Path to nowhere - Weekly Worker

Date: unknown

Location: weeklyworker.co.uk

20.01.2022

Daniel Lazare accuses his critics of burying their heads in the sand over the nature of the BDS campaign

I stirred a hornet’s nest last month with an article about Israel and the class-collaborationist politics of the Democratic Socialists of America (‘Taking a pass on Israel’ Weekly Worker December 9 2021). These politics caused the DSA to go easy on a ‘progressive’ Democratic congressman who had paid a friendly visit to the Jewish state and taken part in a photo-op with far-right prime minister Naftali Bennett. But, although hostile to Israel, the piece ended with a swipe at the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that, as I put it, “deserves more scrutiny than it usually receives”.

The swipe squeezed six major arguments into five paragraphs. To wit:

  • BDS is based on a false and misleading premise that Israel is singularly evil, when in fact Saudi Arabia - America’s other great ally in the Middle East - is without equal “when it comes to sheer bloody repression”.
  • Hence, BDS serves to distract attention “from Riyadh’s reactionary influence”.
  • Calling on the US to impose sanctions on the Jewish state makes little sense, since American imperialism, whose power dwarfs that of Zionism, is the real source of the problem.
  • Since the purpose of divestment is to shut down Israeli businesses and throw employees out of work, “BDS is also anti-working class - a scab outfit, to put it plainly”.
  • The BDS argument that it is wrong to see “the Israeli working class as a current ally”, to quote a DSA faction known as the Tempest Collective, is an attack on proletarian internationalism as well as an invitation to anti-Semitism.
  • BDS is counterproductive, finally, because, instead of advancing the socialist goal “of detaching Israeli workers from their Zionist masters”, it undermines it by “cement[ing] them together all the more securely”.

This is the simple truth about a nationalist movement that has done absolutely nothing to alleviate the Palestinian plight since it began in 2005, and much to impede it. But, judging from the angry response, truth is not what BDS supporters want to hear. Moshé Machover shot back with an article calling my arguments “shoddy and morally wrong-headed” (‘Israel’s singularity’, December 16). Djamil Lakhdar-Hamina of Cosmonaut called them “a travesty” (‘Stand by Palestine’). Even the Weekly Worker’s editors chimed in with a subhead, thanking “three well-informed comrades” for their replies and declaring: “Needless to say, our sympathies are fully with the critics” (Parker McQueeney of the Marxist Unity Group contributed an article that was only tangentially related).

All of which was unexpected for two reasons. One is that it was surprising to see such shock and horror over arguments that are more than a bit old hat here in the US, thanks to the Spartacists and their various spin-offs, the World Socialist Web Site, plus individuals like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein - all of whom have weighed in on the anti-BDS side.1

Another reason is that it represents an about-face on the part of the Weekly Worker itself. Scrolling through back issues, I came across a 2007 article by Mike Macnair, a member of the CPGB Provisional Central Committee, advancing a decidedly anti-BDS viewpoint to the effect that socialists should support a limited anti-Israeli boycott at most. As he put it,

In this particular case, we should be for action properly targeted against Israeli aggression and occupation of territory beyond its 1967 borders. Simultaneously we should both be against badly conceived general boycott proposals and against any and all uses of anti-Semitic arguments (like the ludicrous idea that the ‘Israel lobby’ runs US foreign policy).2

So how in the course of a decade and a half did the CPGB go from a limited boycott to a full-throated endorsement of an unlimited boycott plus sanctions and divestment? Did it thrash out the policy implications in full? Or did it decide to tag along with the latest pseudo-left fad, while conveniently forgetting that it had ever disagreed?

While waiting for an answer, permit me to run through the responses to my article to show why BDS is a thoroughly bourgeois strategy that will only exacerbate nationalist passions to new heights - to the detriment of the Palestinians, one might add - the perennial losers in this hundred years’ war.

Machover

Let us begin with Moshé Machover. He is a founder of the Matzpen (‘Compass’) group, which burst on the Israeli scene in the late 1960s as a leftwing splinter from the Israeli Communist Party. In a “general declaration” issued in March 1968, Matzpen said of the Palestinians:

It is both the right and duty of every conquered and subjugated people to resist and to struggle for its freedom. The ways, means and methods necessary and appropriate for such struggle must be determined by the people itself and it would be hypocritical for strangers - especially if they belong to the oppressing nation - to preach to it, saying, ‘Thus shalt thou do, and thus shalt thou not do.’

