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The Myth of BDS Universalism

One of the many lies told by supporters of the BDS movement is that their solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is absolutely uncontroversial, and that they are merely in favour of guaranteeing that international norms are observed. In a recent article, Omar Barghouti picks up on this theme, suggesting that those who point out that BDS threatens the “existence” of Israel are attempting “to muddy the waters and to push beyond the pale of legitimate debate the mere statement of facts about and analysis of Israel’s occupation, denial of refugee rights, and institutionalized system of racial discrimination, which basically fits the UN definition of apartheid.”

Barghouti continues: “Specifically, what is often objected to is the demand for full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. One can only wonder, if equality ends Israel’s “existence,” what does that say about Israel?” I have no objection whatsoever to full material equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and I know that Israel will not look very different from how it does now when this goal is achieved. For Barghouti to suggest that this is the key objection Israel’s supporters have to the BDS movement is highly disingenuous, but he manages to supersede it in the next paragraph: “The “delegitimization” scare tactic…has not impressed many in the West, in fact, particularly since its most far-reaching claim against BDS is that the movement aims to “supersede the Zionist model with a state that is based on the ‘one person, one vote’ principle” – hardly the most evil or disquieting accusation for anyone even vaguely interested in democracy, a just peace, and equal rights.” What Barghouti really means by this is that BDS seeks ‘one person, one vote’ for Israeli citizens, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and those UNRWA defines as Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Or, as another supporter of BDS puts it, “The right of return is an inviolable and sacrosanct principle which necessarily spells out the end of the Jewish state.” It is a shame that Barghouti does not share this honesty.

The irony of all this is that BDS is built around exceptionalism, specifically the exceptionalism of demanding the implementation of the full-scale right of return for Palestinians made refugees during the 1948 War of Independence/Nakba. History does not take place in a vacuum, and we can demonstrate this exceptionalism by looking at what happened to other refugees who fled or were ethnically cleansed from their homelands in the aftermath of World War II. At least twelve million ethnic Germans were made into refugees between 1944 and 1950. At the same time, millions of former Russian citizens were forcibly repatriated against their will into the USSR. Just over two million Poles who lived east of the newly established Polish-Soviet border were deported to Poland. Ukranians living west of the border were deported to Soviet Ukraine. Approximately seven million Hindus and Sikhs moved from East Bengal and Pakistan to India, with approximately seven million Muslims moving in the opposite direction. And in the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel, around 700,000 Jews left their homes throughout the Middle East, slightly less than the number of Palestinians rendered landless during the Nakba.

To my knowledge, there is no movement demanding the right of return for anyone displaced during this period in history but the Palestinians. I will try and explore the reasons for this in future pieces (and it would be interesting to hear Barghouti, so indignant in his criticism of Israel’s ‘special treatment’, explain why he thinks it is reasonable why the Palestinians should be singled out for special treatment when it comes to the right of return); for now, it is sufficient to emphasise that the BDS demand for the Palestinian right of return is blatantly an example of the exceptionalism that Omar Barghouti claims he is opposed to. The reason for this is because he is still unwilling to recognise Jewish national rights in Palestine, but knows he is more likely to win support from Western liberals when he speaks the language of mythical universal norms. It is a shame that he is not honest enough to admit this, although there are still a few weeks before I leave for India, and perhaps – if he has some work to do on his PhD – he will consider coming to the Vineyard for some hummus, where we will be able to discuss this in person.

26 comments

26 Comments so far

  1. Zkharya May 15th, 2011 10:59 pm

    Ben White is pretty explicit that BDS is about the end of a Jewish state:

    ‘The fight of Palestinian citizens of Israel as a discriminated, segregated minority has evolved over the years – from emphasising “rights” to challenging the very legitimacy of a Jewish state. The BDS call, endorsed and driven by Palestinians under military occupation, aims to bring an end to the injustices that began with the Nakba.’

    http://www.benwhite.org.uk/2011/05/15/palestinian-nakba-forever-a-memory/

  2. Zkharya May 15th, 2011 11:02 pm

    BDS is about ending and/or reversing the Zionist enterprise i.e. is a continuation of the same policy of 1947-1949, or before and after.

