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PACBI-Boycott, Sovereign Anxieties, and the Decolonizing Temporality of Return: A Note on Adi Ophirs Remarks on BDS

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Nasser Abourahme | Jadaliyya | 24 March 2014

Boycott, Sovereign Anxieties, and the Decolonizing Temporality of Return: A Note on Adi Ophirs Remarks on BDS

It is fair to say that the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has today achieved a certain (belated) level of legibility, or audibility. Its opponents still vociferously and viciously fight it. However, in the United States and European academy it has, with some effort, gained the right to be heard. It is, give or take, an acceptable topic of debate and conversation. As with any address or call, however, audibility can quickly lead to questions of reception. More specifically, in this case the growth of the Palestinian BDS campaign challenges us to think about the qualifications and conditionality of the varied forms of political solidarity it engenders. Here, I want to briefly take up some of the very generative comments a set of panelists made at the New School’s Vera List Center’s seminar, “Considering Palestine/Israel. What Does Boycott Mean?” These comments revolve around questions of the BDS call and its reception in Israeli society.  In particular I want to think about Adi Ophir’s remarks that, made as they were in the spirit of critique but left largely unchallenged, warrant engagement. I offer these comments not simply as a critical response but as an effort toward thinking about the urgency and possibility of joint struggle in Palestine/Israel. 


Ophir started by stating that BDS’ non-violent, civic, and legalistic character is ultimately insufficient to make it the basis of joint struggle or co-resistance in Palestine/Israel. To his credit and unlike many who focus on the formal character of the call and sidestep the wider politics, he takes direct issue with the political principles that the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PACBI) made in the 2005 'Palestinian BDS Call.’ Specifically, Ophir took aim at the last of its three stipulations concerning the return of refugees to Palestine.  He articulated three main critical observations. One, Israeli intellectuals, “even among the more radical non-Zionist leftists” have not taken up the call for a number of reasons. Two, it has been difficult for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to embrace BDS which has “placed them in an impossible position.” Three, and this is the point at which Ophir’s critique became sharper, the BDS “movement” and Palestinian intellectuals have effectively alienated what may have been their Israeli allies. Ophir argued, “In their tactics of indiscriminate boycott that resulted in the cutting-off of almost all contact with Israeli Jews the organizers of the BDS campaign in Palestine have divorced themselves from their potential partners on the Israeli-Jewish left.”

He went on to articulate this critique more clearly around the principle of return and what he understands as its effective denial of Jewish self-determination in Palestine. “The BDS organizers,” he objected, “have reduced the Palestinian struggle to its basic irreconcilable nationalist forms,” and effectively failed “to blur the nationalist lines of separation.” This is quite a striking charge. For one, the colonized subject bears the political and ethical burden of creating terms of struggle that colonial society (qua colonial society) might deem acceptable. Moreover, to suggest that Palestinians should “blur” nationalist lines speaks to some liberal notion of volition, and more importantly misreads the very logic of colonial domination.  Colonialism—and Ophir accepts the political reality as such—operates through a non-negotiable racial binary. “Palestinianess,” as the racialized mark of the colonized subject, is an untranscendable condition. You can’t check it in at the door any more than African-Americans can be less black to appeal to the white majority. In fact, the colonized subject itself is always “fabricated” by a colonialism which circumscribes the terms of resistance and delimits the field of possible actions. Quite simply, Israeli colonialism, by its very definition, does not give any Palestinian the chance to “blur nationalist lines.” On the contrary, it reproduces that mark, and the binary it is a part of, at every point of contact. The symbolic injunction to Palestinians to overcome this nativeness—one that is not strictly “theirs” anyway—is to place an impossible demand on joint struggle. It also misses, what Ophir himself recognizes, are the necessarily different types of responsibilities that cut across the colonized/colonial binary in any such struggle. He spoke of having to “force ourselves [Israelis] to become the addressees of the call.”

However, for Ophir it seems that colonial society might become an addressee while maintaining its collective desires and fantasies. Not only does he not show what “forcing ourselves to become the addressees of the call” might entail but in fact goes to some length to show what he thinks it cannot. That is, his point that Israeli leftist intellectuals are not taking up the campaign for fear of losing “even the meagre [sic] speaking positions on the margins” they have in public society or their “sense of belongingness,” can only be a critique of BDS if we assume that no risk or sacrifice should ensue from answering the call as an Israeli. How else are we to interpret Ophir’s remarks that BDS has played a “divisive role” in Israel-Palestine and “has significantly weakened an already weak, disintegrated and confused Jewish left”? His acceptance that a primary responsibility rests with Israeli Jews in the production of joint struggle, politically and ethically demands precisely the forms of loss he presents as reasons for BDS’ failure to win allies among Jewish-Israeli intellectuals. Surely, colonial society can answer the call only from a position of extreme discomfort, precisely from the loss of a “sense of belongingness,” from nothing less than alienation from the political community, or the body politic, today defined as Jewish-Israeli. If, in Ophir’s words, the most peaceful, the most civic, the most non-violent of Palestinian political movements is still insufficient as the terms of joint struggle—that is, is an effectively unanswerable call to Israelis—then, well, one is tempted to suggest that nothing will ever be sufficient. 

