What the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions activists want

Mike Berger on what the authors of Israel Apartheid Week are really aiming for

I attended a performance of the Theatre of the Surreal as part of Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) at the University of Cape Town.. This particular production was presided over by Dean Cool, whose task was to create the illusion of academic respectability. The chief actors on stage were Prof Unctuous, Mr Revolutionary and Mr Pedantic. The basic script was the same for each but they were apparently free to present the material in the style which best suited their temperaments and talents. 

The audience all knew the script, of course. They were divided into "supporters" and a somewhat smaller number of "opponents" reflecting a greater range of ages but almost all Jewish.

The script was (and is) straightforward in substance but allows for a certain flexibility of emphasis depending on the performer and the occasion. The foundational message is that Israel is a mighty, colonial, apartheid, racist,militaristic, occupying and  illegitimate state oppressing, brutalising, humiliating, stealing from and murdering its helpless and innocent victims, the Palestinians.  

This allowed Prof Unctuous to suggest IAW is an expression of "our shared humanity".  A noble (and well-funded and organised) sentiment indeed, but it does raise one question: how come it is Israel alone which arouses such passionate responses in Prof Unctuous and his allies?

Why does  Prof Unctuous remain apparently unmoved by the 70 000 dead in Syria, the 5 000 -  20 000 or more women killed or disfigured annually in honour killings across Muslim societies, the endless roll call of victims of Muslim violence amounting to about 11 million over the past 6 decades, most of them fellow Muslims, or the genocide in the Sudan? Where is the "shared humanity" when it comes to dispossed Tibetans, the victims of human rights abuses in Africa or of the political corruption and massive inequalities in our own country?

I would like to suggest an answer. The authors of the IAW script, namely, the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists, are deliberately vague on outcomes though very clear on the message. But Norman Finkelstein, veteran and avid critic of Israel was very explicit in his interpretation of intent, "We have to be honest... They [BDS Movement] don't want Israel. They think they're being very clever, they call it their three tier - we want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. And they... know the result of implementing all three is what? ...There's no Israel... there's no Israel, full stop..."

Whether Israel is to end with a bang - let's call it the Iranian preference - or a whimper (the Open Shuhada Street option), the intended outcome of the BDS project is the end of Israel as a Jewish state... full stop. This is where the IAW and Prof Unctuous come in.

Such an outcome must be sold to the world at large. By the 1980s it was clearly understood by all that the Palestinians, even together with virtually any combination of Arab states, could not defeat or destroy Israel without incurring their own destruction. But the situation was not hopeless, at least in their eyes. They had a number of advantages: much larger populations, highly authoritarian societies in which the flow of information and interpretation could be controlled and a unifying religion which was in the process of being radicalised into a potent political weapon.

At the same time, and this is crucial, the powerful and self-reinforcing  leftward drift of Western academic and media elites offered much better potential allies than the discredited, old-style anti-Semites still existing in pockets in the West and Eastern Europe. While Arab-Muslim anti-Semitism was rife and virulent it could be kept hidden from the Western populations with the aid of their new  allies.

Hence, at this point in the 1990s and especially at Durban, 2001, the BDS project was initiated. The programme was simple - first, demonise Israel in any way and at every opportunity possible to inflame public opinion and render Zionism and Israel synonymous with "Nazi" and "apartheid" as terms of universal abhorrence.  Secondly, offer a programme of action in the form of the BDS campaign and, thirdly, finish Israel off by any means available, from diplomatic for the squeamish to physical genocide for the more enthusiastic.

Parts of this project were easy to implement. It was fairly simple to manufacture, exaggerate and distort reality. Just a steady stream of unsupported allegation will do the trick in the absence of contrary direct experience, as every social-cognitive psychologist or propagandist will attest. It was also easy to co-opt academia and the media in the main. They were already primed for anti-colonial narratives, could pass off the surreal as academic discourse or media freedom and there were good career or psychological factors favouring active participation or surreptitious complicity in some cases.

But the campaign also encountered many problems. Diaspora Jewry ws not a pushover and they mounted a counter-offensive (with often token support from Israel let it be recorded). Even more importantly, many Christians, especially the "Evangelical" movement, made Israel's cause their own. Then, despite every attempt at filtering and selecting news and comment, the excesses, volatility and violence of the Arab-Muslim world was just too big an elephant to hide away successfully. Those not wholly blinded by ideology and an urge to punitive action, simply could not ignore the threat the Islamist movement poses to the whole world, including moderate Muslim aspirations.

But, most importantly, Israel has continued being successful and generally maintaining those values that define current Western aspirations. It is an economic and technological powerhouse in the region. It remains democratic, often painfully so under the circumstances. It is attempting to redress many of the past injustices, relatively slight though they were, to their own Arab citizens. Its diplomatic outreach is significant. Western leaders and others understand the dynamics and significance of the region in ways that the general populace do not, given the distortions in the mainstream media. And, on top of that, Israel has unexpectedly found huge reserves of gas and oil within its territory which undermines its economic vulnerability. 

So, repellent as the BDS campaign is, it is a lost cause. The chief victims of Prof Unctuous's "shared humanity", and we must not forget or forgive this, are peaceful Palestinians themselves and other Arabs and Muslims seeking a way to productively reconcile their own traditions with a global, modern world. They need our support as we need theirs.

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