No Matter What You Think about Israel, BDS Won’t Help

No Matter What You Think about Israel, BDS Won’t Help May 18, 2016

"Jerusalem Dome of the rock BW 13" by Berthold Werner - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Jerusalem Dome of the rock BW 13” by Berthold Werner – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Editorial Note: With BDS continuously in the news, especially in light of the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, Altmuslim is hosting a two-part series arguing for and against the movement, which aims to use boycotts, divestment and sanctions to force Israel to abide by international law and end its occupation of Palestine. In this article, Umar Lee makes the case against BDS. The case for BDS is written by Kristin Szremski.

By Umar Lee

In the 1980s, Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson was forced to return donations from Arab-Americans, and the fact he’d accepted money from Arabs was perceived as a scandalous slight to the Jewish-American community.

Today, we have a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States who is Jewish and who on a presidential debate stage in Brooklyn, a borough at the cultural epicenter of American-Jewish life, called Israel to task for the treatment of Palestinians.

It is no longer taboo to criticize Israel. Among young politically-minded Americans, support for Israel is moving from a bipartisan consensus to a pet issue of the right, similar to what South Africa became in the apartheid-era. So how necessary, or even useful, is it for Americans and the American Muslim community to engage in and support boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a means of protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestine?

Alan Dershowitz points out in his book, The Vanishing American Jew that with Jewish-American birthrates at a low-level, intermarriage at a high-level and participation in organized Jewish life at historic low levels, the future of the Jewish community in America is one that is smaller, less affluent and much more Orthodox. Combine this with the work of Peter Beinart, who points out that increasingly young American Jews are unwilling to give Israel a blank-check on acts of aggression and human-rights violations. And, in the not too distant future the politics of Sheldon Adelson may become a distant memory as a driving political force.

Those who disagree with this predicted decline of the strength of the Israeli lobby point to the growing strength of Christian Zionism and the popularity of dispensational theology among American Evangelicals. While not discounting Christian Zionists as a force, they are in no way as organized as the Jewish-dominated Israeli-lobby.

How useful is BDS?

Without the BDS movement the political position of Israel in America is losing ground. That is before you even factor in rapidly growing and increasingly organizing Arab and Muslim communities in America.

Meanwhile the situation in Palestine and Israel remains dire. The people of Gaza live in horrific conditions, blocked on all sides either by Israel or the Egyptian dictatorship of Abdul-Fattah Sisi. Jobs, water, food and healthcare are all scarce. A long promised port for Gazans has never emerged, and people live under constant fear of air strikes and another Israeli ground invasion.

The West Bank and East Jerusalem have been eroded via settlements to a point where they are almost unrecognizable from a generation ago. Then you have Israel’s “separation wall,” checkpoints, road closures, raids, vigilante settler gangs and a host of other issues.

Israel has also gone from being liberal country espousing democratic ideas (albeit mostly for its Jewish citizens) and a “Labor Zionist” cultural ethos personified in the kibbutz movement with politics dominated by the Labor Party, to a nation that has turned to ethnic, cultural and religious nationalism while being dominated by right-wing politicians.

Yet, I don’t support the BDS movement, nor do I support cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel as a way to deal with these issues.

The basics for my opposition are rooted in four areas; reality over fantasy, diplomacy, humanity and a respect for history.

Reality Over Fantasy

Often when I read online discussions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I hear fantasy: Wipe Israel off the map. That has been tried, failed miserably, and will likely never be tried again given the strength of the Israeli military, the assurance of American aid and surrounding regimes concerned with staying in power.

The next fantasy is “ship all the Ashkenazis back to Europe.” Not only is it logistically impossible to ship millions of Jews back to European nations they’ve never lived in, it is completely immoral. The “ship them back to Europe” thinking is the same mentality that says every Israeli man, woman or child is an occupier and therefore fair game in any attacks. It is also a mentality that doesn’t recognize the difference between 1948 and 1967 borders, and therefore is totally detached from any conceivable political solution to the conflict.

