Only BDS can force Israel to prove it’s a democracy for its Arab citizens too

When Michael Karayanni was appointed law school dean, Isaac Herzog hailed it as ‘break[ing] another glass ceiling for Israel’s Arabs’. But one academic’s success can’t erase Israel’s institutionalized racism directed at its Arab citizens.

Several commentators and politicians have rushed to utilize the appointment of Professor Michael Karayanni to the deanship of Israel’s Hebrew University’s Law School to bolster the “bridging the gaps” narrative. To them, this appointment is a refutation of the BDS movement. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, for instance, tweeted that this is a “historic step that breaks another glass ceiling for Israel’s Arabs”.

Yet, Karayanni’s well-deserved appointment does not lend support to these arguments. In fact, it supports the opposite conclusions. Like in previous cases, the prevailing discourse inverts the relation between the exception and the rule — the exception is deployed to conceal the rule rather than to prove it. The achievement itself becomes evidence of the rule, whereas the arduous process Karayanni and Arab citizens go through recedes from view.

Should we not ask: Why did it take so long for an accomplished Arab jurist like Karayanni to become dean of an Israeli law school? Why do so few tenured Arab professors teach in Israeli academia? Are a handful of individual success stories enough to break the ceiling, as Herzog would have it? Will they magically solve inequalities in infrastructure, education, and zoning plans? Will they provide redress to unrecognized villages, discrimination in land allocation, and segregation in housing? Instead of spotlighting exceptional stories and individuals, should not Israeli society address the structural and collective impediments that make those elevating stories the exception, rather than the rule?

Karayanni’s appointment illustrates Israel’s Arab citizens’ double bind more than it does the breaking of any ceiling: every time an individual Arab in Israel secures a professional achievement, she becomes proof of Israel’s goodness (to the moderate right-wing), or its progressive evolution (to the center-left).

In this Israeli self-serving discourse, lack of qualifications explains the absence of Arabs from leading positions. In other words, structural racism has nothing to do with it. If, on the other hand, the individual Arab is successful, it confirms the openness of the system.

It thus proves an already existing thesis: that the system works well by allowing for individual success. The individual’s qualifications become incidental to her success. Either way, this discourse does not seriously question the socio-political system that institutionalizes discrimination against Arab citizens. It does not refute the analogy to South Africa’s apartheid. Karayanni’s success is despite Israel’s system, not because of it.

What are the implications of Karayanni’s appointment to the current debate on the legitimacy of the BDS movement, which includes the boycott of Israeli academic institutions? The BDS movement calls for boycotting institutions, not individuals, due to their complicity and contribution to the oppression of the Palestinian people. This ranges from discriminatory student admissions and staff hiring policies to complicity, and often direct support, to the longest military occupation since World War II.

Karayanni’s appointment should highlight what is missing in the fierce debate about the legitimacy of BDS, namely, the underlying goals of the campaign against Israel. Most BDS discussions are focused on ending the brutal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, this is only one of three goals of BDS. The other goals highlight the denial of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their homeland, and ending the institutional discrimination against the Palestinian minority in Israel.

Instead of seriously reflecting on whether and why BDS is necessary or valuable, Israel and its supporters are diverting the conversation by focusing on whether it is legitimate or legal to engage in a form of protest rooted in nonviolence, grassroots organization, and civic mobilization. They obfuscate the issues by outlawing BDS calls, demonizing the movement, and falsely accusing its supporters of anti-Semitism and even terrorism.

The anti-BDS efforts clearly aim to silence any debate concerning Israel and its policies in historic Palestine. They seek to have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and civil society activism not only in Israel, but now increasingly in North American and European countries. Governor Cuomo of New York’s recent order to blacklist companies and institutions that support BDS is only a recent example. Despite these misguided efforts, the BDS movement has experienced great success in moving the international dialogue and shifting the burden of proof onto Israel to prove that it is a democracy for all its citizens and that it respects the human rights of Palestinians and their right to self-determination.

Ultimately, the prevailing self-serving discourse is as untenable as the general politics of defenders of Israel, a politics grounded in the stubborn denial of facts and realities. It will not be able to credibly reconcile supporters of Israel’s oppressive policies with their complicity in Israel’s crimes and violations of international law indefinitely.

An individual success story cannot justify all of this and erase everyone else’s reality. Karayanni deserves his appointment and that it be an ordinary recognition of an accomplished individual who is treated as an equal to his Jewish peers. Palestinians have the right to end their oppression and to be treated equally and with dignity. Until that happens, we will continue to support BDS.