The BDS movement is enjoying success because even at home, Zionists are beginning to lose the PR battle
“The Palestinians are winning,” writes Ali Abunimah in his new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine. It’s an audacious assessment, and arguably true even in the U.S. This moment of Palestine activism is dynamic and by some measures unprecedented. Of course, Palestinian activism and scholarship have always been vigorous, but at no time in the United States, going back even to the anti-Zionist activity of al-muhjar (the Arab American writers of the early 20th century), has Israel’s behavior been under the sort of scrutiny in evidence today. That scrutiny has been forced into conversation by linking of the Palestine struggle to international movements of decolonization in new media venues, coming together under the name of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions [BDS] movement.
BDS is not simply a political tactic. Even its most optimistic supporter would have a hard time arguing that it will significantly affect détente at the level of the state. However, if we view BDS as a phenomenon on the level of discourse, as Abunimah does, we can better understand its influence on public debate, where pressure on Israel has altered the dynamics of organizing and the vocabularies of advocacy. BDS as a specific movement is nearly a decade old, and emerged out of a weariness about the traditional modes of resistance (dialogue, state intervention, outreach, and so forth), which had largely proved ineffective. BDS has developed through systematic decolonial analysis, with the result that Israel continues to be situated—rightly, in Abunimah’s opinion—as a settler colony.
Ali Abunimah’s book arrives at an opportune moment, with the movement, not state actors, generating headlines and the latest round of peace talks sputtering with even more than the usual ineptitude. Abunimah is a well-placed narrator of Palestine as a global phenomenon. A founder of the news and commentary site Electronic Intifada
His latest book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, both reflects and synthesizes the dramatic shifts in the discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict in the United States as well as in Israel and the Arab world, in particular the emergence of one-state demands and the coalescence of an anti-Zionist position on the left. Significant elements of Palestine activism are in conversation with anarchist, decolonial, and postcolonial traditions of anti-state philosophy, which are anathema to the statist desires of both Zionism and the Palestinian Authority. Abunimah synthesizes these dynamics while simultaneously pushing forward his vision of a democratic binational state, which he views as the only lasting solution to the conflict.
Underlying Abunimah’s view is an insistence that Israel’s model of ethnocracy cannot be maintained. This is not his own theoretical innovation: many have predicted its ultimate demise from the earliest days of Israel’s existence. But now, as Abunimah shows, the level of pressure from anti-Zionists and, increasingly, from liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart on Israel’s archaic models of citizenship is higher than ever. Ethnocracy is susceptible to liberal critique because it has to rely on biological determinism, a putative taboo of liberalism. This biologism is something that liberal commentators will often concede exists in the Occupied Territories but not inside the 1948 borders of Israel. Even significant portions of the American public have cooled on their support for Israel (its main base in the United States remains evangelical Christians, who are often less touchy about biological determinism).
I’ve observed in my own work that Israel’s inequitable juridical system often comes into conflict with its self-image. But the Zionist right always knew it. From Vladimir Jabotinsky to Meir Kahane, hardline ethnonationalists have embraced the need to displace Arabs in order to maintain Israel’s Jewish purity (or at the very least its Jewish majority). It is the liberal Zionists who have had a more difficult time reconciling their affinity for Western humanism with their desire for an ethnocratic society.
The disconnect isn’t as contradictory as it first appears. European colonization often utilized humanistic discourses that celebrated the probity of altruism. Zionism, of course, emerged from a Europe at the height of its colonizing fever and its infatuation with nation-states, partition, and the transfer of populations (Indian partition occurred at roughly the same time as Israel’s creation). These conventions of modernity usually contrasted with the historical organization of communities subject to European colonization. Such was the case throughout the Arab world.
Zionism’s settler ethos also accorded to the pioneering spirit of the United States, whose colonial strategies and discourses were of great inspiration to founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The notion of escaping religious persecution and creating a new society in a land of milk and honey, replete with a godly imprimatur, was, from its outset, in conversation with comparable American mythmaking. The tenets of manifest destiny in the United States have always dictated that colonial violence was necessary for democracy. In the context of this logic, ethnic cleansing in Palestine wasn’t incompatible with liberal values; it was a constitutive part of their installation in the region.
To open the book, Abunimah optimistically assesses the state of play for the two sides. His reasoning rests on the unsustainability of Israel’s ethnocratic model. As Abunimah puts it, “it is not the Palestinians as a people seeking self-determination and liberation who face constant doubt and anxiety about the legitimacy and longevity of their political project”. The claim is that even at home, Zionists are beginning to lose the PR battle around the Israel-Palestine conflict, but Abunimah’s formulation informs more complex matters. He’s getting at the ethical viability of propagandizing state violence as against the salience of Palestine to the global left. How sustainable is propaganda in an era of new media and instant access? In many ways, the fate of Palestine relies on the type of social change people initiate in places far from the Middle East. Abunimah, then, is theorizing matters broader than Palestine. He is hopeful about the efficacy of grassroots organizing in opposition to state power. Palestine, in this analysis, is both immediate and symbolic.
