No, it’s not the hypocrisy you’re thinking. It’s not the typical refrain: “Why target Israel when there are so many other brutal, colonialist states out there?” That would be far too simplistic. Activist campaigns always have to pick and choose which causes they rally behind, so it’s hardly a valid criticism to ask: “Why A, B, or C and not X, Y, or Z?” Some well-meaning individuals have raised objections along these lines, but frankly I think they’re missing the point.
Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions proceeds from the premise that Israel’s relation to Palestine is roughly analogous to the white Afrikaaner regime’s relation to the black population of South Africa. Moshe Machover, once a member of the now-disbanded Israeli socialist group Matzpen, has shown fairly definitively that this analogy does not hold. Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, longtime critics of Israel, largely agree with Machover’s assessment, and question the BDS strategy for more or less the same reason. Besides, Western liberals like to flatter themselves with the idea that a similar campaign helped bring down apartheid back in the 1980s, but they exaggerate its effect. Sustained class struggle by major black unions in solidarity with poor white and Asian workers from the south — i.e., a secular democratic bi-national movement — ended this form of racial oppression. Not “Sun City” by Steve Van Zandt.
As for myself, while I’d like to see Zionism (and all forms of nationalism) smashed as much as the next guy, I’m skeptical whether BDS has anything more than symbolic value. The only part of it that has any traction right now is the boycotts part of it, by far the least effective component of the three-pronged program. Getting your local co-op to drop kibbutz-farmed organic couscous is not going to bring down the Israeli state. Considering IBM just invested close to a billion dollars buying the cybersecurity company Trusteer, and Israeli weapons sales last year topped $7,000,000,000.00, it’s not even a drop in the bucket. You can’t organize a civilian boycott of military surplus.
Technically, BDSers shouldn’t be using Facebook, either, given that the company acquired the Israeli startup Onavo back in 2013. It now runs a research and development department out of the Holy Land. Don’t despair, though: Myspace and Ello are still kosher. But how am I going to carbonate the blood of Christian children without a Sodastream ZOG-machine? Supporters will cite the hysteria of hasbara peddlers, apologists for the Israeli state, or maybe instead insist that the point is to raise awareness more than actually weaken “the Zionist entity.” Pretty weak tea, in my opinion.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument, however, that BDS is in fact an effective strategy and that it eventually will bring about the liberation of Palestine. A number of organizations on the Left profess that it will, and have pledged their support in solidarity with “Palestinian civil society” — an indeterminate hodgepodge of expat groups speaking on behalf of those still living in the Occupied Territories. For example, the progressive Jewish website Mondoweiss has made the case for a broad-based BDS coalition. One of its authors, Max Ajl, scolded Finkelstein for refusing to sign on to the campaign. Similarly, the blogger Richard Seymour has wagged his finger disapprovingly at Finkelstein for undermining BDS. One of the publications he contributes to on a fairly regular basis, the International Socialist Organization’s main organ Socialist Worker, has likewise condemned institutions that failed to withdraw their financial support for construction firms like Caterpillar. CAT is famous for selling its equipment to Israeli settlers, who then use it to bulldoze Palestinian homes (sometimes with residents still inside). Haymarket Books, which has a deal publishing the paperback editions of Brill’s Historical Materialism series and runs its Toledo Translation project, also promotes BDS
Readers of these outlets — Socialist Worker, Haymarket, and Mondoweiss — will be surprised to find out that the nonprofit which supplies the bulk of their funding, the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (or CERSC for short), has bought and sold Caterpillar stock itself. Despite their professed adherence to the strictures of BDS, these outlets have themselves profited from CAT’s business. No small sum, either: the CERSC bought 86 shares worth of Caterpillar for $4,906 and sold it for $7,655 ten months later. All in all, they cleared $2,749 in gains, an increase upwards of fifty percent. Pham Binh, an ex-member of the ISO, brought this to readers’ attention two years ago, but no statement or explanation has been forthcoming from any of the organizations tied to the nonprofit. Why not?
In any case, it’s nice to be reminded now and then of this hypocrisy when writers and supporters of these sites — Max Ajl, Andrew Ryder, Paul Heideman, and Aaron Hess, to name a few — heap scorn on me for daring to leak documents or publish accounts which show the ISO tried to cover up allegations of sexual misconduct by one of its senior members on the West Coast, or point out that Marxists don’t form trans-class alliances with homophobic religious groups that tolerate antisemites. Platypus, the group I used to belong to, may have had some ridiculous opinions expressed by its leaders on their private listserve, but at least it didn’t try to cover up rape or sexual abuse. Which is more than can be said for the ISO-US (see Comrade Daniel), the SWP-UK (see Comrade Delta), or Solidarity (according to some conversations with one of its former members, KDGD). My heart goes out to all my detractors: I’m just glad to see Caterpillar’s dollars hard at work.