The recent Democratic Party primary victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and others have generated arguments among progressives and socialists about their stances on Palestine, and whether or how to hold them accountable.
Unfortunately, the principles of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement have been left out of much of the discussion. These guidelines clearly set out what accountability to Palestinian self-determination looks like, and must be foregrounded if our solidarity with Palestinians is to be successful.
The BDS movement’s demands and guiding principles are laid out on its website, run by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC). The BNC is a coalition of Palestinian groups representing the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, including trade unions, protest committees, women’s groups, youth organizations and political parties.
Its 2005 call for boycotts against Israel established three clear, simple demands as the bare minimum requirements for Palestinian self-determination, as agreed upon by the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people: end Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip; end the dozens of discriminatory laws against Palestinian citizens of Israel; recognize Palestinian refugees’ right to return to Palestine.
The demands are based in international law, human rights and basic principles of equality. Palestinians have asked people who respect their rights to boycott Israel until these demands are met.
The call to boycott Israel came in the aftermath of the Oslo accords and the ensuing “peace process,” which was supposed to produce a two-state solution to the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These lopsided negotiations took for granted Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, normalizing the denial of their rights and equality.
Oslo reframed Israel’s colonization of Palestinians as if it were a symmetrical conflict between feuding states. If realized, the process would have allowed Palestinian citizens of Israel and millions of Palestinian refugees to be permanently denied their fundamental rights, and it wouldn’t have granted genuine self-determination to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza either.
The impact of the phony peace process was reinforced by normalization initiatives bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in the spirit of “coexistence,” whether in historic Palestine or elsewhere: various feel-good projects with language about “understanding” and “suffering on both sides” that ignored Israel’s blatant denial of Palestinian rights.
The BNC has made it clear that normalization is a target of the boycott, and that anyone claiming to stand with Palestinians shouldn’t engage in it. Doing so amounts to violating the boycott.
“Anti-normalization” can be a touchy subject among people sympathetic to Palestinian rights, with many saying that it’s difficult to understand, while others reject it outright. But anti-normalization, following the guidelines laid out by the Palestinian leadership of the movement, is crucial.
Before BDS, the public discourse in the US around Palestine allowed only for debates between hardline right-wingers supporting Israel, and supposed “left-wingers” backing the “peace process.” Palestinian rights were excluded from a debate in which liberal Zionist bigots claimed to be acting in their interests: the goalposts were set to entirely hide the very idea of Palestinian self-determination.
BDS has changed that.
The boycott movement’s framework of human rights and equality cut through the false equivalency of normalization.
Even without access to corporate news media or politicians’ platforms, boycott and divestment campaigns have offered a vehicle for solidarity activists to force the public acknowledgement of Palestinian claims. Countless one-on-one conversations between students, congregants, scholars, artists and union members have been sparked by local campaigns for boycotts or divestment that made Palestine immediately relevant to people’s lives.
Each campaign has offered a tangible way for more and more people to get involved, to not just support Palestine abstractly but to personally struggle for it and cultivate a sense of responsibility for solidarity with Palestinians, as well as a sense of pride and camaraderie.
Eventually the movement may become large and strong enough to start exerting public pressure for sanctions against Israel, and in the United States, we can cut Israel off from massive US military aid and diplomatic protection. If enough of us are ready to participate in mass protests and strikes, we can force the hand of whoever is in power, no matter their party.
This is very much doable if we consciously use boycott and divestment campaigns to build up to it.
BDS is the only way to grow that kind of grassroots political power while keeping it accountable to Palestinians. Through the boycott, its three demands and its anti-normalization principles, BDS can clear away the deliberate obfuscation of anti-Palestinian bigots by drawing a bright red line between who does and does not support Palestinian rights.
It has pulled the rug out from under liberal Zionists who say they support equality for “both Israelis and Palestinians,” a claim that was once taken seriously but is now reduced to a weak disclaimer in opposing BDS. And because the boycott is led by the BNC, there’s an organizational means of holding the entire international movement accountable to the Palestinian people, holding the line against immense pressure to compromise Palestinians’ fundamental rights.
As student groups in the Gaza Strip put it, no one may “speak on behalf of an entire people without taking the necessary steps needed to be accountable to it.”
The clarity of BDS’ demands, methods and leadership also creates a framework for uniting culturally and politically disparate people behind it. It can truly be a mass movement not bound to any particular demographic or political tendency, because it doesn’t leave room for misinterpretation or the “nuance” of false friends. We all boycott Israel until the three demands are met.
Crucially, because BDS’ three demands represent all sections of the Palestinian people, BDS also unites Palestinians against Israel’s material and ideological attempts to divide them. Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians living under the suffocating blockade of Gaza, Palestinian refugees, Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians in the diaspora all face different circumstances, creating pressure that can lead to fractures between different groups.
While the BNC can’t claim to be the political leadership of the Palestinian people, it can foster unity and prevent some Palestinians from being used as a bargaining chip for others.
Respect for BDS is by definition the minimum for respecting Palestinian self-determination. It is in fact a very effective and necessary “litmus test,” as detractors have described it.
It’s like the picket line of workers on strike. When people cross a picket line, it’s weakened, and it’s weakened further still if its supporters make exceptions for anyone to cross their picket.
When progressives or socialists who support Palestinian rights are evaluating electoral candidates, we must insist that progressive candidates not violate the BDS picket line, the definition of respect for Palestinian self-determination. As several socialists have argued, candidates must not compromise on the principles of opposing war and imperialism.
This isn’t about any kind of moral judgement, but reality we have to confront to win. Without worrying about whether someone has good intentions, BDS is how we separate the wheat from the chaff, and nothing other than BDS can do that.
People’s lives are at stake, and the US gives $3.8 billion every year that Israel uses to kill Palestinians. Anyone who’s going to be part of the US state must be held to a strict standard, and respecting the boycott is the bare minimum.
We must listen to the coalition representing the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people.
Joel Reinstein has organized in labor as well as BDS campaigns. He is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.