Navigate to News section

BDS and the Politics of ‘Radical’ Gestures

Boycotts and divestment can be useful tools for righting wrongs, but they are apolitical tantrums in cases of right versus right

Todd Gitlin
October 27, 2014
clockwise from top left: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; University of Wisconsin-Madison libraries; Images Unlimited; Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images
Clockwise from top left: Martin Luther King Jr. at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, Montgomery, Ala., December 1956; Jesus Salas, representing the Wisconsin Farm Workers Union (Oberos Unidos), 1965; protest at JP Stevens headquarters, New York City, March 1977; demonstrators holding pro-Palestinian banners, Los Angeles, February 2007.clockwise from top left: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; University of Wisconsin-Madison libraries; Images Unlimited; Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images
clockwise from top left: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; University of Wisconsin-Madison libraries; Images Unlimited; Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images
Clockwise from top left: Martin Luther King Jr. at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, Montgomery, Ala., December 1956; Jesus Salas, representing the Wisconsin Farm Workers Union (Oberos Unidos), 1965; protest at JP Stevens headquarters, New York City, March 1977; demonstrators holding pro-Palestinian banners, Los Angeles, February 2007.clockwise from top left: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; University of Wisconsin-Madison libraries; Images Unlimited; Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images

Boycotts and divestments appeal to ideals of citizenship. Vote with your money. Make perpetrators of injustice pay a price. Raise the stakes so that, when they get their calculating minds around a cost-benefit analysis, they decide the cost is too steep. Often such campaigns are constructive.

Others channel anger into postures of virtue that detract from a just end. They demand not changes of policy but the disappearance of one party. These are gestures—a stamping of the collective foot. Repeated enough, such gestures can herald crimes more hideous than what the protesters oppose.

The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, triggered by Rosa Parks, succeeded in convincing the authorities to end racial segregation. The city knew just what it had to do to end the boycott: stop shunting blacks onto the back of the bus. In the end, the courts ordered desegregation, and the city buses, with new seating arrangements, rolled. The bus system, having conceded, continued.

In 1965-70, an alliance of the Mexican-led National Farm Workers Association and the Filipino-led Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee cast anathema on the fruit of the vine in order to make agribusiness recognize the union’s collective bargaining rights. For lovers of grapes, there was a sacrifice but also a glow. What you lost in the taste of grapes you gained in the sweetness of virtue. When the boycott ended, you ate grapes again. (They tasted better than ever.)

In 1976-79, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union organized a boycott of J. P. Stevens. The textile company had been systematically denying workers’ rights, violating laws with impunity. New York Lt. Gov.-elect Mario Cuomo urged Americans “to shun the products of J. P. Stevens as you would shun the fruit of an unholy tree.” The movie Norma Rae celebrated striking workers and organizers. In the end, the company signed an agreement with the union.

Those were reform boycotts. They harnessed anger into specific improvements on the ground. The cause was just and the means fit the ends. In the case of grapes, the premise was that the workers who harvested the grapes were entitled to collective recognition to improve their condition. Unstated but assumed was that the owners of the vines (“growers,” they were conventionally called, though their hands did not touch the vines) had the right to continue to own them. The boycott ended when the owners recognized the union. The owners still owned the vines. There remained two parties to continuing disputes, which, if you were a militant, you might call “the class struggle,” and if you were not, you might call “labor-management relations.”

Divestment is another way to vote with your money. The movement to make universities (and pension funds, etc.) divest from corporations involved in apartheid South Africa, from the 1970s through the 1980s, had a more radical objective: to force an end to apartheid by making it economically untenable. I was involved in that movement twice over, as a professor, in the University of California Faculty for Full Divestment, and as an engaged alumnus of Harvard. No one in the American movement ever proposed to blacklist South African professors. (There were exceptions in Britain although, unlike divestment, without any effect.) The objective was to further the creation of a unitary, nonracial, democratic state in which, perforce, black, “colored,” and “Asian” Africans would greatly predominate and racial inequality would no longer be legal. It was not to drive the whites into the sea, or back to Holland or Great Britain. In a fine book, Loosing the Bonds, Robert K. Massie rigorously examines South African divestment and sanctions campaigns in the United States and makes a convincing case for their effects in undermining apartheid.

Presently, I’m involved in the alumni wing of Divest Harvard, a student-run campaign to press the university to sell holdings in fossil fuel corporations whose business model is to make civilization untenable by burning carbon and dumping the by-products into the atmosphere. (So, I want to add, is Robert K. Massie.) There are several hundred other university campaigns of this sort, with some colleges, churches, cities, and foundations following suit. The objective is to stigmatize those corporations and to further the development of energy sources that the earth can sustain.

All these movements have been tied to practical objectives, some more radical than others. Their justifications lay in a sheer disproportion of rights. The rights of the Negro passengers and the grape pickers and the Stevens workers and the South African majority were not comparable to the rights of the segregationists or the growers or the South African white minority. In a sense, the fossil fuel movement has more radical ends, since the present movement, if it had divine powers, would put fossil fuel companies out of business altogether. But in none of these cases was or is there a clash of right against right.