The next fantasy is that Palestinian refugees will all return home. This should happen but won’t. Israel simply will never sign an agreement in which millions of Palestinians start landing in Ben-Gurion International Airport to pick up their lives where they left them in the Truman Administration. Furthermore, many Palestinians may not even want to return “home.”

The reality is that Israel exists. Whether you believe Israel should have ever been created, Zionism is racism, or Israel is a racist settler state is irrelevant to the facts on the ground. Discussions rooted in these absolutes are as useful as fistfights over whether Jon Snow is dead or alive.

Any discussion has to be rooted in the reality of Israel’s existence. That reality takes into account certain other realities. For example, while many “pro-Palestine” activists in the West live it up at college in air-conditioned meeting rooms, millions of Palestinians are dependent on a healthy Israeli economy. Here’s where my problems with BDS begin: Targeting specific businesses engaged in wrongdoing may be justified. Declaring anything related to Israel off-limits is an unnecessary group-punishment similar to the negative policies targeting Palestinians.

Here’s another reality: As a Ha’aretz   recently noted, Bernie Sanders’ criticism of Israel at the debate in Brooklyn would barely merit a yawn in the Israeli Knesset. The politics of Israel are not fully defined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right-wing parties and settler leaders. There is a vibrant political discourse within Israel that includes Arab politicians. Opposing Israel as an entire entity in effect marginalizes progressive Jewish and Arab political voices in Israel and leads to a “circling of the wagons” mentality, which empowers Israeli right-wing politicians.

There is plenty of fantasy to go around on the Israeli side as well. The expulsion of the Arab population was once a marginal idea within Israel touted by the likes of Rabbi Meir Kahane and his outlawed Kach Party. Today, the idea of expulsion is gaining support in Israel. Just as the idea for a Kingdom of Judea is amongst settlers on the West Bank. Those fantasy solutions are the mirror image of the popular discourse in Arab and Muslim circles of an Israel that no longer exists.


Muslim countries still have diplomatic relations with Burma despite the ongoing atrocities against its Rohingya Muslim population. Russia has policies in the Muslim-dominated Caucuses that makes Israel in the West Bank seem positively dovish, yet there are no calls for breaking diplomatic relations. China systematically and routinely discriminates against its Muslim population, even banning Ramadan for state employees. Again there is no such calls for cutting off diplomatic ties. Iran has diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, despite Saudi funding of sectarianism violence against Shi’a Muslims.

You can attribute this largely to two factors: Arab causes get the resources and attention within the Muslim community, and it’s generally understood diplomacy is a good thing.

The thawing of diplomatic relations between America and Iran has been applauded in the West, and the same can be said with Cuba. Yet when it comes to Israel, diplomacy is suddenly a bad thing that never works in the eyes of many Muslims.

The lack of diplomatic ties between Arab and Muslim nations is part fantasy in thinking that not having relations will somehow make Israel go away, and part deception in that many nations, like Saudi Arabia, have covert ties to Israel. Since 1948, this attitude hasn’t led to any progress for the Palestinian people. Too many nations are willing to have diplomatic relations with each other. And yet activists think BDS will bring about change.


If BDS were to truly be implemented, Israelis would be punished despite their political opinions or lifestyles. Punishing an Israeli scientist working on things that can benefit all of humanity may punish Israel a little while having the potential to harm all of humanity much more. Punishing Israeli artists, academics, writers and film is a fundamentally reactionary violation of everything art and learning is all about.

Furthermore, how does one justify such a ban on artists, writers and academics for one nation alone when there are numerous nations with poor human-rights records? Where is the BDS for Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and critics are beheaded? Where is the BDS for Egypt, where tens of thousands of political prisoners are rotting away in prison?

