I Introduction: Changing the Actors, Rewriting the Script
Divestment and Boycott have recently been embraced by international civil society as a means to achieving a comprehensive and just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The choice of divestment and boycott as strategies for positive social change has its basis in a number of interrelated considerations. First of all, precedents for successful campaigns exist, the most important being the drive to isolate and exclude apartheid era South Africa from the activities of international civil society. With some significant modifications, past campaigns can serve as models for the movement to divest from and boycott Israel. Activists can restructure and re-conceptualize tactics and particular strategies that proved their usefulness and transformative potency in previous campaigns and less fruitful approaches can be treated with caution and either reformulated to suit present conditions or discarded in their entirety. The historical information available to the burgeoning movement to divest from Israel covers multiple dimensions of social action, ranging from media to outreach to an understanding of institutional constraints in particular settings.
Another important consideration has to do with the way in which divestment facilitates movement building. Although there are significant differences between the struggle for justice in Palestine and other movements for liberation around the world, there are also important and relevant similarities. With the implementation of effective outreach strategies, divestment and boycott can provide a framework for social action that unifies diverse activist constituencies around these common concerns and interests. Under these conditions, Palestine solidarity activism can become more fully integrated into the global social justice movement and can more effectively contribute towards other struggles for basic human rights. To take one example, in addition to being a concrete mode of resistance to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, divesting from companies that supply the Israeli military with weapons is also an effective way of resisting militarism, unethical corporate practices, and the advance of globalized capitalism.
Third, divestment and boycott are concrete strategies that empower civil society in its role as an agent of positive social change. In the current geo-political climate, nation-states and trans-national institutions have been either unwilling or unable to create the conditions for a just peace in Palestine. The concreteness and transformative potency of divestment and boycott make them effective tools for generating the social, cultural, and political pressure necessary to transcend these limitations. They are empowering strategies is so far as they make it possible for Palestine solidarity activists to clearly envision how their work in local environments can realize change on a global scale. By making positive changes to their institutions at home, activists can provide concrete resistance to the intensified colonization and apartheid that were enabled by nation-state driven ‘peace processes’ such as the Oslo Accords and the frameworks for conflict resolution that followed.
Empowering civil society to be the principal actor in the struggle for justice in Palestine is not an insignificant task. However, it is not by itself sufficient to build a movement that is maximally effective in opposing the political conditions and structures that obstruct the implementation of Palestinian rights. Peace initiatives driven by powerful nation-states and trans-national institutions were, as we will show, based on fundamentally flawed assumptions. If the burgeoning divestment movement makes the same assumptions and constructs its campaign around the very same parameters, then just as the nation-state driven peace initiatives did, the divestment and boycott campaign will generate rather than neutralize conflict. In what follows, we attempt to articulate the nature of the failures that have characterized ‘official’ attempts to resolve the conflict since the partition plan of 1947. We then discuss alternatives for ensuring that these inhibiting features are not transferred to or embedded in nascent divestment and boycott campaigns. Wherever problems exist, we attempt to envision alternative structural components for the campaign.
Rather than being prescriptive, our thoughts on this set of issues are meant to stimulate engaged discussion about the direction and scope of the campaign. We hope to draw attention to important questions that require the critical attention of activist communities engaged in political action on behalf of the Palestinian people. What principles and norms should determine the parameters of divestment and boycott campaigns? Are there heuristics that allow us to negotiate political pressures and constraints in such a way as to achieve short-term concrete goals without compromising on longer-term objectives? What ends are the strategies of divestment and boycott directed towards and what role – if any – should a solidarity movement play in a discussion of final objectives? How important is communication and coordination between diverse activist constituencies to the long-term success of the divestment program? What kind of pressure will most effectively force Israel to reconsider its current policy towards the Palestinians? Does divestment work by applying economic pressure on Israel? Are there any sectors of the Israeli economy that are more susceptible to the effects of divestment? What can we learn from other divestment and boycott campaigns such as those that targeted apartheid era South Africa, Burma, and East Timor? Are there significant differences that make modeling the campaign against Israel on past precedent problematic? What special challenges does our movement face? Although none of these questions will be comprehensively answered in what follows, we hope to play a role in initiating a detailed discussion of all of them.
