What Does the BDS Movement Want

There has been a lot of rancor recently at U.C. Berkeley about the practices and politics of Students for Justice in Palestine. This is the group that organizes anti-Israel demonstrations and events on campus, including the February distribution of fake eviction notices to students in campus dorms.

One matter that is ambiguous is the specific goal of this group. In a recent op-ed in the campus newspaper the Daily Cal, two members of SJP state: “Cal SJP will continue to vocally support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it respects Palestinians’ human rights.”

Since everyone at Berkeley supports human rights, this goal seems unobjectionable. But what is the actual content of those rights? This is a matter the SJP usually obfuscates in its campus campaigns.

The national organization is more forthright. At its annual meeting in 2011, the SJP adopted several “Points of Unity.” The first point is: “Students for Justice in Palestine … is committed to ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” By “all Arab lands,” the SJP means Israel within its pre-1967 borders as well as the territories occupied in 1967. This is explicit in other manifestos, including the “Statement of Guiding Principles” on the SJP Berkeley website. The first principle is “an end to colonial systems of governance in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel.” The national BDS website states similarly that “population transfer, apartheid and colonialism are prohibited and constitute internationally wrongful acts which render unlawful Israel’s entire legal and political regime” (italics in the original).

The core principles of the SJP and the BDS movement therefore call for an end to the State of Israel. Accordingly, both are opposed to a two-state solution, in which Israel and Palestine live peacefully side by side. One of the writers of the Daily Cal op-ed, Kumars Salehi, makes this explicit in a recent article about BDS in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. He writes that the BDS movement “provide[s] an alternative analysis to the segregationist paradigm of ‘two states for two people.’ ” According to him and other BDS spokespeople — including U.C. Berkeley professor Judith Butler — the goal is a binational state of Palestine, which will take the place of Israel. This means that the SJP and BDS oppose the official position of the U.S., Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League and the European Union, which all call for a peaceful two-state solution.

People of goodwill can argue intelligently about the merits of these proposals. Whether a binational state — or even a “post-national” state — in Israel and Palestine is a desirable and practical solution can be questioned. But the point is to know what one is arguing about, what the goals are of a particular movement. Without this knowledge, one is simply a passive sheep responding to manipulative rhetoric. As Noam Chomsky, who is critical of the BDS movement, counsels, “Those who are sincerely dedicated to the Palestinian cause should avoid illusion and myth, and think carefully about the tactics they choose and the course they follow.”

People should advocate political positions that they agree with. This means becoming informed about the goals of various platforms and parties. I would urge students at Berkeley — and everyone else — to become informed about these issues. Then make up your mind about what positions you truly support and which ones you oppose. Don’t be swayed by angry rhetoric on either side of an emotional issue. As Immanuel Kant urged us all (quoting Horace), Sapere aude, “Dare to know.”

Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at U.C. Berkeley.