The Myth of BDS Universalism

This is a cross-post from

One of the many lies told by supporters of the BDS movement is that their solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is absolutely uncontroversial, and that they are merely in favour of guaranteeing that international norms are observed. In a recent article, Omar Barghouti picks up on this theme, suggesting that those who point out that BDS threatens the “existence” of Israel are attempting “to muddy the waters and to push beyond the pale of legitimate debate the mere statement of facts about and analysis of Israel’s occupation, denial of refugee rights, and institutionalized system of racial discrimination, which basically fits the UN definition of apartheid.”

Barghouti continues: “Specifically, what is often objected to is the demand for full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. One can only wonder, if equality ends Israel’s “existence,” what does that say about Israel?” I have no objection whatsoever to full material equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and I know that Israel will not look very different from how it does now when this goal is achieved. For Barghouti to suggest that this is the key objection Israel’s supporters have to the BDS movement is highly disingenuous, but he manages to supersede it in the next paragraph: “The “delegitimization” scare tactic…has not impressed many in the West, in fact, particularly since its most far-reaching claim against BDS is that the movement aims to “supersede the Zionist model with a state that is based on the ‘one person, one vote’ principle” – hardly the most evil or disquieting accusation for anyone even vaguely interested in democracy, a just peace, and equal rights.” What Barghouti really means by this is that BDS seeks ‘one person, one vote’ for Israeli citizens, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and those UNRWA defines as Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Or, as another supporter of BDS puts it, “The right of return is an inviolable and sacrosanct principle which necessarily spells out the end of the Jewish state.” It is a shame that Barghouti does not share this honesty.

The irony of all this is that BDS is built around exceptionalism, specifically the exceptionalism of demanding the implementation of the full-scale right of return for Palestinians made refugees during the 1948 War of Independence/Nakba. History does not take place in a vacuum, and we can demonstrate this exceptionalism by looking at what happened to other refugees who fled or were ethnically cleansed from their homelands in the aftermath of World War II. At least twelve million ethnic Germans were made into refugees between 1944 and 1950. At the same time, millions of former Russian citizens were forcibly repatriated against their will into the USSR. Just over two million Poles who lived east of the newly established Polish-Soviet border were deported to Poland. Ukranians living west of the border were deported to Soviet Ukraine. Approximately seven million Hindus and Sikhs moved from East Bengal and Pakistan to India, with approximately seven million Muslims moving in the opposite direction. And in the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel, around 700,000 Jews left their homes throughout the Middle East, slightly less than the number of Palestinians rendered landless during the Nakba.

To my knowledge, there is no movement demanding the right of return for anyone displaced during this period in history but the Palestinians. I will try and explore the reasons for this in future pieces (and it would be interesting to hear Barghouti, so indignant in his criticism of Israel’s ‘special treatment’, explain why he thinks it is reasonable why the Palestinians should be singled out for special treatment when it comes to the right of return); for now, it is sufficient to emphasise that the BDS demand for the Palestinian right of return is blatantly an example of the exceptionalism that Omar Barghouti claims he is opposed to. The reason for this is because he is still unwilling to recognise Jewish national rights in Palestine, but knows he is more likely to win support from Western liberals when he speaks the language of mythical universal norms. It is a shame that he is not honest enough to admit this, although there are still a few weeks before I leave for India, and perhaps – if he has some work to do on his PhD – he will consider coming to the Vineyard for some hummus, where we will be able to discuss this in person.

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