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Let's get off the fence and tear down the wall: The BDS movement, fear, and the paralysis of 'neutrality'

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We've reached an interesting moment in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

The façade of Israel's righteousness is disintegrating, and the struggle of the Palestinian people is slowly but surely starting to see the light of day. This has less to do with activists sharpening their arguments, and more to do with their arguments being proven over and over again by the bluntness of reality. A world power can only massacre civilians so many times before the claim of "self-defense" fails to find an ear to fill. Injustice, in fact, mostly speaks for itself when given the chance. The job of solidarity activists is not to slander the wrong-doers, but sometimes, simply to clear the way for the oppressors to prove their arguments for them -- and that is the favor Israel has granted us lately.

Yet what is striking is not so much that injustice is being exposed, but that when it is, some still stutter when asked to describe the manifested image. While academics, artists, workers, students and institutions around the world are joining the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, some are still balking at the campaign's apartheid analysis and demands for full equality, the ending of the occupation and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Yet the hesitance has hardly been due to disagreement over principles, but what is often claimed, over tactics.

In fact, the discrepancy simply is this: most agree that Israel's actions have been grossly unjust; they agree the demands for equality are sound; and as most people do, they support social justice and accountability. Yet when it comes to action, many are stumbling at the proposed move forward, i.e. BDS. "Apartheid", "boycott, divestment, sanctions", "accountability", "right of return" -- these are words that seem to be difficult to dish, and difficult to swallow. Some still find that the term "apartheid" is a little too uncomfortable and divisive, divestment a little too harsh and demands such as the right of return just a little too onerous -- although one need hardly point out that apartheid is all of those things. "Unfortunate conflict", "dialogue" and "compromise" seem to roll off the tongue a bit easier, don't they?

The consistent feeling that informs such hesitance has been that of fear: fear of being too combatant; fear of being divisive; and most of all, fear of choosing the wrong side. What needs to be made clear, then, is what is being demanded, and why calls for neutrality and friendly dialogue are considerably more debilitating and destructive than simple disagreement over principles. The search for middle ground in the face of injustice, inequality and oppression implies that sovereignty and basic human rights are debatable: a dangerous moral landscape that many are treading. This is not a matter of ideology, party affiliations, nor of varying degrees of radicalism. This is a matter of rights of the Palestinian people, the measure of which is incompatible with the extreme to moderate political spectrum. In this realm, calls for neutrality and middle ground out of fear of demanding too much normalizes oppression, and as has been the case for entirety of the conflict, ab-normalizes the demands of the Palestinian people. Along with Israel's image as the emblem of democracy, it's about time that the façade of neutrality and middle ground be done away with as well.

It can be easy to write off injustice as a being a result of hegemonic political systems that render us powerless, albeit sympathetic, citizens. Yet what history seems to remind us is that even when oppression and inequity manifests and has a chance to be rectified, the fearful citizen will still apologize on its behalf: what anyone would describe as a symptom of an unhealthy relationship. One need only look to the history of civil rights and liberation movements to see how this fear ultimately plays out.

The uprisings, protests and strikes across the world for the past year and a half will without a doubt leave an indelible mark in current political structures, social memory and the way we organize in the future. And while at this point we don't know what lies ahead for our brothers and sisters across the Middle East who inspired global action, and we dare not speculate too liberally, no one would hesitate to speak of the courage and determination that has embodied the spirit of their actions. However, this isn't any courage, let's be sure: it's one defined by its abandonment of fear. Yet as we look on with admiration, we seem to be missing the lesson.

Fear is the most selfish of affects. While it may be produced by systems of power and profit, it is reproduced by our egos: fear of oneself and for oneself, and nothing else. Fear is paralyzing physically, intellectually and morally -- and it is also isolating. When you shed fear, you step up to enter a meaningful world that is comprised of your community, and you take responsibility for your presence in that community. What change can we ever expect if we are not living out in the world but unto ourselves in fear? And what type of morality will inform our society if we balk at rights movements whose demands are just a little too challenging for our comfort?

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement may be a challenging one, but that's the entire point. It was borne of the realization that all other paths of peace and dialogue failed for the clear reason of being embedded in the same politics of fear and apologetics. It was not even 20 years ago that South African apartheid was finally brought down as a culmination of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement -- but that was 36 years after the initial boycott call was made. It's going to be a long road, but at this point we need to realize that any just solution requires a combination of courage, creativity and tenacity that current governments are incapable of offering.

Surely, if the world was audacious enough to allow apartheid to assemble more than once, it will remember how to dismantle one again. If your reasoning for not supporting BDS is borne of the desire for a just peace, then it's time to rethink your definition of justice. Let's not privilege the rights of a state over the rights of a people, and let's not let fear further dictate the moral positions we take today.


Sumud Lalawda is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and a member of Students Against Israeli Apartheid. Today marks the last day of the eighth annual Israeli Apartheid Week and one year since SAIA launched their divestment campaigns at U of T and York University.


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