  3. Sylvia May 16th, 2011 6:06 pm

    “And in the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel, around 700,000 Jews left their homes throughout the Middle East, slightly less than the number of Palestinians rendered landless during the Nakba.”

    Actually, it’s a lot more than that and this represents only those who came to Israel up till by the mid-sixties.

    By 1947 they were appr. a million according to this warning by Egyptian representative at the UN Heykal Pasha to the Political Committee of the U.N. General Assembly – November 14, 1947
    A million Jews live in peace in Egypt [and other Muslim countries] and enjoy all rights of citizenship. They have no desire to emigrate to Palestine. However, if a Jewish State were established, nobody could prevent disorders. Riots would break out in Palestine, would spread through all the Arab states and might lead to a war between two races.

    U.N. General Assembly, Second Session, Official Records, Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question, Summary Records of Meetings, Lake Success, N.Y., Sept. 25-Nov. 15, 1947, p. 185.

  4. Itamar May 16th, 2011 8:11 pm

    I must say that I have no ready-made response to the question that you pose about the right of return. The rights of so many people in the world to return to the places from which they were displaced and to live in independence and freedom wherever they are, that it’s clear that the Palestinian right of return is not based on how the governments of the world usually conduct themselves. “International law,” which is a principle basis for the right of return, is pretty much defined by how frequently it is violated by the world’s governments.

    And yet, I believe that we should be careful about what we recognize as the norm and the exception in the behavior of the world’s governments. What has been the price of the denial of people’s right to return throughout the world? Are people still living the consequences? The US’s indigenous nations are still living the consequences of the white settlers’ theft of their lands. South Africa is still mired in economic apartheid because the ANC gave up on the redistribution of land and resources and the return of African farmers to the lands that had been stolen from them.

    What I’m suggesting is that we as Jews might consider other ways of guaranteeing the rights of the Jewish-Israeli collective other than through a territorial nation-state. Full equality between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish Israelis, the equality you call for, would spell out binationalism within the Green Line. If binationalism is already present, why not allow those refugees who wish to return to their lands?

  5. Alex Stein May 17th, 2011 5:10 am

    Itamar – for the very simple reason that it would mean the replacement of a Jewish state with a Palestinian Arab state. Anyone who denies this lives in a fantasy world.

  6. Itamar May 17th, 2011 5:34 am

    Though I have a very clear idea of what “Jewish state” means, since that’s the reality we’re living now, I have a not so clear idea of what a state with a Palestinian majority would look like. What does “Palestinian Arab state” mean? If a sizable Jewish minority inhabits the same state as a Palestinian Arab majority, and that state is a binational state whose constitution safeguards the rights of both collectives and power-sharing mechanisms for joint governance, would that be a “Palestinian Arab state”? Is South Africa a Black state?

  7. Alex Stein May 17th, 2011 6:03 am

    South Africa is a good comparison. Despite all the talk of the ‘rainbow nation’, it’s very clear that SA is on its way to being the country evisaged in Coetzee’s Disgrace. Now, you may say that’s inevitable and justified, given the horrors of apartheid, but the point is why on earth would any Israeli-Jew want to replicate that experience? Your ifs are big ifs; even someone like Noam Chomsky concedes that widescale implementation of the right of return would mean Israel becomes another Arab state.

  8. Itamar May 17th, 2011 7:43 am

    The meaning of “Another Arab state” is changing rapidly nowadays. “Arab state” is a category that seems to connote some combination of dictatorship, Islamic fundamentalism, and economic backwardness. But these characteristics are not essential features of the Arab world and are not natural expressions of the essential nature of Arab peoples. Where dictatorship, Islamic fundamentalism and economic strife occurs, it occurs because of specific historical processes. The notion that a Palestinian majority would turn Israel\Palestine into Saudi Arabia, for example, is logically flawed for the simple reason that the problems in Saudi Arabia are not a result of that country having an Arab Muslim majority, but rather of specific historical processes in that country and in the world that, like most things, has less to do with what most people would actually like to happen.