II: The Failure of the ‘Peace Process’
Since the United Nations partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish State in 1947, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been at an impasse. The partition plan was followed by numerous attempts at resolution, all of which intensified the conflict and generated more violence. Although the United Nations made it explicit that the partition of Palestine did not negate the rights of non-Jewish inhabitants of the Jewish state and non-Arab inhabitants of the Arab state, it did sanction the idea that ethnic separation was the sole means to a stable and lasting peace, and ethnic separation is exactly what Israeli forces carried out when they uprooted 800,000 Palestinians from the areas that became the state of Israel. In so far as it prioritizes the interests and concerns of ethnic groups above those of the legitimate inhabitants of a given territory, the ethno-nationalist concept of separation necessitates the creation of an artificial ethnic majority in a territory to which that ethnic group may not have a legitimate moral claim. The concept of separation cultivated the conditions that led to the exclusion of the Palestinians from their homeland and is therefore both the source of the conflict and the factor that sustains it. The forced implementation of a separatist agenda in Palestine generated the highly problematic social and political processes that continue to characterize the conflict today. Although activists have questioned the separatist agenda and its implications, the architects of the various ‘peace processes’ of recent years have chosen to ignore its propensity to generate rather than neutralize conflict.
The ‘Peace Process’ initiated at Oslo in 1993 once again relied on separatism as a political framework for resolution and therefore did very little to respond to the core interests underlying Palestinian and Israeli claims. The Palestinians viewed the territorial division that Oslo embodied as a program to augment and formalize their exclusion from their historic homeland rather than as an equitable separation from Israelis. This perception was fostered by the conditions of intensified territorial exclusion and encapsulation that were made politically feasible and practicable by the nature and duration of the ‘process’ itself. The ‘process’ postponed the discussion of fundamental issues such as the right of return, the right to self-determination over well-defined contiguous territories, and access to Jerusalem while it mandated meaningless re-deployments and other measures meant to facilitate the mutual isolation of the two ethnic groups. While the illusion of peace was sustained in the international consciousness by Israel’s own propaganda apparatus and a plaint media both in the United States and elsewhere, Israel expanded its apartheid infrastructure in occupied territory and denied Palestinian communities access to their land and to each other. As these processes wore on, the military occupation of all but the main Palestinian urban centers gained an air of legitimacy that it never had before the Oslo process.
The extent of Israel’s expansion into the West Bank and Gaza has undermined the territorial division on which the Oslo accords were supposedly based. The territorial contiguity of the areas allocated for a Palestinian nation-state no longer exists, and a Palestinian state is the alleged upshot of the separation between the two peoples. As well as being unworkable, the internal Israeli debate over the alleged disengagement from Gaza has clearly demonstrated that the dynamics of Israeli politics will make meaningful withdrawal from the West Bank difficult to achieve at best. The maximum that even the Israeli ‘peace camp’ is willing to concede in negotiating a settlement with the Palestinians falls well short of the minimum that Palestinians are willing to accept. The standard Palestinian parameters for the two-state solution are a contiguous sovereign state in the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, the removal of all the settlements, a shared capitol in Jerusalem, equal access to water resources, the right to have a defense force, and serious consideration of the right of return. Given the legitimacy of their historical claims, this would be an enormous concession for the Palestinians. However, it would not be enough to satisfy the demands of either the Israeli mainstream or the ‘peace’ camp. The latest manifestation of unequal separatism is the ‘Geneva Accords,’ an agreement that ignores the international laws and United Nations resolutions that constitute the basis of the minimal Palestinian demands.
