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The Perils of Identity Politics in the Middle East

Is BDS the Left’s “Save Darfur”?

by JOSHUA SPERBER

In the mid-2000s the “Save Darfur Coalition,” backed by Christian and Jewish groups as well as the US House of Representatives, sought military intervention in southern Sudan in order to “save” African Muslims from what the campaign characterized as genocide. Mahmood Mamdani criticized the movement through comparing the conflict in Darfur to the US war in Iraq, asking why Americans would focus on the former and not the latter. Mamdani also questioned why US activists would encourage intervention in Darfur while ignoring the far larger humanitarian crisis in the Congo. “Save Darfur” supporters such as Nicholas Kristof responded that the campaign was urging action where action was possible. “Save Darfur,” Mamdani concluded, reflected more about the politics of the War on Terror – and white saviors’ need to side with so-called “good (African) Muslims” against “bad (Arab) Muslims” – than an intelligible concern about mass killings per se.

While the violence in Israel and the occupied territories is far milder and more unilateral than what occurred in Darfur, among many other differences, there are several parallels between the organized responses to Darfur and Israel’s occupation. BDS, responding to some (but not other) Palestinian calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel, is of course not calling for a military intervention of Israel, though in attempting to apply sanctions on a sovereign country it is using the “soft weapon” of war that states use to bend other states to their will. Indeed, the Left often criticizes the unfairness of sanctions (e.g. on Iraq) not only for sanctions’ targeting of innocents but also for their counterproductiveness. While sanctions weaken societies, they also predictably often cause governments to consolidate their power rather than forfeit their sovereignty by capitulating to international pressure. Moreover, for sanctions to become something other than a mere moral stance, they require states to adopt and impose them, if only via the UN and international law which are contingent on the Security Council. But does BDS really imagine that the US and UK are motivated by moral concerns and not their own power?

BDS is also similar to Save Darfur in that BDS is characterized by a fundamentally opportunistic stance. It focuses on Israeli discrimination against Arabs in Israel and Israel’s ongoing brutalities in the occupied territories, not countless other areas of state oppression let alone the inherent violence of the global system itself. BDS argues that this game of whack-a-mole is a practical necessity and, setting up a false dichotomy, suggests that targeting Israel is no doubt better (for those with Left politics) “than doing nothing.”

BDS supporters have responded to critics’ complaints that Israel is being “singled out” by noting that Israel is already singled-out by its preferential treatment by the US, which provides it with billions per year and diplomatic immunity in the Security Council. But, given that Israeli behavior is contingent on this US support, why does the campaign not focus on the source of it, that is, the US itself? If the Left is powerless against the sponsor, why is power against the client necessarily a good thing? Moreover, why is the Left powerless against the US in the first place?

For many BDS supporters, subscribing to a liberal pluralist conception of domestic politics, it is too impractical to sway the US on Israel due to the outsized influence of the so-called Israel Lobby, which ostensibly coerces the US to do what it otherwise would not (notwithstanding the Lobby’s recent failure regarding Iran). However, for those who reject the notion that domestic lobbies drive US foreign policy and that the US is not “neutral” but instead, like all states, follows realpolitik designed to advance its own power, such liberal pluralism is misleading (the US has also given great sums over the years to Colombia and Turkey, countries that do not have significant lobbies in DC; the top recipient of US support for 2011, by the way, was Afghanistan, which should also problematize the very concept of superpower “support”).

While BDS supporters have emphasized that Israel should be singled out due to the US’s massive support, this ignores the reasons for this support, most of which is earmarked for consumption of US military equipment, and whose purely economic component is only a seventh of that given to Egypt, reflecting the US’s determination not to appease the Israel Lobby but to have stable allies bordering the Suez Canal: He who controls the Mediterranean controls the world, and he who controls the Suez controls the Mediterranean. If Israel didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.

Prioritizing an ostensibly “practical” “do something approach” over understanding root causes, BDS takes sides in identity swapping while leaving structural conditions in place. After all, many Western Leftists agreed after the Second World War that the solution to the intractable vulnerability of a historically persecuted people was to grant them a state of their own. Indeed, it is only when the international state system is assumed as a natural given that the answer to being a victim is to become a perpetrator, as if the violence inside the newly independent South Sudan is an exemplar rather than a warning to those who would mistake nationalism for freedom.

While BDS regularly invokes the legacy of the international boycott of South Africa in delegitimizing Apartheid, it should be noted that South African poverty has worsened since the end of white rule, with a major difference being that since this impoverishment is “colorblind” the Left (or anybody else) is no longer urgently concerned about it. That is, BDS is not only opportunistic geographically but also conceptually; the causes of exploitation and violence as such are not being condemned. Reflective of the identity politics characteristic of the Age of Obama, BDS’s efforts to replace Israeli nationalism with Palestinian nationalism, and thereby Israeli landlords with Palestinian landlords, is fully compatible with the exclusion and impoverishment of people in Palestine and Israel.

A criticism of BDS does not suggest that those who are concerned about human welfare and dignity should ignore Israel’s behavior or not work to end the Occupation. It does suggest, however, the dangers in proffering apparent remedies that merely take sides within, and thus reinforce, the international system that is at the root of the problem.

Joshua Sperber lives in New York and can be reached at jsperber4@yahoo.com