The call for BDS in Israel/Palestine is an eloquent, idealistic plea to global humanity to step in to change a disastrous wrongdoing. BDS has won several small-scale victories and international civil society is becoming more and more open to the idea of using BDS tactics to encourage the Israeli government to end the occupation, recognize the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and recognize the right of return. But in its current incarnation, it is severely, and possibly fatally, limited in its potential for several reasons.
Corporate divestments and individual acts of boycott are only one step, and promise no ultimate success, in what will necessarily be a long road to BDS success. Even if TIAA-CREF, Veolia, and Motorola et al. divest, there will be other companies eager for the profits to fill their shoes. Boycott was successful in ending South Africa’s apartheid because there was an international isolation movement and global condemnation of apartheid, as well as sanctions against the government. BDS lacks this universality: The fact of Israel’s apartheid is still hotly debated throughout the world, most importantly in the U.S. The U.S. government is Israel’s staunchest supporter/most obedient puppet, and (despite economic issues) one of the most powerful world leaders. Until the government and U.S. voters can acknowledge the apartheid, BDS will lack any legitimate political power and governments will not step in to sanction Israel.
The Nestle boycott was successful because consumers acted collectively against a wrongdoing they could control (as a profit-driven company, Nestle responds to consumption as democracy responds to votes). Israel is not a profit-driven company: If they respond to anyone, they respond to voters. One critical aspect of BDS which is often ignored by those far from the war zone is the role of Israeli citizens and, in particular, mainstream Israeli citizens. Political fringe supporters such as Anarchists Against the Wall and the Socialist Party are not going to incite full-scale social change on their own. Like OWS in the U.S., which brought together angry Americans from all walks of life, BDS needs widespread and influential internal Israeli support if it is to succeed. Though Israel is not a true democracy, it is democratic enough so that if a critical mass of Jewish (white) Israelis support it, it could take hold. This requires a difficult and fundamental change in the Israeli and the Zionist mindset: that this land is not promised to anyone and that no one group of people is superior to another.
Still, the most important factor in the success or failure of BDS is the behavior of the Israeli government as it is the perpetrator of the wrongdoing. But Israel is a rogue state; an irrational actor, to borrow from political science. Corporate, popular, and political pressure have done little in the past and will do little in the future to alleviate or solve the problems laid out in the Palestinian call for BDS. As a co-blogger of mine Shiri Raphaely wrote a year ago: “Being that I think we don’t have much time in Israel/Palestine before an unfortunate “revolution” occurs on its own in a bloody and horrible way, and in order to avoid this, there must be a deep, fundamental, political and social shift: viva la revolución.” Regime and social upheaval is necessary to achieve any kind of justice in Israel/Palestine.
Until the people and powers – Israeli citizens, Israeli and American governments – responsible for the wrongdoing feel they are answerable to anyone besides themselves, the BDS movement will scream louder and louder against an ever-strengthening barrier.
Photo Credit: Audrey Farber