    The inequality and everyday violence in South Africa is appalling, though I’m sure you’re not suggesting that apartheid was preferable. On the contrary, a fundamental critique of present-day South Africa is that apartheid was not fully dismantled. In the negotiations preceding the fall of apartheid, the ANC gave up on a central pillar of the anti-apartheid struggle: the land issue. In essence, the ANC gave up what we in I\P would call “the right of return.” The result is that Black South Africans continue to subsist in the homelands into which they were driven by centuries of colonialism and apartheid. The resulting inequality, which is of course still largely along racial lines, creates the high levels of crime and violence that you claim is the result of democratization. The Negev\Naqab region is a great example. People speak of stealing cars and other petty thefts that some Bedouin people engage in, but the wholesale theft of lands and the destruction of their way of life is seldom mentioned as a criminal act. If one state is established between the river and the sea WITHOUT the right of return, we would see a situation very similar to South Africa, with Palestinians remaining concentrated in densely populated ghetto cities surrounded by Jewish-only settlements, while people complain about crime instead of terrorism.

  9. Alex Stein May 17th, 2011 8:30 am

    I’m not saying it negatively, per se. My point is that it wouldn’t be a Jewish state, and it would be a place where the Jews would be able to develop their national culture.
    Re. South Africa – would you prefer what’s happened in Zimbabwe?

  10. Itamar May 17th, 2011 3:38 pm

    What do Jews require to develop their national culture? Perhaps there are less violent ways of developing culture than creating a Jewish-majority nation-state in Palestine.

    The choice between Zimbabwe and South Africa is a false choice. You could have mentioned Algeria or Cuba or Lybia or Uganda or even the USSR. It’s important to remember the possible disasters, but that does not exempt us from compromising with colonialism.

  11. Itamar May 17th, 2011 3:39 pm

    Ha, “does not exempt us from thinking of alternatives to colonialism.” You get what I mean.

  12. Gert May 17th, 2011 4:20 pm

    In essence you’re justifying Palestinian dispossession on the basis of other past dispossessions. It’s a ‘no big deal’ argument, or Gabriel Ashe’s ‘Everything sucks’ argument.

    Alternatively I could argue you’re trying to create a Palestinian equivalence to Zionist exceptionalism: the right to strike far and wide (often extra-judicially), the right to posses nuclear arms w/o checks or balances, to colonise someone else’s land on quasi-religious grounds etc etc.

    Alex, I can’t believe just how far you’ve travelled from Falsedi I. Shocking…

  13. Gert May 17th, 2011 4:36 pm

    And if ‘Palestinian exceptionalism’ means not doing what was done to so many in the past or preventing what may happen to so many in the future, then count me in, thank you, please.

    Perhaps Zionism will succeed in permanently preventing Palestinians from returning home. It’s then to be hoped it won’t object when perhaps centuries into the future some Palestinian movement succeeds in ‘transferring’ all of you to the land of Zionism’s greatest benefactor? Zionism as a game of ‘musical chairs’ for entire peoples…

  14. Alex Stein May 17th, 2011 6:36 pm

    Gert – they are welcome to keep trying. I am confident that they don’t have our staying power.

  15. Alex Stein May 17th, 2011 6:39 pm

    Gert – no difference from falsedi I. In falsedi I I wanted to get out of the territories as soon as possible, and I still do today. In falsedi I I was was opposed to the right of return; I still am today.

  16. Alex Stein May 17th, 2011 6:41 pm

    And I’m not justifying Palestinian disposession. But I am contextualising it, and pointing out the hypocrisy that advocating for the right of return entails.

