The Fake Neutrality of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions

A key problem with North American palestinian activism is a presumption of neutrality with respect to Palestinian politics which fails to acknowledge that activism is, whether it likes to think so or not, taking sides on complex internal Palestinian issues. While the three demands can be arrived at by consensus, there are two key problems that remain: how should these demands be pursued, and what is the legitimacy of armed struggle in pursuit of these demands? In a sense Finkelstein is more honest about his support for the Palestinians than BDS because he takes a side on internal Palestinian issues – he sides with the Palestinian Authority in its statehood bid (even though he at the same time calls them crooks), and he does so with eyes open – with a proper understanding of what this means for the refugees and what this means for Israel. In other words, he is honest about who he disagrees with. On the other hand, the BDS movement does not acknowledge that it very much disagrees with the PA in its presumption that it has the right to negotiate away the rights of the refugees and the rights of the Palestinians to sovereignty over the entire West Bank and Gaza. If you think that the statehood bid is the best way to bring peace, then you shouldn’t support BDS because the basic idea of the statehood bid is to give up the right of return. No matter what the Palestinian government says, this is the way that set of priorities leads. And it is not neutral to disagree with the Palestinian government, even if you can claim that you are still neutral because even the PA will say on TV that the right of return is not negotiable.

However, a big problem that appears once you realize this is that it is not simple to know what side, what direction in Palestinian politics you should support – as non-Palestinian one is perhaps not in the moral position to decide, and if one does not speak Arabic one is almost certainly not in the epistemic position to decide what direction is best. If Palestinians themselves can’t decide, why should we think that Western activists can decide?

But this leaves us with an aporia – on the one hand we can’t decide, but on the other we can’t not decide because any involvement takes a side in its activity even if not in thought, in consequence. So we either have to decide because we can’t avoid it, or we have to avoid deciding even though we can’t. This is a choice not really between deciding and not deciding, however, but between honesty and dishonesty. Honesty is not perfect comprehension, but willingness to engage and pursue with an openness to the possibility of being on the wrong path. However, in order to pursue at all, one must be on a path, on a line, which one can never answer for. But this is a false demand – one can’t be asked to answer for that which one couldn’t have known. Answerability only applies to what could have been done – english common law contains the idea of responsibility for what you could have known, but not what you couldn’t have known.

So the answer to the aporia is that there isn’t really an aporia, there is only a failure to desire to know and pursue that desire to the fruition of its requirement from the responsibility accrued by the action of participating in solidarity work. However, the answer to the aporia is that the answer is your own work, you have to work to try to understand what it is that you are doing, otherwise you can legitimately be accused of willed ignorance.

So it is not enough to support BDS, it is not enough to read Omar Bhargouti and put up posters about the “Global March to Jerusalem” and complain that the Israelis shot his cousin Mustafa in the head with a tear gas canister. Because they didn’t. And by the way, it’s called Land Day.


EDIT: As I realize is not clear from above, I support BDS. But I don’t use BDS as an excuse to lend uncritical support to those Palestinian politiciens who embrace the BDS movement or claim to speak as its representatives. I think BDS is a key tactic to aid the Palestinians in their struggle against Zionism, but it should be focussed on de-legitimizing the Zionist project amongst the citizens of Israel’s major supporters (i.e. Canada and USA). I do think it is a real problem that the BDS list of civil society organizations doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2007.  I think BDS should take its lead from the actual mass political movements which are emerging in the Occupied Territories and in the Palestinian diaspora, not only a few intellectuals like Ali Abunimah and Omar Bhargouhti. In otherwords, BDS should make more contacts with Palestinian political society, not only a very thin declaration endorsed by a million civil society organizations. And, as for those organizations, the fact is any Palestinian pretty much would endorse these three demands and this is why the BDS demands are good, not because of the “civil society” support which may be made up or real, I don’t think it matters either way.



  1. It seems inconsistent to support the creation of a Palestinian state but oppose ‘Zionism’, which I take to mean the view that there should be a Jewish state.

    If you want an ethnically defined Palestinian state, on what grounds can you oppose an ethnically defined Jewish state? If you don’t support ethnic nationalism, the creation of one or more secular states seems preferable.

    Note: it is obviously possible to object to specific Israeli policies without opposing ‘Zionism’.


  2. Palestine is a nation based on a tie to a land within living memory. Zionism is not a nationalism in the French sense but a project of settler colonialism justified by a logic of ethnic superiority. People like Uri Avnery saw in the 60s that Zionism was a failed project, and that Israelis should be honest with themselves about what nation had actually been created and that it is based in a Hebrew culture, not a religion. Such a transformation could have facilitated peace and enabled the return of the refugees, but calls for the end of the extremist project never became very loud within Israeli society.

    The only Palestinians who want an ethnic Palestinian state are those Palestinians who have given up the struggle for the creation of a single land on which Jews, Muslims and Christians can live in peace. If they have given up this dream and become, in a sense “zionized” (turned into a project of ethnic nationalism), it is because the attempt to fight against the zionist entity for justice, liberty and universal values has resulted in nothing but death.

    Even if you think Palestine is an ethnicity, it is not inconsistent to support the creation of a Palestinian state and oppose Zionism because Palestinian ethnicity is indigenous ethnicity, whereas Zionist nationalism is not based on a tie to the land in living memory, but a historical story no more valid than the inherent right that the Cananites or the Crusaders have to Palestine, or that the Irish have to Turkey (Galatia). It is not inconsistent to support indigenous nationalist projects and reject settler nationalism projects, it is a basic tenant of anti-colonialism.

    And if you want to apparently support a two state solution but in fact objectively support continued zionist colonization of Palestinian land, the best thing to do is to call for “two states for two peoples”, and expect the colonized to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace. This can’t happen – Abbas is already the extreme peace side of the Palestinian political sphere, and he can’t do it. The demand for the “recognition of the jewish state” is just one more move Israel has made to prevent peace. First it was “recognize the right to exist”, something no other countries recognize of each other, and now it is “recognize as a jewish state”. It is possible to tell a simple story to make it seem convincing, but the real effect of this rhetoric is the continued violence of occupation.


  3. If you object to Israeli politics of discrimination on the basis of race, culture or religion, then you are anti-zionist. Zionism is nothing but the institution of a specific race, religion and culture as dominant on land historically inhabited by Arabs.


  4. I don’t see why the historical record of who lived in a place has huge moral importance.

    Group A can always claim the land on the basis of Time X when they lived there; meanwhile Group B can claim the same land on the basis of Time Y.

    We need to focus on finding ways of living decently together – not squabbling endlessly over whose historical claim has more validity.


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