The assumption that ethno-national separation can yield peace was shown to be faulty in 1948, and in so far as the Oslo process and subsequent peace initiatives took it for granted that Israel must remain an exclusive Jewish State, they were based on the very same faulty assumptions and were therefore bound to fail. The ethno-centric conception of Israel necessitates continued discrimination against non-Jews and widespread discrimination generates resistance and further conflict. The reality is that Israel is not a Jewish State; 20% of its citizens are Palestinian Arabs. Since the Palestinian minority has much higher rates of demographic growth, maintaining the Jewish character of the state will require ever more pervasive and severe discrimination and oppression. By failing to challenge the ethno-centric construction of Israel, the two-state solution will fail to neutralize this source of tension and conflict.
The peace ‘process’ also operated with the assumption that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and the exiled population have given up their claims to lands inside Israel and that their exclusion from their homeland has become an accepted fact. Although the majority of Palestinians in the occupied areas may support the establishment of a Palestinian state, their support is not based on accepting their exclusion from their homeland. The absence of well-articulated alternatives to the establishment of two nation-states in historic Palestine and the support enjoyed by the dominant nationalist political constructs within the current power structures is a more likely explanation of the current Palestinian attitudes to resolution. Along with popular support for a two-state solution, there exists near universal popular support amongst Palestinians for the right of return, which is impracticable within a two-state framework that normalizes the current ethno-national construction of Israel. From this it can be inferred that Palestinian support for a two-state solution is instrumental in nature, and it signals that a majority of Palestinians refuse to concede their historical and cultural connections to the homeland they were expelled from in 1948.
The viability of the separatist program is doubtful for many other reasons. A demilitarized state ultimately controlled by Israel and housing millions of Palestinians with claims that extend beyond its borders is a recipe for instability and further conflict. In the absence of implementing the right of return to areas inside the ‘green line,’ even the West Bank and Gaza in their entirety would not have the economic or demographic capacity necessary for viable statehood. However, the moral and political inadequacies of the separatist program have not persuaded powerful nation-states and trans-national institutions to apply pressure towards an alternative framework for resolution guided by basic principles of justice and responsive to the substantive concerns of both Palestinians and Israelis. There are several reasons for this. Internal political pressure from special interest groups and geo-political considerations have resulted in unconditional U.S. support for Israel, particularly in a post-cold war context where the U.S. dominates world politics. The European Union has been both unable and unwilling to take a firm stand in support of a just solution to the conflict. The decline of Multi-Lateralism and the absence of international mechanisms for the enforcement of universal standards of human rights and international law has also been a factor in making military might and political hegemony the sole determinants of the contours of any settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
III. Implications for Divestment & Boycott Campaigns
If the analysis of the previous section is correct, one crucial feature of a maximally effective divestment or boycott campaign is that it target the political institutions and structures that stand as the principal impediment to the realization of a just and stable peace for both peoples in historical Palestine. The construction of Israel as a state that prioritizes the interests of one ethnic group above all others is inconsistent with an approach to inter-ethnic relations based on universally accepted human rights and principles of justice. On the basis of these principles, the campaign against apartheid era South Africa targeted the institution of apartheid itself rather than its manifestations in specific policies or particular oppressive structures. Similarly, it is necessary for the passage of peace that the divestment and boycott movement target the ethno-national nature of Israel rather than its various manifestations or effects.
The movement to divest from Israel faces a well-organized and powerful opposition, particularly in the United States. Even when considering the significant opposition to the South African campaign, the nature, power and scale of the opposition to the divest from Israel campaign is unique. An important question to ask is whether the uniqueness of these constraints can be negotiated in a way that builds the capacity of the movement to make concrete progress in local political contexts while concurrently advancing the long-term goal of targeting the underlying causes of the conflict. An adequate answer to this question will require an understanding of how divestment and boycott work. What we already know is that these strategies have the capacity to influence the citizens of an oppressor society to realize that their indifference to or active support of government policy that seriously harms the interests of another nation will not be tolerated by international civil society. But what are the features that account for the impact divestment and boycott can have on an oppressor society? If there is an adequate answer to this question, then it may inform considerations of which dimensions of boycott and divestment to prioritize, for instance economic over cultural and social activity or vice versa. Having a clear idea of what divestment aims at and understanding the mechanisms through which it works can also provide us with criteria for framing and messaging the issue in compelling and effective language.