What is it, then, about return that elicits such acute anxiety? Why does accepting return as a principle of shared struggle and justice remain such anathema even to some of those who oppose the supremacist nature of the regime? Ann Stoler recognized the crux of the issue and prompted the panelists to consider return a little more closely. Eyal Weizman reflected on return as “our only hope” and the “minimum we need to agree on,” adding that return would not be to pre-existing forms of private property but would only ever be a return to new forms of collectivity. Ophir’s response was to find this too abstract: “People are afraid of something very concrete, five million Palestinians will return, what will happen to us?” He ended his remarks with the unqualified and striking statement that to make return a condition of collaboration “can only lead to bloodshed.” What is the implicit reasoning here? What anxiety lies behind the assumption that return necessarily means something ominous “will happen to us”? There seems to be a latent transgression in the very notion of eventual return. That is, regardless of its actualization (and the call leaves this somewhat open, only insisting on respecting and promoting the right to return), accepting it as a common retributive principle seems to carry an irreducible threat to Israeli society. The very prospect of Palestinians being allowed in principle to unconditionally return to their homes is enough to have Ophir foreboding an inevitability of bloodshed—as if Zionism has not already rendered “bloodshed,” both a historical fact and an inexorable future. But, the question remains, what is return a threat to exactly? That the return of people to their appropriated homes and land and the restitution of their rights, if only within a liberal-bourgeois conception of private property, need not necessarily involve injury to those that have since then accrued 'rights’ to that property is easy enough to demonstrate (and has been). But this does not seem to be the issue. Nor is there any necessary contradiction between the return of the refugees and maintaining some kind of Jewish self-determination in Palestine.

The question then is, is Jewish self-determination in Palestine contingent upon a majoritarian advantage? If it is, then the line between the self-determination Ophir wants to hang onto, and the supremacy he wants to disavow, begins to thin. When Ophir rhetorically asks: “Why can’t Israel be like any of the number of European states founded on the basis of transfer?” he echoes a long line in Zionist public discourse in which the imperative of “no-return” is conceived of as foundational to the very existence of political community. In this case, Zionism becomes synonymous with all and any type of Jewish self-determination in Palestine. Or in other words, Jewish-Israeli political community appears content-less outside of claims for Jewish territorial sovereignty. In contrast, it seems to me that precisely a potential other content was in part what Ariella Azoulay’s intervention sought to define in negative terms. For her, to answer the boycott call as an Israeli-Jew is to exercise the right not to be a “citizen-perpetrator.” For Azoulay, Israeli Jews are, in the state’s very system of citizenship, necessarily conscripted as the “guardians of the consequences of the crimes of the state’s founding.” The question, then, cannot be one of external solidarity. It is one of structural complicity and the means of that complicity’s rejection.  BDS and the return of the refugees, she insists, are not only the means by which Israeli Jews can begin to refuse perpetration but also the condition of possibility by which a Palestinian-Israeli “we” can begin to tentatively speak. For nothing less than the total transformation of the principle that organizes the body politic can stop the regime-made disaster and the political regime it is inseparable from.

This understanding stands in opposition to Ophir’s supposition about Jewish self-determination, a supposition that becomes more apparent when he says, of the BDS organizers, “They make it clear that they target Israel not only as a regime of occupation but as a Jewish state, implicitly denying Israeli Jews the right to self-determination.” If it had not already, the penny most definitely drops here. Not only is the “regime” somehow separated from the “state” (and thus occupation from Zionism, with the clear implication that there is something salvageable in the latter) but the correspondence or conflation between “Jewish state” and “Jewish self-determination” is seamless and explicit. That Ophir ever so slightly prevaricates around this point, adding, “This at least is how it is usually read,” only underlines the significance of the deductions he makes.

At one level Ophir is of course correct—if the stakes are the (necessarily colonial) sovereign claims of the Jewish state in Palestine then return poses an irreducible challenge. As Gabriel Piterberg makes clear, the disjuncture between Jewish “return” and Palestinian “non-return” is what the entire edifice rests on: “If this dynamic of return/non-return were to disappear, the Zionist state would lose its identity.[2] Piterberg’s observation resonated in Weizman’s reflections on the right of return as another word for decolonization—“Israel cannot remain Israel with the right of return, and that is the hope, it would have to completely become another place.” This insight begins to approach something of the politico-temporal valence of return.  Return is not simply restoration; it is nothing short of a future without Zionism. It is a line of differentiation that cannot be folded back into the existing temporal order or its field of possible actions. It is the name of a shared, if often ineffable, will not only to rectify the injuries of a still-present past but also to do so in a way that frees us all of its enduring effects. It is an invitation to a future no longer bound to the trajectories of the colonial encounter, or the antagonistic identities forged in that encounter’s originary or primal event. The future not of justice (perhaps always a vanishing point) but more importantly of co-habitation in Palestine ultimately rests on joint struggle. That joint struggle will only ever open up genuine newness by connecting future redress to past dispossession, by returning to another time altogether.

[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 134.

[2] Gabriel Piterberg, "Erasures," New Left Review No 10 July Aug 2001, 36.

Posted on 26-03-2015

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