In a recent essay titled “The Logic of the Beneficiary,” my Columbia colleague English professor Bruce Robbins, wreathes the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement with laurel leaves, but while making a spotty argument he does succeed in clarifying some of what’s at stake.
Robbins notes that a few American academic associations—small left-wing ones, as he doesn’t note—have passed academic boycott resolutions. (More accurately, as Jeff Weintraub has noted, what they call for are blacklists.) Robbins observes that some Israeli companies that manufacture on the West Bank have either relocated inside the Green Line or announced their intention to do so. He rejoices that some entertainers consider Israel the only nation in the world so vile as to warrant refusing to cross its border to bestow their in-person gifts. (Whether they turn down royalty checks for Israeli purchases of movies and music I do not know.)
Robbins shrewdly refrains from a straight-out defense of BDS’s evasive and purposively disingenuous core principles. He is committed to a version of BDS that he can support, so he overlooks the purposive slipperiness of the group’s founding principles, which operate on a false syllogism that goes something like this: a) Israel oppresses Palestinians (true); b) many Palestinians oppose a two-state solution (true); therefore c) everyone should join BDS in its equivocation about whether the Israeli state of 1948 is legitimate.
As I wrote in Tablet magazine, in 2014, BDS mobilizes legitimate anger at Israel
toward a very particular idea about how to settle relations between two peoples—by enfolding one under the dominance of another. … 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 categorical, absolute. It knows only one set of wrongs, not another.
For Robbins, BDS is not a utilitarian enterprise but a straightforward campaign for justice. He claims that “the movement explicitly restricts the demand to lands colonized since 1967, in other words to the West Bank.” To a hasty reader, that “explicitly” has a resounding ring, but it’s more than a bit of a stretch. In fact, BDS specializes in strategic equivocation. The proposition Robbins cites does appear on a web page called “Introducing the BDS Movement.” When it first arrived on the BDS site, I do not know. (I find no references to it online predating 2013.) What I do know is that on its home page, BDS continues to link to its earlier “Call,” which demands that Israel “end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”—the boundary of such lands left unspecified. So far as I can see, the qualification “since 1967” does not appear on a single other page attached to the site. The new language is jammed into a single location, like a pro forma denial of what the rest of the site proclaims—that Israel is an apartheid state. If it in fact were that, why should any BDS supporter think it has a right to exist even within 1967 borders? Moreover, if the Introduction supersedes the Call, why feature the Call at all?
On and on with simplistic disingenuousness. Although BDS speakers claim that BDS as a whole is agnostic as to the political solution they recommend, somehow it turns out that the speakers themselves support a “one-state solution”—that is, the abolition of the State of Israel. BDS continues to endorse a Palestinian right of return, the authority for which, they say, lies with UN Resolution 194 of Dec. 11, 1948. The Resolution is a wartime grab-bag and its meaning is heatedly disputed for good reason—it’s suffused with vagueness. Clause 11—the only part that addresses refugees at all—declares 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, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” Needless to say, BDS does not comment on the “live at peace with their neighbours” part. Brandishing Resolution 194 is a rhetorical gesture. For making a just peace, it’s well-nigh useless.
Curiously, Robbins thinks that I consider “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes” a “dealbreaker.” Not so. He falsely attributes to me the view that a Palestinian right of return “is an all-or-nothing, love-it-or-leave-it proposition.” It’s for BDS that 194 is conclusive. For me, it’s no more than a (not the) starting point for sorely needed negotiations toward an acceptable deal. I have no idea how Robbins gets the idea that I refuse to “acknowledge the possibility of pragmatic compromises.” It’s only pragmatic compromises (a redundancy, come to think of it) that have any political use. For the thousandth time, the problem in the Middle East is not right-vs.-wrong but right-vs.-right.
In brief, BDS has not ceased to equivocate. Robbins’ evocation of a two-state BDS does not dispel the conclusion that it’s a bait-and-switch operation. The “S” in “BDS” might as well stand for “Slippery.”
Robbins writes accurately: “The growing appeal of BDS relies on a growing sense that the founding claims of Zionism are less and less relevant to the facts on the ground.” On the existence of a growing appeal, he’s right. He’s right, too, if he means that, outside Israel, belief in the nation’s right to exist has been undermined by Israel’s dreadful national policies and flagrantly illiberal direction. It’s a fact, as Robbins writes, that “on the most fundamental recent issues, like the 2014 invasion of Gaza and the ongoing theft of West Bank land for settlements, Israel’s conduct is increasingly held to be indefensible.”