In considering how to maximize the effectiveness of the divest-from-Israel campaign, it’s instructive to consider the social processes that led to the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Although there was significant economic pressure generated by both the unofficial civil-society boycott and the official nation-state boycott of the regime, the economic dimension of the campaign was not the primary cause of the social transformation that led the oppressor society to reconsider its support for the apartheid system.
Economic pressure was effectively undermined by states and multi-national corporations with a vested interest in maintaining the South African regime. The impact economic activity did achieve was a function of the social and cultural exclusion it generated. Though there were significant advances in implementing state-level economic sanctions against South Africa, the economic dimension of these acts was continually undercut by states or corporations who for a number of reasons were willing to fill any economic void and resist the structural instability it created. It was often the case that corporations would officially end involvement in the region while their affiliates would take control. If a state imposed an embargo, another state would satisfy the increased demand directly or indirectly. For example, the United States maintained economic and military ties to South Africa throughout the apartheid era by using countries that defied the boycott as intermediaries.
Although economic effects were successfully resisted in the ways we have described, it was not possible to counter the influence of cultural isolation and social exclusion. Both the state and its affiliated institutions have far less influence than civil society in the arenas of cultural and social exchange. Within the perpetrator society itself, there are few if any well-defined mechanisms to resist pressure of this form, particularly if the society in question is heavily involved in international communal activities and conceives of itself as an asset to and progressive element of the society of nations. When universities and other institutions divested from any company that maintained ties with the apartheid regime, when a total boycott of South African academic institutions was imposed, and when South Africa was excluded from the cultural activities of international civil society, including the Olympics and other high profile events, the common perception became that South Africa was a ‘pariah’ state that had no place in the international system until such time as its racist and oppressive structures were replaced by a political system built on democratic values and internationally recognized human rights.
The psychological and social effects of isolation pushed white South Africans to reconsider the very nature of the system from which they derived their privileged status. Although the international community acted without any specific political agenda in mind, it was made clear through the character of the boycott that any political resolution would have to be consistent with basic and uncontroversial political values and principles. These values and principles became components of a well-articulated and hopeful vision of a joint future for blacks and whites as equal citizens in a new South Africa. Communicating the concept of an alternate future that promised a better and more secure life for members of the perpetrator society was an important component of the social and psychological transformation that led to the fall of the apartheid regime. It augmented the effects of the boycott by demonstrating the even-handedness with which the international community considered the concerns and aspirations of both ethnic groups in South Africa. In the absence of such a vision, the anti-apartheid campaign would have seemed punitive and incoherent in nature and may have been met with greater intransigence as a result.
There are multiple ways in which the campaign to divest from Israel can be structured and conceptualized to reflect an understanding of the processes through which positive social change was achieved in South Africa. Whatever political values and principles international civil society chooses to adopt in charting the course of its campaign, they ought to transcend the national separatism that has consistently intensified and extended the conflict rather than resolve it. A vision that moves Israelis and Palestinians past this impasse can be conceived of as a heuristic; it illuminates the contours of a better life for the oppressed and the oppressor by encouraging them to discover and envision fresh solutions for themselves.
The modalities of this change are complex but its necessity is clear. In recent years, national-separatism has been fueled by a mainstream activist discourse that prioritizes grassroots resistance to the most egregious and visible manifestation of Israeli state-sanctioned racism, the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although there are significant practical and political reasons for this emphasis, there are perhaps more weighty reasons for a change in priorities. Since the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the concept of peace as separation has become even more deeply entrenched as the prevailing political dynamic and through the ‘land for peace’ formula it once again gained a well-defined territorial dimension. Under these conditions, the concept of an end to military rule and Israeli withdrawal to the ‘green line’ came to be synonymous with the idea that peace could only come about through ethnic separation. By further normalizing the two-state program, social action against the occupation has perpetuated the conflict in Palestine, for all the reasons that make the separatist program an obstacle rather than a means to peaceful reconciliation (see the argument of Section II).
