The Moral Argument Against BDS

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
November 29, 2010

New Israel Fund (NIF) Director of Communications Naomi Paiss “Don’t Divest; Invest” makes an important statement by rejecting the global boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and its accompanying “apartheid” rhetoric. Paiss reaffirms the notion that BDS is totally incongruous with Jewish values, and demonstrates that progressives within the community cannot tolerate its “inflammatory and counter-productive” agenda. Her piece is a sharp blow to the very legitimacy of BDS campaigns, particularly those conducted by Jewish groups (see “Peace Process or Land Grab?” by Rebecca Vilkomerson).

However, although her argument is compelling, Paiss significantly understates the case against BDS. Yes, attempts to isolate Israel “penalize the innocent along with the guilty, push moderates towards right-wing nationalism, and spur rejection of progressive and humanist values.” But, more importantly, BDS is the antithesis of universal human rights values, rooted in immoral double standards that single out and condemn Israel as a pariah state. The BDS movement also rejects the very existence of Israel as a Jewish entity. Inasmuch as BDS activists seek to eliminate Jewish self-determination, the movement (as a movement, not necessarily every individual linked to it) is anti-Semitic.

The core goals of the BDS agenda expose the true nature of the movement. One of them is the “rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes,” falsely portrayed as a “precept of international law.” There is no such legal obligation, nor is the right of return a peaceful goal. Rather, it is an attempt to reverse partition, refight 1948 – at least demographically – and overturn the right to Jewish sovereignty.

It is, therefore, no surprise that proponents of BDS resort to racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. A particularly offensive and common theme – exemplified by the hate speech of PACBI’s Omar Barghouti, Electonic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, and others – is identifying Israel with Nazi Germany and the IDF with Nazi soldiers. The Palestinian Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) known as Sabeel claims that “Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him,” persecuted by an “Israeli government crucifixion system.” These pronouncements revive classic anti-Semitic theological themes.

BDS methods are also emblematic of the anti-Semitic goals. BDS targets Israel, its businesses, academics, cultural activities, and even companies that do business with it – not the settlements. This is an extension of the Arab boycott and refusal to recognize Israel. Changes to specific policies or actions of the Israeli government will not end the attacks, and they will continue until the maximalist demands are met – the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.

Yet, these realities are nowhere to be found in Paiss’ discussion, which identifies “tactical” and strategic problems with BDS: it “embodies the message that Israel cannot and will not change itself…it is inflammatory and counter-productive.” But even if BDS messaging were improved and there was no backlash among “besieged” Israelis, BDS would still be immoral and inherently wrong.

Given NIF’s lack of a moral argument against BDS, it is not surprising to learn that NIF is misguided when it comes to funding groups that are active in the global BDS movement. For example, the Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP) has received significant grants from NIF since 2006. CWP runs a project – “Who Profits?” – which lists Israeli and international companies that are located in or directly profit from investments in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The project was “initiated in response to the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel” and is used by BDS activists to identify corporations to target with anti-Israel divestment. Who Profits? receives tax-deductible donations through NIF’s offices in the US, UK, and Switzerland.

Contrary to the façade of targeted boycotts against “products and services that come from the settlements” that Paiss endorses in her article, CWP attacks the institutions of Israeli business because “it’s impossible to separate the occupation economy… from the normative economy of Israel.” In other words, when we say “occupation,” we mean all of Israel. (This follows directly from Palestinian rhetoric that labels Tel Aviv and Haifa “settlements” and views all of Israel as built on stolen land.) Whereas Paiss praises the Israeli artists who refuse to perform in Ariel, the logic of BDS dictates boycotting all Israeli artists, even the boycotters. In the words of the umbrella Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, “Israelis who oppose the occupation…must be willing to accept that there is a price to pay to end the colonial oppression being perpetrated in their names. …The price that some conscientious Israelis may pay as an unavoidable byproduct of the boycott is quite modest when compared to the price Palestinians have to pay for the lack of boycotts or any similarly effective pressures on Israel.”

Who Profits, in fact, has become a major resource for the BDS movement, providing names of corporations that CWP alleges have connections to the settlements. An October report, for instance, named “almost all of the Israeli commercial banks” and accused them of “having a central role in the perpetuation of the current unlawful and unjust conditions.” For Who Profit’s primary audience, BDS activists, this publication is another target list, likely to be used by CWP and its cohorts to lobby European financial bodies in favor of removing Israeli banks from their portfolios.

Another recipient of major NIF funding, Adalah (over $1.1 million since 2006), plays a different, but equally damaging role in the global de-legitimization campaign. Officials from this NGO co-authored “Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?,” a study that accuses Israel of placing Palestinians in “reserves and ghettoes” and criminalizes Israeli self-defense measures as “inhumane act[s] of apartheid…perpetrated in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another.” As noted by Paiss, the BDS movement is premised upon the “historically inaccurate and inflammatory” comparison to apartheid South Africa. Yet Adalah continues to benefit from NIF’s support.

Adalah also promotes BDS by spearheading efforts “to portray Israel as an inherent undemocratic state and use that as part of campaigning internationally.” Indeed, in October 2009, an Adalah representative told the UN Human Rights Council that “the Israeli legal and judicial systems have consistently failed in providing any legal remedies for the Palestinian people.” Considering that Adalah has petitioned Israeli courts on Palestinian rights issues dozens of times, including numerous victories in the Supreme Court, the crude statement made in the UN is particularly disingenuous.

The Need for Coherent Funding Guidelines NIF has set itself a noble, yet difficult mission: to support and improve Israel, enable and engender healthy criticism, but repudiate those that want to isolate and delegitimize Israel. However, as noted, these important goals are not always reflected in NIF’s funding decisions.

This contradiction reinforces the need to establish firm funding guidelines that reflect ethical norms, best practices, and the organization’s vision. As noted by Washington political strategist Steve Rabinowitz, “Non-profits need guidelines, because who has the time to think about this in the heat of the moment?”

For the mainstream Jewish community, BDS crosses a “red line” of acceptable activities. For instance, in February 2010 the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco announced a policy to refuse funding to groups that “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.”

Similarly, in an endeavor with national implications, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in partnership with the Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA) has launched the Israel Action Network to fight de-legitimization and BDS. There is a broad consensus that BDS must be confronted and defeated, not defended and funded.

However, when NIF announced its “funding guidelines” in September 2010, the question of BDS was glaringly absent. Naomi Paiss’ op-ed, described by Zeek as the “first public response from the New Israel Fund on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS),” is a step toward moral clarity. Perhaps she is announcing a policy whereby boycotts of “products and services made in the settlements” and “opposing government expenditures there” are acceptable, if not advised, for its grantees. But, support for the wider BDS movement against Israel, as epitomized by CWP’s activities, is out-of-bounds.

Even before Paiss’ article, NIF had taken principled stands against BDS, including public opposition to the UC Berkeley divestment proposal – which, ironically, was backed by CWP. NIF must now acknowledge the immorality of the BDS movement and its incongruity with human rights values, and end all support for its grantees – such as CWP and Adalah – that engage in BDS and pursue anti-Israel de-legitimization campaigns.

Naftali Balanson is managing editor of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution that promotes accountability and transparency among non-governmental organizations that claim to protect human rights in the Middle East.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by