Occupied Gaza, 8 October 2015 — The Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PSCABI) and all the undersigned student groups, representing the entire political spectrum in Gaza, are deeply troubled by a recent article titled, “The BDS Ceiling,” written by the newly formed group New York City Students for Justice in Palestine (NYC SJP). The most disconcerting aspect of this article is that, despite its veneer of leftist rhetoric, it does a great disservice to those it purports to represent and be in solidarity with. Not only does the article misrepresent the BDS movement with false premises and ill-informed arguments, it also undermines our BDS efforts.
Clearly, NYC SJP group does not speak on behalf of SJP National, which adopted the 2005 BDS call as their first unifying principle in 2010. Moreover, this group’s views and misunderstanding of BDS seem to be at odds with the great majority of the over 160 SJP chapters in the United States. Students in Palestine see the efforts of students leading BDS campaigns across US campuses not only as a clear gesture of solidarity and commitment to our cause, but also as an exceptionally effective form of support for our struggle. SJP chapters have frequently been in communication and coordination with Palestinian student campaigns in Palestine, like PSCABI, that are part of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC)–the largest coalition in Palestinian society that is the reference for the global BDS movement.
Unlike the NYC SJP group, most SJPs that work to enhance and advance BDS efforts seem to take their cues from the largest coalitions representing all Palestinians, in Palestine and in exile, especially those of us living, working, and struggling on the ground in Palestine, under the daily assaults against our lives, land and dignity. Indeed, one of the main reasons why SJP is widely respected as a partner among many Palestinian groups is because most SJP organizers take the time to engage in meaningful conversations with those of us in Palestine who see BDS as one of our most effective strategies for garnering political leverage by isolating Israel’s regime of oppression.
It is disturbing and ironic that activists claiming to be supportive of the Palestinian struggle would attack BDS, a distinguished form of popular resistance that enjoys a near consensus among Palestinians and that has become one of the most effective solidarity strategies—if not the most effective—in support of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.
Regardless of the underlying intentions, this NYC SJP attack on BDS after ten years of its impressive growth, and at a time when the Israeli government, Israel lobby groups and Zionist organizations all over the world are fighting it as a “strategic threat” to Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, can only serve Israel’s well-oiled crusade against the BDS movement.
NYC SJP set out to critique Palestine solidarity activism, and as a general critique this could have been a useful exercise. However, they digress into an attack on BDS and its broad Palestinian leadership, the BNC. That sadly regurgitates many of the arguments the movement has had to counter over the years by those opposed to Palestinian rights.
There are three major issues with this article that make it entirely inaccurate, uninformed, poorly researched, and damaging.
First, by suggesting that the BDS movement uncritically accepts the idea of an idealized, monolithic “Palestinian civil society,” NYC SJP seems to be inattentive to the actual politics of the movement. The entities involved in the BDS call include the largest Palestinian political parties, refugee coalitions, trade unions, women’s unions, writers and professional associations, academic unions, student groups, the largest networks of 1948 Palestinians, among others. Framing these bodies as “imperialist tools” raises serious questions about the intellectual integrity of NYC SJP and the legitimacy of their argument.
It is clear that the NYC SJP article is also oblivious to the delicate negotiations and difficult political calibrations that were needed to construct points of unity that correspond to our most fundamental rights and that can be endorsed and enforced across such a broad spectrum of Palestinians in order to generate concrete and strategic action.
Criticizing a crucial component of our resistance by indirectly claiming to know the real interests of the Palestinian people more than we do and trying to speak on behalf of an entire people without taking the necessary steps needed to be accountable to it precisely indicate the kind of patronizing colonial mentality that BDS is attempting to work against.
NYC SJP argues that the BDS movement is successful at the expense of other strategies and campaigns, rather than recognizing it as a crucial tool that enhances and augments the Palestinian struggle. From the ground in Palestine, we consider our diverse, strategic forms of resistance not as mutually-exclusive but rather as mutually-beneficial. We view internal competition for political authenticity, amongst self-proclaimed progressives or revolutionaries, as antithetical to the Palestinian struggle and toxic to all movements seeking to engender political change.
