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.