Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are on the defensive. A surprisingly candid interview on video with anti-Israel guru Norman Finkelstein at the beginning of last month has sparked a flurry of soul-searching on far-left websites such as +972 and Mondoweiss and among left-wing ideologues such as M.J. Rosenberg, senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network, and Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston.
In the video, which went viral first on YouTube and later, after being removed to contain damage to BDS, on Vimeo, Finkelstein declared BDS to be a failure.
Though BDS activists tout the movement's many successes, in reality "it's a cult where the guru says 'We have all these victories' and everyone nods their head," he said.
Finkelstein went on to explain why BDS has failed so miserably. The movement's duplicity and disingenuousness in hiding the fact that a large part of its membership "wants to eliminate Israel" made it impossible for BDS to reach a broad public.
Finkelstein's comments have resulted in a reevaluation of the entire BDS movement on the Left. And it comes at a particularly opportune time as BDS activists on campuses around the world mark Israel Apartheid Week.
For instance, an article titled "Boycotting Israel means denying its right to exist" that first appeared last Wednesday on the +972 blog has generated a lively debate. In their zeal to attack author Noam Weiner, an Israeli doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan Law School, critics have in the process proved Weiner – and Finkelstein – right. In trying to support BDS, many ended up expressing their support for Israel's demise as a Jewish state by championing the "right of return" for millions of Palestinians and their offspring, who were forced or chose to leave Israel after the War of Independence.
Meanwhile, "moderates" such as Rosenberg have tried to differentiate between BDS against Israel as a whole and a BDS campaign that focuses solely on the West Bank. Meretz, a self-proclaimed Zionist political party, makes such as distinction. And for many Jewish organizations in the US one can support a targeted boycott of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria and still remain within the "big tent" of Jewish consensus.
But even this more "moderate" form of BDS is problematic.
Modern economies are highly complex. How directly does a company have to be involved in the development of Judea and Samaria to justify a boycott against it? Would paying taxes constitute support for the "occupation?" How about firms run by people who serve reserve duty? Any attempts to direct a boycott at Judea and Samaria inevitably result in a boycott against Israel.
More substantively, a boycott, even one supposedly directed only at the settlements, ignores the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It ignores Palestinian incitement to violence, which goes on to this day. It ignores the broad support among Palestinians for Hamas and other terrorist groups that aspire to destroy Israel, even with pre-1967 lines. A BDS campaign, even one that only targets "occupation," strengthens the most radical elements within Palestinian society by refraining from placing at least some of the blame for the conflict on Palestinian shoulders.
And as blogger Jon Haber, creator of the Divest This! website, has pointed out, BDS activity tends to undermine the basic values of organizations that use it. When, for instance, the British National Union of Journalists is asked to join BDS, it members are expected to suspend their journalistic objectivity to single out Israel for censure.
University professors are asked to disregard the notion of academic freedom to use their positions to silence Israeli colleagues. Businesses and co-ops are asked to forgo their right to pursue the best products at the lowest prices to punish the Jewish state. And mainline Protestant churchgoers are asked to compromise their religious faith, as if God Himself were aligned with the BDS movement.
Finkelstein's candid interview has sparked an important reassessment of the entire BDS movement. Let us hope that the soul-searching raging on the Left leads to more honesty and less of the duplicity and disingenuousness that has characterized the BDS movement to date.