A recent “policy paper,” written in part by McGill history professor Gil Troy, has been aggressively circulating around the Internet. Supposedly to be presented at a meeting of Jewish scholars and activists in Israel, it condemns the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a “full-blown political, economic, cultural, ideological struggle against the…existence of Israel” and provides several recommendations for a strategic attack campaign to undermine BDS.
While questionable, the paper highlights a striking characteristic of BDS. The authors claim the campaign draws a “line in the sand” in which “progressives, no matter how critical of Israel, who condemn the BDS movement, prove their pro-Israel bona fides.” The “line in the sand” characterization brings to light an extremely prevalent weakness in the general international Palestinian solidarity movement: the litmus test. The litmus test is a non-verbal, non-written test given to virtually all active members of any solidarity movement that tests an individual’s “actual” commitment to the cause, whatever it may be.
The BDS campaign as a grassroots movement which also seeks a top-down approach (sanctions) is the best route. And we know it works: history is our greatest testament.
There are, of course, problems with the campaign. There is no real leadership; there is a failure to sufficiently provide required materials and clear approaches to understand or explain the movement. BDS is not boycotting Indigo or Victoria’s Secret – it is a holistic strategy that aims to both economically and symbolically undermine the government of Israel by placing upon it the sort of pressure our governments have failed to provide. And then there is the issue of the academic boycott. Even some of the most fervent BDS supporters have problems reconciling themselves to this.
But what hurts BDS the most, just as it hurts the general solidarity movement, is the litmus test. Much like the one-state/two-state divide which has pierced the movement, the BDS campaign has come to either verify or question one’s “commitment” to the “cause.” Disagreement on these two issues should not serve a source of division within the movement. As soon as litmus tests are administered for activists and their commitment to the cause, we begin dismantling the support base. Thus, this division only advantages one group: the Israel apologists.
The litmus test is indicative of an old and now growing problem within activism, where essentialism, dogmatism, and ideology reign supreme. We no longer just feel compelled to act but we feel compelled to achieve. We focus on the “right answer” without ever really questioning the way we arrive at that answer and its implications. A sort of essentialist approach grows; any dissent puts one outside the community.
For instance, the one-state solution is the right and just solution to the 60 years of oppression of the Palestinians. But that is easier believed than done: South Africa, post-apartheid, is still shaking with inequalities and antagonisms. The potential implications of the one-state solution, such as civil war, strife, and political despotism, are not often addressed, usually due to dogmatic and essentialist reasons.
We shouldn’t step down from the “right” answers, but we also shouldn’t avoid any discussion of possible negative and perhaps inevitable implications. It helps us realize that no solution is ever really a solution. To err is, after all, to be human.
Ghassan Kanafani once wrote that “in the final analysis, man is the cause.” We create the momentum required for change, for the “effect,” whatever that “effect” may be. Activism for Palestine is not about one-state/two-state or BDS or the origins of hummus. It is about a commitment to justice. It is about patience. Our control is, ultimately, over ourselves as the cause.
The 15 minutes Nelson Mandela spent leaving the gates of his prison, heralded as a heroic moment, only held their importance because Mandela waited for three decades, with patience, with a commitment to justice – knowing that his freedom had no guarantee. And this is what activism is: it is not about a goal or a solution; it is not about dividing ourselves in the face of disagreements and dissent; it is about a commitment to justice regardless of whether its deliverance is guaranteed.
Sana Saeed writes in this space every other week. But not for long. Don’t question her activist cred: firstname.lastname@example.org.