  17. Alex Stein May 17th, 2011 6:42 pm

    Itamar – perhaps there are other ways, but we’ve already created the Jewish-majority state, so I see little need to start trying other ones. And I don’t think any of your other examples have any connection with what we’re facing here (with the possible exception of Algeria)

  18. Itamar May 17th, 2011 8:13 pm

    Since we’re living the consequences of the Nakba, we have every reason to consider whether those consequences are absolutely necessary. I can think of no better use of our efforts than to think of alternatives to ethnic cleansing as the necessary basis of our existence here. Our ability to think of real alternatives will determine whether we end up more like South Africa or like Algeria.

  19. Alex Stein May 17th, 2011 8:22 pm

    The alternative is a fair division of the land and the right of return for refugees to the West Bank or Gaza.

  20. Itamar May 18th, 2011 6:39 am

    There are 350,000 Palestinian refugees living inside the 1948 lines. They are not allowed to return to their home villages despite the fact that most of these lands are not being used. Do you support their right of return?

    And if you do, and support total national and civil equality between Palestinians and Israeli Jews inside the 1948 lines, then you would have to neutralize the demographic thinking that criminalizes the presence of Palestinians inside Israel and work toward a binational framework. If you have a true binational framework, then the return of the refugees would not fundamentally challenge the state since there would be an operating binational framework. I’m saying that supporting full equality between Jews and Palestinians already living in Israel requires challenging the political order that cannot accept the refugees.

  21. Alex Stein May 18th, 2011 6:49 am

    I wouldn’t have any objection regarding the internal refugees, as long as it had no implications for those outside Israel’s borders.

    But I don’t think your second paragraph follows. It’s not demographic thinking, it’s cultural thinking. It’s the fact that the people who marched on the borders stated quite clearly that they didn’t think Israel should exist (no discussion of a binational framework for them). Your idealism is simply not matched by a majority of Palestinian refugees.

  22. Itamar May 18th, 2011 4:34 pm

    For most Israeli politicians, having a binational framework means that Israel ceases to exist. So what does it mean for Israel to “exist”? And if we don’t a clear answer to that question, how can we expect clarity from Palestinians?

    And that’s precisely the question of the Nakba, because the Nakba is the Palestinian answer to the question “what does it mean for Israel to ‘exist’?”

    I for one, believe Israel will exist even if the right of return is actualized. Israeli Jews will still live here (most of them), their culture and their language will still be here, they will just have to know more Arabic than they do, and people on both the left and the right agree that that’s already something that needs to happen.

  23. Alex Stein May 18th, 2011 7:12 pm

    I can be very clear what it means for Israel to exist. It means the polity that currently governs, with any changes to be agreed only by citizens of the country. Which is why your one-state is a non-starter.

  24. Itamar May 19th, 2011 12:42 pm

    This “polity” was created by expelling the majority of the people who would have been its citizens. Speaking about “agreed upon changes” after expelling most of the people who would have disagreed is…problematic.

    Besides, I think that most Israelis don’t actually have anything against living beside Palestinians in the same state on a “cultural” level. The idea, systematically disseminated by the media, that Palestinians want to kill and expel all the Jews is what makes one-state binationalism a “non-starter” for most Israelis. It’s unclear what most “citizens of the country” (by which you meant Jewish citizens) would be open to if the “existential threat” discourse was seriously challenged.

    On that topics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fbp2Ep9BXpQ

  25. Alex Stein May 19th, 2011 12:45 pm

    It’s not problematic in the slightest. They rejected partition, and had they won the war, it would have been worse for us. It was a zero-sum situation. In any case, it has no bearing on the current reality.

    As for what one-state would mean, tell it to the people who advocate the right of return, who are very, very clear that it’s about ending the notion of Jewish national rights in the land of Palestine, hence the end of Israel, hence the same policy they espoused pre-1948 which led them to so much misery, hence why we must be resolutely opposed to them today.

  26. fartybart May 21st, 2011 6:20 pm

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