These were sentiments that would have appalled Marx and Engels, who never characterised workers of different nationalities as “strangers” to one another and who never hesitated at hurling ‘thou shalt not’ thunderbolts across ethno-national lines. Needless to say, it was also a dodge of the terrorism issue.

After multiple splits, Matzpen came under the aegis of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, headed by the notorious Belgian revisionist, Ernest Mandel - famous for embracing every middle class nationalist movement under the sun, regardless of how dubious their politics might be. Based on Paul Flewers’ recent article (‘A Stalinist school of development?’ Weekly Worker December 2), Machover seems to have then come down with a serious case of ‘third worlditis’ of his own, arguing in the late 1970s in a Maoist (!) publication that non-aligned nations did not have to choose between capitalist and socialist development paths, but could “industrialise and to some extent catch up with the more advanced part of the world” by adopting neo-Soviet “state collectivism” instead. It was the old dream of a third way between the US and USSR. But it proved as ill-fated as all the rest, since the Soviet model was already in an advanced state of decay, while the underdeveloped world would soon be inundated by an international debt crisis of tidal-wave proportions.

So political analysis does not seem to have been Machover’s strong suit. But his response on the question of BDS betrays something worse: cynicism.

The reason has to do with his casual acknowledgement that BDS’s goal of pushing the US to impose sanctions on Israel cannot succeed, because American imperialism and Zionism are joined at the hip. As he puts it,

When the US imposes sanctions on a country, its aim is to cause economic misery to its ordinary people, driving them to turn against their government and overturn it. The BDS campaign cannot possibly have such a strategy. It would require enlisting the full support of the American state and its subordinate allies; but, given Israel’s singular position as a prime imperialist favourite, that is quite out of the question.

This is quite an admission. But there is a problem. Even though he sides with BDS, there is no indication that BDS sides with him, at least not on this particular point. To the contrary, the official BDS website shows no misgivings about US sanctions whatsoever. It urges “banks, local councils, churches, pension funds and universities to withdraw investments” and says that governments should do likewise by “banning business with illegal Israeli settlements, ending military trade and free-trade agreements, as well as suspending Israel’s membership in international forums such as UN bodies and FIFA.”3

Nowhere is there the slightest hint that such goals are unobtainable because Washington is guaranteed to veto them before they get off the ground. Nowhere does it suggest that appealing to the US might not make sense, because the US will never contradict the Jewish state.

So who is right - the BDS defender who says the movement’s rhetoric is not to be taken seriously or an entirely serious BDS? If Machover believes the movement is putting out a false message, isn’t he duty-bound to let supporters know? If Marxists “disdain to conceal their views and aims”, according to the Communist manifesto, shouldn’t telling workers the truth be his top priority? Yet all Machover offers is a wink-wink suggestion that BDS propaganda is not to be taken at face value and leaves it at that.

This will not do. The US has been on a rampage in the Middle East since January 1980, when Jimmy Carter and his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, declared their intention of turning the Persian Gulf - the source of two-thirds or more of the world’s proven oil reserves - into an American lake. The Carter Doctrine led to a reign of destruction unequalled since the Vietnam war.

Yet BDS says it can reform US imperialism by enlisting it in the anti-Zionist cause. Not only is this nonsense: it is dangerous nonsense, because the effect is to soft-pedal US militarism by, among other things, seeking out allies among members of the pro-American camp - most notably the Gulf states. But not only does Machover go along with such rubbish: he attempts to shout down anyone who raises a word in protest.

To be fair, he does offer a justification of sorts: “The impact of the BDS campaign on Israel’s economy is slight - almost negligible,” he says. Still, it is helping “to win a moral battle in progressive public opinion”. While unsuccessful inside the Jewish state, it

has been remarkably successful outside Israel, in raising consciousness and mobilising grassroots support for Palestinian rights in the US and its camp followers. It serves to put the issue of Zionist colonisation and Palestinian oppression on the agenda in trade unions, universities and other civil society organisations.

So BDS has propaganda value, even though its line on US imperialism is all wet. Or so Machover says. But there is a problem here as well. The forces that Machover invokes - grassroots, civil society, progressive public opinion, etc - are all based on a liberal concept of bourgeois society, in which class barely figures. Instead of workers versus capitalists, his goal is to mobilise this amorphous supra-class entity - especially students, academics, church-goers and other strata in between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This was the goal of Mandel’s United Secretariat, which was forever chasing after middle class will-o’-the-wisps in the hope of winning them over to Bolshevism. It got nowhere, since the only effect was to dissolve Marxism in a petty bourgeois sea. And it will go nowhere again, now that political conditions are even less favourable.