There are people of good will, Arabs, Jews, whatever, who support the so-called BDS movement for boycotts and divestments against Israel, either because they think it can push Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, or because they want to stamp their feet. (The real energy goes to academic boycotts and divestment campaigns; the “sanctions” part seems nominal.) Their passion to press the state of Israel to abandon the occupation of the West Bank, to encourage de facto the emergence of a Palestinian state that would live side-by-side with a majority-Jewish state, I devoutly share. The death toll and destruction caused by Israeli attacks on Gaza this summer only strengthen the case that Israel’s defense needs do not justify wholesale destruction and everyday victimization, even in the face of terror and aggression.

Still and all, many supporters of BDS do not understand, or have not thought through, just what they are subscribing to. Consider the 2005 BDS call by Palestinian organizations, which can be read on the official BDS website. It favors “broad boycotts” and “divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.” These measures, the call goes on, “should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by (with my italics):

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194.”

Leave aside, for now, that the BDS organizers are highly selective about the international obligations they wish to enforce at the cost of academic freedom. (They have a point when they say that all campaigns are partial and selective, though one might well marvel at their insouciance when it comes to slaughter perpetrated next door by Bashar al-Assad.) Leave aside the sleight of hand with which they claim that their boycott (actually blacklist) targets only Israeli institutions, not individuals.

But consider the slipperiness of the BDS goals. The first statement I have italicized is deliberately vague. Which “Arab lands”? According to Hamas, they include the entirety of Israel. Moreover, the phrase is coded to imply that the very existence of the state of Israel, as recognized in 1948, is what constitutes “colonization.” (If that were not so, it would suffice to say “end the occupation”—meaning the occupation that took place, and continues to take place, as a result of the 1967 war and the Jewish-Israeli settlements that continue, illegally, to expand on the West Bank.) To BDS, the original sin would seem to be the founding of the Israeli state. The language masks (however thinly) the desire of one of the parties to the horrendous Israel-Palestinian conflict that the other one disappear.

But one group’s desire that another disappear deserves no respect. As a spasmodic reaction to violence, indignity, and humiliation, it is all too human. As a political position, it is a legal and moral disaster. It is not politics, it is a tantrum—and perhaps a lethal one.

At the same time, moving to point 2, the human rights of Palestinians in Israel are surely in need of defense, and a campaign toward that end is justified. Why an Israel fending off sanctions and boycotts would be more likely to honor Palestinian rights escapes me. Where is the evidence that, as the BDS movement has gained ground, Israeli treatment of its Arab minority has improved?

As for point 3, the innocent reader will likely be unaware that U.N. resolution 194 is highly contested. One line of argument notes that 194 does not proclaim an unconditional right of return. Rather, it affirms that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which … should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” Another line of argument is that 194 has been rendered obsolete by events—after all, it also calls for United Nations control of Jerusalem—and in particular that the right of return stipulated in 194 is superseded by Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which calls for a “just settlement of the refugee problem.” There is also the question of who, exactly, is a refugee.

I do not propose to wade into legal exegesis. My point is that the BDS call goes far beyond expressing outrage at systematic Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians—anger for which there is ample warrant. It mobilizes that legitimate anger toward a very particular idea about how to settle relations between two peoples—by enfolding one under the dominance of another. Unlike all proposals for just settlements of the murderous ethnic wars of our time—Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Kashmir—it demands that one of those peoples give up the state in which they predominate. In the endgame envisioned by BDS, one set of pieces is left on the board, and the other removed.

Without doubt, BDS looks like a plausible feel-good proposition for people who weary of endless bloodshed. It is not a feel-good proposition for the victims of a blacklist—the Israeli academics whose scholarly collaborations and publications and research trips to the United States BDS proposes to halt, or the scholars who are to be forbidden access to Israeli archives. BDS is not a practical proposition to raise the price Israel must pay for the Occupation: by demanding, say, that the United States cut aid to Israel that goes to sustain and enlarge the Occupation. It is not focused on unjust practices, like divestment from, or sanctions against, particular corporations that sustain the Occupation, like the three companies recently divested by a narrow vote of the Presbyterian Church. It is categorical, absolute. It knows only one set of wrongs, not another. It proclaims that there is but one story to be told of the Middle Eastern tragedy, and it is theirs.

This is not politics. It is a gesture of disgust, a paroxysm of rage. Like Hamas’ rockets, it makes Israelis feel embittered and embattled. It hardens Israel’s will to listen to no one. Who benefits from such an outcome? As Noam Chomsky, who cannot be accused of tenderness toward the Jewish state, has argued, it’s not the Palestinians. And not the Israeli left either. As the Tel Aviv University historian Michael Zakim recently wrote, the Israel boycott undertaken by the American Studies Association

has achieved pointed success in crippling the quality of the only American-studies program in Israel, both for faculty and students. … In deepening the sense of beleaguerment among Israeli academics, the ASA finds itself in bed with a sordid group of political allies determined to delegitimize the humanism and internationalism which predominate on Israeli campuses. This campaign is part of an organized effort to isolate the Israeli left and prevent it from forging alliances with Palestinians and the Arab world.

Only the advocates of endless bloodshed grin.

But history is always surprising and sometimes pleasantly so. So let me close with some more bad news and then a touch of good news. The bad news is that, in a time of severe fiscal pressures on higher education, of plutocratically enforced inequality, and of relentless, potentially catastrophic climate change, the Doctoral Student Council of the City University of New York took time to consider not a proposal to divest from fossil fuel corporations or a campaign to boost funding but a BDS resolution against… Israel. The good news is that, this past Friday, Oct. 24, the BDS resolution failed.

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.