columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Their protests, not ours: Palestinian Solidarity Movement’s reaction to Israel’s political upheaval

If you advocate a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against a nation in toto, then you end up judging the protests before you have even assessed them.

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against the government's judicial overhaul on March 9, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against the government's judicial overhaul on March 9, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Over the last fortnight, the political upheaval in Israel has generated unprecedented global interest in the Jewish state’s internal governance. The world has quickly learned about Israel’s lack of a written constitution, as well as its electoral system that turns small parties into kingmakers, against the background of angry demonstrations rejecting the proposed judicial reforms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The protests have typically been described as “historic” and “revolutionary,” with the associated warning that the political crisis will become an existential one sooner rather than later.

From Egypt to Ukraine to Brazil to the other 129 countries which, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have experienced “significant protests” since 2017, the display of “people power” in the face of authoritarian and often corrupt governments invariably captures the attention of the world’s media outlets. In purely visual terms, the stories can be riveting. Hundreds of thousands of protesters massing in public squares, urgent chants ringing out from the crowd and columns of police officers in riot gear all give a sense of history in the making. The demonstrations in Israel’s cities and towns have echoed similar activism in other parts of the world, communicating to the uninitiated—as they survey the sea of Israeli flags carried by the protesters—the message that those taking to the streets love their country but loathe their government.

Not everyone has been moved by the protests, however. Among the Palestinians and their various solidarity organizations around the world, the response has ranged from sullen indifference to outright hostility.

At first glance, this reaction is puzzling. One might expect Israel’s adversaries to be glued to its political crisis, if only to obtain a clearer understanding of how the enemy might unravel. But other than a handful of exceptions, the legions of writers and activists who devote their days to promoting the Palestinian national cause have behaved as though the Israeli protest movement is an irrelevance that distracts the eyes of the media from Israel’s role as an “occupier” of Palestinian lands.

That’s because, on deeper reflection, the trajectory of Palestinian nationalism guards against too much intimacy with the hopes, divisions and ambitions among Israelis, preferring to stress the contention that Israel is a settler-colonial state born in original sin. After all, the very act of protest can humanize a society, conveying to outsiders a sense of the complexities that lie beyond ideological rigidities. Through the protests, the world has been reminded that there are Israelis who support Netanyahu and those who oppose him, many with every fiber of their being; that there are Israelis who back territorial compromise with the Palestinians as well as those who wish to extend Israeli sovereignty over every part of the land from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan; that there are Israelis who are devoutly religious and those who are militantly secular; that Hebrew can be a language of protest as well as a language of “occupation”; and that, in common with other democratic societies, these deep social and political divisions are an inevitable byproduct of life in a free society.

The Palestinian national movement and its international echo chamber can’t really cope with an interpretation like this one. Part of the reasoning here can be explained through the methods that it uses; if you advocate a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against a nation in toto—so that you put its private companies, its government agencies, its artists, academics, athletes and everyone else associated with it into a permanent state of quarantine—then you end up judging the protests before you have even assessed them.

“The current protest movement in Israel is not a movement to transform Israeli politics. It is not even a movement for democracy,” wrote Sai Englert, a Dutch academic specializing in Middle East affairs, in the online journal Middle East Eye—one of the few articles about the protests deemed worthy of appearing in a pro-Palestinian outlet.

“It is a movement that fights to maintain the Israeli status quo: a society built on stolen land and the ongoing exclusion of Palestinians, which rubber stamps its colonial rule through a legal system that only itself recognizes,” he continued. For the U.S.-based Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud, writing in the Palestine Chronicle, the most significant aspect of the protests was simply that “Netanyahu and his fellow extremists seem determined to damage Israel’s relations with the ally which provides the occupation state with at least $3.8 billion in U.S. military aid every year (emphasis in original).” For the BDS proponent Ali Abunimah, writing in the Electronic Intifada, all that fundamentally matters is that “no Zionist can … really disagree” with Israeli Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich’s opinion that the Palestinians are an “invented people” because that claim has been, he insists, a hallmark of Zionist belief and practice from the Jewish national movement’s inception.

The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose Smotrich while identifying as Zionists and proudly brandishing their national flag are, according to these sorts of analyses, merely an example of bad faith on a mass level. Before anything else, their argument goes, Israelis are settler-colonialists united by a collective determination to exclude the original Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the country. Their protests, therefore, can never be our protests.

At this juncture, it’s worth remembering that the goal of the BDS movement is the elimination of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state and its replacement with a State of Palestine in which former citizens of Israel would be assured of equality and tolerance. Quite how this would be possible in a context in which groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad command mass support despite declaring war against the Jews (not “Zionists,” note, but “Jews”) has never been explained properly, but perhaps there is no need to. The slogan of “secular democratic state” is just a slogan to mask the fact that the removal of Israel from the map is a goal that can only be achieved through genocide.

That is why, even at the height of the protests, many of those viscerally opposing Netanyahu were nonetheless anxious that Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or a similar foe would seek a military advantage through Israel’s political crisis. When the Knesset reconvenes next month and this febrile intra-Zionist conflict resumes, that is one reality that will not have changed.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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