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BDS’ Biggest Victory Yet Is the Triumph of Zimbolism

Boycott and Divestment organizers protest an Israeli freighter’s arrival in Oakland, but the course they’ve set leads into an abyss

Todd Gitlin
November 25, 2014
(Daniel Ramirez/>a href=""Flickr)
(Daniel Ramirez/>a href=""Flickr)

Twice this past August, the Israeli freighter Piraeus, run by Israel’s ZIM Integrated Shipping Services, was driven away from the Port of Oakland by picket lines which dissuaded longshoremen from unloading the ship. More recently, it’s been reported that protests in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, prompted ZIM to suspend operations there, though ZIM denied this was so, citing technical reasons why their freighters were staying away. BDS organizers claimed victory. Zimbolically, anyway.

The immediate occasion, of course, was anger at the IDF assault on Gaza, a military operation that, however justifiable in its beginnings as a response to Palestinian rocket attacks often launched from and at civilian communities, ended up killing more than 2,000 people. (Some protesters consider it “genocide,” though neither the actual Israeli military operations nor their results seem to have much to do with the intention of killing everyone in Gaza.) But the objection to ZIM claims a much deeper rationale in a history for which no remedy is available. It wants to repeal the past, so it is a protest without conceivable end.

Here is the view of history from the website of the Northwest affiliate of Block the Boat:

From its founding in 1945 by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Histradut, Zim has served Israeli settler-colonialism, bringing settlers to Palestine and serving as Israel’s only maritime connection during the 1948 war, supplying ‘food, freight, and military equipment’ used of course to carry out the Nakba. The worldwide commerce conducted by Zim today funds the occupation of Palestine with revenue generated on every continent.

Now one of the largest shipping container companies in the world, ZIM was, in this view, conceived in original sin, because it helped establish the State of Israel. Leaders of the BDS movement may proclaim that they are agnostic on the question of whether there should be one state or two states, but the Block the Boat wing of the BDS movement, at least, would seem to have a more definite idea. Israel, it says, was the product of “settler-colonialism.” One supporting statement reads: “Palestinians throughout Gaza, the West Bank and 1948 Palestine have demonstrated their unity in the struggle against Apartheid Israel.”

According to both these statements, Israel is, ipso facto, illegitimate. The land it occupies is “1948 Palestine,” never mind that that was not a state but rather a territory ruled by Great Britain, and never mind, either, that Jews and Arabs both had historical claims there, rooted in history and international law. But to the 100 percent mind, Israel is not a state that sometimes pursues bad policies and commits war crimes. Rather, it is a state that never did, and still does not, have any right to exist at all. So when Block the Boat demands “END THE COLONIAL OCCUPATION OF PALESTINE!” and “RIGHT OF RETURN FOR ALL PALESTINIAN REFUGEES!” it is not protesting Israeli settlements on the West Bank, or the many abuses and deprivations to which the stateless Arab residents of East Jerusalem are subjected. When ZIM protesters declare, “Zionism isn’t welcome on our Coast!” they do not trouble with nice distinctions.

The United States freed itself from Great Britain on land taken from indigenous peoples and with the help of arms and troops supplied by the French autocracy. Is the United States legitimate?

Indisputably, BDS statements revel in willful ambiguity and a laughable scavenging of history. Block the Boat Northwest approves of Palestinian unions’ reference to “Gaza and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory”—not acknowledging Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Block the Boat Northwest not only wants to end Israeli trade but suggests that unions everywhere “dissociate from Israeli trade unions which are complicit in the occupation.” Do they mean the 1967 occupation that followed the Six Day War, or what absolutists call the building of Jewish communities by “settler-colonials,” which they resisted violently in 1929 and again in 1936 and most of all with the founding of Israel in 1947-48?

Vagueness suits one purpose only: roping two-state supporters who oppose the occupation of the West Bank into collaboration with would-be eliminators of the Jewish state.

The Fairyland of Pretty Beginnings

Where do states come from? Iran, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon had their borders drawn by colonial powers. Saudi Arabia is the product of wars of conquest over more than two decades during the early 20th century. This is only to speak of the immediate region. The United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Mexico, Brazil … Name the nation that did not acquire territory by conquest and dispossession. To be a nation is to have been conceived in sin. Virgin births may be possible in Middle Earth but not on this planet. Down here, maculate conception is the rule. What can be said of nations is parallel to what Bertolt Brecht said about banks: “What is the robbing of a bank to the founding of a bank?” Is all shipping therefore to be banned? If nation-states were to be canceled by past crimes, which would be left standing?

Stipulated: Israelis committed, and continue to commit, crimes against Arabs. Not all Israelis against all Arabs, but many Israelis against many Arabs. No serious historian disagrees.

