Debating BDS with Cornel West

BDS is not a “movement” – a movement requires universality, like the feminist, gay rights and civil rights movements.

AVITAL LEIBOVICH stands by as BDS activists protest her talk at Washington DC’s Newseum in 2016 (photo credit: AJC)
AVITAL LEIBOVICH stands by as BDS activists protest her talk at Washington DC’s Newseum in 2016
(photo credit: AJC)
 I recently debated Prof. Cornel West of Harvard about the boycott movement against Israel.
The topic was resolved: “The boycott, divestiture and sanctions (BDS) movement will help bring about the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
West argued that BDS would encourage Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. I replied that Israel would never be blackmailed into compromising its security, and that the Palestinians are disincentivized into making compromises by the fantasy that they will get a state through economic and cultural extortion.
West argued that Israel was a “colonialist-settler” state and that apartheid in the West Bank was worse than it was in white-ruled South Africa and should be subject to the same kind of economic and cultural isolation that helped bring about the fall of that regime.
I replied that the Jews who emigrated to Israel – a land in which Jews have lived continuously for thousands of years – were escaping from the countries that persecuted them, not acting as colonial settlers for those countries. Indeed, Israel fought against British colonial rule. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, not a colonial enterprise. Nor is Israel in any way like South Africa, where a minority of whites ruled over a majority of blacks, who were denied the most fundamental human rights. In Israel, Arabs, Druze and Christians have equal rights and serve in high positions in government, business, the arts and academia.
Jews were a majority in Israel when the US divided mandatory Palestine (Eretz Yisrael) into “two states for two people” and remain a majority today, although the Arab population has increased considerably since 1948. Even the situation in the West Bank – where Palestinians have the right to vote for their leaders and criticize Israel, and where in cities such as Ramallah there is no Israeli military or police presence – the situation is no way comparable to apartheid South Africa.
West then argued that BDS was a non-violent movement that was the best way to protest Israel’s “occupation” and settlement policies.
I responded that BDS is not a “movement” – a movement requires universality, like the feminist, gay rights and civil rights movements. BDS is an antisemitic tactic directed only against the Jewish citizens and supporters of Israel. The boycott against Israel and its Jewish supporters (to many Palestinians, all of Israel is one big “settlement”; just look at any official map of Palestine) began before any “occupation” or “settlements” and picked up steam just as Israel offered to end the “occupation” and settlements as part of a twostate solution that the Palestinians rejected. BDS is not a protest against Israel’s policies. It is a protest against Israel’s very existence.
West argued that BDS would help the Palestinians.
I argued that it has hurt them by causing unemployment among Palestinian workers in companies such as SodaStream, which was pressured to move out of the West Bank, where it paid high wages to Palestinian men and women who worked side by side with Israeli men and women.
I explained that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is opposed to broad boycotts of Israeli products, artist and academics.
I told my mother’s favorite joke about Sam, an Orthodox Jew, who prayed every day to win the New York Lottery before he turned 80. On his 80th birthday, he complains to God that he hasn’t won.
God replies, “Sam, help me out a little – buy a ticket.”
I argued that the Palestinians expect to “win” a state without “buying a ticket” – sitting down to negotiate a compromise solution.
The debate in its entirety – which was conducted in front of an audience of business people in Dallas, Texas, as part of the “Old Parkland Debate Series” – continued with broad arguments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the refugee situation, the peace process, terrorism and other familiar issues. It can be seen in full on CSPAN. I think it is worth watching.
The audience voted twice, once before the debate and once after. The final tally was 129 opposed to BDS and 16 in favor. The vote before the debate was 93 opposed and 14 in favor. I swayed 36 votes.
West swayed two. The anti-BDS position won overwhelmingly, not because I am a better debater than West – he is quite articulate and everyone watching the debate can judge for themselves who is the better debater – but because the facts, the morality and the practicalities are against BDS.
The important point is never to give up on making the case against unjust tactics being employed against Israel. In some forums – at the United Nations, at numerous American university campuses, in some parts of Western Europe – it is an uphill battle. But it is a battle that can be won among open-minded people of all backgrounds.
BDS lost in Dallas. BDS lost in a debate between me and an articulate human rights activist at the Oxford Union. BDS is losing in legislative chambers. And if the case is effectively and honestly presented, it will lose in the court of public opinion.
The author is Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School and author of Trumped Up, How Criminalization of Political Differences endangers Democracy.
This article was first published by Gatestone Institute.