Monday, December 8, 2014

A point by point response to Alan Dershowitz’s ‘Ten Reasons Why The BDS Movement Is Immoral’

Samantha Brotman on December 8, 2014 


The call for BDS is growing louder across the country. Student governments from California to Massachusetts have voted to endorse BDS, the Middle East Studies Association has voted to officially sanction discussion on the topic, and BDS activism has proven an effective means to influence corporate decisions on more than one occasion. All of this has Israel’s supporters scared. Alan Dershowitz, professor of Law emeritus at Harvard University and well-known pro-Israel activist, is one such supporter of Israel whose writing has served as a basis for Zionist talking points on a range of issues, including BDS.

Ever since I began publicly expressing my outrage at last summer’s Israeli assault on Gaza, and especially since I’ve helped to found a local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, many of my Jewish friends and colleagues have come out of the social media woodwork to try and “help,” as I have clearly lost my way. Several have sent me links to Alan Dershowitz’s Ten Reasons Why The BDS Movement Is Immoral, hoping to bring me back into their Zionist fold.

Lately, the pressure around BDS is mounting. Many academic institutions and student governments around the country are battling internally over whether to endorse or refuse calls for BDS. Likewise, in the wake of the firing of Steven Salaita here at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the importance of BDS activism has become even more glaringly obvious. As such, I figured it was time to stop scoffing indignantly into my computer keyboard, and time to start turning those scoffs into responses. Below, Dershowitz’s ten reasons are written in bold, and my exhausted and sometimes snarky responses are written beneath.

1. The BDS movement immorally imposes the entire blame for the continuing Israeli occupation and settlement policy on the Israelis. It refuses to acknowledge the historical reality that on at least three occasions, Israel offered to end the occupation and on all three occasions, the Palestinian leadership, supported by its people, refused to accept these offers. In 1967, I played a small role in drafting UN Security Council Resolution 242 that set out the formula for ending the occupation in exchange for recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace. Israel accepted that Resolution, while the Palestinians, along with all the Arab nations, gathered in Khartoum and issued their three famous “nos:” No peace, no negotiation, no recognition. There were no efforts to boycott, sanction or divest from these Arab naysayers. In 2000-2001, Israel’s liberal Prime Minister Ehud Barak, along with American President Bill Clinton, offered the Palestinians statehood, and the end of the occupation. Yasser Arafat rejected this offer—a rejection that many Arab leaders considered a crime against the Palestinian people. In 2007, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians an even better deal, an offer to which they failed to respond. There were no BDS threats against those who rejected Israel’s peace offers. Now there are ongoing peace negotiations in which both parties are making offers and imposing conditions. Under these circumstances, it is immoral to impose blame only on Israel and to direct a BDS movement only against the nation state of the Jewish people, that has thrice offered to end the occupation in exchange for peace.

You would be hard pressed to find a BDS supporter who places zero blame on Palestinian leaders. But this is not an even what I would call a “conflict.” This is not a “fair fight,” and Israel has been and continues to be an occupying force with unprecedented military might. So, yes, of course there is sometimes political jockeying and irrational behavior on the part of Palestinian leaders. But to say that BDS is immoral because it places blame for the occupation and settlements on the occupiers and the settlers is nothing short of absurd.

Furthermore, these “deals” that Israel has offered are not such great deals, after all. Just to pick on one of your examples: you are being disingenuous by pointing to those three famous “nos” without including the “until” bit. The complete stance was that there was to be no peace, no recognition, no negotiation UNTIL Israel withdraws from all of the occupied territories as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 242.

2. The current BDS movement, especially in Europe and on some American university campuses, emboldens the Palestinians to reject compromise solutions to the conflict. Some within the Palestinian leadership have told me that the longer they hold out against making peace, the more powerful will be the BDS movement against Israel. Why not wait until the BDS strengthens their bargaining position so that they won’t have to compromise by giving up the right of return, by agreeing to a demilitarized state and by making other concessions that are necessary to peace but difficult for some Palestinians to accept? The BDS movement is making a peaceful resolution harder.

