Vote NO to BDS

When Concordia undergraduates head to the ballot boxes next week, they will be asked to vote on whether or not their student union should endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement opposing Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories. BDS supporters at Concordia mean well, but the movement as a whole amounts to little more than a clever propaganda campaign, and I encourage students to check off the “no” box.

By singling out Israel for punishment, the BDS movement implies—whether intentionally or unintentionally—that Israel is solely to blame for the ongoing conflict, which is simply untrue. Both sides in the decades-old conflict have perpetrated war crimes and violated human rights and international law.

Numerous resolutions at the United Nations have argued that Israeli settlements in Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights violate international law because the UN Charter makes it illegal to acquire land by force and the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits altering the demographic makeup of occupied territories. Israel also continues to impose a blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza, hindering reconstruction, and restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement.

But the Palestinians aren’t blameless, either. A 2002 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Hamas has openly encouraged and endorsed the use of suicide bombing attacks against civilians. Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas, have launched thousands of rocket attacks against Israel throughout the past decade. According to HRW, most of these rockets are fired indiscriminately toward populated areas.

Though Israel’s military response is sometimes disproportionate to the threat posed by Palestinian rockets—far more Palestinians than Israelis have died due to the conflict in recent years—Israelis have legitimate security concerns and a right to defend themselves. No civilian should have to live in fear of a rocket destroying their property or killing a loved one.

Peace is achieved bilaterally. Aside from Israel’s actions, meaningful progress toward peace is also hampered by Hamas’ refusal to renounce violence and the disunity that existed until recently in the Palestinian leadership. This past April, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by political party Fatah, agreed to form a unity government; it’s the first time there’ll be a unified Palestinian leadership since 2007.

By vilifying Israel while staying silent about the Palestinian leadership’s own human rights abuses, the BDS movement vastly oversimplifies an armed conflict and a human rights crisis that is actually very complex. This only serves to further a particular agenda while doing little to actually promote lasting peace.

Beyond the one-sided nature of this campaign, the referendum question is also problematic because of its vague nature. How would one go about determining a company’s complicity with the occupation of Palestine? What’s the threshold for determining whether or not we should boycott a company or divest from it?

Some pro-Palestinian activists have previously targeted telecommunications giant Motorola for providing Israeli soldiers and security personnel with encrypted smartphones—something I suspect the company does for governments, and perhaps even military personnel, around the globe. Some have argued in favour of boycotting Starbucks because its chairman and CEO, Howard Schultz, is supposedly a vocal supporter of Israel.

I think we can all agree that our universities should divest from weapons manufacturers and refuse to engage in research activities with them, whether or not they do business with Israel. But as for other companies in fields as diverse as telecom and beverages, it’s more difficult to determine a course of action. Does doing business with Israel in and of itself constitute collusion with the “occupying power” or a desire for the conflict to continue?

Aside from demanding an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the BDS movement also calls for the recognition of Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their ancestral lands, which is highly problematic.

There is little support for such a “right of return” among the international community, as such a right would threaten the very existence of the state of Israel. Established in the wake of the Holocaust in 1948, Israel is, by definition, a Jewish nation-state. Asserting the Palestinian right to return is therefore tantamount to a demand that Israel cease to exist.

Whole generations of Israelis and Palestinians have grown up having only ever known the present-day geopolitical reality. The only feasible solution is a two-state one and the BDS movement’s demand that the Palestinian right to return ought to be recognized isn’t constructive.

The precedent for the current BDS movement targeting Israel is, of course, the academic boycott of South Africa that began in the 1960s in response to white minority rule and systemic racial discrimination by the state. A boycott against Israel can’t be defended on the basis that a boycott was in place against South Africa because the two situations don’t lend well to comparison.

Whereas the South African regime was deliberately racist, Israel is motivated not by racism, but by self-defence. Although Israel is defined as a Jewish state, it is also—on the whole—a pluralist society. There are Arab Israelis in the Knesset, Israel’s national legislature, whereas whites were the only enfranchised group in apartheid South Africa.

A clearly racist and oppressive regime made the case of boycotting and divesting from South Africa an obvious choice. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far more complicated and both sides are at least partly—though perhaps not in equal measure—to blame for ongoing hostilities.

If the intent of the BDS supporters was truly to bring forward a constructive position statement for students to vote on, they would have asked if we would like the Concordia Student Union to join other advocacy groups in demanding that our staunchly pro-Israel federal government adopt a more nuanced and balanced approach to the conflict. The CSU would have a clear goal to work towards as a result, rather than a vague endorsement of the BDS movement that no one will be sure how to apply.

Such a position statement could also have condemned both sides for their respective human rights violations, making it clear that not only do we oppose Israel’s violations of international law, but also Palestinian militants’ deliberate and illegal targeting of civilians.

Encouraging Israel to stop building settlements and to re-enter the peace process with a renewed willingness to compromise is likely to be far more productive than isolating it economically, culturally and politically through boycotts.

One of Concordia University’s greatest strengths is its multicultural, pluralistic student body. This campaign seeking an endorsement of the BDS movement is proving to be highly divisive, with some students saying that they feel less welcome on campus because of it.

Let’s refrain from adopting a position that would unfairly place the blame solely on Israel while also alienating many students. Instead, let’s remain an inclusive campus where a plurality of voices can thrive—including moderate ones who see fault on both sides of the Israel-Palestine separation barrier and who would like to see true progress towards a two-state solution, not just more unproductive posturing.

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