In recent reactions to the BDS movement, writers like Peter Beinart, Daniel Levy and Thomas Friedman have offered criticism. This criticism, however, which views the question of Palestine through the prism of Zionism, is incapable of grappling with a movement that views the same question through a humanist perspective of rights.
“I cannot support or accept the call of the BDS movement,” Levy writes, because “it has nothing to say about Jewish collective, communal or national Jewish interests. And, the refusal to proscribe a political result—to explain the end goal of BDS—is not a minor thing.”
Let’s unpack this. What is BDS? The BDS movement is a global movement called for by Palestinian civil society that aims to pressure Israel to meet three requirements: 1) self-determination for Palestinians in the occupied territories, 2) a Right of Return for Palestinian refugees and 3) full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
BDS is not a political movement; it is, and I think by design, a rights-based movement. It does not aim to draw borders. This is not because of a philosophy about one state or two, but rather because a person’s location on one side of a border or the other has no bearing on their inalienable human rights.
The question of Palestine has always been one of rights—rights to vote, rights to return to and live on your land, rights to equality among others—and not simply one of identity. Palestinians are not in search of a national-state identity; we know who we are, and we are the people of Yaffa, Haifa, Nablus, Ramallah, Gaza, Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine.
This is perhaps why the ‘peace process’ was such a dismal failure. It attempted to Zionize the Palestinian cause, converting it from a cause of rights to a cause for an ethnically homogeneous state to address a Zionism-created problem of statelessness within the confines of 22% of Palestine. Palestinians do not want a state for the sake of having a state, a flag, an anthem, an army, or a president. Palestinians who supported a two-state outcome only sought a Palestinian state in so far as that state would be a vehicle toward realizing Palestinian rights.
What became clear over the past 20 years of peace processing is that even in the best case scenario a Palestinian state would come only at the significant expense of Palestinian rights. Edward Said and many other Palestinians knew this at the beginning of the Oslo process and made their objections known. Today, two decades and 400,000 Israeli settlers later, even Yossi Beilin, the Israeli architect of Oslo, tells us the peace process is a ‘farce.’
'Liberal Zionists' like Beinart, Levy and Friedman are somewhat supportive of Palestinian human rights as long as they do not challenge Zionist domination of politics and stay behind a border. But the reality is that human rights should exist where humans exist—and there are humans on both sides of every border.
'Liberal Zionists' are very clear as to why they won’t support BDS: because the realization of Palestinian rights challenges what Levy terms “national Jewish interests.”
No reasonable person would have demanded Martin Luther King bring a draft of the Civil Rights Act to every protest assuring Whites that equality for Blacks would not mean the end of White privilege or domination over political affairs.
So why does merely supporting Palestinian rights challenge these ‘national Jewish interests?’ Why does supporting the human rights of one people mean taking something away from another?
It is because Zionism holds that these two things, Palestinian human rights and "national Jewish interests" are mutually exclusive. It’s because Zionism was put into action at the expense of the rights of Palestinians and that the maintenance of Israeli Jewish monopolization of political control demands the continued violation of Palestinian rights.
The way forward requires us to challenge this false dichotomy, which means challenging Zionism. The human rights of Israeli Jews do not need to be violated in any way for the human rights of Palestinians to be realized.
More people than ever before are realizing today that Zionism was the wrong answer to the Jewish question. The right answer was civil and human rights for all regardless to ethnicity or creed. The BDS movement understands that a Zionist approach to the question of Palestine is flawed and has, instead, chosen a rights-based framework.
Perhaps the reason ‘liberal Zionists’ have so much trouble with BDS is precisely because it makes the incompatibility of liberalism and Zionism that much harder to hide.