Socialism does not seek to mobilise the public. To the contrary, it seeks to mobilise the workers and, in the process, draw as sharp a line as possible between them and all other social classes. It does not ignore the petty bourgeoisie, but it does not cater to it either. Rather, it encourages members to break with their class and rally to the proletarian banner instead. In the case of Israel and Palestine, similarly, socialism calls on workers on both sides of the divide to unite against unemployment rather than calling on the US to pit them against one another via a policy of sanctions and divestment.

Proletarian internationalism was the Marxist goal back in the 1940s, when Mandel - a rising young star in the Fourth International - called on “the Jewish worker” to join forces with “his proletarian ally, the Arab worker”,4 and there is no reason why that should not be the goal some 75 years later. If Machover thinks he has come up with something better, he should let socialists know.

Lakhdar-Hamina

To better understand what “progressive public opinion” actually means in this instance, let us turn to Machover’s co-thinker and admirer, Lakhdar-Hamina. The results are disturbing.

Machover says there is no reason to worry about Israeli workers being thrown on the scrapheap, because talk about sanctions and divestment is merely so much background noise. But Lakhdar-Hamina goes a step farther by saying he does not care whether they wind up on the street, because “it is vulgar workerism to think that in every single situation we must seek the unity of the working class”. The reason:

The Israeli working class - yes, the Jewish Israelis - has the rights and status it has because of the subordination of the Palestinian people and the colonisation of Palestinian lands. Its existence and origin lies [sic] in the displacement and elimination of Palestinians, and the class struggle within Israel is strongly shaped by a more fundamental antagonism of ‘indigenous versus settler’.

Israeli workers, in short, deserve what they get. Lakhdar-Hamina cites Jim Crow, the Algerian revolution and the struggle against apartheid in support of this profoundly reactionary position, yet manages to get each example thoroughly wrong. He sneers:

According to Lazare, we would ask black share-croppers in the southern United States during Jim Crow to make their peace with white workers, forget the horrid racism and seek unity (on what basis I do not know). I also wonder how Lazare would have treated the Algerian revolution and the call for independence. Maybe we should have refused to support the National Liberation Front and their struggle, because the war would hurt the standing of the Pieds Noirs workers.

As for apartheid, he says: “… imagine that we asked for no boycott against South African apartheid - after all, we might affect the livelihood of white South African workers”.

He thus assumes that black sharecroppers shared the same obsession with ‘white privilege’ that ‘critical race theorists’ do today. But they do not. Black tenant farmers who organised the Sharecroppers’ Union in Alabama in the early 1930s with the help of the Communist Party were eager, even desperate, for whites to join up - and if whites held back, it was not necessarily because they were racist, but because they were afraid. White tenant farmers “wanted this colour line broke down better than us do”, a black SCU organiser named Lemon Johnson explained. “… Some of them be with us in the meetings, the white women. And some of these white men from out here be with us in the meeting, help bringing this thing down.”

Said another black SCU member: “I’d like to see [whites] come along with us, but I ain’t gonna go out and ask them. That’s too dangerous.” Indeed, a white tenant farmer named JW Davis was kidnapped and lynched in 1934 due to his support for the SCU.5

White privilege has nothing to do with it. As for the Algerian revolution, yes, all Marxists worth their salt backed independence. But, while they defended the National Liberation Front against French imperialism, supporting it - ie, endorsing its goals and methodology - was another matter. This is a distinction that no doubt escapes Lakhdar-Hamina’s attention, but was crucial in view of the political wasteland the NLF would help bring about. The story is much the same with South Africa. While socialists opposed apartheid, obviously, the African National Congress’s strategy of appealing to the international banks for sanctions and divestment was considerably more controversial than Lakhdar-Hamina realises.