The language used by activists who prioritize resistance to occupation has also inadvertently facilitated the colonization and territorial division of the West Bank and Gaza. The main avenue for criticizing Israeli policy has surprisingly eschewed direct talk of rights in favour of arguing that the ‘facts on the ground’ establish Israel’s culpability and delineate the extent of its moral obligations towards the Palestinians. However, the very same discourse that establishes the scope of what Israel owes the Palestinians is used by Israel to justify intensified colonization and expropriation of land. Developing campaigns with people as their central feature rather than territorial lines and degrees of settlement expansion begins to deemphasize the material or ‘factual’ dimension of Israeli expansionism. Moving away from this dimension and framing the issue in terms of what collective and individual rights the Palestinians are owed by a 'liberal-democratic' state - which Israel claims to be - more effectively counters the political dynamic and discourse that perpetuates the occupation. In an environment where there are no effective trans-national mechanisms for the implementation of international law and where Israel has unconditional U.S. support legitimizing its illegal intrusion into the occupied territories, the divestment and boycott movement must move to re-define the language and parameters of the debate in a way that gives due consideration to these realities while offering effective resistance to them. Had there been a concerted international effort to call for equal citizenship for the Palestinians immediately after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, retaining the occupied areas would have been far more politically burdensome. Since Oslo and over the last four years in particular, the results of the established processes has become clear; with the territorial expansion of one ethnic group, separation can be achieved by establishing Palestinian Bantustans and calling them a ‘state.’ Withdrawing from 'area A' or 'the lines held in September 2000' is now deemed to be a historical concession and since one ethnicity comprises the population of the largest settlement blocks, the settlements must be retained by Israel. An important method of opposing these processes is for activists to first of all disengage from the discourse in which they are framed and then to engage a political calculus and language that offers more effective resistance.
Nothing in the foregoing analysis entails that the atrocious matrix of policies that maintain Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza should be ignored or even de-emphasized. The suggestion is that they be described and prioritized in a different way. The visibility and egregiousness of Israel’s occupation policies can be used in the same way that the more brutal and visible aspects of the regime in South Africa were used; to highlight the fact that policies of this nature will invariably flow from a regime that makes the state a blunt instrument of one ethnic group and that this inevitability requires that the institutions of the nation-state itself be reformed the sake of peace.
If this approach is made an integral component of public mobilization in support of divestment and boycott, the social and cultural pressure that the movement builds will be directed at dismantling the structures that have always impeded comprehensive resolution of the conflict. This change in emphasis will also highlight the similarities between the struggle for basic rights and racial equality in Palestine and other struggles for freedom from racial oppression such as the civil rights movement and the campaign against apartheid. It’s important to recognize that after almost forty years of activists priming the consciousness of a significant layer of the U.S. population around the immorality of occupation, that consciousness has not undergone any significant changes. Without a concerted effort to speak in a language that relates the plight of the Palestinians to more familiar histories of oppression, any change from the status quo is unlikely. The underlying nature of the conflict in Palestine may become more visible when activists make it a matter of routine to point out that Israel’s ‘Law of Return’ resembles the ‘White Australia Policy,’ elements of which survived until the mid-1970’s. The aim of this policy was to increase the proportion of whites in the Australian population by using a variety of methods to encourage immigration, including expedited citizenship and settlement subsidies. Non-whites were excluded from these benefits, just as the ‘law of return’ excludes Palestinians from the goods and benefits it entails. One difference between the two cases is that the former group was not expelled en masse from the country that now discriminates against them. In a similar spirit of comparison, activists might discuss the fact that much of Israeli law is a sophisticated version of 'Jim Crow' style regulations.