Wait, let me make sure I understand this. A movement that seeks to empower its members to stand up for their rights and desires is immoral because it empowers its members to stand up for their rights and desires? Maybe we need to have a talk about what immoral means. I looked it up, and I can tell you that it doesn’t mean “things Alan Dershowitz doesn’t like”.

3. The BDS movement is immoral because its leaders will never be satisfied with the kind of two state solution that is acceptable to Israel. Many of its leaders do not believe in the concept of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. (The major leader of the BDS movement, Marwan Barghouti, has repeatedly expressed his opposition to Israel’s right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people even within the 1967 borders.) At bottom, therefore, the leadership of the BDS movement is opposed not only to Israel’s occupation and settlement policy but to its very existence.

Again, I need to be sure I am understanding this correctly. BDS is immoral because its leaders don’t want exactly what Israel wants? Can we at least agree that Israeli leaders are not Gods? They are human politicians who can be swayed by public opinion, lust for power, personal biases, etc. So, if we can agree on that, then “what is acceptable to Israel” is not the gold standard by which we should measure what is good and pure. Using the logic of your point, BDS supporters could argue that Israel is immoral because its leaders will never be satisfied with the kind of solutions that are acceptable to Palestinians. Which, by the way, according to the BDS’ official call, are: That Israel end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967, dismantle the Wall, recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194. Note the conspicuous lack of “throw the Jews into the sea.”

By the way, Alan, I’m pretty sure you mean Omar Barghouti, the man who literally wrote the book on BDS, not Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian political figure. But what’s the difference, right?

4. The BDS movement is immoral because it violates the core principle of human rights: namely, “the worst first.” Israel is among the freest and most democratic nations in the world. It is certainly the freest and most democratic nation in the Middle East. Its Arab citizens enjoy more rights than Arabs anywhere else in the world. They serve in the Knesset, in the Judiciary, in the Foreign Service, in the academy and in business. They are free to criticize Israel and to support its enemies. Israeli universities are hot beds of anti-Israel rhetoric, advocacy and even teaching. Israel has a superb record on women’s rights, gay rights, environmental rights and other rights that barely exist in most parts of the world. Moreover, Israel’s record of avoiding civilian casualties, while fighting enemies who hide their soldiers among civilians, is unparalleled in the world today. The situation on the West Bank is obviously different because of the occupation, but even the Arabs of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tulkarim have more human and political rights than the vast majority of Arabs in the world today. Moreover, anyone—Jew, Muslim or Christian—dissatisfied with Israeli actions can express that dissatisfaction in the courts, and in the media, both at home and abroad. That freedom does not exist in any Arab country, nor in many non-Arab countries. Yet Israel is the only country in the world today being threatened with BDS. When a sanction is directed against only a state with one of the best records of human rights, and that nation happens to be the state of the Jewish people, the suspicion of bigotry must be considered.

Truthfully, the only time I’ve ever heard this “the worst first” core principle of human rights talk is amid bullshit tornadoes of right-wing punditry. So, to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, I googled it! I got “the worst first date ever” and “The worst first pitch ever”… But I didn’t come up with anything that dictated where and when one is allowed to focus on human suffering. But you know what, Alan, you’re right, horrible things happen everywhere. Thank goodness you pointed that out. But saying, “other people do bad/worse things!” isn’t doing you any favors. It’s admitting that Israel is on the list of countries deserving of international attention for its’ human rights abuses and illegal activity. Are you just trying to argue that it’s not very high up on that list? It’s not “as bad as” other countries? Do we really need to engage in the evil Olympics? Should not the call for social justice be heeded no matter where it is?

Furthermore – and this is just me speaking personally – the human rights violations taking place elsewhere in the world are not being carried out in my name as a Jew. So, I’ll go ahead and focus on Israel and Palestine for now.

5. The BDS movement is immoral because it would hurt the wrong people: it would hurt Palestinian workers who will lose their jobs if economic sanctions are directed against firms that employ them. It would hurt artists and academics, many of whom are the strongest voices for peace and an end to the occupation. It would hurt those suffering from illnesses all around the world who would be helped by Israeli medicine and the collaboration between Israeli scientists and other scientists. It would hurt the high tech industry around the world because Israel contributes disproportionally to the development of such life enhancing technology.

