In the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), we often face criticism from people who wish to stand in solidarity with Palestinians without respecting the boycott guidelines set by Palestinian civil society. Setting guidelines, the argument goes, is too restrictive and rigid, alienating the liberal mainstream from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The alternative proposed by some is to let everyone decide how he or she wants to implement BDS, thus allowing for maximum flexibility and growth for the movement. We are specifically criticized for insisting that internationals and Israelis who wish to support our struggle against Israel’s apartheid and colonial oppression must take their lead from the oppressed in this case, the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), of which PACBI is a small but critical part.
The issue of double standards arises in some cases when one considers how academics, cultural figures and others had no qualms during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa to take their lead from the anti-apartheid leadership in that country, whereas now, they are calling into question whether Palestinians should set boycott principles or not.
Consistency aside, we wish to offer the rationale for our position, as we maintain that we should be consulted in the process of planning events that involve Israeli institutions in whole or in part, especially when such events fall within gray areas of the BDS guidelines. The insistence of Palestinians to set and interpret the guidelines may lead to misunderstanding, but it is an important, yet sensitive, element of building a social movement in solidarity with Palestinians. This insistence is related to the importance of self-determination and empowering a disempowered, colonized community. It is the oppressed who can best decide what they need from others in the struggle for self-determination, and for others to then decide to what degree, if at all, they are capable and willing of heeding the call of the oppressed.
BDS as Social Movement
The BDS movement is a global social movement that is meant to bring international civil society together to operate as a collective anchored in international law and universal principles of human rights, and to struggle together for common ends, using common, ethically-consistent means. The movement is not a mass of people operating individually and hoping somehow for collective gains. As such, the BNC believes it is imperative that we have a set of shared principles and guidelines. Otherwise, individuals would think of interpreting what the boycott should and should not encompass on their own terms, particularly when faced with situations that do not immediately appear to be covered by the general boycott criteria and conform to the logic of the boycott. And while this is certainly fine (we are, after all, individuals free to act as we like), we might as well, then, disband the movement and return to doing our morally good but individual—thus largely unsustainable—work. One could think of this as the pre-2004 phase when there were independent voices calling for boycott but no structure to the movement, and no common guidelines adopted by the clear majority in Palestinian civil society.
The Need for Guidelines
The need for guidelines and structure can lead people to question the authority that sets and interprets these guidelines. While we might be skeptical and critical of forms of authority and structure in the abstract, it is important to understand that those in themselves are not the problem. The issue is with the type of authority and structure we attach ourselves to, especially under conditions of colonialism and apartheid. It is, therefore, important to differentiate between types of authority.
For example, PACBI does not seek to ‘control’ people’s lives with respect to the boycott. The campaign does ask, however, to build a movement from within the ranks of the oppressed (being mindful, of course, that not all oppressed care to resist nor are they all underprivileged or lacking in power). The mere fact of building a movement implicitly calls for a measure of self-empowerment in order to resist the oppressive and far more powerful regime; otherwise, what is a movement or the advantages of building one? In doing so, we insist on the importance of engaging in constructive, democratic and inclusive internal discussions within the movement to ensure the guidelines remain updated, comprehensive, ethical, and as representative as possible of the great majority in Palestinian society. Another goal is to ensure strong, equal and mutually respectful relations with our partners around the globe.
The long historical relationship that we see time and again between oppressors and oppressed leads us to be cautious of a seemingly recurrent urge by some international and Israeli activists to determine the direction of the movement and its guidelines. Irrespective of intentions, such attempts to ignore the Palestinian reference means that PACBI and the BNC in general have to constantly assert themselves as the reference lest the Palestinians lose stewardship and end up deferring to internationals or Israelis for their modes of resistance, as was the case in the futile years of Oslo.
Respecting the boycott guidelines set by the great majority of Palestinians should not engender a feeling of power imbalance; this would be confusing moral duty with subservience. As a comparison, whites and internationals who respected the black-set boycott guidelines in South Africa were not subservient to blacks, but rather, they were able to see that their moral duty necessitated shedding their privilege and following the lead of the oppressed, eventually becoming part of their struggle. In the Palestinian case, it is our contention that any attempt to circumvent the BDS movement’s boycott guidelines, with PACBI and the BNC being its main references, or to expropriate these references to advance any agenda, personal or not, by definition crosses our moral picket line and undermines our peaceful resistance that is adopted by the majority of Palestinian civil society. There is nothing subservient in accepting this.
Building a Movement Together
The activists involved in BDS are building a movement; it is this that we hope people can subscribe to, with all its problems and growing pains it entails. It is important that people understand that it is not their independent or critical thinking that PACBI wants to interfere with; in fact, we very much value this type of thinking and consider it necessary in building a global movement that respects diversity and inclusiveness. We just ask event organizers and those thinking of traveling to Israel, to work with us when it comes to decision-making so that we do not end up working against each other in the name of the same goals. When a lecture or event falls within a gray area, when people are unsure, we are more than happy to offer our advice upon carefully scrutinizing the particularities of each case. When our interpretations collide, then we urge constructive engagement, but we also ask that the Palestinian reference be deferred to in the meantime, lest the Palestinian voice be, once again, sidelined.