But then we are back into the tedious and disheartening domain of the point-counterpoint duel, and Robbins’ real contribution lies elsewhere. He proposes to clarify “the deeper logic that undergirds the BDS debate.” He wants to dig down to “the substratum of unarticulated, but not necessarily unprincipled, intuition … and thereby try to understand the deeper logic that undergirds the BDS debate.” Here is the nub of his point: “Time eats away at the rights of even the most violently victimized of victims.” Since he challenges me to address the question of whether even the Holocaust is of diminishing salience, I will say that I think that too.
Robbins is pointing to an unnerving truth about history, not only about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and especially about quarrels between right and right: Peace and justice require term limits on attempts to replay the past. Even the intellectual merit of what-if thinking can wreck the future if it retains a tight grip on the mind. When you do geometry, you can blithely roll back time, for geometric shapes are eternal. When you do politics, the past has already deposited a whole lot of facts on the ground. Justice and injustice are not all of a piece. Then what?
Robbins condemns Israeli journalist Avi Shavit for writing that if it wasn’t for atrocities, “the State of Israel would not have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.” Indeed, Shavit’s claim of a logical chain is full of broken links. As an autonomous moral agent, one can support a cause overall—one can acknowledge one’s debt to a history that included ugliness—without embracing all actions undertaken in its name. The very concept of war crimes would not be tenable without this distinction, which is why I can unequivocally relish the victory of the Allies in World War II while condemning the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or Stalin’s 1940 Katyn Forest massacre of 22,000 Poles. In a bleeding world, there is no victory without anguish.
Robbins writes: “Gitlin, whether he realizes it or not, seeks to reconcile himself to past atrocities in order to defend the state of Israel as it exists, to suggest that what it achieved must not and cannot be given away.” But not so! Again, he has recourse to either-or logic with a vengeance. I do not “reconcile myself” to past atrocities—I deplore them—and I do not “defend the state of Israel as it exists,” if by that Robbins means that I defend Israeli policies toward the West Bank or Gaza Palestinians, or toward the Arab minority within the Green Line. I do indeed defend the existence of a state that was created in 1948, recognized in 1948, and justifiably defended in 1948, because in an ugly world that is the residue of injustice as well as justice, history cannot be repealed. I do think that what the nascent Israel achieved in 1948 must not and cannot be given away even though Israeli forces committed atrocities in the process. I also know that the land Israel conquered in 1967, however the Six Day War began, it holds today illegally and must renounce.
The “beneficiary” who is the target of Robbins’ broadside is the guilty but “well-intentioned” person who “knowingly profits from a system she believes to be unjust,” who knows that atrocities were committed by her side but is reconciled to benefits which she refuses to renounce. The beneficiary inherits the spoils of injustice. But things are worse still, for truly, as he writes, “we are all the beneficiaries of unspeakable acts—all of us without exception.”
The founding and defense of the State of Israel delivered justice to Jews, a people hitherto driven into exile and deprived of statehood. In the process of establishing that State, Israeli Jews committed crimes against Palestinians. Some of those unspeakable acts took place in living memory of at least some of the victims. But then what? The past cannot be fixed because attempts at fixing take place in history, which did not cease at the moment when the wrong was done. Realities, stakes, interests, and claims evolve. Bad consequences can be modified but not cancelled. Trying to perfect the past is a fantasist’s errand.
But pull away from the dread immediacies of the Israel-Palestine situation and ask why so much controversy revolves nowadays around the question of what can and can’t be done about the past. This is the subject of a revelatory book, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics, by the sociologist John Torpey, who argues that on the whole, reparations politics stems from a lack of faith in a collective future.
The pursuit of the future, the homeland of progressives throughout the modern era, has been overwhelmed by a tidal wave of attention to “memory,” “reparations,” and “coming to terms with the past.” Perhaps never has so much firepower been trained on history as a battleground of political and intellectual struggle.
Visions of a collective good have crumbled. In the rubble of the future, reparations demands can be seen as
a pursuit of the past that can only be understood as a response, at once compensatory and escapist, to ‘the collapse of the future.’ … The implied hope is that the excavation of ‘memory’ will salve the yearning for prospects of real, sustainable improvement. When the future collapses, the past rushes in. … In the absence of a plausible vision of a more humane future society, the presence of the past becomes magnified; righting past wrongs supplants and replaces the search for a vision of a better tomorrow, or even of today. The reckoning with abominable pasts becomes, in fact, the idiom in which the future is sought.
For millennia, the appeal of upending the past endures. “Every valley shall be exalted,” says Isaiah (40:4-5), “and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Every mountain; all flesh; all glory revealed. So does Isaiah wield the license of the prophet. But short of a cosmic mountaintop mutilation that, with today’s earth-mindful sensibility, we cannot behold without horror, the crooked cannot be made straight. Hamas embraces one idiom of river-to-sea all-or-nothingness; Israel’s irredentists, another. Give up the logic of extremity, which is the call of conquest.
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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.