In 2001, Edward Said partnered with Daniel Barenboim to create what Said’s widow since labeled the most important project of his life: the East West Music Diwan, a platform for Palestinian and Israeli young music talents to meet, rehearse and perform together. In 2012 the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel denounced the Diwan as “undermining Palestinian civil resistance.”
I am an Anthropologist at Tel-Aviv University, proud to have been a personal friend of Edward Said. I am currently involved in an effort to curb attempts to boycott Israeli universities, attempts which, like PACBI, are inspired by BDS – the Palestinian movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. The uphill battle in which my colleagues and I are engaged often makes me think of Edward’s legacy.
How did Said’s Diwan and Israeli universities end up being targeted by BDS? “Boycott, divestment and sanctions” suggests an economic emphasis. Given the success of economic pressure elsewhere – South Africa and more recently Iran stand out as two examples – why does BDS neglect mainstream Israeli economic institutions? And why is it so eager to boycott Israeli universities, inhabited by individuals who, like Said in his time, are overwhelmingly in favor of dialogue and compromise?
This is not the only puzzle surrounding BDS’s strategic choices. BDS’ homepage suggests that Israeli universities would be boycotted until they “call on Israel” to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, end the Gaza siege, give Palestinian citizens equality and recognize Palestinian refugees’ right of return.These are reasonable demands (even the refugee clause is worded moderately). Hidden between the lines, however, is a procedural impasse: universities cannot, must not and do not state institutional positions on political issues.
The condition, in other words, is one which universities can never meet, a recipe for indefinite boycott. Another version of a boycott, to be debated by the American Anthropological Association on November 20, suggests it will be enforced until such time when Israeli universities ‘end their complicity’ with the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians. Israel does inflict injustices on Palestinians, but making universities accountable for them is ludicrous, and a condition as vague as ‘when universities end their complicity’ is a new procedural quagmire. Who decides whether or when “complicity” has “ended?” Are universities everywhere ‘complicit’ with unseemly actions by their governments?
BDS is in the academic boycott business too long for these procedural blunders to be put down to oversight. Other elements of BDS’ strategy in fact suggest they were deliberate. BDS’ insistence on Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it took in 1967 suggests a two-state solution.
But statements by BDS leaders and supporters over the years reflect vehement opposition to this formula and a consistent preference of a future with no Israel. They are aware of course that such an endgame, complete with the negation of the right of Jews to self-determination, is hard to sell. So they embellish it. The demands from Israel, designed to be interpreted by innocent bystanders as a call for a two-state solution, obfuscate a more sinister vision that has no place for Israel; and a call designed to ostracize Israeli universities indefinitely tries to pass as an effort to correct their moral fabric.
A vision of a future with no Israel explains BDS’ disinterest in economic sanctions. A stick-and-carrot ploy, economic sanctions nudge the target to do right under pressure now and enjoy benefits later. For example, economic sanctions of the type now contemplated by the European Union could force Israel to withdraw and to accept a Palestinian state, with the carrot coming later as renewed international support, so vital for Israel’s survival. Coy language on its website notwithstanding, BDS wants none of this. This is why economic sanctions, useless when the target is not assigned a future, are irrelevant for BDS.
Academic and cultural boycott, on the other hand, fits BDS’ endgame perfectly. Israel’s intransigent and violent conduct in recent years brought international sympathy for it to an all-time low. BDS operatives hope this fall from grace could soon be followed by an ultimate collapse, and see an opportunity: demonize Israel as a radically essentialized epitome of evil, and you might expedite its ultimate demise.
This tactic has willing partners on the Israeli right, where politicians thrive on cultivating “the world is all against us” ethos. What it cannot tolerate are Israeli moderates. A vibrant, credible intellectual milieu, where academics and artists embrace complexity and nuance, openly criticizing the occupation and the government, subverts BDS’ essentializing mission.
Those who question the over-simplified, self-righteous, monolithic tale of evil colonial oppressors and angelic indigenous victims must be marginalized and silenced. Particularly when they include the likes of Said, Barenboim and Noam Chomsky. The more amenable to dialogue we are the more “boycottable” we must become.
Those who believe that Israel should not have been created or that it now no longer has the privilege to carry on have a right to their opinion. But they have obligations too. They must come clean about seeking a post-Israel endgame; they must specify the process they think might lead there; and they must openly and realistically assess the price those on the ground might have to pay for it.The conversation could grow tense, but at least it will be honest. This is essential if stakeholders and observers are to reach decisions based on real positions, not duplicitous manipulations.
Dan Rabinowitz is a Professor of Anthropology at Tel Aviv University