Kim Iversen is a progressive YouTube commentator who I generally respect, but I profoundly disagree with one of her recent videos discussing why a number of progressives in the US House of Representatives, such as Tulsi Gabbard, Ro Khanna and Ayanna Pressley, voted for a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the state of Israel.
I have to thank Iversen for taking the time to present a rational argument for why a progressive might not support BDS. I can see how well-meaning American progressives might come to the opposite conclusions on this issue. However, I frankly disagree with most of Iversen’s arguments, and I say that as someone whose father was nearly killed by a Palestinian terrorist. My father was on a bus in Jerusalem in August 1995 when a Palestinian committed suicide by blowing up the bus. My father had both his ears blown off, his eardrums ruptured and all his hair burned off and he was initially left for dead. With surgery, his ears were reattached and his ear drums reconstructed, but he was never able to hear the same again and had trouble doing his job as a university professor for the rest of his life because he couldn’t hear his students speak very clearly in class.
I recount my father’s story to let you know that I understand on a personal level the deadly consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the kind of destructive hatred that it has engendered on both sides. On some level, I understand why Israelis keep voting for right-wing Zionists like Netanyahu, partly out of fear of any reasonable settlement with the Palestinians, since they fear the consequences of a true peace deal that is capable of resolving the conflict.
Having said all that, I don’t find Kim Iversen’s arguments very convincing. First of all, that one comment by Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS, is quite ambiguous, and it is better to read Barghouti’s 2011 book or his editorials to understand his goals. He envisions a one-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights. He never once gives a speech calling for the destruction of Israel, but he does make clear that Israel as a state based on Jewish Zionism cannot continue to exist. In the minds of some people, that means that Barghouti wants the destruction of the state of Israel, but that is like saying that Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu wanted to destroy South Africa, because they wanted South Africa to no longer be an apartheid state.
BDS is a global movement which includes both supporters of a one and two state solution, so it isn’t like Barghouti’s personal beliefs characterize the entire global movement, or even form the stated goals of the movement, so Iversen is frankly wrongheaded to take one offhand comment and try to characterize BDS as some kind of devious Machiavellian plot to destroy Israel, when it clearly isn’t. The two historical analogies which BDS explicitly uses (see Barghouti’s 2011 book) are the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama and the global boycott of South Africa in the 1980s, and both of those were non-violent actions that did not lead to the dispossession of the whites in Montgomery or South Africa, but did lead to equal rights for blacks.
We can disagree about whether it is possible for Jews and Muslims to live together in peace, although we have some examples of that happening between Muslims, Christians and Jews in historical Jerusalem before the creation of the Israeli state in 1947. However, it is simply wrong for Iversen to mischaracterize BDS as an effort to destroy Israel, when there are so many American Jews participating in the movement.
The more serious argument that Iversen makes is that Jews will be oppressed if forced to live in one state with Israel. First of all, Iversen seems to not understand the balance of power in this conflict. Israelis won’t ever negotiate a settlement that allows that to happen, whereas Palestinians might be forced into a settlement where they are second-class citizens and their rights are oppressed, so let’s deal with the real threat to human and civil rights, rather than the hypothetical one.
Iversen argues that Palestinians and the Middle East in general don’t want democracy. She conveniently leaves out the examples of elections in Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. She also conveniently ignores how Western nations helped set up monarchies in the Middle East because they didn’t want democracies and the long history of Western nations supporting dictatorships in the Middle East.
While I agree with her assessment that democracy may not always work, especially when people don’t have much experience with democratic institutions and norms, I don’t see Arabs as being fundamentally different from any other peoples around the world in their political aspirations. The Democracy Spring protests across the Middle East were partly calls for democracy. Large swaths of Latin America and South Eastern Asia was governed by dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s, yet today nobody claims that Latin Americans and Asians don’t want democracy.
Iversen conveniently ignores the long history of democracy suppression in the region. The US overthrew the democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, which resulted in the 1979 revolution and is the reason why the Iran’s Guardian Council can veto political candidates. The US propped up military dictators in Pakistan and ignored the calls for democracy, because the dictators were our allies against the Russians and later the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US welcomed the military coup in January 1992 in Algeria, that overthrew the democratic election of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in December 1991. When Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections, the US and Israel did everything possible to punish the Palestians for voting for the wrong party and strangled the Palestinian territories economically so that they couldn’t function. The US sent massive amount of economic and military aid to prop up the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak for three decades in Eygpt. When Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as elected president in 2012, the US made clear to the Egyptian military that it would welcome a coup d’état, which happened a year later in 2013.
