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After the Elections: Solidarities Old and New

[Poster created by the the Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa. Image via Wikimedia Commons.] [Poster created by the the Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

It is no exaggeration to say that some of the most positive assessments of the recent election results in Israel have come from within the Palestine solidarity movement. “Positive” is, of course, not quite the right word, since no one serious about justice in Palestine would suggest that there is any bright side to the fact that Israeli voters rewarded Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party for a campaign that was deeply, viciously, and explicitly racist even by the degraded standards of contemporary Israeli political discourse. That said, there has been a strong sense that Netanyahu’s victory represents a clarifying moment, especially for those viewing the results from outside of Israel/Palestine.

The most prominent example, published in the New York Times the day after the elections, was Yousef Munayyer’s article “Netanyahu’s Win is Good for Palestine.” Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, makes the case that “another term with Mr. Netanyahu at the helm could actually hasten the end of Israel’s apartheid policies,” and argues that “[t]he biggest losers in this election were those who made the argument that change could come from within Israel. It can’t and it won’t.” The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, in an article entitled “Why I’m Relieved Netanyahu Won,” makes a similar case, as does David Palumbo-Liu, one of the most eloquent defenders of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the US academy, who suggests that Netanyahu’s campaign definitively threw liberal supporters of Israel under the bus. After Netanyahu’s convincing re-election victory, Palumbo-Liu concludes, “Liberals defending Israel now have to contend with a new set of challenges, and if they still refuse to endorse the [BDS] movement, they need to come up with positive, proactive proposals of their own. And to say they will engage in ‘dialogue,’ which has not yielded anything better than a reinvigorated right-wing government in Israel, only shows the bankruptcy of that liberal position.” Abunimah sums up these arguments nicely: “In short, Netanyahu’s re-election is like the ‘Nutrition Facts’ label on a box of junk food: it tells you about the toxic ingredients inside.”

It is important to note that such analyses, with which I largely agree, in no way imply that Netanyahu’s election constitutes any sort of good news, especially for Palestinians—quite the opposite. But the cumulative suggestion is that his victory has the potential to become a turning point for the global Palestine solidarity movement. This sense of a turning point can also be found coming from other directions, such as in the recent words of the philosopher Sam Fleischacker, as reported by Corey Robin. From a quite different position—that of a self-professed liberal Zionist—Fleischacker ends in a very similar place to the voices quoted above: “We have long faced the possibility that we will have to choose between a Jewish but undemocratic Israel and a democratic Israel that is no longer a Jewish state. The choice is here now and I favor democracy. The thing to work for now is one person, one vote, from the river to the sea: voting rights for all Palestinians under Israeli rule.”

All of these critical voices also agree upon the primary strategy for carrying forward the struggle for justice in light of the election results, at least from outside Israel/Palestine: that provided by the BDS movement. Munayyer, Abunimah, and Palumbo-Liu all end with an emphasis upon BDS as showing the way forward. Fleischacker, who expresses doubts about BDS as a tactic, nevertheless ends by invoking it as the likeliest way to realize a vision of democracy in Israel/Palestine: “if BDS will help bring that about—not sure that it is, but that’s a strategic matter, not a moral one—then BDS is a good thing.” Even fierce opponents have declared the BDS movement to be the real winner of the Israeli elections.

I am in full agreement with the suggestion that a commitment to the strategy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, as part of a vigorous campaign of international solidarity, is an absolute necessity today. For example, if you have not yet signed on to the academic and cultural boycott, feel free to pause now and do so: here is a link for you to follow.

It should be clear that these words are a “yes” to renewing a commitment to the strategy of BDS. However, what follows should be properly read as a “yes, and…” This is precisely because the current moment, in addition to being an important one for re-committing to the significance of BDS as a strategy of solidarity and liberation, is also an important one for analyzing new contexts, openings, and possibilities for new strategies, alliances, struggles—in other words, emergent forms of solidarity for this new moment. After all, if this post-election context really does represent a new political moment, simply doubling down on existing strategies is not enough; these fresh circumstances also require us to imagine new possibilities to suit this conjuncture. So consider this to be a few notes towards thinking through emergent forms of resistance for this new political moment, focusing specifically upon the US context, the one with which I am most familiar.