A Respect for History (and Faith)

A few years back the Shalom Hartman Institute and the “Muslim Leadership Initiative” reached into the tiers of American-Muslim leadership and gave these individuals tours of Israel in order to create greater understanding.

One of the things I found the most bizarre is that anyone would need a chaperoned tour to realize Israel was in a conflict-zone and people on both sides had legitimate security concerns. Or that there is a long history of Jewish suffering.

Zionism didn’t come about because Jews became the new Nazis or hated Arabs. Zionism was born as a secular ideology after nearly 2000 years of being exiled and because waiting on the Messiah didn’t yield results. Instead Jews were forced to deal with expulsions, pogroms, scapegoating and purges long before Hitler came on the scene with his army of executioners. Jews never had a home. They existed as the eternal outsiders reliant on the mood of the time and benevolence of rulers.

In an era of nationalism and the redrawing of the maps, Jews imagined a state of their own. And, after briefly pondering other options, all effort was put into returning to Palestine and “next year in Jerusalem.” There was only one problem with that. Actually two: That land had a people — the Palestinian people. Complicating matters was the fact Palestinians didn’t even control their own lands and fell victim to a succession of empires, the latest being the Ottomans and British.

“A land without a people and a people without a land” was a clever saying and really a lie. That lie existed not because Zionists didn’t realize Arabs lived in Palestine. It existed because of the racism and colonial mentality of the times. Europe was carving up the world and taking lands and resources for their own. Israel was born near the tail-end of the colonial-era, but nonetheless absolutely rooted in the mentality of colonialism.

However, it is historically inaccurate to view Israel solely as a colonial settler-state project, even if some of those elements do exist. The reason for this is because Israel is not only the historic homeland of the Jewish people, but there has been a consistent Jewish presence for thousands of years in the area.

It is possible to merge two things in one’s mind: The historical suffering of the Jewish people and the desire for a homeland, and the suffering of the Palestinian people and finding a just resolution to the conflict based on universal ideas of compassion.

Lastly we cannot discount the role of faith. Viewing the conflict solely through secular-lenses is either to be ignorant or engaging in deception. Jews worldwide are passionate about Israel not only because of a tribal sense of loyalty and the “insurance policy” of having a Jewish-state, but because many places in Israel — Jerusalem in particular — are central to their faith.

Muslims in the United States and the United Kingdom who can’t get worked up by the slaughter of Muslims in the Central African Republic, Burma,  Yemen  or any number of places pay attention to every detail of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The supremacy of the Arab view within Muslim thought is just one aspect of this. The other is Muslims love Masjid Al-Aqsa, and Muslims know all of the hadith relating to Jerusalem.

When we feel Jerusalem is under attack and Palestinians are under attack, our blood boils, and it may be hard to contain ourselves or guard our tongues. I’ve been there myself, and such is the nature of this conflict that evokes (often irrational) passions.

Christians, whether they be Zionists or very partial to Palestinians, know the central role the lands controlled by Israel played in the Bible and the life of Jesus.

So, in examining the conflict and looking towards peaceful coexistence, we must look to those ideas that respect the history, beliefs and traditions of all three faiths. In practical terms this means assuring Muslims there are no plans to destroy Masjid Al-Aqsa or to impose upon Christian sites. It may also mean allowing Jews access to the Temple Mount and historical sites and places of religious significance in Judea and Samaria.

Israel is not going into the sea. Israel is a living and breathing reality. Palestine and Palestinians aren’t going anywhere either, nor are any of the Palestinian parties, which must all be respected. Like it or not because of the settlement movement and the success of Likud policies, a two-state solution isn’t likely, logistically possible or realistic at this point.

A Jewish state and a Palestinian state as a single bi-national state may be the most realistic option at this point, and I don’t see how BDS works to quicken this reality. We must pour forth our efforts into other areas to end the occupation and find a way for Palestinians and Israelis to both live in this land.

Umar Lee is a St. Louis-based writer and activist. His books can be found on Amazon.

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