This was due not to the impact on white farmers, but on an overwhelmingly black working class. Black workers, to put it simply, did not understand why they should be made jobless in order to put bourgeois ‘progressives’ in power. While the Congress of South African Trade Unions supported sanctions, members nonetheless criticised them in 1987 for “caus[ing] serious regional unemployment”. A year later, the Chemical Workers Industrial Union demanded negotiations with 41 foreign-controlled companies to see to it that divestment would not be at workers’ expense. In 1990, the union struck against both Mobil Oil and Goodyear over plans to ‘divest’ by selling out to local interests, while metalworkers also struck against Goodyear over its divestment plans.6

The same year, the courageous Trotskyist journalist, Paul Trewhela - writing from exile in the UK after a three-year stint in a South African prison camp - protested that the ANC’s alliance with global capitalism was “a turning point” in which it was emerging as a “medium for distribution of the policy thinking of the banks and the treasuries of various bourgeois states”. The ANC and the South African Communist Party were adopting a strategy that “is as foolish as it is hostile to the needs of the majority of the people”. He went on:

[T]he future of the country will be determined by the way in which apartheid is ended. If the banks and the IMF play a major part in ending apartheid, their influence will be decisive in the subsequent society.7

This was a warning that has proved all too accurate, now that even the World Bank describes South Africa as “one of the most unequal countries in the world” - one in which the racial gap has actually grown since apartheid was formally abolished in 1994.8 Yet the anti-“workerist” Lakhdar-Hamina does not even notice. All he cares about is a shuffle in the ruling class.

Is this the sort of ‘progressive’ opinion Machover hopes that BDS will encourage? If so, then middle class liberalism will likely grow even more rancid than it already is.

Machover and Lakhdar-Hamina make other points as well, all equally spurious. “Lazare endorses this calumny” that BDS is anti-Semitic, writes the former. But I do not. I merely wrote that a strategy aimed at dis-employing Israeli Jews is an invitation to such charges, which is obviously the case. “Lazare seems oblivious to recent and current witch-hunts in the British Labour Party and academia,” Machover adds, “even though in his own country, the US, criticism of Israel is similarly and singularly suppressed ...” But I am not oblivious, and my December 9 article gives no reason to think otherwise. Suggesting that I am soft on Keir Starmer’s witch-hunt because I am critical of BDS is like suggesting that someone is soft on the Nazis because he or she is critical of Stalinism. It is an argument that no serious Marxist should ever make.

Finally, both respondents accuse me of pointing to Saudi Arabia as a way of distracting attention from Israel. As Machover puts it,

… what Lazare is offering us is the immoral ‘what about’ cop-out: we should not respond to the oppressed Palestinians’ call for solidarity action, because their oppression is not ‘singular’. What about Saudi Arabia, ha?

But my point is simply that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is incomprehensible without a grasp of the Middle East crisis in general. It is impossible, in other words, to understand settler-colonialism on one hand and Saudi jihadism on the other, without some comprehension of what ties them together, which is to say oil. Yet it is a comprehension that BDS impedes.

‘Pharisaic’

But enough about Machover and Lakhdar-Hamina, whose politics are plainly shallow, ill-informed and anti-working class. Let me address BDS’s problems on their own.

The movement bases itself on a type of reasoning best described as ‘pharisaic’. Since Zionist oppression is wrong, virtue lies in distancing oneself from the tainted object. So if Israel is bad, then boycotts, divestment and sanctions must be good, because their goal is to isolate the Jewish state from the mainstream of global culture and commerce, and cast it off as far as possible away from civilised society.

But this assumes that global society is civilised, which, of course, it is not. To the contrary, it is a cesspool dominated by US capitalism in an advanced state of breakdown with a host of lesser evils - Saudi bigotry, Polish Catholic fundamentalism, Ukrainian revanchism, Hindu nationalism, etc - playing subordinate, but no less poisonous, roles. Never mind that the global order is heading for a major crack-up due to climate change, the pandemic and economic decline. Never mind about a growing imperialist collapse. BDS implicitly seeks to play all that down, so as to play the only thing that matters in its view, which is the struggle against Zionism.

Yet struggling against Zionism in isolation does not make sense. This is why BDS is in such trouble. Outside of a small number of stalwarts, no-one understands why they should boycott Israel, when other countries are just as bad: not just the Saudis, but India, whose anti-Muslim and anti-Christian outrages by this point are no less appalling; France, which is galloping to the right, thanks to runaway Islamophobia; America, where democracy is hanging by a thread; and so forth.

