Opponents of the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are involved in a dishonest branding campaign.
Originally published in The New York Times, September 4, 2018
The debate over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement against Israel has been one of the most contentious in American political culture for more than a decade. Now, given the tumultuous and deadly events of the past several months, it is likely to heat up further.
Casualties in the ongoing protests in Gaza, which began in March, continue to mount; nearly 180 mostly unarmed Palestinian protesters have been killed by Israeli forces, with more than 18,000 injured, according to the United Nations . Dozens of those deaths came in mid-May, as the United States took the provocative step of moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Tensions will surely spike again following last week’s decision by the United States to stop billions in funding to the United Nations agency that delivers aid to Palestinian refugees .
B.D.S. began in 2005 in response to a call by more than 100 Palestinian civil society organizations, with the successful movement against apartheid South Africa in mind. The reasoning was that Israel, with its half-century occupation of Palestinian territories, would be equally deserving of the world’s condemnation until its policies changed to respect Palestinian political and civil rights. B.D.S. calls for its stance of nonviolent protest to remain in effect until three conditions are met: that Israel ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantles the wall; that Israel recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and that Israel respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in United Nations Resolution 194 .
Opposition to B.D.S. is widespread and strong. Alarmingly, in the United States, support for the movement is in the process of being outlawed. As of now, 24 states have enacted legislation that in some way allows the state to punish those who openly engage in or advocate B.D.S., and similar legislation is pending in 12 more states. At the federal level, a bill called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act would criminalize adherence to any boycott of Israel called for by an international agency (like the United Nations). The bill has garnered 57 Senate co-sponsors and 290 House co-sponsors , and may very well come up for a vote soon.
While these bills certainly constitute threats to free speech — (a view shared by the ACLU) — I am interested in a more subtle effect of a fairly widespread anti-B.D.S. strategy: co-opting rhetoric of the anti-Trump resistance, which opposes the growing influence of racist hate groups, in order to brand B.D.S. as a hate group itself.
In my home state of Massachusetts, for example, where a hearing for one of the many state bills aimed at punishing B.D.S. activity took place in July 2017, those who testified in favor of the bill, along with their supporters in the gallery, wore signs saying “No Hate in the Bay State.” They took every opportunity to compare B.D.S. supporters to the alt-right activists recently empowered by the election of Donald Trump. (Full disclosure: I am a strong supporter of B.D.S. and was among those testifying against the bill.)
The aim of this activity is to relegate the B.D.S. movement, and the Palestine solidarity movement more generally, to the nether region of public discourse occupied by all the intolerant worldviews associated with the alt-right. This is an area the philosopher John Rawls would call “unreasonable.” But to my mind, it is the anti-B.D.S. movement itself that belongs there.
There are two dimensions of reasonableness that are relevant to this particular issue: the one that allegedly applies to the B.D.S. campaign and the one I claim actually applies to the anti-B.D.S. campaign. Rawls starts his account of the reasonable from the premise of what he calls “ reasonable pluralism ,” an inevitable concomitant of modern-day democratic government. Large democratic societies contain a multitude of groups that differ in what Rawls calls their “comprehensive doctrines” — moral, religious or philosophical outlooks in accord with which people structure their lives. What makes a comprehensive doctrine “reasonable” is the willingness of those living in accord with it to recognize the legitimate claims of differing, often conflicting doctrines, to accord to the people that hold them full participation as citizens and to regard them as deserving of respect and equal treatment. We can label this dimension of reasonableness a matter of tolerance.
The second dimension of reasonableness is associated with the notion of “ public reason .” When arguing for one’s position as part of the process of democratic deliberation in a society characterized by reasonable pluralism, what kinds of considerations are legitimate to present? The constraint of public reason demands that the considerations in question should look reasonable to all holders of reasonable comprehensive doctrines, not merely one’s own.
For example, when arguing over possible legal restrictions on abortion, it isn’t legitimate within a democracy to appeal to religious principles that are not shared by all legitimate parties to the dispute. So, while the personhood of the fetus is in dispute among reasonable doctrines, the status of African-Americans, women, gays and Jews is not. To reject their status as fully equal members of the society would be “unreasonable.”
One of the essential principles of democratic government is freedom of thought and expression, and this extends to the unreasonable/intolerant as well as to the reasonable, so long as certain strict limits on incitement to violence, libel and the like are observed. Still, doctrines within the “tent of the reasonable” are accorded a different status within public institutions and civil society from those deemed outside the tent. This is reflected in the kinds of public support or reprobation representatives of the state and other civil society institutions (e.g., universities) display toward the doctrines or values in question.