Pushing the “S” in BDS

Of the three elements of BDS—boycott, divestment, and sanctions—there have been remarkable successes in the first two categories since the call from Palestinian civil society groups went out in 2005. In particular, product boycotts (such as the campaign against SodaStream) and institutional calls for divestment, including endorsements from major academic and professional organizations in the US and elsewhere, have enjoyed notable success. The notion that there would exist a major movement calling for supporting the academic boycott and for divestment from Israel within my own professional organization, the Modern Language Association, would have been unimaginable to me even five years ago.

Sanctions—the “S” in BDS—has been a less prominent aspect of the movement. Now is an apt moment to amplify the call for international sanctions against Israel. A common trope, among mainstream commentators deploring the election results, is to suggest that states (including the US) wishing to register their objections to Netanyahu’s stated declaration to continue to wage open war upon Palestinians will support a bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN. How this would change the landscape of resistance is of course a larger, and ongoing, conversation. But one responsibility of the solidarity movement is to push this logic much further. After all, the recent election in Israel presents us with the spectacle of a regime overwhelmingly returned to power by an electorate largely thanks to the Prime Minister’s promises to continue to violate international law—indeed, to double down and escalate these violations. At the very least, this provides an opportunity to bring a larger discussion about sanctions into the mainstream. The fact that Palestine has formally become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) could potentially become significant for this strategy of pushing for international sanctions against Israel.

In the US context, this leads to a slightly different but related site of struggle:

Reinvigorating Calls for an End to US Aid

Of course, campaigns to cut off US aid to Israel, particularly military aid, have been ongoing, and represent an important aspect of the solidarity movement. But one of the arguments advanced by the BDS movement, especially in the US, has had to do with the seeming impossibility of such campaigns actually having an impact. After all, the argument goes, the entirety of the US political establishment is in lockstep when it comes to support for Israel; if political partisanship has played any role at all, it has been the attempt of the Democrats and Republicans to outdo each other in espousing their undying support for Israel, regardless of the circumstances.

In suggesting that this moment represents an opportunity to reinvigorate the movement to end US aid to Israel, I am not being naïve about the current state of politics. But a certain kind of partisanship has been introduced into the political climate in the US when it comes to support for the policies being carried out by the state of Israel; it came to a head with Netanyahu bypassing President Obama at the behest of Republicans to address Congress, but it has been brewing for years. It also remains true that the Israeli position, for all the power of lobbyists and ideology, is in fact a quite tenuous one, when you step back and look at it—that of a regime which has opted to remain on a continuous wartime footing while depending on an increasingly uneasy patron to foot the bill. This is a fact that the Onion has been particularly apt in portraying; as so often, satire has something to teach us about the deep politics of our moment.

In both of these cases—working for international sanctions and for an end to US funding for Israeli crimes—some recalibration in both our tactics and our thinking is required. For one thing, this means addressing ourselves to state actors, as well as to global civil society. Again, the reasoning behind rallying the latter, through the call for BDS, has had everything to do with the seemingly constitutive inaction of the former. In a sense, the seeming illogic of appealing for justice from official institutions has been the strongest argument for supporting BDS. But this does not absolve us of the responsibility to fight to create new opportunities and new spaces for struggle, including at the level of states and international institutions.

In response to Netanyahu’s election victory, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) issued a strong statement calling for a redoubling of support for BDS. It included the following declaration: “Netanyahu’s election makes clear that neither an Israeli left nor the governments of Israel and the United States will ever protect Palestinians from policies of Palestinian elimination.” In terms of the traditional arguments that have been made by the BDS movement, this statement makes perfect sense. It is certainly true that the US government will never, left to its own devices, voluntarily act to protect Palestinians. But surely one strategy should be to change the conversation in the United States so that the larger political context might change in turn. As things stand, one of the primary reasons for supporting BDS is the refusal of states and international institutions to sanction Israel for its actions. Taking the movement to the next level means marshaling the gains of BDS precisely to force these states and institutions to act, while at the same time continuing to rally global civil society to support boycott and divestment actions. In this respect, Steven Friedman's 2013 article "Lessons from the Campaign for Sanctions on Apartheid South Africa" contains some crucial suggestions for carrying forward the contemporary campaign for sanctions against apartheid Israel.

