I think that the BDS movement has taken several forms, and it is probably important to distinguish among them. I would say that around six or seven years ago, there was a real confusion about what was being boycotted, what goes under the name of “boycott.” There were some initiatives that seemed to be directed against Israeli academics, or Israeli filmmakers, cultural producers, or artists that did not distinguish between their citizenship and their participation, active or passive, in occupation politics. We must keep in mind that the BDS movement has always been focused on the occupation. It is not a referendum on Zionism, and it does not take an explicit position on the one-state or two-state solution. And then there were those who sought to distinguish boycotting individual Israelis from boycotting the Israeli institutions. But it is not always easy to know how to make the distinction between who is an individual and who is an institution. And I think a lot of people within the U.S. and Europe just backed away, thinking that it was potentially discriminatory to boycott individuals or, indeed, institutions on the basis of citizenship, even though many of those who were reluctant very much wanted to find a way to support a non-violent resistance to the occupation.
But now I feel that it has become more possible, more urgent to reconsider the politics of the BDS. It is not that the principles of the BDS have changed: they have not. But there are now ways to think about implementing the BDS that keep in mind the central focus: any event, practice, or institution that seeks to normalize the occupation, or presupposes that “ordinary” cultural life can continue without an explicit opposition to the occupation is itself complicit with the occupation.
We can think of this as passive complicity, if you like. But the main point is to challenge those institutions that seek to separate the occupation from other cultural activities. The idea is that we cannot participate in cultural institutions that act as if there is no occupation or that refuse to take a clear and strong stand against the occupation and dedicate their activities to its undoingSo, with this in mind, we can ask, what does it mean to engage in boycott? It means that, for those of us on the outside, we can only go to an Israeli institution, or an Israeli cultural event, in order to use the occasion to call attention to the brutality and injustice of the occupation and to articulate an opposition to it.
I think that’s what Naomi Klein did, and I think it actually opened up another route for interpreting the BDS principles. It is no longer possible for me to come to Tel Aviv and talk about gender, Jewish philosophy, or Foucault, as interesting as that might be for me; it is certainly not possible to take money from an organization or university or a cultural organization that is not explicitly and actively anti-occupation, acting as if the cultural event within Israeli borders was not happening against the background of occupation? Against the background of the assault on, and continuing siege of, Gaza? It is this unspoken and violent background of “ordinary” cultural life that needs to become the explicit object of cultural and political production and criticism. Historically, I see no other choice, since affirming the status quo means affirming the occupation. One cannot “set aside” the radical impoverishment, the malnutrition, the limits on mobility, the intimidation and harassment at the borders, and the exercise of state violence in both Gaza and the West Bank and talk about other matters in public? If one were to talk about other matters, then one is actively engaged in producing a limited public sphere of discourse which has the repression and, hence, continuation of violence as its aim.
Let us remember that the politics of boycott are not just matters of “conscience” for left intellectuals within Israel or outside. The point of the boycott is to produce and enact an international consensus that calls for the state of Israel to comply with international law. The point is to insist on the rights of self-determination for Palestinians, to end the occupation and colonization of Arab lands, to dismantle the Wall that continues the illegal seizure of Palestinian land, and to honor several UN resolutions that have been consistently defied by the Israeli state, including UN resolution 194, which insists upon the rights of refugees from 1948.
So, an approach to the cultural boycott in particular would have to be one that opposes the normalization of the occupation in order to bring into public discourse the basic principles of injustice at stake. There are many ways to articulate those principles, and this is where intellectuals are doubtless under a political obligation to become innovative, to use the cultural means at our disposal to make whatever interventions we can.
The point is not simply to refuse contact and forms of cultural and monetary exchange - although sometimes these are most important - but rather, affirmatively, to lend one’s support to the strongest anti-violent movement against the occupation that not only affirms international law, but establishing exchanges with Palestinian cultural and academic workers, cultivating international consensus on the rights of the Palestinian people, but also altering that hegemonic presumption within the global media that any critique of Israel is implicitly anti-democratic or anti-Semitic.
Surely it has always been the best part of the Jewish intellectual tradition to insist upon the ethical relation to the non-Jew, the extension of equality and justice, and the refusal to keep silent in the face of egregrious wrongs.