A recent anti-Israel op-ed which appeared in the The Lens compared Israeli policies towards Palestinians to racist Jim Crow policies towards Blacks in the United States. The op-ed’s author argued that in response, New Orleanians should support the efforts of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, thereby expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. While we all want to effectively fight injustice in the world, labeling Israel a racist state and engaging in BDS is highly counterproductive and contributes nothing to helping end the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While on the face of it the call to BDS may seem like a worthy cause, it is important to understand the true nature of the BDS movement, including their ultimate goal of undermining Israel’s very existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
The BDS movement tries to emulate the 1980s campaigns against South African apartheid. Its supporters claim Israeli policies towards Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are akin to South Africa’s apartheid regime, and that the same tactics used to demand that apartheid be dismantled in South Africa should be employed to ostracize, marginalize and pressure Israel. More recently, there have been efforts to link the BDS movement to the Civil Rights movement in the US, like The Lens op-ed portraying Palestinians as the “Freedom Riders” and Israel as “Jim Crow.”
There is, however, no rational connection between Jim Crow or any challenge of racism in America and the situation facing the Palestinians.
In America, the history of racism has been our great sin — whether it was slavery, segregation, lynchings, institutionalized discrimination, or racial profiling. The list is painfully long. Of course, we have come a long way, as represented by the commemorations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the march on Selma. And we still have a long way to go.
Israel’s relations with the Palestinians are of a completely different character. The fundamental issues at stake are a product of a history in which two peoples had historic claims to the same land. The conflict is complicated — neither side is 100 percent right — and it begs for a solution to improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. This solution necessitates real compromise, leadership, and dialogue.
BDS is not that solution. While some supporters of BDS may genuinely believe that these efforts will encourage Israel to change policies with which they disagree, the predominant drive of the BDS campaign and its leadership is not criticism of policies; it is to demonize and delegitimize Israel. It is clear that the majority of BDS supporters reject a two-state solution and deny the Jewish right to self-determination and statehood in favor of supporting the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Indeed, the BDS movement’s official platform, which includes a call for the “right of return” for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, would result in an end of Israel as a Jewish state. It neglects the important path of a directly negotiated peace and two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. It only serves to isolate and demonize Israel and deny the Jews the right to self-determination and statehood.
Efforts to divest from Israel offer no constructive improvement for Palestinians. In fact, the BDS movement’s efforts often target the very people, companies and institutions that can help bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace, including progressive multinational companies that work with Israel and famous celebrities, artists, and cultural icons who could bridge gaps between the two peoples.
And while we believe criticism of Israeli policies and its treatment of the Palestinians can certainly be reasonable and legitimate, divestment, which singles out Israel for pariah status, is biased and disproportionate.
Nor is it a question of institutionalized racism. It is not a matter of Israel wanting to rule over the Palestinians. Israel has tried in various ways to break the deadlock: comprehensive negotiations, partial negotiations, unilateral withdrawal. None have worked.
The message of the American civil rights movement was about building bridges, bringing people together and joining forces to fight hate and oppression. Comparing American racism and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, by contrast, seems driven by individuals more invested in undermining the Jewish state than in furthering race relations in America or working toward a solution to the conflict in the Middle East.
So instead of blindly labeling Israel a racist state and engaging in efforts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, concerned New Orleanians should focus on promoting initiatives that build connections between Israelis and Palestinians, encourage interaction and strong leadership, foster relationships and help prepare both societies for peace.
Allison Padilla-Goodman, Ph.D., is director of the Anti-Defamation League for the South-Central Region, covering Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. She is a native of New Orleans, with a doctorate in sociology from the City University of New York, where her work focused on race relations.