Solving the BDS image problem

Dr Nicholas Herriman 

Dr Nicholas Herriman

First published on The Drum on 2 July 2013. 





In a recent article, Sydney University's Associate Professor Jake Lynch attempted to defend BDS from the charge of anti-Semitism.

He states that the target of BDS 'is not Jews or Judaism, but militarism and lawlessness'. But he fails to deal with BDS's image problem head on, and so makes an unconvincing case.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a worldwide campaign 'against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights'. Most agree that Israel should comply with international law and extend rights to Palestinians.

Emerging within Israel/Palestine territories BDS is admirable for advocating non-violent action. But outside of Israel/Palestine territories, its image so tarnished that is seen as anti-Semitic.

It appears to many (even those who are unhappy with aspects of the Israeli military's policy towards Palestinians) that Israel is unfairly singled out by BDS.

Lynch counters that Israel is the only state which does all of the following: occupies territory recognised as not its own, undertakes military actions giving rise to well-founded allegations of war crimes, refuses to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty despite being nuclear-armed, and violates the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Apartheid.

Even those who would accept all of these points - and many would not - might wonder on what criteria these are selected. Lynch is selective in both his international comparisons and the dimensions on which he chooses to compare. It could be argued that he has selected what will appear in each of the circles of his Venn diagram. It appears designed, after the fact, in order to justify the need to single out Israel in the centre.

We might for example say that Russia is the only state which does all of the following: incarcerates elite political opponents using 'show trials', wages war on ethnic minorities, and denies citizens basic rights. We could also argue that Australia is the only settler colony which refuses to acknowledge the basic rights of its Indigenous inhabitants, maintains colonial relations with neighbouring countries, and refuses to allow its citizens the right to bear arms.

There are two questions here. Are these accurate statements? And if they are, should we therefore boycott Russia and Australia? In other words, in a world filled with egregious examples of violence and human rights abuse, the grounds on which BDS selects Israel and the manner of its action - a boycott - are unclear. BDS ends up appearing inconsistent.

It appears inconsistent in an international context. Comparing Australia with Israel, the fate of Australia's Indigenous population in terms of life expectancy is around 60 years, whereas for Palestinians it is around 72 years.

It appears inconsistent in a regional context when widespread violence characterises the rest of the Middle East. The civil war in Syria has claimed 100,000 lives, yet BDS does not appear to have a clear position against the regime there.

Finally, it appears inconsistent in the local context. To focus on Israel without also taking account of Palestinian groups does not make sense. The Hamas-Fatah conflict, for example, has caused hundreds of deaths, but escapes BDS attention. Does this mean that BDS condones 'lawlessness and militarism' as long as it is not committed by Jews?
BDS could address these apparent inconsistencies by developing a more rounded and comprehensive policy on matters in international, regional and local contexts.

Then there is the problem of BDS supporters who are committed to the destruction of Israel. This alienates many people, not the least Jewish 'doves', who might otherwise be drawn to the movement. Many who support Israel's right to exist were horrified by the 2008-9 invasion of Gaza - and particularly the unacceptable numbers of Palestinian civilians killed. They tend to think that both sides have cases to answer: Palestinian authorities must clamp down on militants and Israel must be proportionate in its response to rocket attacks. BDS does not seem to address this.

BDS would be less open to charges of anti-Semitism if it acknowledged the complexities of the situation, including the 'refuseniks' - Israeli Jews who are opposed to the Israeli Defence Force's tactics - and the existence of Israeli Arabs who vote, freely form political parties, participate in public life and support Israel. It also does not acknowledge the contested nature of Israeli politics. Nor does it criticise the intransigence of some Palestinian groups.

So it may be that in spite of its protestations, BDS is actually comfortable with being an anti-Semitic organisation. If BDS is not anti-Semitic, a clearer rationale is needed.

Dr Nicholas Herriman is a lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe University. You can listen to his podcast 'The Audible Anthropologist' on iTunes U.