Panel 6e. BDS and Political Mobilization

Chair: Paul Kelemen

The BDS Movement and the Question of Radical Democracy
John Chalcraft, LSE

This paper focuses on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. The movement arose in Israel/Palestine in the wake of the failure of the Oslo Process in the early 2000s and has since attracted increasing support and publicity translocally. It has been characterized by its critics as an “anti-Semitic poison pill” (Brackman). By contrast, this inter-disciplinary paper, drawing on desk-based research, activist archives, and extensive participant observation, explores the radically democratic characteristics of the movement. Treating the movement as an instance of contentious mobilisation, the paper compares BDS activism with other networked, horizontalist, diverse, de-centralized and translocal movements that have emerged in and out of the region since the 1990s in a period of globalisation. The primary goal is ontological: how can we best characterise this mobilising project, with its identities, principles, and goals on the one hand, and its repertoires of contention (organization, strategies and tactics) on the other? The aim is to compare and contrast this mobilising project with both democratic-diverse and anti-democratic-essentialist forms of activism. The paper argues that the radically democratic characteristics of the BDS movement deserve recognition, while maintaining, against the conventional wisdom, that even in highly-networked and seemingly horizontal activism, leadership, strategic interventions, structure, coordination, mobilisation, and well-defined ends play important roles. The paper also draws out homologies between the BDS movement and other democratic movements of recent origin in the region. The paper contributes to debates about what it means to speak of anti-doctrinal and anti-hierarchical forms of contemporary organizing, while developing our understanding of a movement that is playing an increasingly important role on the regional and international scene.

BDS and the Politics of Academic Research
Lori Allen, SOAS, University of London

In her essay “Lying and Politics,” Hannah Arendt proclaimed that the truth-teller necessarily forfeits his position and the validity of what he has to say if he tries to interfere directly in political affairs. In this paper I will argue that such a balancing scale, in which any weight on the politics side lightens the gravitas on the truth side, must be questioned. Much of the world wants their scholarship courteous, their scholars impartial, independent, objective, and a-political. Many people tend to mistakenly equate those things. This is tantamount to asking scholars to renounce their citizenship at the door of the ivory tower. The expectation that scholars and scholarship should be free of politics as a pre-requisite for research validity is itself a political imposition. In this paper I reflect on the various ways in which these kinds of arguments about the necessarily a-political nature of “valid” scholarship are mobilized by those seeking to thwart the BDS campaign for Palestinian rights. Ultimately, this paper argues that research on Palestinian society and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is political, can be political, and should be political. The challenge is to maintain the wider credibility and authority of our scholarship, which is really the only way of ensuring its political, public relevance.

Comparing the Academic Boycott of Israel in Britain and the United States
Suzanne Morrison, LSE

The Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel asks academics and cultural workers around the world to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions in support of the Palestinian struggle. This paper critically investigates the conditions under which academic boycotts of Israel have taken shape in Britain and the United States. In particular, this paper compares how debates and motions passed in British academic unions have been instrumental to the development of an academic boycott in Britain, whereas in the US, academic associations have played a key role. This comparative case study seeks to illustrate two examples of organizing for academic boycotts against Israel to determine how the movement has developed across borders. This paper argues that context-specific political environments and activist organizational dynamics have required differing strategies for achieving campaign goals, thereby contributing to the broader movement’s capacity for organizational flexibility and hybridity. In considering academic boycotts of Israel in Britain and the United States, this paper sheds light on the movement’s organizational structure and processes, and supplements existing literature on the contemporary dynamics of border-crossing social movements.

The Meaning of BDS in the History of Palestinian Struggle
Gilbert Achcar, SOAS

This paper will explore the meaning of BDS in the history of Palestinian liberation strategies. The post-1948 period of reliance on Arab states for the recovery of Palestinian territory by war came to an abrupt end with the Arab defeat in June 1967. The changing strategic conditions of the Arab-Israeli conflict meant that the prospect of a victory over Israel in a military confrontation with Arab states became obsolete. Far from disproving this fact, the October 1973 war fully confirmed it. The 1967 Arab defeat was followed by an illusory strategy of Palestinian “people’s liberation war” that took Algeria as its model. In turn, this strategy was dealt a mortal blow with the defeat of the Palestinian armed movement in Jordan in 1970, only to open the door gradually to a strategy of diplomatic pressure on Israel led by Arab oil monarchies. The latter was no less illusory. The Palestinian Intifada of 1988 showed the possibility and efficiency of another much more realistic strategy, one in which the Palestinians would counter Israel’s crushing military superiority by appropriate means of popular struggle. However, it lacked then an accompaniment on the strategically indispensable level of international pressure. The Intifada was thus co-opted by the PLO for its diplomatic strategy, the failure of which is more blatant than ever nowadays. BDS is the accompaniment that was missing in 1988. It now needs to link up again with a popular Intifada on the model of that of 1988.

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