An Open Letter to Dan Rabinowitz: Let’s get our facts straight about BDS

[This essay originally appeared on Mondoweiss]

By Nadia Abu El-Haj

In a recent column in Ha’, the Israeli anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz argues against the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) by hitching his political bona fides to his purported friendship with the late Edward Said. Rabinowitz writes,

I am an Anthropologist at Tel-Aviv University, proud to have been a personal friend of Edward Said. I am currently involved in an effort to curb attempts to boycott Israeli universities… The uphill battle in which my colleagues and I are engaged often makes me think of Edward’s legacy.”

Since Said’s death over a decade ago many have invoked his name or staked claims to his legacy. Rabinowitz’s invocation strikes me as particularly cynical: Since Said can no longer speak for himself, Rabinowitz speaks for him: See it’s not just me. Even Edward Said, that very icon of Palestinian politics, would have been against the academic boycott. PACBI has attacked even him. In the hands of Rabinowitz, Said’s legacy is harnessed in defense of the privilege of a left-liberal Ashkenazi Jew who enjoys (full) citizenship in the Israeli state even as its increasingly harsh racial regime makes life ever more unlivable for Palestinians subjected to its rule.

Rabinowitz is right. In 2012, PACBI criticized the East West Music Diwan, the orchestra founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim that brings together young Palestinian and Israeli musicians to practice and perform. Regardless of what one might think of PACBI’s position, it is disingenuous to claim to know what Said would have done with Diwan—and what he would have thought about the academic and cultural boycott—had he lived to witness Israel’s ever more brutal regime and the concomitant rise of the civil society movement that has become BDS. [1] We can all invoke Said’s name. But let’s try and be grown ups here. Let’s have the conversation without abusing Said’s legacy to ground our own claims to being on the right side of history and politics.

Rabinowitz’s attack on BDS rests on three central claims. First, that in promoting the boycott BDS “neglect[s] mainstream economic institutions” in favor of focusing on institutions that “are overwhelmingly in favor of dialogue and compromise,” that is, universities and cultural institutions.  Second, universities “cannot, must not and do not take institutional positions on political issues.” Third, and most fundamental, BDS has a hidden agenda; it is not being honest about its political intentions.  In other words, without naming it as such, Rabinowitz—following in the footsteps of many a critic of BDS—raises the specter of anti-Semitism in his op-ed.

Each of Rabinowitz’s claims is misleading, however. The BDS National Committee is largely dedicated to pushing for an economic boycott. And they have had some notable successes: During the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, dock workers in the Port of Oakland honored a community picket line and refused to unload cargo from an Israeli ship. That same summer the (U.S.) Presbyterian Church passed a divestment resolution that pulled millions of dollars from companies profiting from the occupation. And they are not alone. Calls to divest from military and security companies that sustain and profit from the occupation are gaining steam. Last April, the British bank Barclays dumped its holdings of Elbit Systems. Likewise, the Danish bank Merkur terminated its contract with G4S. For it part, the European Union is about to start “slapping labels on products produced in Israeli settlements.” Testament to the growing momentum of the call to divest from the Israeli economy, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post two self-declared “lifelong Zionists”explained why they support an economic boycott of Israeli goods—and not just those produced in the occupied territories.  True, Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl did not frame their call for “boycotts of and divestures from the Israeli economy” as support for BDS. But without the work BDS has done over the last decade, economic divestment would not be on the table. There would be no discussion in the U.S. public domain of whether or not we should, as American citizens, support economic divesture from the Israeli state.