Second, the statement sets up straw man arguments to undermine BDS work and BDS organizers. One straw man argument suggests that an ominous Palestinian BDS leadership forbids advocacy for a One State agenda. This argument is misleading, and politically obtuse. Some in this BDS leadership, in their personal capacity, have been among the most consistent in advocating for a single democratic state solution for decades, but outside the BDS framework. Some of us in the student movement have also been advocates of the One State solution and actively working on this issue. Moreover, all members of the Gaza-based One Democratic Sate Group are BDS activists. However, requiring the BDS movement to put forward a solution before creating the conditions under which the Palestinian people can decide on the ultimate solution is not only undemocratic but also shortsighted.
The BDS movement is consistently and completely neutral on the question of the political solution to this colonial conflict for several reasons:
- There is absolutely no consensus among Palestinians in support of a one-state or two-state solution. Opinion polls show ebbs and flows in this regard connected to political developments. This is a fact that must be taken seriously by any popular consensus-oriented movement like BDS.
- The BNC is not, and never claimed to be, the political leadership of the Palestinian people and therefore cannot decide on behalf of the people what the acceptable political outcome of our struggle should look like. Self-determination means that the Palestinian people (including Palestinians in the 1948 territory and the refugees), must democratically determine a solution that is deemed acceptable and just. An anonymous group of student activists in New York, with all due respect, are not part of the decision making process in determining the future for the Palestinian people.
- BDS is based on the three main Palestinian rights (most importantly the right of return for refugees) that, taken together, would contribute significantly to creating conditions that are favorable to Palestinian emancipation and self-determination.
- The three rights in the 2005 BDS Call correspond to the three main constituencies of the Palestinian people. No matter what solution the Palestinian people ultimately decide is just, it must address the rights of all Palestinians, in historic Palestine and in exile, we all agree. These rights, which constitute the highest common denominator among almost all Palestinian parties, unions and networks, cannot and should not be reduced to ending the 1967 occupation alone, as doing so would not just undermine the rights of 62% of the Palestinian people who do not live in the 1967-occupied territory, but also undermine the right of return of the refugees (internally displaced persons) who reside in the 1967 territory.
- BDS as a crucial part of the Palestinian popular and civic resistance and as arguably the most impactful form of international solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality, is not an intellectual exercise. It seeks to concretely isolate Israel’s regime of oppression in the academic, cultural, economic and eventually military spheres, as was done to apartheid South Africa, in order to achieve the inalienable rights of our people. To be effective and in harmony with its principles as a human rights movement, BDS is anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law, despite the obvious flaws of the latter.
Third, the article mentions Sodastream as an example of the “liberal limits” of BDS. It suggests that BDS focuses almost exclusively on the settlements and occupation, and thus, when Sodastream announced that it was leaving the West Bank this exposed the movement’s logic. This is simply false. Even a cursory look at the BDS movement website would have shown exactly the opposite: the BNC called for continuing the boycott against SodaStream, as explained by BNC spokesperson Dr. Rafeef Ziadah, who wrote that SodaStream will remain actively complicit in the displacement of Palestinians in the Naqab and will remain a focus of boycott campaigning. She said:
“Even if this announced closure goes ahead, SodaStream will remain implicated in the displacement of Palestinians. Its new Lehavim factory is close to Rahat, a planned township in the Naqab (Negev) desert, where Palestinian Bedouins are being forcefully transferred against their will. Sodastream, as a beneficiary of this plan, is complicit with this violation of human rights.”
Moreover, many of the top priority campaigns waged by the BDS movement since 2005 have targeted Israel’s regime of oppression and violations of international law as a whole. These include the military embargo drive, the mobilization against the Prawer Plan to ethnically cleanse Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab (Negev), the G4S boycott which straddles the company’s complicity in international law violations in the 1967 territory as well as in the 1948 territory, the Elbit boycott and divestment drive, the Mekorot boycott campaign, HP, etc.