Abunimah’s emphasis on the competing moralities of Zionism versus anticolonialism allows the book a sustained insistence on the need for and viability of justice. This may tip the book’s reception in favor of reading it as polemic, but the wealth of historical material assembled exceeds a too-narrow classification. The Battle for Justice in Palestine is neither journalism, strictly defined, nor historiography, broadly defined. It’s best viewed as a series of political essays organized around the themes of Palestinian liberation and the many ills of ethnocracy.
Those familiar with Abunimah’s writing know to expect sophistication without theoretical jargon. This style serves him well in The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Abunimah isn’t snarky, but he’s often funny. He’s not mean-spirited, but he suffers no proposal whose implementation would stop short of full independence for Palestinians. Abunimah attacks the predominant modes of Zionist activism, showing that it relies on the glorification of war criminals (Ehud Olmert, for example) and the intimidation of pro-Palestine organizers. He notes that “it would take several volumes to document all the instances of the Israel lobby attempting to suppress criticism of Israel on campus.” Of particular interest is Abunimah’s assertion that Zionist organizations have harnessed the power of repressive institutions—law, the courts, legislative bodies—to criminalize dissent, a material application of the rhetorical appeal to authority.
Other Zionist strategies include pinkwashing, the appropriation of gay struggles to attest to Israel’s modernity versus the homophobic barbarity of Arabs and Muslims; multicultural outreach, in which Zionists court ethnic minorities by positioning Israel as racial wish fulfillment; and geopolitical affinity, an emphasis on Israel’s indispensability to the United States, an approach where anything from liberal engagement to neoconservative war chanting can be an appropriate outlook.
Even if pro-Palestinian activism has been able to counter many of these claims, the political power of Zionism is still formidable, and it dominates most of the discussion on Israel/Palestine. Abunimah is hopeful, confident even, but cautious about offering sweeping rhetorical pronouncements. His argument, like his tone, is ultimately pragmatic, focused on developing a legitimate framework for democracy in Israel/Palestine. And in order to develop that framework, he carefully dismantles a broad range of Zionist mythologies.
The myth of the penniless and clean-hearted Holocaust survivor coming to Palestine for refuge, for example, has been especially powerful in the Western imagination. Rather than debunking or downplaying such histories of escape and asylum, Abunimah accepts that Jewish history in modern Europe has been fraught with profound violence and that many Jews needed refuge. He argues instead that Zionism fostered a colonial relationship among immigrant and native that required the dispossession of Palestinians and the maintenance of an inequitable legal system. He concludes: Jewish freedom is not incompatible with Palestinian human rights. Zionism is.
It might appear to be a self-evident point, but it runs into corresponding mythologies about which Abunimah is less magnanimous. Those mythologies include the notion that the Palestinian people do not exist, claims of Israel’s messianic destiny, the assignment of blame to the Palestinians for failed peace talks, and institutional denial of Israel’s role in the creation of the so-called refugee problem.
As he contests these mythologies, Abunimah argues for the virtue of a binational state. His rationale for binationalism is fundamentally secular, making its case based on both moral critique and legal precedent. For Abunimah, a binational solution is not merely the most preferable from the standpoint of satisfying a desire for justice, but the most viable in terms of its durability. He makes his belief clear that short of a comprehensive solution, one that involves refugee rights and an end to preferential immigration laws for Jews, the conflict will never fully abate.
Abunimah invests considerable hope in BDS. Without doubt, the movement has energized Palestinian activism around the globe. Its recent high-profile success at the American Studies Association has placed Israel’s occupation squarely in the public eye. It’s a location to which Zionists are accustomed, but one in which they are comfortable only when they control the narrative. BDS not only decenters their authority, it forces them to answer for their support of ethnocracy. The usual bromides about dialogue and coexistence sound feeble when given as answers to the charge of ethno-supremacy.
One needs to read closely to see it, but Abunimah’s bemusement at the efforts of the Israeli government and a variety of well-heeled Zionist groups to suppress BDS adds a pleasant flavor to his analysis. It is not Abunimah’s disposition that is of concern, but the sheer ridiculousness of such national groups devoting so many resources to combat a movement instead of engaging its demands. It’s like a grade schooler spending three days finding somebody to write his book report when he could have done it himself in three hours.
Abunimah doesn’t come out and say that BDS will topple Israel’s occupation, but he’s clearly optimistic about its potential to disrupt the commonplaces of Zionist discourse. He observes,
[F]or all the millions spent on promoting their cause, it has been impossible for Israel and its surrogates to hone a message that they are genuinely interested in “peace” or that the two-state solution they claim to want can win new supporters. Israel’s clear priorities have been accelerating the colonization of the occupied West Bank and limiting the amount of space available to Palestinians, using whatever means are necessary to further these goals.
If The Battle for Justice in Palestine clarifies one phenomenon, it is this: the discrepancy between image and action, PR and reality. Abunimah’s argument is fundamentally about the immorality of Zionism, one proffered with a terrific amount of supporting material, all leading to the same conclusion: in the end, no amount of propaganda can negate the continuous brutality of what Israel and its functionaries work so hard to conceal.