In this sense, we may even need to re-think the very term “BDS Movement.” It may be a moment to remind ourselves that the movement is not for BDS, but for the liberation of Palestine; BDS has been a powerful part of this larger movement, but for the Palestine solidarity movement to grow and become more and more effective, it is important to think about other strategies that can be developed alongside BDS, partly as a result of the victories that have been won over the past few years. This relates directly to my third point:

Connecting International Solidarity to New Modes of Resistance in Palestine

One of the points most emphasized by supporters of BDS is that it is a nonviolent tactic in the struggle for social justice. Over the past few months, I have been encountering a particular variation of this point among BDS activists in the US: recently, for example, I saw a US-based activist describe BDS on Facebook as “the only meaningful form of nonviolent Palestinian resistance.” It is beyond my scope here to take up the complexity with which the question of “nonviolent resistance” needs to be addressed (this is a point I have tried to think through at some length elsewhere). My main concern, in this context, is that in some circles, there is the danger that BDS has come to be seen as the only, or only viable, form of nonviolent resistance.

It should go without saying that this is not the case, in light of the myriad forms of resistance that are ongoing in Palestine. One of the strengths of the BDS movement is that it began as a call from Palestinians struggling against Israeli apartheid: it emerged from discussions, debates, and collective actions by Palestinian activists, intellectuals, and civil society organizations. It would be an exaggeration to say that BDS enjoyed, or enjoys, universal support among Palestinians, but it is a movement that from its inception was grounded in the notion that the primary work of an international solidarity movement is to support and amplify the ongoing resistance by Palestinians within Israel/Palestine.

Another strength, as the BDS movement turned its call to global civil society, had to do with the fact that by 2005, there was already a history of collaborative work between international activists and Palestinians. In particular, the previous decade saw the development of a network of international activists who had spent time working with various movements and individuals in Palestine. Again, a larger conversation would be needed to think through the strengths and weaknesses of such collaborative work; the point is that a genealogy of BDS as an international movement should take into account the extent to which it emerged in part as an extension and continuation of the direct action work of groups like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), working (at least in principle) alongside Palestinian groups and individuals.

Not surprisingly, the Israeli government has been particularly vigilant—not to say brutal—in its attempts to prevent internationals from reaching Palestine. The direct attacks on humanitarian flotillas trying to break the siege of Gaza have received the most publicity, but there have also been the everyday efforts to prevent internationals from reaching the West Bank, dramatized by the hysterical and violent response to a “fly-in” organized by activists in 2011. This is not to mention the efforts to prevent intellectuals who have been in any way critical of Israel from having the opportunity to meet with Palestinians in the West Bank, even when, as in the cases of Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk, the reputation of those who have been barred or expelled from Israel has led to temporary periods of embarrassment for the Israeli government.

In light of this attempt to cut off international activists from individuals and movements struggling for justice in Palestine, there is the danger that the international solidarity movement could become isolated from the new forms of resistance emerging in Palestine. In a sense, the success of the BDS movement could potentially exacerbate this problem: as the movement grows and expands to more spaces outside Palestine, it may be increasingly difficult to maintain the original ties to Palestinian resistance movements, at least beyond the rhetorical or romantic mode, at the level of everyday thinking and action.

In particular, there is a need to renew connections with a new generation of Palestinian youth facing new challenges and struggles, including what Nour Joudah describes as the “void” of political leadership. Especially in the wake of the uprisings throughout the region, the struggle for representation and accountability, of a sort not to be found among the institutionalized Palestinian leadership, has become a crucial aspect of the larger struggle for liberation in Palestine. In addition to continuing to work internationally against Israeli apartheid and occupation, therefore, it is important to maintain the sorts of close connections to individuals and movements in Palestine that first inspired the BDS movement.