NYCSJP draws a number of conclusions based on their flawed argument. One conclusion is that BDS “as the ceiling of our work has proved to be little more than a revolving door, churning out similar petitions and events each semester with little to no focus on escalation or movement building in general.” We would agree that strategic escalation and adopting diverse effective tactics are always welcome, but we fail to see how the fact that we could all do more in this area shows that BDS has reached some kind of “ceiling.”
If BDS is not growing exponentially and dramatically intensifying the isolation of Israel’s system of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, why is Israel fighting it as a “strategic threat,” one may justifiably ask?
Israeli industrialists have established a “BDS hotline” to help companies counter international boycotts.
A former Israeli Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit is convinced that BDS has become a “critical” challenge to Israel’s system of injustice, while the former prime minister Ehud Barak admits it is reaching a “tipping point.” Indeed, BDS has become a hot topic even in the US presidential elections and Congress.
Recent reports and studies about the current and potential impact of BDS, whether direct or indirect, may help to explain why Israel takes the movement so seriously.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), foreign direct investment in Israel has dropped by 46% in 2014 as compared to 2013, partially due to the growing boycott of Israel, as a co-author of the report admits.
A recent Rand study predicted that if BDS continues to grow at its current rate, it will cost Israel in the coming 10 years 1-2% of its GDP (US$44-88 billion).
According to a World Bank study issued at the end of September 2015, Palestinian imports from Israel dropped by 24 percent during the first quarter of 2015. The study explains that the drop “is the result of reduced economic activity, but also a growing trend among Palestinian consumers to substitute products imported from Israel by those from other countries, as a result of which non-Israeli imports were up 22 percent.” These local boycott initiatives are coordinated by the BNC.
With some institutional memory of Palestine solidarity activism, many would realize that solidarity has come a long way because of BDS, which played an indisputable role in mainstreaming Palestinian rights. Attacking it with contrived, misleading and frequently debunked arguments is not a constructive way to push the movement forward, assuming that to be the intention.
Another conclusion this group draws relates to the need to connect struggles. Again, this is a straw man because the BDS movement in Palestine and internationally has been connecting struggles not just through workshops and statements, but also through cross-movement campaigning and joint organizing. Intersectionality is a key strategy and principle adopted by BDS partners worldwide, connecting the struggle for Palestinian justice with racial, social, economic, environmental and other justice movements worldwide.
A concluding point the article makes is that BDS alone cannot lead to political transformation. Precisely. The BNC has never suggested that BDS alone can possibly defeat the massive, US-sponsored system of Israeli oppression that we are facing. Indeed, other forms of effective organizing are necessary and welcome. But BDS is without a doubt widely recognized today, whether among Palestinians and international supporters of Palestinian rights or, ironically, by Israel and its lobby groups as among the most potent strategies ever developed by Palestinians to isolate Israel’s system of injustice internally and globally.
As student groups in Gaza, we are saddened to see attacks on this indispensable part of our struggle from those who claim to be fighting for our liberation. We reiterate that we stand with the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people calling on people of conscience and progressive forces around the world to endorse BDS and to be involved in effective BDS campaigning. Achieving our comprehensive and inalienable rights as a people is our only “ceiling.”
– The Secretariat of Students’ Unions and Blocs – Gaza Strip:
Fatah Youth Movement
Progressive Student Work Front
Islamic League of Palestinian Students
Mubadara Student Bloc
Union of Students’ Struggle Committees
Student Unity Bloc
Progressive Student Union Bloc
Student Bloc of Independence
Student Struggle Bloc
Palestinian Liberation Youth
Palestinian Union of students’ Struggle Committees
Land and Man Bloc
– Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PSCABI)
– Herak Youth Center