Without doubt, Israelis committed crimes in the course of the Naqba. Without doubt, Arabs committed crimes against Israelis then and before. Any serious discussion has to acknowledge both. “Purity of arms” is a propaganda slogan of the Israeli Defense Forces, not a description of armies at work. The United States freed itself from Great Britain on land taken from indigenous peoples and with the help of arms and troops supplied by the French autocracy. Didn’t the United States commit numerous large-scale war crimes not only in Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq, but also during World Wars I and II, and the Korean War, and the Civil War, too? Is the United States legitimate? If not, why is it right to live here, for even a single day?

These are not rhetorical questions. If the right to live is to be predicated on unanimous agreement on the justice of the starting point, the cleanliness of the slate, no one has the right to live anywhere. The only law is the law of reciprocal punishment, to the end of time.

But Enough About History

As I write, I keep stumbling upon present-time reports about abusive practices the whole wide world over. Here is a brief sampling:

We could go on. But no one seriously proposes campaigning against Indonesian, Turkish, Russian or Chinese ships, or any others whose host nations are, not trivially, bad actors.

How, then, is a fair-minded person to parcel out finite supplies of righteous indignation? It will be objected that the United States bears a special obligation to punish Israel because Israel receives a lot of U.S. aid, including the military kind. Properly framed, this is not a negligible argument, nor need it be a cynical one. It was entirely legitimate for Americans to devote ourselves to opposing the Vietnam War even as Mao slaughtered millions, for the United States bore direct responsibility for the Vietnam massacres, whereas it could do nothing to relieve the starved peasants and beleaguered intellectuals of China. (Even recognition of “Red China,” a liberal cause of the time, would not have availed the victims of Mao’s cruel siege of his own society.) This is why, in my view, BDS supporters are ethically entitled to campaign to reduce U.S. aid to Israel in proportion to Israeli expenditures on the West Bank, and Presbyterians and others are reasonable to divest from corporations whose operations directly benefit the occupation there. The principle is simple: Aim at a target, don’t burn down the house.

But to punish a nation’s trade without clear conditions for stopping—in effect, unconditional punishment—is an exercise not in politics but demonization. Which is, of course, the idea.

Unsurprisingly, a campaign infused by hatred of Israel, casually muddling language as it proceeds, is often opposed by another round of muddled language. For example, Israel’s Northwestern consul Andy David did not help matters when he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the protesters “chose a symbol, perhaps, and they’re trying to portray it as hurting the Israeli government, but they’re really causing damage to the people who live here, and to me this is exactly the definition of political terrorism.” Protesters against a colonial occupation of Palestine that was already installed by 1945, meet Israeli official who considers a peaceful picket line “terrorism.” No wonder there is no two-state agreement.

Motes and Eyes in the Bay Area

West Coast culture, the San Francisco Bay Area in particular, has long been hospitable to outré conduct and sky’s-the-limits politics. Sea-going zones overflow with the wildness and lawlessness that sailors bring. Cultural spillover poured out of the Gold Rush. A hodgepodge culture arose from immigrants, a sense of limitlessness, and the struggle against race-hatred. Internationalism of many kinds—socialist, anarchist, Trotskyist, capitalist-globalist—thrived, and thrives, where authorities have relatively shallow roots.

But on the Bay Area left there has also been visible, for a long time, a hardening of the synapses. Blindness results—even blindness toward abuses of power close to home.

Consider the loading and unloading operations in Oakland, Long Beach, and many other ports, which are run by a company called SSA Marine, the largest cargo handling operation in the world, with more than 120 locations. Now privately held, it was, until last January, 49 percent owned by Goldman Sachs. In 2011, doing research for my book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, I interviewed a Long Beach truck driver named Leonard Mejia who told me that SSA drivers, not being able to afford new trucks, are required to lease them. To quote from my book:

“You have to pay all the insurance, the diesel, the maintenance …” [Mejia told me]. “So in the past year, I made eighteen thousand dollars. I have to pay three thousand dollars in taxes to the IRS. I work between nine and eleven hours per day, six days a week, or as many as the dispatcher says. I must work only for that company. They say that we’re independent contractors but in reality we’re employees”—employees without benefits, that is. The corporate practice of labeling controlled employees “independent contractors” flies in the face of IRS regulations that technically distinguish between the two. But this deceptive practice is widespread.

The blockers of ships might consider what action to take in behalf of workers around the corner. But does the heart of their movement beat to labor solidarity at all? What, after all, is the nature of their internationalism? Is it internationalist or nationalist? In opposing a proposal that University of California student workers support BDS (they vote on Dec. 4), the Alliance for Academic Freedom, to which I belong, rightly notes:

The internationalism to which the labor movement has proudly and historically been committed does not mean siding with one nationalism against another; it means supporting the progressive and emancipatory forces and opposing the reactionary forces within each nation. Support for the BDS movement constitutes a betrayal of internationalism properly understood, for it fails to distinguish progressive and reactionary elements within Israeli and Palestinian societies.

Today, in much of the campus-based left, the mote in the eye of the just is called Israel. As Zionists once thought a Jewish state the solution to “the Jewish problem”—that is, the problem caused by those who hate Jews—so today do anti-Zionists think that what the world needs to breathe free is the end of the Jewish state.


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Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of 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.

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.