Opinion

Why BDS Won’t Save Us

The movement must decide whether it’s for peace with Israel, or peace without Israel

A BDS supporter in Barcelona, Spain.
Albert Llop / Anadolu Agency

My optimism about Israel’s future annoys many people. How is it possible? The de facto annexation of the occupied territories! The attitude toward Arabs! The growing power of the settlements! But optimism is a state of mind. It does not retreat from evil, it fights it. And you cannot fight it you don’t believe that you can win.

Some of my friends believe the fight is lost, that it’s no longer possible to change Israel “from within,” that only outside pressure can help and that the external pressure that is capable of doing this is the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. One of these friends is Dr. Ruchama Marton.

If anyone has the right to criticize and despair, it is she. Dr. Marton is a psychiatrist, the founder and honorary president of Physicians for Human Rights — Israel. These physicians go to Arab villages and provide medical care, for free, to anyone who needs it. Even the Israeli authorities respect them, and often accede to their requests to allow sick Palestinians into Israel for hospitalization.

Last week, when we celebrated her 80th birthday, Dr. Marton turned to me and accused me of raising false hopes that the Israeli government would ever make peace and withdraw from the territories. According to her, that possibility was gone, and the duty to support BDS remained.

BDS is a global movement that calls for a boycott of everything Israeli. It seeks to convince companies, and above all universities, to divest any holdings in Israel and to support sanctions against the state. Israelis hate BDS like the devil, if not more. One needs a lot of courage to stand up and publicly support the movement, yet some do.

I promised Dr. Marton to respond to the accusations against me. This is my response.

First of all, I profoundly reject the argument that there is nothing we can do to save the state, and that we must trust foreigners to do our job for us. Israel is our state. We are responsible for it. I am one of a few thousand people who defended it in the battlefield when it was born. Now it is our duty to make sure that it resembles the state we dreamed of then. No battle is lost as long as there are people who are willing to fight.

I believe in peace. Peace between Israel and Palestine means the State of Israel existing alongside the State of Palestine. I am not sure that this is also the goal of the BDS movement. There are things it says and does that seem to imply that it wants a peace without Israel. And so I think that BDS must first of all say very clearly whether it wants peace with Israel, or peace without Israel.

Some believe peace without Israel is possible and desirable. Some champion something called the “one-state solution,” with Israelis and Palestinians living happily together in a single state, as equal citizens. It’s a nice dream, but unfortunately it is not supported by history. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Indochina and other countries broke apart. Belgium, Canada, Britain and many other countries are in danger of breaking apart. At this very moment, genocide is being carried out in Burma, under the auspices of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Here we have two fiercely nationalistic peoples, who claim the same homeland. Will they live peacefully in one common state? Life would be hell in such a state. (There’s an Israeli joke: Can the wolf live with the lamb? No problem. But you have to give the wolf a new lamb every day).

BDS supporters often point to South Africa as the basis of their strategy: The black majority was oppressed by the white minority. The blacks turned to the enlightened (white) world, which imposed a boycott on the country. The whites eventually gave in. Two wonderful men, Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk, fell into each other’s arms.

That’s the story as white people see it. To black eyes, the story is slightly different. The blacks, who constituted the overwhelming majority in South Africa, began a campaign of strikes and violence. Mandela, too, was a terrorist. The worldwide boycott certainly helped, but it was the blacks’ struggle that was decisive.

The circumstances here are entirely different. Both Israelis and Palestinians are fanatic nationalists. Israel doesn’t need Arab workers. It can import laborers from all over the world. Israelis’ standard of living is 20 times (!) higher than that of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. As a result of the Holocaust, the world has profound sympathy for Israel. The world does not support anti-Semitism, and Israel accuses BDS of anti-Semitism.

In principle, I don’t oppose a boycott. On the contrary, the Gush Shalom movement, to which I belong, was the first to boycott products from the settlements, back in 1997. I can imagine a boycott of all the enterprises that help the settlements. But I believe that boycotting Israel itself would be a mistake. It would drive the entire Israeli public into the arms of the settlers, while our job is to isolate the settlers in the occupied territories and to separate them from the Israeli public. It that possible? Is it still possible? I believe it is.

The present situation proves that we made mistakes. We must pause and rethink everything, from the beginning.

There are dozens of organizations working in the field for peace and human rights. We must find a way to bring these forces together without undermining each one’s independence and special character. We must find a way to revitalize the parties of the left, which are comatose. And perhaps establish a new party.

I respect BDS and all its actions that are sincerely aimed at liberating the Palestinians and making peace between them and us. The law proposed in the United States that would outlaw BDS activities looks to me both ridiculous and antidemocratic. I suggest that the BDS folks do their work there. Our job here is to regroup, reorganize and redouble our efforts to overturn the current government and bring the peace camp to power.

I believe the majority of Israelis would want peace, if they thought it were possible. They are torn between an energetic right-wing majority with a fascist fringe that declares peace to be impossible and undesirable, and a pathetic, spineless left-wing minority. The situation is not hopeless. The battle is far from over. There is nothing to despair of but despair itself.