To put it simply, we expect what’s reasonable to get a fair hearing within the public sphere, even if many don’t agree with it.
On the other hand, though we do not suppress the unreasonable, we don’t believe, in general, that it has the right to a genuinely fair hearing in that same sphere. For instance, after the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., in August last year, students at my campus, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, were greeted in the fall with signs plastered everywhere that said “Hate Has No Home at UMass.” This was intended to let the Richard Spencers of this world know that even if it may not be right or legal to bar them from speaking on campus, their message was not going to be given the respectful hearing that those within the tent of the reasonable receive.
The alleged basis for claiming that B.D.S. advocates are anti-Semitic, and thus worthy only of denunciation or punishment, not argument, is that through their three goals listed in their manifesto they express their rejection of Jews’ right to self-determination in their homeland. This idea was put succinctly by Senator Chuck Schumer at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) in March, where he said , “ Let us call out the B.D.S. movement for what it is . Let us delegitimize the delegitimizers by letting the world know when there is a double standard, whether they know it or not, they are actively participating in an anti-Semitic movement.”
B.D.S. supporters are “delegitimizers,” according to Schumer, because they do not grant legitimacy to the Zionist project. Some might quibble with this claim about the B.D.S. goals, but I think it’s fair to say that rejection of the legitimacy of the Zionist project is fairly widespread within the movement. But does this constitute anti-Semitism? Does this put them outside the tent of the reasonable?
To justify this condemnation of the B.D.S. movement requires accepting two extremely controversial claims: first, that the right to self-determination for any ethnic, religious or racial group entails the right to live in a state that confers special status on members of that group — that it is “their state” in the requisite sense; and second, that Palestine counts for these purposes as the rightful homeland of modern-day Jews, as opposed to the ancient Judeans. (I have argued explicitly against the first claim, here .)
With regard to the second claim, it seems obvious to me, and I bet many others when they bother to think about it, that claims to land stemming from a connection to people who lived there 2,000 years ago is extremely weak when opposed by the claims of those who currently live there and whose people have been living there for perhaps a millennium or more.
Remember, one needn’t agree with me in my rejection of these two principal claims for my point to stand. All one must acknowledge is that the right at issue isn’t obvious and is at least open to question. If a reasonable person can see that this right of the Jews to establish a state in Palestine is at least open to question, then it can’t be a sign of anti-Semitism to question it! But once you admit the B.D.S. position within the tent of the reasonable, the proper response is not, as Senator Schumer claims, “delegitimizing,” but rather disputing — engaging in argument, carried out in the public sphere according to the rules of public reason.
But now we get to my second main point — that it’s the anti-B.D.S. camp that violates reasonableness; not because it is an expression of intolerance (though often it flirts with Islamophobia), but because it violates the constraints on public reason. Just how far the positive argument for the legitimacy of the Zionist project often veers from the rules of public reason is perfectly captured by another quote from Mr. Schumer’s speech to Aipac.
“Now, let me tell you why — my view, why we don’t have peace. Because the fact of the matter is that too many Palestinians and too many Arabs do not want any Jewish state in the Middle East,” he said. “The view of Palestinians is simple: The Europeans treated the Jews badly, culminating in the Holocaust, and they gave them our land as compensation. Of course, we say it’s our land, the Torah says it, but they don’t believe in the Torah. So that’s the reason there is not peace. They invent other reasons, but they do not believe in a Jewish state, and that is why we, in America, must stand strong with Israel through thick and thin …”
This quote is really quite remarkable, coming from one of the most powerful legislators in our democracy. After fairly well characterizing a perfectly reasonable attitude Palestinians have about who is responsible for the Holocaust and who should pay any reparations for it, Mr. Schumer then appeals to the Torah to justify the Jewish claim against them. But this is a totally illegitimate appeal as a form of public reason, no different from appealing to religious doctrine when opposing abortion. In fact, I claim you can’t find any genuine argument that isn’t guilty of breaching the limits of the reasonable in this way for the alleged right to establish the Jewish state in Palestine.
This almost certainly explains why opponents of B.D.S. are now turning to the heavy hand of the state to criminalize support for it. In a “fair fight” within the domain of public reason, they would indeed find themselves “delegitimized.”
Joseph Levine is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of “Quality and Content: Essays on Consciousness, Representation and Modality.” He is a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Academic Advisory Council.
Now in print : “ Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments ,” and “ The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments ,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.