Divestment and Boycott programs structured to reflect these considerations will be multi-dimensional and generative. To contribute to the long-term goal of targeting the institutional causes of Israeli policy, the campaign will incorporate public mobilization strategies and educational programming that prioritizes building awareness of the structures that need to be dismantled as a pre-requisite for long-term social and political stability in historical Palestine. This approach will ensure that divestment and boycott can build towards the cultural and social exclusion that will eventually transform the consciousness of the perpetrator society and allow it to consider alternative political values and principles on which to base its efforts towards peaceful resolution of the conflict. Broad grassroots mobilization is also a pre-condition of successful lobbying of the executive and legislative branches and should therefore be the primary focus in the initial phase of the movement.
One of the most important concrete dimensions of the campaign – and one that ought to be prioritized - is the work to boycott Israel in the cultural and social spheres. Ideally, this work will eventually cover academia, the world of sport, tourism, and other areas of cultural exchange. Although the U.K. Association of University Teachers decision to boycott Haifa and Bar Ilan Universities has recently been overturned as a result of a well-organized Zionist program aimed at demonizing boycott activists and misrepresenting their motivation for launching the campaign, it’s also important to recognize that the preparation and activism prior to the AUT decision generated a great deal of exposure and debate. This discourse raised awareness of the issues and contributed to mobilization efforts on behalf of the Palestinian cause both in Britain and around the world. Similar processes characterized other fledgling divestment and boycott campaigns that failed to pass resolutions. A successful campaign may not yield a resolution, but it will be the catalyst for crucial debate, mobilization and it will serve to illuminate core issues.
There may be no concrete results in the campaign to boycott Israel in the academic sphere for the next few years. However, it is the mobilization and education embedded in campaigns that are often misleadingly labeled ‘setbacks’ that lay the groundwork for later concrete advances. The ANC issued the call to boycott apartheid in 1956. Decades passed before South Africa was comprehensively excluded from international civil society. Given the organization and power of pro-Israel groups opposing the campaign to boycott Israel, it may take even longer for the Palestine solidarity campaign to see these kinds of results. And yet it’s also important to recognize that there have already been concrete advances for the movement. Several Christian denominations and groups have called for divestment or are in the process of investigating it as a non-violent means of achieving social change in the Holy Land, several trade unions in the U.S. have adopted the approach, and there are active divestment campaigns on University campuses throughout America, including two that have made concrete advances by passing divestment resolutions in student governments, faculty senates, and faculty unions. The academic boycott movement is particularly strong in Europe and has made significant inroads on behalf of the campaign for justice in Palestine.
All this activity has generated enormous public attention, and with this kind of exposure and debate, there has been a significant transformation of public consciousness. The fog of deeply entrenched illusions about Israel is beginning to lift. The very fact that the comparison between Israel and apartheid era South Africa has become an acceptable topic of debate is by itself enormously significant. These changes occurred when Palestine solidarity activists began to mobilize around concrete strategies for social change that empower civil society in its role as a counter-balance to the nation-state’s active support of or indifference to human rights abuses.
To recognize these advances is to understand that the campaign to boycott Israel is well on its way to generating the social and cultural forces that can have an effect on both the perception of Israel in the world and Israeli civil societies’ perception of the Zionist state. To build on and maximize these effects, the boycott should aim at comprehensiveness. This will require that Palestine solidarity activists direct most of their energy and attention to the campaign and to even broader grassroots mobilization. The boycott must eventually be extended to other spheres of cultural and social exchange. For example, although the Israeli economy as a whole is unlikely to be impacted by a grassroots boycott of goods, for the reasons we noted above, there may be specific sectors of the economy that are more vulnerable to the effects of a well-organized boycott. Since it will have a greater impact, activists could think about solidifying their efforts in these sectors before they move to broaden the scope of the goods boycott. Other boycott programs can be creatively implemented in this way.
