Palestinian BDS movement: Getting a handle on a complicated story ahead of deadline

So you're taking a group of art students to Paris and you want to sign them up in advance for a group tour of the Louvre.

No problem.

Unless the students are Israeli. Then, unexpectedly, the world's most visited museum is too busy to accommodate 17 more visitors. Ironically, it seems not to matter one bit that the Louvre relies on Israeli technology for its in-house security.

This incident is one of a slew of similar situations reported daily in Israeli and American Jewish media and ascribed to the impact of the Palestinian-led "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions" movement. BDS, as it's commonly known, is designed to pressure Israel to ... well ... just what is its intent is the subject of this post.

What are BDS's tactical and strategic goals? What motivates its leaders? How do journalists keep from getting lost in the rhetoric clouding this issue?

As in most places, but perhaps even more so in the largely dysfunctional and terribly sad Middle East, the answers are highly subjective. Is BDS a nonviolent effort to help Palestinians gain an independent nation? Or is it a tactic designed to help isolate, undermine and eventually destroy Israel?

As I said, the answer depends upon the speaker. Here's a link to Wikipedia's exhaustive attempt to address the issue in an even-handed manner, -- to the degree that's actually possible.

The issue is currently receiving an upswell of mainstream media attention, as BDS continues to gain traction on university campuses among both students and their academic mentors, in the sports, artistic, business and religious spheres; and among some public intellectuals and thought-leaders, particularly in the European Union.

This attention is a measure of BDS's success; in this era of global media and asymmetrical warfare, perceptions are as important if not more so than actual battlefield successes. 

Israel and diaspora Jewish leaders see BDS as a serious threat and are mobilizing to confront it. So are Israel's American political supporters in Congress. On the state level, South Carolina recently became the first to legislate against doing business with entities that support BDS.

This recent Washington Post piece is typical of the mainstream news coverage.

A suggestion to journalists: Rather than settling for he-said, she-said reporting, (as this Post  piece largely did) take some time to dig into BDS's background. It's complicated, nuanced and often contradictory. Understanding the actors requires an understanding of BDS's backstory.

More mainstream BDS supporters -- including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other liberal Christian bodies -- tend to argue that their's is a time-honored political tactic (think apartheid South Africa, as they would like you to) intended to pressure Israel to negotiate fairly with the Palestinians. More radical BDS supporters argue that Israel must be punished for its decades-long colonization of Palestinian land -- a term that varies among them; the West Bank, all of Israel? -- with economic, cultural and diplomatic isolation until it cries uncle and caves into Palestinian demands.

Anti-BDSers (I count myself among them) say the movement is an attempt by Palestinians and their supporters -- including a small minority of left wing-diaspora and even Israeli Jews outside the communal consensus -- to mobilize the Arab-Muslim world's vastly greater international economic and political strength against Israel, so as to allow the Palestinians to avoid having to make difficult compromises in negotiations with Israel, should they resume.

Moreover, they maintain that BDS counts on using to its advantage the anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist attitudes that exists both overtly and covertly in Muslim and some Christian societies worldwide.

Additionally, they point to BDS's refusal to come out in favor of a two-state solution -- Israel and  Palestine living peacefully side by side, in accordance with the accepted UN position -- as proof that the movement's real agenda is not the  establishment of a Palestinian nation but the destruction of Israel by absorbing the majority Jewish state into a demographically superior Arab Muslim state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This is the so-called one-state solution pushed in radical anti-Israel circles.

In fact, the main BDS umbrella organization takes no position on one-state/two-state. It claims instead, to be agnostic on the issue, allowing it to accept support from all, regardless of their individual stand -- regardless of whether they want to just pressure Israel or destroy it outright.

Even some harsh critics of Israeli policies have found this big tent approach more than just a bit disingenuous.

One of them is Norman Finkelstein, an American-Jewish academic who has been among the most caustic critics of Israeli policies. He says the agnostic claim is nothing but a fig leaf intended to dupe two-staters into backing BDS. Here's a video interview he did in which he called out BDSers.

President Jimmy Carter, also a vocal critic of Israel but a far less shrill one than Finkelstein, has also come out against a full-bore BDS position, though he favors labeling Israeli products manufactured in the West Bank, differentiating been Israel within Its so-called recognized border (it's legal status is actually that of the 1967 armistice line) and the West Bank, all of which is claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. Carter's differentiation between Israel and the West Bank products is one of BDS's often overlooked nuances.

The BDS movement has yet to crest. How much influence it will eventually have is still an open question. But it's not going away anytime soon.

Religion reporters writing about denominational politics, education reporters dealing with the issue on campuses across the nation; even entertainment, sports and business reporters will notice BDS on their beat radar screens.

Political reporters covering the presidential candidates or even state and local governments, and, of course, reporters who cover international affairs also need to educate themselves about BDS -- hopefully prior to actually facing the issue on deadline.

Get started reading up on this, before the deadlines get short. 

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