BDS in Berkeley: breakthrough or falling at the first hurdle?

Recent efforts by student activists and others to convince the University of California Berkeley to divest from two companies with strong ties to Israel and its defense establishment is the first really powerful test of the “BDS” movement in the United States. The bottom line is this: if you can’t get divestment through UC Berkeley, you’re done. UC Berkeley is the epicenter of not only liberalism, but even radicalism, in American academia and indeed American social life in general. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s proving so difficult.

After a long campaign, pro-sanctions activists managed to get the student government to vote for such a resolution, but the student president vetoed it, and the struggle then became to get a supermajority required to overcome that veto. The first attempt to do this failed, but has been tabled until next week. It may or may not succeed, and at any rate it would only be a recommendation to the university without any force. So even if it passes in the end, it hardly constitutes an act of actual divestment.

But I think UC Berkeley is an interesting test in the opposite way that BDS proponents suggest: I don’t think it would be a tremendous and astonishing achievement to get UC Berkeley to go along with this idea. In fact, really it should not be difficult for such ideas to spread throughout the Bay Area. And I think that’s probably the limit, more or less, of its potential area of effectiveness in the United States, with some other, much smaller, pockets of extreme liberalism excepted. So the real test is not whether it can succeed at UC Berkeley against all expectations, but rather whether it will fail there against those same expectations, or at least my own well-informed understanding of what those expectations ought to be.

Spin is a wondrous thing, and I’ve rarely seen more spin in my life than has been engaged in by BDS proponents who have been trying to create the impression that there is a major movement in this direction in the United States and that is “succeeding” and, even more preposterously, “having results.” One day, I suppose it’s possible that such a thing may come to pass, but it’s very difficult if not impossible under present circumstances to imagine many major American institutions, even academic institutions, divesting or adopting any kind of generalized boycott against Israel. I think people who imagine this happening really don’t have a clear sense of the degree to which Israeli institutions are intertwined and enmeshed with American institutions, most specifically military and intelligence, but also corporate, nongovernmental, civil society and academic ones as well. The pushback from pro-Israel activists will be enormous and, I think in most cases, likely successful. I just don’t think there’s an appetite for this in most elements of American society. I’d be perfectly open to being proven wrong, but I think the UC Berkeley case illustrates my point extremely well. BDS activists are spinning the thus far unsuccessful UC Berkeley effort (at issuing a recommendation, mind you) as a “great achievement,” but I really don’t think any serious person can buy that line. They may have a success next week, and then some more in the Bay Area and a few other places, but I really think that will be all she wrote even in a best case scenario.

The problem, ultimately, with the BDS approach as on display at UC Berkeley, and in contrast to other boycott efforts that wisely target elements of the occupation such as the settlements, as opposed to Israel itself, is that it doesn’t advance any articulable or achievable political goal. No doubt that behind such efforts for the most part lurk one-state sentiments that, however noble they might be, don’t actually correspond to anything plausibly achievable. Since working towards ending the occupation is the only sensible course of action under the present circumstances, and the only seriously achievable goal that would advance both the Palestinian national interest and the cause of peace, activism should be measured by the degree to which it helps to promote that goal. If another goal is intended, I think people need to be very clear about what it is, and how they hope to get there, and I really don’t think anyone can really imagine that boycotts are going to be the primary tool in resolving this national conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Anyone who does think that is hopelessly, touchingly naïve. The very most generous thing one might say is that this is a movement waiting for a leadership to emerge deus ex machina that could translate its momentum, if any, into actual political results vis-à-vis Israel. If the goal is ending the occupation, then the problem with BDS is that instead of distinguishing between the occupation and Israel itself, and separating the interests of the majority of Israelis from the settlers and other proponents of maintaining the occupation at all costs, it conflates them and creates an atmosphere which encourages Israelis in general to circle the wagons against outside pressure rather than understand that ending the occupation is in their own interests.

The Berkeley resolution doesn’t, in fact, talk about occupation, but rather about war crimes, mainly with reference to the war in Gaza. So, perhaps, its proponents might argue that it is simply a principled stand against companies connected to an entity (the Israeli military) that has committed war crimes, and not to any broader political agenda or achievable goal. I think that’s probably disingenuous. If it is true, then it means this is not only a largely empty gesture, but a pointless one as well, literally, since the war is over and the political agenda has moved on in every direction. I think it’s clear from most BDS rhetoric that BDS proponents do see boycotts and divestment as part of an overall political agenda, but usually the intended outcome is left very murky — indeed, it’s noteworthy that the Berkeley effort has had support from prominent people who completely disagree about what the appropriate overall political agenda (two states, one state, etc.) has to be. This reflects a serious degree of confusion. Clarity is required and political goals dictate strategy, which then defines tactics. In this case, the goal is amorphous, even contradictory, so the strategy is unclear and the tactics, such as this action at UC Berkeley, seem unconnected to any coordinated effort that has a focused, organized goal. It’s extremely unlikely that such wild, uncoordinated efforts could ultimately produce any kind of intended effect. Indeed, it’s more likely to have unintended effects.

There are other kinds of boycotts and divestment, which I wholeheartedly support, and which make eminent political sense because they fit perfectly into a broad strategy that is being coordinated by a national leadership. Sanctions targeted at the occupation, the settlements, the wall in the West Bank, etc. and that scrupulously call attention to the distinction between Israel and the one hand and the occupation on the other hand and that separate the two and pull their interests apart are useful both in terms of political symbolism and, potentially, as practical pressure on certain vulnerabilities regarding that aspect of Israeli behavior that most needs changing. Such sanctions and divestment are consistent with the PA strategy that combines diplomacy with state and institution building, nonviolent protests and economic measures aimed at the occupation, and that has a clear intended outcome: ending the occupation. This strategy seeks to continue the process of dividing Israelis between those who support maintaining occupation at all costs and those who understand distinction between Israel as such and the occupation and the settlers.

Of course, there are plenty of people who support the broad kind of BDS that tends to unite rather than divide Israelis and which has no clear strategic aim, and who in fact are opposed to ending the occupation and prefer instead the one-state agenda aimed at the elimination of Israel and the creation of a single, democratic state in its place. For them, the fact that measures like the proposed Berkeley resolution target Israel generally is a positive thing. They’ve no interest in dividing Israeli society, only in confronting it. They’ve no interest in ending the occupation, since they don’t recognize the occupation, or at least have adopted logic that doesn’t allow for one to meaningfully speak in terms of an occupation, only discrimination in a single, at present undemocratic, state. Many of them also continue to talk about settlements, although that also doesn’t make any sense either given their logic, although they could talk about discriminatory Jewish-only towns or something like that. It never ceases to fascinate me that one-state rhetoric continues to be so deeply mired in two-state logic (occupation, settlements, etc.), categories that make no sense once a single state agenda has been adopted.

My point here is that there are sanctions and there are sanctions. Some have a clear goal and a positive effect, and others, and I’m afraid the UC Berkeley effort falls into this category, have unstated and entirely unclear goals, differently understood by different supporters, and would likely have counterproductive effects, if any. In a sense, this whole subject is rather moot, because I am completely convinced that there will not be any widespread boycotting and divesting of Israel and companies that do business in Israel in the United States generally, and that even if there were, that would not be anywhere near enough to get the Israelis to consider things like dissolving their own state. But if the Berkeley effort fails, and continues to fail, it will mean that BDS aimed at Israel in general and not the occupation, can’t take root even in the most fertile soil in the entire country. At that point, well-meaning activists really need to think of something else.