BDS Must Spell Out What It Wants From Israel

I am no enemy of the boycott movement. I just want to hear what it believes in. I'm asking for clear goals. And straight talk.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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The launch of the Egyptian campaign that urges boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, April 20, 2015.
The launch of the Egyptian campaign that urges boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, April 20, 2015. Credit: AP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

I first learned about boycotts when I was small. In California, farm workers with few rights and no apparent power, galvanized an entire state and much of the nation with nothing more than courage and calls for boycotts of table grapes and lettuce.

At first, their cause, winning recognition for a labor union of those who grow and harvest crops, seemed an impossibility. But this is what they had going for them: Clear goals, and straight talk.

These days, as another movement – BDS, the international campaign to boycott, sanction, and divest from Israel – speaks of its success in getting its message across, this might be as good a time as any to ask:

What does BDS really want from Israel?

I'm not asking for much. And I am certainly not asking out of antagonism. I'm just asking for clear goals. And straight talk.

I want to know if BDS wants to encourage two states - for example, by concentrating on supporting labeling of products from the West Bank and East Jerusalem – or if the goal is a one-state Palestine.

I believe that a boycott can only work if its organizers are clear about what they want to achieve.

I believe that a boycott in which activists describe themselves as "agnostic" about their own goals, is dooming itself to be both perpetual and unconvincing.

In April, a monthly meeting of the members of Brooklyn's Park Slope Food Coop erupted into unprecedented chaos over Israel, a call for a boycott, and a question that hovered unanswered in the background:

Short of disbanding the country altogether, is there anything that Israel can do, that would satisfy the conditions for an end to the boycott campaign?

At issue was a proposal that the food co-op boycott the Israeli-made SodaStream line of at-home carbonated beverage machines.

This is not the first time the co-op, which is one of America's largest such institutions, and one which has been called "a cultural touchstone in Brooklyn," has faced calls to boycott SodaStream. But something significant has changed since the first time.

In 2012, a BDS proposal to hold a general referendum on boycotting Israeli products was defeated in a vote which helped focus international attention on the potential impact of the movement.

At the time, BDS activists targeted SodaStream because one of its factories was located in a West Bank settlement area.

Last October – in a decision hailed as a victory by Palestinian activists - the company announced that by the end of 2015, it would be moving the Mishor Adumim settlement area plant out of the West Bank, to the northern Negev industrial area of Lehavim.

As someone who would still like to see an eventual solution based on a truly independent Palestine alongside an independent, truly democratic Israel, I saw the SodaStream move to be a positive one, one small but significant step away from occupation.

I guess I was wrong.

In the April Park Slope meeting, BDS activists resumed their campaign to boycott Israeli products, again centering on SodaStream.

"SodaStream is now moving onto land stolen from Palestinian Bedouins, who are also human beings,” said Anna Baltzer, national organizer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Baltzer, a California-born Jewish woman who has said her grandparents narrowly escaped the Holocaust, and who was rather unfortunately described by the far-left Mondoweiss website as "The It-Girl of Anti-Zionism," continued, “We support the rights of indigenous Palestinians inside Israel, including the Bedouins. We can’t end our boycott when SodaStream is simply occupying new land of Palestinians.”

Is BDS then saying that all of Israel is occupied land? That the events of 1967 are, in fact, irrelevant, and that the events of 1948 are all that matters?

It is certainly their every right to believe that and say so. I just want to hear the answer. Clear. Straight.

Last month in Brooklyn, as the activists made their presentation, several members of the food coop, their ire aroused, rushed the stage, where projected images showed IDF soldiers intimidating unarmed Palestinians, one of them blindfolded.

The coop's newsletter later quoted one participant in the meeting as saying “This is starting to become emotionally violent.” The meeting became so heated that members of the coop board noted to the crowd that a threat against another member was grounds for losing one’s membership.

Within the co-op, the issue of boycotting SodaStream, and all of Israel, remains unresolved. In a sense, though, within the BDS movement, the issue stands no less unresolved.

Unlike the government of Israel and a huge corps of paid professionals, I am no enemy of BDS.

I just want to hear what it believes in. This is what I believe: You're either a true activist or a true agnostic. You can't be both.

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