What about universities? Is it really true that they cannot, must not, and do not take “institutional positions on political issues?” Is it really true that Israeli universities “are overwhelmingly in favor of dialogue and compromise?” Israeli universities take political positions that support the status quo all the time. Sometimes taking political positions involves making declarations of support: Rabinowitz’s own university released a statement on July 24, 2014 in support of “all the security forces who are working to restore quiet and security to Israel,” that is, the armed forces fighting the Gaza war. More often, taking a political position is structural in form: building universities on confiscated Palestinian land; developing weapons systems with the Israeli military; formulating the Dahiya doctrine, used in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2014, that calls for the use of disproportionate force to destroy civilian property and infrastructure; providing financial and academic support for Israeli soldiers (the vast majority of Palestinians in Israel do not serve); giving course credit for classes in hasbara, that is, learning social media strategies designed to justify Israeli policies under the guise of “public diplomacy;” and more routinely, discriminating against Palestinian students in their midst. [2]

Yes, Israeli universities are not alone in helping to develop military technologies and strategies or in reproducing the forms of violence that characterize the states and societies of which they are a part. And if there were a global political movement calling for a boycott of U.S. universities to protest the violence the U.S. unleashes on the world, I would stand in solidarity with that call. [3] But we are not discussing “what ifs” here. In supporting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, I am responding to a call from Palestinian civil society that we recognize the integral role that Israeli universities play in sustaining the Israeli state and its belligerent regime. And I am responding to that call because I recognize that as a professor at a U.S. university I bear a particular political and ethical responsibility:  The “exceptional” relationship between the U.S. and Israel demands that I take a stand.

To understand what is really at stake in Rabinowitz’s argument, however, we need to attend to his central charge: BDS is lying about its real goals. It claims to have one politics but in reality it has a very different one. “BDS’ insistence on Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it took in 1967 suggests a two-state solution,” but its real politics? It is a movement that does not think Israel should have been founded in the first place. It is a movement that (surreptitiously) promotes the “endgame” of “a future with no Israel.”

But let’s get our facts straight. BDS does not take a position on what the political outcome should be. It only insists that three principles be upheld: ending the occupation, recognizing the right to equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respecting the right of return for refugees. Moreover, is it really a secret that Palestinians do not think the Jewish state should have been founded in Palestine in the first place? There may well be exceptions here and there, but that strikes me as a truism, hardly a secret that needs to be exposed. Nearly 70 years later, however, Israel does exist so the question shifts: What do we do now? BDS insists that Israel cannot—and should not—continue to exist as it exists today. Yes, this is a challenge to the state’s future—that is, those of us advocating for boycott and divestment think that the Israeli state has no right to continue to exist as a racial state that builds the distinction between Jew and non-Jew into its citizenship laws, its legal regimes, its educational system, its economy, and its military and policing tactics. What the day after will look like remains an open question: a two-state solution with a simultaneous dismantling of Jewish privilege within the “Green Line” so that Israel’s Palestinian citizens can enjoy equal rights? A one state solution whose form remains uncertain—a bi-national state, a secular-democratic state? What will happen to the refugees? Where will they go? What rights will they have?  Will compensation be one option? There is no hidden agenda here, only efforts to imagine a political endgame that is not the status quo and they are out there in the open for everyone to see, to consider, and to discuss.  The power of BDS is that it has brought that conversation into the U.S. public domain in a way that I have never seen before.


  1. In 2015, Daniel Barenboim himself expressed “qualified support” for the BDS.  See 

  2. See, for example, Levy, “The Shin Bet’s Academic Freedom” (Haaretz 9/8/08); Dean of Student Office at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “Assistance To Students Who Serve in Military Reserve Duty” (2009); “At Last: Improvement Of The Conditions Of Reservists Who Had Served In The War! (True Change2009).  See also Uri Yacobi Keller, Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories (Alternative Information Center, 2009). Onhasbara, see “Haifa University Launches course in pro-Israeli propaganda,” Ben White, Middle East Monitor, 15 April 2014.  On Tel Aviv University’s Operational Theory Research Institute, which pioneered the Israeli military’s urban warfare strategy, see Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (Verso, 2007).  

  3. It is worth emphasizing, however, that boycott and divestment campaigns are only effective vis-à-vis particular states and economies.  It is not a one size fits all strategy. Given the economic power of the U.S. in the world, it is not a strategy that would have much effect. Israel is in a very different position:  Like South Africa, it is vulnerable to calls for the U.S. and European publics to boycott and divest from its cultural and economic institutions in a way that many other states, regardless of how violent or repressive they might be, are not.