Article: Boycotts in Perspective

Doerte Letzmann

1 July 2013

The international conference on “Boycotts – Past and Present” at the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, held in London from 19 to 21 June, had, according to the Institute’s director David Feldman, in advance been accused of bias. The conference was seen as both Hasbara, which is advocacy of the Israeli state, and antisemitic treachery. [:]After the conference, most speakers and participants agreed that the event had not been Hasbara. So was it antisemitic treachery? No, it was not, but it was sadly lacking any serious analysis of antisemitism within the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

The conference was part of the strategy of the Pears Institute to revitalise the research on antisemitism and reclaim it from heated political debates. It is a good idea and should be commended, and for the most part the conference adhered to its own standard. It is not the job of the Pears Institute to be an advocate for Jewish nationalism, and the conference has done a good job in not doing so.

The conference was intended to serve as a novel approach to the issue of boycotts in order to “gain a deeper understanding of the development of these movements” and create a forum “to better comprehend the causes and content of boycott movements” and to “advance understanding of whether and how BDS sits within the debate on contemporary antisemitism”. With this the BDS movement was not situated within the history of antisemitism, but within a history of boycotts. This is a valid academic approach and the papers, which were chosen on the basis of a call for papers, were for the most part excellent and ranged from analysis of British consumer activism against slavery, to anti-Jewish boycotts in early twentieth century Poland and to the farm workers’ boycott in California. Taken together the papers showed that throughout history there were different kinds of boycotts with different intentions and different levels of strategic targeting. Two types of boycotts could essentially been made out: ‘strategic, targeted boycotts’ and ‘infinite, aimless boycotts’, an example for the first one would be the anti-Apartheid boycott in South Africa, while BDS is the latter.

However, the specific intention of the conference of trying to situate the BDS movement within the history of boycotts possibly marginalises antisemitism within the movement, as it solely analyses the level of concrete politics, rather than a possible ideology behind the wish to boycott Israel, or, for that matter, the tendency towards certain kinds of political strategies in general. Some debates at the conference consequently centred around the question whether Israel was an Apartheid state or not or how the BDS boycott relates to the boycott in South Africa, which are valid questions, but which all remain on a political level, rather than taking a meta-position that addresses the question of antisemitism. If Israel truly was an apartheid state, would all opposition against it be automatically immune to antisemitism?

Other papers did not engage in the debate whether Israel was an Apartheid state or not, but looked at the BDS movement in terms of its strategy, target and effectiveness, also in comparison to historic boycotts. In doing so these papers seemed to assume that it is morally legitimate to boycott Israel, and the question was solely whether a boycott or what form of boycott was the most effective way to achieve the end of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. This amounted to a slight imbalance towards a pro-BDS position, and a lack of neutrality.

Two of the three papers that could be categorised as anti-BDS dealt with the legal question of open anti-Zionism. Kenneth Marcus, for example, talked about how some forms of anti-Zionism on American college campuses could be considered as creating a hostile environment for Jews. The universities should therefore make sure that the college environment is welcoming to Jewish staff and students. This is neither a very radical position, nor is it a really academic analysis of antisemitism, but it is a practice in interpreting the law and using it as a measurement to make an argument for or against a case. Papers on the legal question of anti-Zionism are sides in a debate, but what the conference was missing was an analysis of the debate itself.

In contrast to that, the two decidedly pro-BDS papers did not turn out to be antisemitic rants, but were attempts to situate the movement within the history of the left in general. John Chalcraft portrayed the BDS movement as implicitly horizontal, in so far as it is a rhizomic, diverse multitude of people who insist on international law and human rights, and who consider religious and ethnic exlusivist principles as their main enemy. From this perspective, BDS is not against Israel or Jews, but against Zionism as racism. Chalcraft also pointed out that BDS is an emancipatory movement, but different to previous leftists movements in so far as it is non-ideological: belonging to the ‘multitude’ does not require instruction in socialism, hence the enemy is not class or capitalism, but racism.

His presentation in fact perfectly revealed the shortcomings of BDS, of which there are many. It is a fallacy to assume that members of the ‘multitude’ are automatically not racist or antisemitic or in any other form directed by stereotypes. If somebody who considers themselves part of the ‘multitude’ feels racially discriminated against by someone else in the movement, how is this addressed? Or is that not even thinkable? What if an EDL member considers himself part of BDS? Also, as the movement does not seem to have any form of intellectual underpinning how does it actually establish what emancipation is? The elimination of social hierarchies alone is not emancipation, so the question is, from what or whom does the multitude want to be emancipated? Is the aim capitalism without hierarchies? Without any form of measurement, one could argue that exactly this multitude is in fact susceptible to antisemitism. Or, for that matter, that this worldview is antisemitic in itself.

Philip Marfleet, who gave the second pro-BDS paper, said that the BDS movement has gained considerable momentum in the past 10 years and that this cannot be explained by anti-Jewish sentiment. He described BDS as a global movement for social justice that stepped in as the state retreated and that dominantly consists of people living in the margins. According to him, these people can relate to the plight of the Palestinians and believe that the Palestinians are the key to the BDS movement. Marfleet does not seem to realise that the level of success of a political movement can be either unrelated to whether it is antisemitic or can in fact be positively related. He also seems to assume that it is perfectly natural for BDS supporters to relate to Palestinians, without considering that this could be subject of analysis.

Both papers described BDS as an an anti-intellectual movement lacking any form of analysis and consisting of naïve members who are simply convinced they are doing something righteous. A feeling of righteousness, however, does not substitute political analysis. These papers were consequently not enough to convince the listener that there is no antisemitism in the BDS movement, but there was no paper at the conference making this case.

Nevertheless, it was a good conference. In fact, it was especially valuable for critics of the BDS movement to learn how BDS activists interpret its history and position. It should provide them with new material to argue against them, but more importantly, it provides ground for actual academic analysis.