Talal Asad: Why do I support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement?

[ Savage Minds is honored to publish this essay by Talal Asad. He teaches anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and specializes on religion and politics in the Middle East and Europe.]

I have never visited Israel, or the occupied West Bank and Gaza, but I have several friends, Jews and Palestinians, who teach in universities there and joining the BDS movement does not entail breaking my friendship with them. But I am appalled by the repeated savage destruction of Gaza as well as the slow strangulation of Palestinian society living under occupation – including Gaza, a minute territory besieged by Israel for years by land, sea and air. I am disturbed by the fact that the majority of Israelis express strong support for the repeated Gaza assaults in which thousands of Palestinians have been killed, in which vastly superior weaponry has been used by the IDF against poorly armed opponents. There is much hysteria about “thousands of Hamas rockets falling on Israel” although virtually no damage has been inflicted on Israeli civilians and buildings as a consequence. And yet Israel always presents itself as the victim in these conflicts.

Israeli universities have not merely expressed approval of IDF’s violence in Gaza, but strengthened their practical links with it. Israeli society seems to have become increasingly militaristic and contemptuous towards the Palestinians under its control. It is the educational, cultural and news institutions that encourage racism toward Palestinians. Critics of BDS sometimes ask whether Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other isn’t more effective than boycott in changing views –whether it isn’t precisely academic institutions that provide the spaces where people with widely different points of view can come together to talk and argue without any preconditions. So isn’t the boycott of Israeli educational and cultural institutions a repudiation of free speech, they say? One answer to that might be that there is no value to endless talk between political opponents, especially where one side is not only far more powerful than the other but also regards it with contempt and hatred. It is widely remarked that the peace talks over the last two decades have completely failed. But in fact they have not. They have bought valuable time for colonizers – openly funded, encouraged, and protected by the Israeli state – to take over more Palestinian land and water, to intensify the punitive siege of Gaza, and to solidify Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. For peace talks to have a just outcome the parties have to be mediated by a third who is committed to seeing justice done. And this certainly hasn’t been the case in the so-called Peace Talks where the United States is the supposed “honest broker.”

Most Israelis, it seems, believe that they face “an existential threat” from the Palestinians. This belief constitutes a grave obstacle to the achievement of a just peace. When people living in an affluent and powerful state (possessing one of the most sophisticated and formidable militaries in the world armed with nuclear weapons, based on a technologically advanced economy, enjoying the unwavering support of Europe and North America, having solid treaties with neighboring Egypt and Jordan and increasingly friendly relations with the Gulf countries) say they face an “existential threat” from a defenseless population dispersed over small fragmented territories, dominated politically, economically, and geographically by Israel, then they are paranoid (or deliberately dishonest). The lesson one may derive from this paranoid victim complex is that the power of the Israeli state that fosters it calls for a counter-force to help dismantle the self-imposed delusion under which Israelis now labor. Violence is neither a practical nor a moral response in this situation. What is called for is an effort to educate Israelis by using non-violent means to compel them into recognizing the real world in which they live. Such an effort at moral education may fail but at least one should try.

BDS targets institutions and not individuals: its opponents object that the distinction between institutions and individuals cannot easily be made so innocent individuals will suffer. Although legally speaking both individuals and institutions are “persons,” individual persons are at once constitutive of and distinct from corporate persons (institutions, corporations), so there should be no problem distinguishing the two as such. In my view an individual person who promotes the unjust activity of an institution he/she inhabits, or over whose actions he/she wields power, should be accountable for the damaging moral consequences of its actions, and its not surprising if people insist on holding such a person responsible. Thus one might want to boycott Netanyahu’s speech to congress, or seek to disinvite a legal scholar who has authorized torture from giving a talk at a US university. In my view – and I stress this doesn’t follow from support for BDS – the question is not whether one can distinguish between institutions and individuals (of course one can) but how one can identify and respond to “real” persons (individuals) who aid and abet the injustice of “artificial” persons (institutions) of which they are part. And that question can be answered only case by case.

But can boycott of academic institutions actually help to dismantle Israeli paranoia? My dissident Israeli friends believe that it will help provoke a real public debate on what Israel has done and continues to do to Palestinians. I respect their judgment in this matter – just as I admire the courage, coherence, and principled stand of eminent figures like Henry Siegman who invoke Jewish religious values in their opposition to the policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians inside and outside the 1948 borders, individuals who provide an alternative to the political world as seen and inhabited by Israeli ultranationalists. The younger generation of American, Israeli, and European Jews who consider themselves secular are also increasingly committed to BDS – as well as to other movements that seek to put pressure on the Israeli state in a variety of fora. (Of these perhaps the most significant within Israel is the Joint List that emerged in the recent election seeking political justice for Palestinians as well as economic justice for all. Whether it will have any impact on formal Knesset politics remains to be seen.)

Yes, boycotts often hurt innocent people – as boycotts did in the civil rights movement in the American South, or as part of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. But this “collateral damage” doesn’t amount to killing people or rendering them homeless. Whether (and if so, to what extent) BDS will eventually succeed in its stated aims is impossible to say with certainty because political actions have consequences that can’t be fully calculated. In the end much will depend on whether Israelis can be moved, by a combination of moral suasion and political-economic pressure, in the direction of a more just order that includes Palestinians. In such an endeavor, the role of dissident Israeli Jews will be crucial, but institutions and individuals outside Israel can support them. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions that help to perpetuate Israeli state injustice is in some respects like the industrial strike that has helped improve working class life and in other respects like civil disobedience that has helped to extend civil rights – often maligned, sometimes unsuccessful but always an essential means for trying to reach justice in difficult circumstances.

(TALAL ASAD, March 20, 2015)