This means, among other things, analyzing and engaging with new and evolving contexts in Israel/Palestine. For example, commentators who have noted the importance of BDS in the wake of Netanyahu’s victory have generally had little to say about the generally strong showing of the Joint List, and about what sort of a force this might represent politically. There are of course strategic reasons for not unduly emphasizing the successes of the Joint List in the US context: pro-Israel forces could all too easily use this to try to argue for the “robust” state of Israeli democracy, against all other evidence. But this does not excuse those of us who actually care about the question of justice in Israel/Palestine from engaging closely with such emergent realities, and bringing them into the strategies and tactics of the movement.

Palestine Solidarity and Global Anti-Racism

Another key contribution of the BDS movement has been to identify and broadcast the realities of apartheid rule in Israel/Palestine. As actions such as Israeli Apartheid Week have spread and intensified, the analysis of the specificity of Israeli apartheid has become more prominent; pro-Israel forces, which had been apt to dismiss the term, have been forced to seriously contest the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state.

Of course, an important part of this analysis of Israeli apartheid has had to do with comparisons to apartheid South Africa. Similarly, the BDS movement has explicitly presented itself as inspired by the struggle of South Africans, and the solidarity movement that worked alongside them, to end apartheid. Indeed, the initial 2005 Palestinian call for BDS is directly grounded in “the fact that people of conscience in the international community have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott, divestment, and sanctions.” It furthermore declares the Palestinian BDS movement to be “[i]nspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid.”

This parallel with South Africa has been crucial to the analysis of, and struggle against, Israeli apartheid. It is a parallel that has been taken up in particular by activists and intellectuals from South Africa, who have more than once suggested that Israeli apartheid is “more terrifying” than that practiced at the height of apartheid in South Africa. That is to say, the specifically anti-racist struggle carried on in South Africa, and supported by an international solidarity movement, has been central to an understanding of Israeli apartheid.

What has not always been so central, but needs to become so, is a grounding of the Palestine solidarity movement within a larger global anti-racist movement. In the US context—where, as Michelle Alexander has argued persuasively, a regime of mass incarceration and state violence against people of color amounts to a new racial caste system—more work to explicitly connect these struggles (beyond rhetorical links made between Ferguson and Gaza, for instance) must become central to the struggle against Israeli apartheid. On a global level, it is crucial that parallels with South Africa not relegate apartheid to the past, when struggles to implement, preserve, and push forward the gains of the anti-apartheid movement remain ongoing, and fiercely contested, today. Indeed, the need to link the struggle against apartheid in Israel/Palestine to the struggle being carried on in South Africa by groups like Abahlali baseMjondolo and other members of the shack-dwellers movement, and to build concrete solidarity between these struggles, is more crucial than ever today.

To put it differently: the struggle against Israeli apartheid needs to be articulated more clearly as a struggle against white supremacy, on a global scale. In a brilliant late essay, “On Being White…and Other Lies,” published in 1984, James Baldwin made exactly this connection between whiteness, Israeli apartheid, and US hegemony. Baldwin tells the story by which European immigrants to the US become “white,” paying varying prices for this privilege. In particular, he stresses the price paid by the Jewish community to become white, since “Jews came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here, in part, because they were not white; and incontestably—in the eyes of Black Americans (and not only in those eyes) American Jews have opted to become white.” For Baldwin, it is precisely “the Jewish translation into a white American” that in turn underwrites the unstinting US support that sustains the state of Israel. The cost to humanity of this narrative, by which the myth of whiteness becomes the fact of white supremacy, is one that we continue to see enacted today, by and in both the US and Israel:

…they have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives, and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety.

What Baldwin reveals is the way that the rhetorical (“they think they are white”) leads to the most horrific material effects, carried out against all those who disturb the white dream of safety. The echoes here of Netanyahu’s campaign, with his references to “hordes of Arabs…on their way to the polling stations”—as well as the bizarrely racist tone of his defenders in the US—are clear. Equally clear is the need for the Palestine solidarity movement to itself move from the rhetorical to the material. Making the link between Israel and apartheid commits us to centering the struggle against Israeli apartheid in the larger global struggle against racism, in practice as well as words. Projects such as the Black Feminist Think Tank provide important concrete examples of such work, as does Fred Moten’s reminder that “speaking for the boycott, in solidarity with the Palestinians” is in fact “nothing more than another way of saying that I am committed to the black radical tradition.” Pushing forward a commitment to BDS in this moment means re-committing to this black radical tradition.

