Why Israel's Left Must End the Occupation but Not Support BDS

Singling out Israel for punitive measures while murderous governments massacre their own civilians is not only hypocritical but bizarre.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Demonstrators call for Israel's expulsion from FIFA during a protest prior to the opening of the 65th FIFA Congress on May 28, 2015 in Zurich.
Demonstrators call for Israel's expulsion from FIFA during a protest prior to the opening of the 65th FIFA Congress on May 28, 2015 in Zurich.Credit: AFP
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

The Israeli left and much of the center would be overjoyed to end the occupation of the West Bank and external control of Gaza in exchange for a real peace. The BDS movement also wants to end Israel’s occupation.

Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s histrionic campaign to replace Iran with BDS as Israel’s new bogeyman, most of the BDS movement explicitly targets Israeli settlements and the occupation and does not question Israel’s right to exist. And our prime minister knows that if he wants to short-circuit the BDS movement and other efforts to isolate Israel within world bodies, he should act quickly to end the occupation and advance the two-state solution. Nothing produces better PR than better policies.

And yet, the left cannot support BDS or efforts to expel Israel from world bodies such as FIFA, the international federation of soccer associations. We should decry the outrageous double standard applied to Israel in attempts to isolate our country globally, and we must oppose the end game of the minority of BDS proponents who do seek to delegitimize Israel.

Convincing Israelis that most BDS campaigns are only about settlements, or trying to separate BDS efforts that target the occupation from those that seek to undermine the state’s legitimacy, or presuming that anti-settlement BDS won’t bleed over into anti-Israel BDS, or trying to prevent that transition at the university level, requires a level of subtlety absent from the political discourse in Israel and on university campuses around the world.

The distinctions must be made, but they will wither in the face of nationalist drumbeating at home and anti-Israel sloganeering abroad. Supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is morally questionable, but will certainly prove self-defeating for Israel’s left.

The flirtation with supporting BDS grows out of despair. Nothing has worked to deliver a two-state solution – not the peace movement, not the Oslo Accords, not Palestinian violence, not Palestinian non-violent appeals to international bodies like FIFA, the UN and the International Criminal Court. Neither American pressure nor American guarantees, European threats or European enticements seem to move us closer to resolving the conflict. Israeli governments have been backtracking on peace for the past 20 years, culminating in our current narrow government coalition, marked by its nationalist chauvinism and stated rejection of Palestinian statehood (at least “under the present circumstances,” as Netanyahu has said).

Add to this Palestinians divided between the extremists of Hamas and the weak and contradictory management of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Some on the left, like Haaretz’s Gideon Levy, are so disgusted by our half-century of abuse of Palestinians and our obstinacy in denying our daily subjugation of another people that they welcome BDS as necessary medicine, perhaps as too mild a corrective for our sins.

Indeed, the genuine harm to Israel of an effective BDS movement would still be minor compared to the daily suffering – the loss of lands, imprisonment, helplessness and routine indignities – endured by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has rarely received more than a slap on the wrist for defying consistent American and European policies against settlement building for decades.

But singling out Israel for punitive measures while Russia slices off pieces of the Ukraine for annexation, while murderous governments massacre their own civilians in Syria and Africa, while the madmen of the Islamic State group maneuver between competing repressive Islamic regimes, while member states in world bodies include those with egregiously criminal leaderships, is not only hypocritical but bizarre.

Most of the BDS movement is fueled by the desire to undo a historic wrong, promising results for Israel-Palestine similar to bringing down white rule in South Africa while focusing on parallels and ignoring the glaring differences in the two situations. But BDS can be undermined by the tendency to simplistically divide the world into victims and villains, assigning the black hat to Israel. And while most BDS advocates seek only to correct Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians, a minority challenge Israel’s right to exist, and the most extreme drink at the poisonous well of anti-Semitism.

But the propagandists currently heading Israel’s government have proven adept at using the “everyone is against us” mantra to get themselves elected, and to deflect criticism of the occupation and of our military behavior during three wars in Gaza. This “whole world hates the Jews” narrative is simplistic and appealing, shifting the blame always away from ourselves, but it is wrong.

There has never been a time in Jewish history when so many world leaders and citizenries – from the United States to France to Germany – have publicly stood by the Jewish people and the Jewish state. There are still plenty of anti-Semites, but we have much more powerful friends. If BDS ever really gets going, it will cause Israelis to circle the wagons, while our leaders purr, “they’re all anti-Semites.”

We got another taste of things to come in the war-like rhetoric used in response to the pro-BDS comments made by Stephane Richard, chair of the Orange telecommunications giant, and the ecstatic declarations of victory when Palestinians withdrew their call to oust Israel from FIFA, an organization in which favors are routinely purchased in hard cash.

Meanwhile, an exclusive but not-so-secret anti-BDS summit was convened by Sheldon Adelson in the desert, arranging the American Jewish wagons in formation. Leftists, like all Israelis, should oppose efforts to expel Israel from world bodies because such efforts are unjust and feed nationalist paranoia. And while we know the occupation is destroying us from within, BDS cannot be our way to end it.

Leftist support for BDS will only distance other Israelis from relaunching the discourse about the future of the occupation and the West Bank that we so desperately need – and that our government leaders are so desperate to avoid.

Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation working to promote democracy and peace and strengthen Israel’s civil society. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.

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