BDS: The Symbiosis of Enemies

mpi04/MediaPunch /IPX

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announces he is preparing to set sanctions on Airbnb over the home-sharing platform's decision not to list properties in the West Bank.

As if Florida politics wasn't enough for the state's new Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has started off his term as by stepping into the omnishambles of Israeli-Palestinian politics. In an announcement-via-tweet, De Santis said:

As long as I’m Governor of Florida, BDS will be DOA. We have a moral obligation to oppose Airbnb’s policy against Israel in the West Bank, and today I’m announcing we are suspending authorization for state employees to use Airbnb for reimbursable travel expenses.

This is an impressive—though hardly unusual—amount of ignorance and confusion in just under 280 characters. Still, DeSantis performed a service. In context, his tweet sheds light on the pandering inherent in the anti-BDS campaign by U.S. politicians—and on the crippling flaws of the BDS movement itself. (If you can't handle the idea that opposing sides in this argument can be making mistakes, you may close this page now. If you're okay with a brief bit of complexity, keep reading.)

First, the context: DeSantis's blast fits into a wider effort by state and federal politicians to legislate against BDS. Right now the most prominent of those efforts is a bill written by DeSantis's Florida GOP colleague, Senator Marco Rubio, called the Combatting BDS Act of 2019. It's meant to protect states that take economic measures against companies and contractors who “engage in BDS.” The bill defines BDS as “boycott, divestment, or sanctions activity ... intended to penalize ... commercial relations with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories.”

So far the bill has stalled. Partly that's because of shutdown politics. Partly it's because some Democratic senators correctly understand that the “legislation would give states a free pass  to restrict First Amendment protections,” as Senator Diane Feinstein has stated. Whatever your views on Israel or on BDS, organizing a boycott is a form of speech and political assembly that should be protected in a democracy. 

This is one fatal problem with Rubio's bill. There's another: Like other state and federal legislation on the subject, it equates Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories,” which is to say, Israeli-occupied territories. It equates a boycott of West Bank settlements with a boycott of Israel itself. It thereby supports the strategy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government: equating criticism of settlement to an attack on Israel itself. 

Rubio's agenda is clear. He's falsely painting Democrats who defend free speech as anti-Israel, while pandering to American supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Truth is, there's a classic symbiosis-between-enemies relationship between the BDS movement and the Netanyahu government. BDS has had little effect on Israel besides providing Netanyahu and his rightwing allies with a diversionary bogeyman. In return, their exaggeration of the dangers of BDS may be the most effective advertising the movement has had. 

The amorphous nature of the BDS movement, its unclear goals, and the mix of tactics labeled “BDS” have also helped the right in Israel and its American supporters. Ultimately, the boycotts and other measures are meant to pressure Israel to change—but change to what? In the absence of an explicit goal, the means imply the ends

A boycott of the settlements, or a company that has a factory in the settlements, implies that the goal is ending the occupation and reaching a two-state agreement. A boycott of a company operating in Israel, or films made in Israel, or universities inside sovereign Israel, imply a goal of dissolving Israel as a state—that is, as a Jewish-majority state within the pre-1967 borders. 

Toss in comments that deny Jews' history in the land between the river and the sea, or that describe Jews as colonialists anywhere in that land, and you imply that Israeli Jews will need to go elsewhere. I note that the world's record on accepting Jewish refugees over the last century has been far from encouraging. 

Those are drastically different messages. But “BDS” has been used as a name for both kinds of boycott. This makes it much easier for Israeli rightists and their American supporters to confuse the issues. 

Which brings us back to DeSantis. The governor's announcement apparently applies an existing Florida anti-BDS law to Airbnb. That company, you may remember, announced in November that it would no longer carry listings for rentals in West Bank settlements. Though both critics and supporters of the move described it as a BDS victory, the timing showed that it was a response to a report by Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights group Kerem Navot, “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land.” The company said that the decision was part of an evolving policy on listing rentals in occupied territories around the world. (More background here.) 

In the past week, the company followed up with a decision to end listings in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian-backed breakaway provinces of Georgia, and reaffirmed its West Bank policy. Yet it's moving slowly, if at all: The site still lists rentals in settlements.

DeSantis didn't wait to see results before proclaiming Florida's “moral obligation to oppose Airbnb’s policy against Israel in the West Bank.” Another tweet in his threat described Florida's boycott of Airbnb as part of his policy of “steadfast support of Israel” and of not standing “for discrimination or anti-Semitism of any kind.”

Governor DeSantis, let me clear some things up for you. Airbnb did not do anything “against Israel.” Indeed, it still operates throughout Israel. It disconnected itself from the policy of building settlements. That policy is fundamentally discriminatory toward Palestinians. It is a self-made disaster for Israel. If not reversed, it will lead to a one-state reality that means the end of Israel—but not the end of the conflict between two national groups with the same homeland.

Governor DeSantis, large numbers of Israelis, and large numbers of Jews elsewhere oppose the West Bank settlement project. They are not anti-Semites. The great majority of them see opposing settlement as a way of supporting Israel. Your claims are absurd.

Still, the Airbnb affair poses a question for people who see it as a BDS victory: Are you satisfied because the company is out of the West Bank? Or do you wish it wasn't helping tourism inside Israel? Your answer indicates what kind of boycott you back, and suggests what your goals are. The difference between the two boycotts is so great that using the same name for both is one more absurdity.

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