If I were to sum up the points made in the previous two sections, it would involve an opening up of the Palestine solidarity movement, particularly (but not only) in the US, to the simultaneous influence of new forms of resistance from Palestine and to ongoing struggles against white supremacy across the planet. Here is another way of saying those two things:

Putting the “Internationalism” in “International Solidarity”

Moten’s statement, cited above, comes from an address he made in 2009 in support of a motion (ultimately successful) by which the American Studies Association endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Presented under the title “The New International of Insurgent Feeling,” it is a moving and eloquent assertion of support for BDS, at least in part because it is explicitly committed to imagining and bringing into existence the larger set of international struggles, and the emergent forms of international solidarity, that BDS feeds into.

Crucially, for Moten, this new mode of struggle “takes the form of an anti-national (and anti-institutional) internationalism.” He argues persuasively that the role of the state of Israel in the international context—a role that helps explain the unblinking support of the US and most other states—is that of the “exemplary remainder of sovereignty”:

The state that constantly asserts its right to exist, and its right to insist that its right to exist be constantly recognized by the very ones upon whom that right is built and brutally exercised, is the one that bears the standard for the right of every other state so to exist and to behave….Insofar as the US is also a settler colonial regime whose very essence and protocols are racial-military domination, it shares with Israel, in an extraordinarily visceral way, this tendency violently to insist on its right to exist and on the rightness of its existence no matter what forms that existence takes, no matter how much the everyday life of the state contradicts its stated principles.  

State support for Israel, in other words—most viscerally in the case of the US, but tacitly by the full international system of nation-states—is ultimately an assertion of the right of nation-states themselves to exist, “no matter what forms that existence takes.” It is the struggle against this logic—in Israel/Palestine, in the US, and everywhere—that Moten names as “anti-national internationalism.”

There may seem to be a paradox here: having argued above that the Palestine solidarity movement needs to more effectively address itself to state actors, in order to demand sanctions against Israel and an end to US aid, how can I now agree with Moten’s call for an “anti-national internationalism” as the basis for this same movement? In actuality, there is no contradiction, but rather a dialogic relationship between these different strategies. It is precisely the influence gained through global civil society initiatives such as BDS that in turn gives the Palestine solidarity movement the platform from which to begin to demand actions such as sanctions from state actors. These concrete demands made to states, as well as to international organizations that represent the international state system (such as the UN and the ICC), in turn have the potential, connected back into the global movement, to provide new spaces for the growth of this new internationalism. It is no coincidence, in this sense, that Moten’s speech was addressed to an organization—the American Studies Association—set up around a specifically nation-based discipline, and that the subsequent actions of the ASA to endorse the boycott in turn propelled the members of this discipline outside the boundaries of the nation-state and into the struggles of an international movement, alongside a host of other individuals and groups from across the planet.

Another way of describing this constant negotiation between different scales—connecting local struggles and international movements, addressing nation-states while committing to internationalism—is the process of creating solidarity, as a material reality rather than a slogan. Moten ends his address by offering an apology to Palestinians “for the fact that, in the end, the boycott might very well do more for me than it does for you, precisely in its allowing me to be in solidarity with you.” This apology is in turn augmented “with an expression of gratitude for the chance that your call for solidarity, which is itself an act of solidarity, provides.” There is great humility in Moten’s expression of gratitude for the contribution that BDS, as part of the larger struggle for liberation in Israel/Palestine, might play in the creation of a new internationalism. But the call to solidarity is, by its nature, a reciprocal one, which means that the struggle to create this new internationalism is also reciprocal: it can in turn contribute to Palestinian liberation movements as well. It is no paradox to suggest that the results of a national election must call forth an international response, including both making demands upon states and recommitting to internationalism. The struggle, at this very moment, must be to go faster on all these fronts.

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