Iversen fails to see that the decision of whether Israel becomes a one or two states is largely the decision of the Israelis, not the Palestinians, so what some members of BDS believe is largely irrelevant. The settlement policies of the Israeli state have made a two-state solution impossible, so Israelis will have to accept living with Palestinians in one state if they insist that the settlements can’t be dismantled. It is fundamentally the decision of Israelis whether they will withdraw their illegal settlements, and allow there to be two functioning states. If they aren’t willing to do that, then they must accept that they must give Palestinian equal rights and Israel can no longer be a state where Jews have special rights.
I decided to support BDS last year because I see it as the most effective, non-violent means to force Israel to the negotiating table. Nobody who is rational believes that Israel will grant the right of return to 7 million Palestinians refugees, but the issue needs to be one of the demands of BDS, because otherwise, Israel will deny visas and immigration to all Palestinians if this isn’t one of the points of a negotiated settlement.
The critics spin the situation as forcing Israel to accept 7 million Palestinian refugees, which will condemn Israelis to live in a Palestinian dictatorship where they will be oppressed. These aren’t anything close to what will be negotiated in any settlement that has a realistic chance of being approved, so they should be dismissed as Zionist fear mongering to scare the Israeli public away from peace negotiations and discussing the real choices facing them. The real question will be whether Israel allows zero, a few hundred or a few thousand Palestinian refugees to immigrate into Israel per year. If the BDS campaigns for the Palestinian right of return, we might get a few thousand, whereas it will almost certainly be zero if BDS doesn’t make it one of their 3 demands.
Iversen’s uses Hong Kong as a point of comparison, arguing that forcing the democratic Israelis to accept a Palestinian dictatorship is like forcing democratic Hong Kong to live under dictatorial China. It is an inaccurate portrayal of the situation, since any real negotiation is whether Israelis will allow Palestinians to have equal representation and rights as citizens in one state or whether Israel will allow Palestine to exist as a viable state. The idea that Israelis will be negotiating to live inside a Palestinian dictatorship or that 7 million Palestinians will be allowed to enter the state is frankly ludicrous propaganda used by Zionists who don’t want any peace negotiations at all.
At any rate, Iversen’s Hong Kong example is a very poor historical analogy to the Palestinian situation. The people of Hong Kong weren’t dispossessed by the British. Yes, the British “stole” Hong Kong from China in 1841 during the first Opium War and forced China to cede Hong Kong as a colony to Great Britain in the treaty that ended the war, but it was a trading port with just 7,450 inhabitants, and the British didn’t dispossess the existing inhabitants when they took control or drive them out of the region, so it wasn’t like the Nakba which stole the property and drove 700,000 Palestinians out their homeland to become refugees. The 1898 treaty that gave the British a 99 year lease to the New Territories around Hong Kong explicitly stated:
“It is further understood that there will be no expropriation or expulsion of the inhabitants of the district included within the extension, and that if land is required for public offices, fortifications, or the like official purposes, it shall be bought at a fair price.”
Almost all the inhabitants of Hong Kong were Chinese who chose to migrate into Hong Kong after the British set up rule, and the Hakka who originally lived there were not forced to become refugees, so the historical analogy fails. The one analogy that sort of makes sense is Iversen’s comparison with the whites who stole Native American lands in the US. However, Israel has an official policy of continuing to steal Palestinian lands and deny their rights as full citizens within Israel. While structural racism continues to exist within in the US, the oppression of the civil, legal and religious rights of Native Americans, ongoing theft of their lands, and periodic military operations to kill Native civilians is not official state policy of the American government.
The question I have for Iversen and others who criticize BDS is what practical alternative do you see? Palestinians are not allowed to resist violently, but when they ask the world to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, you call foul. What practical means do we have to force Israel to stop committing human rights abuses and stealing Palestinian land?
The critics of BDS seem to be living in some kind of fantasy world where there is another international non-violent movement to change Israeli policy which has any hope of success, but BDS is the movement that both Palestinians and activists around the world have decided to join and it is the movement that is actually having an impact and forcing international businesses to quit the occupied territories, which is why APAIC and other Israeli lobby groups are so desperate to defame it. In the real world, BDS is the most effective way to eventually force Israel to the negotiating table and it is far better on both moral and practical grounds than the other methods at our disposal.
Note: Since making this video, Kim Iversen has since traveled to Palestine, and that trip appears to have really impacted her. I don’t know if she remains a critic of BDS or not, but I give her a lot of credit for having an open mind.