Moreover, no-one can quite understand how they can boycott Israel in an increasingly interconnected world. How can they turn their back on Israeli academics whose advances in archaeology, chemistry, medicine and other fields are impossible to ignore? What should scholars do - refuse to publish their articles? Refuse to acknowledge their discoveries? Should scholars boycott the Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, whose research has helped revolutionise our understanding of biblical history and, what is more, has undermined Zionist mythology about the ancient Israelite conquest of the Holy Land? Should they boycott Miki Ben-Dor and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University, whose research into large-animal extinction and the rise of agriculture - a topic dear to the heart of the CPGB, by the way - is now drawing international attention?9

BDS is putting itself on the wrong side of science, intellectual progress and history in general by suggesting that they should. As for the cultural boycott, it continues to plumb new depths of pettiness. Lebanese film director Ziad Doueiri denounces BDS as “fascist” because it tried to get the Lebanese government to ban The insult, his superb 2017 film about the plight of Palestinian refugees, and even prompted his one-day arrest. BDS has attacked the Lebanese fashion designer, Elie Saab, because Gal Gadot was photographed wearing one of his dresses; the Canadian-Lebanese actor and director, Wajdi Mouawad, because he allowed an Israeli theatre to put on one of his plays; and Amin Maalouf, the French-Lebanese writer best known for The crusades through Arab eyes (1983), because he granted an interview to an Israeli TV station. According to Maalouf,

The BDS has hijacked a good cause and, consequently, alienated many who supported the Palestinian cause, and they’re creating a bad image of Palestine. People in the Arab world and in the west are deserting them. They must be exposed and dismantled.10

BDS has also attacked the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, because its goal of “promoting dialogue” smacks too much of normalisation.11 It has attacked Sari Nusseibeh, former president of Al-Quds University, because Al-Quds participates in joint academic programmes with Hebrew University - even though BDS founder Omar Barghouti is himself a graduate of Tel Aviv University. It calls on Arab workers to withdraw from Histadrut, the Israeli trade union. But, since its aim is plainly to nip Arab-Jewish labour solidarity in the bud, one would expect no less.

All of which has occurred amid widening violence and chaos in the region as a whole. In the last month or so, we have seen an Israeli airstrike that set the port of Latakia in Syria ablaze; growing US-Israeli war threats against Iran over a treaty the US itself violated; stepped-up Saudi airstrikes on Yemen; and an ongoing US blockade of the Assad government that is devastating the Syrian economy and crippling its efforts to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet what is the big news on the BDS website? Believe it or not, it is a Miss Universe beauty pageant in the Israeli resort city of Eilat and the news that Miss Greece has withdrawn in solidarity.12 What a triumph! What will BDS target next? A dog show in Tel Aviv? A ‘comicon’ in Petah Tikva? Do BDS supporters have any idea of how trivial all this has become?

After a decade and a half of such nonsense, it is time to open BDS up to debate. Yet Machover, Lakhdar-Hamina and the Weekly Worker want to stifle it before it can even occur. If this is not a case of burying one’s head in the sand, what is? l


  1. See, for example, Spartacist Canada autumn 2010, spartacist.org/english/spc/166/palestine.html; The Internationalist June 2010, www.internationalist.org/israelflotillamassacre1006.html; World Socialist Web Site, May 15 2013, www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/05/15/hawk-m15.html; Noam Chomsky, July 2014, www.thenation.com/article/archive/israel-palestine-and-bds; and Electronic Intifada June 2012, electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/finkelstein-renews-attack-bds-cult-calls-palestinians-who-pursue-their-rights.↩︎

  2. M Macnair, “Boycotts and working class principle’ Weekly Worker October 11 2007, weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/692/boycotts-and-working-class-principle.↩︎

  3. www.bdsmovement.net/what-is-bds.↩︎

  4. www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1946/07/jews.htm.↩︎

  5. RDG Kelley Hammer and hoe: Alabama communists during the great depression Carolina 2015, pp47-48.↩︎

  6. www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/icl-spartacists/black-question/08_South_Africa_Perm_Rev.pdf.↩︎

  7. libcom.org/files/Trewhela Paul - Financial Sanctions and the Future of South Africa.pdf.↩︎

  8. World Bank, ‘Overcoming poverty and inequality in South Africa’ March 2018, documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/530481521735906534/pdf.↩︎

  9. www.mdpi.com/2571-550X/4/1/7.↩︎

  10. www.arabiskefilmdager.no/en/news/a-conversation-with-ziad-doueiri.↩︎

  11. bdsmovement.net/news/west-eastern-divan-orchestra-undermining-palestinian-civil-resistance-and-violating-palestinian.↩︎

  12. www.bdsmovement.net/news/boycottmissuniverse.↩︎