The movement to end South Africa’s apartheid regime prioritized some issues over others and adopted different methods at different phases of the campaign according to the constraints imposed by diverse institutional contexts and a changing political climate. The divest-from-Israel campaign will have to be flexible to an even greater extent given the organized resistance it faces around the world. This resistance and the need for concrete short to mid-term successes that build momentum in the movement is what led many activist groups to adopt the selective approach to divestment. In tandem with the grassroots mobilization described above, and in conjunction with an effort to use the visibility of the occupation to draw attention to its racist foundations in the Zionist state, selective divestment can be a powerful strategy that effectively negotiates institutional and political hurdles while contributing to the long-term goals of the campaign. It also has the potential to generate the kind of public exposure and debate that can begin to change the perception of Israel that currently exists in the mainstream consciousness.
The effectiveness of this strategy can be further augmented by ensuring that fund managers are presented with alternative investment opportunities that are both morally sound and fiscally viable. For example, investment in U.S. based companies with responsible labour and corporate practices is one option. Israeli and Palestinian fair-trade projects could be another destination for divested funds. In the long-term, this trend can contribute to the building up of alternative, de-centralized, and egalitarian economies that counter the forces of globalized capitalism.
IV Conclusion: Divestment and the ‘Left’ Arm of the Zionist Movement
As solidarity activists it is obviously inappropriate to prioritize the concerns of Israelis over those of Palestinians or vice versa. As Palestinian scholar Nasser Abufarha has pointed out, both peoples are integral components of the same landscape. Recognizing this simple reality is the key to making meaningful progress towards peace. The divestment and boycott campaign should aim to create conditions that facilitate mutual recognition and bi-lateral agreement over the nature of the political arrangements that formalize Palestinian and Israeli rooted ness in the same space. A campaign that aims to realize these ends will be based on a principled stance in support of Palestinian and Israeli rights in their totality, including the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. All too often, organizations and individuals on the ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ wing of the Zionist movement in the U.S. and worldwide profess support for the basic rights that belong to every human being but stop short of openly advocating for the right of return because its implementation would entail the terrible sin of transforming Israel from an ethno-centric Jewish State into a pluralistic society that respects the humanity of all its citizens. Self-Determination does not require ethnic homogeneity and ethnic homogeneity is not a ‘right’ that trumps the interests and concerns of a nation that has long-standing material, cultural, and religious ties to the land claimed by an ethno-national state. The Zionist left often cites prudential reasons for disregarding the rights of the refugees or for refusing to be involved in building a movement that transcends the moral and practical shortcomings of the two-state framework. In a recent article, Noah Cohen has shown that Chomsky’s version of this left ‘pragmatism’ does not stand up to critical scrutiny and that the implementation of basic human rights in Palestine is in reality resisted on the grounds that Israel’s ‘historical vulnerability’ makes it unique amongst colonial nations that commit massive atrocities against the indigenous peoples they conquer. As a result, the logic goes, Israel ought to be held to a different set of standards.
It has already become apparent that divestment and boycott have enormous transformative potential. The unprincipled and disingenuous approach adopted by the Zionist left could dampen this potential and interfere with the long-term success of the movement. It is therefore imperative to keep this in mind as Palestine solidarity activists continue down the path of movement building. It is equally inappropriate for any solidarity group to determine which Palestinians have more valid concerns or to prioritize the concerns of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians over Palestinians in Israel or Palestinians in exile or Palestinians in refugee camps. The Palestinian people, despite their geographical dispersion and political isolation, are a unity, an undivided whole united by their cultural and historical connections to their homeland. When accidental geographical and political divisions are emphasized by the powers that be, the implicit message is that some of you can have some of your rights and the rest of you can have none of your rights. The Palestinian people’s response to this has and always will be that no agreement between corrupt and self-serving governments can annul their rights or dissolve their ties to this piece of land, and that this is something that will always be worth struggling for.
Wendy Ake is a student at Ohio State University where she has organized with the Committee for Justice in Palestine.
Mohammed Abed is a Palestinian exile from the city of Jaffa. He is a PhD candidate and lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has worked extensively for the rights of the Palestinian refugees with Al-Awda – The Palestine Right to Return Coalition. Mohammed is also a member of the Alternative Palestinian Agenda, a grassroots Palestinian organization that advocates for and organizes around the ideas and values of Bi-Nationalism in historical Palestine.