When I shop at my local Sainsbury’s I check the usual suspects to see if they are produced in Israel, and if so I don’t buy them. I refuse to treat Israel as if it were a normal state, and this is my little gesture to say so.
But if I’m given a Marks and Spencer’s gift voucher for Christmas, or if I urgently need some coleslaw and can only find it at our local after-hours M&S, I don’t tear up the voucher or forego coleslaw with my baked potato. And when I arrived at Sainsbury’s the other day to find the air resounding with amplified cries of ‘West Bank’, ‘Gaza’, ‘Jordan valley’, ‘Palestinians’, ‘Israeli settlers’ I scurried into an out-of-sight aisle.
Why this lack of moral fibre? Is it that I no longer have the undoubted courage it takes to engage in such actions? Do I feel guilty at abandoning my one-time comrades (which I had done some time before my expulsion)? Perhaps a bit of both. But I’m afraid it’s more that I no longer feel confident, at a gut level, about BDS.
I ask myself: What is BDS, at best, likely to achieve? Without the support of the international community, I can’t see it bringing Israel to its knees. The US is committed to Israel’s survival. But what, then, of the moral effect of significant pressure? Won’t this bring about a touchier-feelier Israel, or Israel-Palestine, one which respects universal rights?
Those who argue for such an effect seem to fall into three camps; two-staters, one-staters and vague humanitarians. The two-state solution is dead, and would in any case almost certainly have required the Palestinians to accept a severe curtailing of their rights vis-à-vis Israel. On the other hand, the one-state solution, if it granted Palestinians equal rights, would involve the end of Zionism. Let’s think about that a little
Without the end of Zionism the oppression of the Palestinians will continue. Those who favour BDS argue that there is a parallel between Apartheid South Africa and Israel. They say the equivalent of BDS in the anti-Apartheid movement played an important part in overthrowing that regime.
I have two reservations about this theory. The first is that there was very little ideological support for Apartheid beyond South Africa, while there is massive ideological support for Zionism. The second is that the demise of Apartheid came immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It is not difficult to see how the two were connected. In other words, Apartheid was more vulnerable than Zionism, and even then it was a global shift in power which really brought about the change.
But to return to the vague humanitarians, they don’t think, they just feel that if we believe firmly enough in BDS there will somehow be a just outcome, even if we can’t conceive at present what that might be. They are inclined to say: ‘Israel is there. You can’t change facts.’ Well, the British Empire, Apartheid South Africa and the Soviet Union were there, and now they are no more. The question is how such a change might be achieved in Israel-Palestine? I’m doubtful that BDS is the answer.
The main attraction of BDS, it seems to me, is that it offers the possibility of almost unlimited activity in a campaigning situation which is otherwise almost totally stalemated. It feels good to be doing something, and the less we think about it the better. I have already stated how I believe that stalemate could be broken, so I won’t restate my position here.
If I am right in doubting the effectiveness of BDS, is it possible that it could actually be counter-productive? For example, while it’s reasonable for an oppressed people to say that they are prepared to suffer further for the sake of a campaign which will eventually liberate them, if that campaign is a forlorn hope, will they simply suffer further (e.g. from lack of employment) in vain?
And then there is the question of targeting companies which in some way support Israel. Our entire political, economic and cultural system is complicit in Israeli crimes. Is it then wise to target particular firms like Marks and Spencer’s, thereby implying that complicity is limited?
And lastly there is a really uncomfortable thought. Could it be that the pin-pricks of BDS inoculate Israel against further effective action, by strengthening its resolve and resources, rather than delivering a lethal injection?