which would grant Palestinians their own country. Illegal West Bank settlements are roadblocks to peace. BDS proponents and other progressives are right to be disillusioned over the two-state solution, and it is understandable to demand more. What needs to be questioned, in the activist spaces beyond the Middle East, is whether the strategies embraced by the BDS movement really work. Is Israel facing substantial external pressure or merely hardening against cultural boycotts that are often portrayed, fairly or not, as antisemitic? Does barring an Israeli food truck from a street fair or asking rock icons to avoid Israel further the cause?

For activists who view Israel as the equivalent of apartheid South Africa, it’s a necessary gesture. Build enough cultural pressure, and the diplomatic answers will somehow follow. For most mainstream voters in the U.S. and elsewhere, Israel represents a more complex case. A cultural boycott of one particular nation invites comparisons that have to be accounted for — politically at least. Other democracies, including the U.S., are complicit in horrific crimes. BDS exists as a social-justice movement for Palestinians; it is wrong to ask it to suddenly have answers on all thorny international matters. But the average person who needs to be persuaded may ask BDS proponents in the U.S. why so much energy is expended against Israel and so little on other destructive nations like China or Saudi Arabia. If Big Thief endorses Palestinian oppression by playing in Israel, it can be argued that a U.S. tour through any number of towns and cities would constitute a show of support for the U.S. military, and its crimes, as well as the systemic racism that still plagues the nation. Why not consign shows to Canada, a country that, on the balance, may have less slaughter to answer for?

If the question seems disingenuous, it’s one activists have forced into the arena. To actually win, proponents of BDS will have to build a coalition with organizations they have contempt for — like the liberal Zionist group J Street and moderates who don’t share their politics but could be open to embracing the natural cause of solidarity with an oppressed minority. BDS must focus on tangible goals. For example, Andy Levin, a Jewish congressman from Michigan, has proposed legislation that would bar U.S. military aid from being used in the occupied territories. Rather than focus on cultural boycotts, activists could attempt to build a much larger grassroots base for that bill and elect more Democrats who could push it through Congress. The idea of conditioning military aid has gained some steam — with Bernie Sanders embracing it in the Senate.

While the political terrain may seem friendlier for BDS than it did four or five years ago, the Israel lobby has quietly regrouped. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Democratic Majority for Israel have spent heavily in recent years to help elect Democratic Israel hawks over progressive challengers to Congress. Twice, DMFI has aided Shontel Brown in defeating Sanders acolyte Nina Turner in Ohio. In North Carolina, Israel hawks helped Valerie Foushee beat Nida Allam, a progressive critic of Israel. Other congressional proxy wars loom: Levin must defeat Haley Stevens, a fellow representative heavily funded by AIPAC bundlers, and Donna Edwards is trying to fend off an AIPAC-backed challenger in Maryland.

Neither Edwards nor Levin hold any serious appeal for the BDS movement. Their defeats, however, would further set back an activist class that must find a way to win over Washington in the next generation. Israel cannot change from the inside: The far right is too influential and will sway elections there for years to come. Only the U.S., through diplomatic and military pressure, can bring these forces to heel. To change U.S. policy, pro-BDS activists and other advocates for the Palestinian people need to compete aggressively in elections, joining J Street in heavily fundraising for candidates that will be of help to them in Congress. There is enough progressive money now sloshing through Washington, from small donors and wealthy individuals alike, to finance super-PAC efforts to counter AIPAC and DMFI.

Winning will mean compromise. If activists long for a one-state solution, they should take a page from the populists and talk about it less and, instead, channel their rhetoric toward more palatable positions like ending the occupation and imposing conditions on U.S. military aid. Generally, there should be fewer demands that will only satiate the most ardent believers while driving away those who don’t know the intricacies of Israeli-Palestinian relations — like exhausting debates over whether Zionists can be feminists. A band with a bassist from Israel wants to return to the city where the musician grew up. Stopping the group from playing at a Tel Aviv club will not save the Palestinian people; the innocent civilians dodging Israeli rockets do not care where Big Thief plays its music.

Is the BDS Movement Too Alienating to Make Real Change?