I hate this argument. This reminds me of those who argue that sweatshops are good because they provide jobs. He is right, people are sometimes forced to work in conditions that are horrible and degrading because the entire system around them is built to benefit others at their expense. Similarly, there are some Palestinians who depend on Israeli companies – like Sodastream – for work. It’s a shame that they would have to suffer should companies like Sodastream go under as a result of BDS. But BDS, and other movements like it, are forced to reckon with long-term, big picture ideas. It would be a lot better if Palestinians weren’t compelled to work for the very people who they perceive to be occupying their land and torturing their people. That’s how bad their economic situation is. They suck it up and go to work for “the enemy” because they have to. Because Israel won’t let the Palestinian economy develop.

See: Sara Roy, “The Gaza Strip: A Case of Economic De-Development” for more on this.


6. The BDS movement is immoral because it would encourage Iran—the world’s leading facilitator of international terrorism—to unleash its surrogates, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, against Israel, in the expectation that if Israel were to respond to rocket attacks, the pressure for BDS against Israel would increase, as it did when Israel responded to thousands of rockets from Gaza in 2008-2009.

You may or may not have a point here, but I can’t even begin to consider what you said because you have me so distracted by your mention of the Israeli “response” to rockets from Gaza in 2008-2009. Just to be clear, Alan, you are talking about the response that the UN deemed disproportionate? That time when Israel dropped phosphorous cluster bombs on civilians? You’re talking about that “conflict” that resulted in Palestinian deaths outnumbering Israeli deaths by almost 100:1? For your own sake, Alan, don’t refer to Operation Cast Lead when you’re trying to argue in favor of Israel. It just makes you look silly.

7. The BDS movement is immoral because it focuses the world’s attention away from far greater injustices, including genocide. By focusing disproportionately on Israel, the human rights community pays disproportionately less attention to the other occupations, such as those by China, Russia and Turkey, and to other humanitarian disasters such as that occurring in Syria.

You already said this.

8. The BDS movement is immoral because it promotes false views regarding the nation state of the Jewish people, exaggerates its flaws and thereby promotes a new variation on the world’s oldest prejudice, namely anti-Semitism. It is not surprising therefore that the BDS movement is featured on neo-Nazi, Holocaust denial and other overtly anti-Semitic websites and is promoted by some of the world’s most notorious haters such as David Duke.

Please do not conflate Israel with Jews everywhere. Please do not conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. This only serves to discredit those who try to illuminate and eradicate actual anti-Semitism.

See this. Cantor Michael Davis says it much more eloquently.

9. The BDS movement is immoral because it reflects and encourages a double standard of judgment and response regarding human rights violations. By demanding more of Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people, it expects less of other states, people, cultures and religions, thereby reifying a form of colonial racism and reverse bigotry that hurts the victims of human rights violations inflicted by others.

You already said this. Twice. This makes three times. I’m bored.

10. The BDS movement will never achieve its goals. Neither the Israeli government nor the Israeli people will ever capitulate to the extortionate means implicit in BDS. They will not and should not make important decisions regarding national security and the safety of their citizens on the basis of immoral threats. Moreover, were Israel to compromise its security in the face of such threats, the result would be more wars, more death and more suffering.

Well that’s just, like, your opinion, man. And since when did unfeasibility/unlikelihood = immorality?

Bottom line: I’m glad Dershowitz is scared enough of BDS to take time out of his very busy schedule to write a list like this. This means something is working.

About Samantha Brotman

Samantha Brotman is a Visiting Lecturer & Arabic Specialist at the UIUC's Intensive English Institute. She also works as a project coordinator with The Arab Studies Institute. She is an alumna of University of Oregon and of Georgetown University's MA in Arab Studies, where she researched Christian and Jewish Zionism. She drafted the Jewish Community Letter in Support of Professor Salaita earlier this month.