Israel protesters may be missing their best opportunity to help Gaza

9 May 2024, 1156 EDT

Even though the school year is ending, protests against Israel–most prominent on college campuses–will likely continue. Beginning at Columbia University, they gained attention and spread after a heavy-handed police response. Prompted by the Israeli attack on Gaza (retaliation for Hamas’ attack on Israel), student protesters are calling on their universities to take action in opposition to Israel such as divestment from companies that do business in Israel.

Much of the debate has focused on the protesters themselves. Are they protected free speech? Are they anti-Semitic? Are they driven by outside agitators? How will this end?

Not enough discussion has involved how they will achieve the goal of their protests: ending the suffering of the Palestinian people. This is important because there is an opportunity to effect significant change on Israel-Palestine. Unfortunately, the focus of the protests has broadened even beyond that of the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS). A narrower focus on pressuring Israel to accept current negotiations would have more of a beneficial impact.

What is BDS?

First, what is BDS?

The BDS movement began in 2005 with a call by Palestinian civil society groups for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel as a “form of non-violent protest.” As a model, the movement pointed to the successful international boycott of South Africa in the end of that country’s racist apartheid strategy.

BDS has had an impact. Notables such as Angela Davis have endorsed it. The movement claims it has affected the Israeli economy, although some experts question how vulnerable Israel is to an economic boycott. And some academic organizations have joined in the academic boycott.

But in many significant ways the campus protests move beyond BDS.

BDS has a clear set of goals. Their overarching call is for Israel to act in accordance with international law. Specifically, they want Israel to: withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and West Bank; allow for the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and grant equal rights to Israeli Arabs. These are unacceptable to Israel, but are concrete policies that could serve as a starting point in negotiations.

How have campus protesters moved beyond BDS?

At first glance, the campus protests seem like a logical extension of and even success for the BDS movement. The protesters want universities to divest from Israel in their endowments. Some have called for an academic boycott of Israel. The protests seem to have advanced BDS’ goals, considering the fact that these protests have led some universities to be more transparent in their investments, include student voices in investment discussions, and discuss the possibility of divestment.

But in many significant ways the campus protests move beyond BDS.

Part of the Columbia protests are over the school’s partnership with Tel Aviv University. This may be an extension of the calls for an academic boycott, but there has been some rhetoric about Tel Aviv as occupied Palestinian land. That is, the demands extend beyond the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Protests have involved the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” There is debate over what this phrase means; some fear it calls for violent expulsion of Jewish Israelis, while others claim it is a call for peaceful coexistence. Either way, it suggests Israel in its current form would cease to exist.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch and a noted critic of Israel, argued that activism is most effective when there is a “clear violator, violation, and remedy.”

And some of the protests have involved denunciations of Zionism–the movement that led to Jewish immigration into British Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel–as akin to “racism or fascism.” That is, they question the basis on which Israel exists.

It’s worth thinking through what this means in practice: what changes by Israel would satisfy these protesters?

If the philosophy behind the creation of a Jewish state is problematic and the only acceptable outcome is one state including Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, then this would suggest the protesters are calling for the end of Israel. It is true that these protests have included calls for an end to the war on Gaza. But these calls occur alongside the more expansive ones. And it is not clear that Israeli adoption of a ceasefire would satisfy the protesters.

As extreme as BDS’ demands seem to some, then, the current protests go even further.

It’s also worth thinking about what this means for the people suffering in Gaza.

The idea behind BDS is that it would gradually delegitimize Israel internationally, putting pressure on it to adopt BDS’ demands. The former has moved ahead, but the latter has not. It is unlikely, therefore, that a more expansive goal would work in the near future.

Meanwhile Gazans are starving and dying. Even if universities gave in to protesters’ demands–divesting from and boycotting Israel–this would continue. Additionally, by continuing their maximalist demands protesters may actually make it harder for the international community to negotiate the ceasefire they claim to want.

Why Israel protesters may be missing an opportunity

Despite the accusations of some protesters, the Biden Administration and the international community have not been standing by as Israel led an intense war against Gaza. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has been conducting tireless diplomacy to work out a deal between Israel and Hamas. US President Biden has been growing more frustrated with Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu’s obstinance in response to ceasefire efforts. There was even a brief ceasefire in December. And grassroots efforts at peace are spreading.

Things are looking better right now for a ceasefire than they have since this war started. The Biden Administration is negotiating a ceasefire that Hamas (as I’m writing this) is receptive to. Israelis have protested Netanyahu’s refusal to prioritize freeing the hostages. And Biden put a pause on some weapons deliveries to Israel in opposition to Israel’s plans to assault the Gazan city of Rafah. The combination of Israeli frustration with Netanyahu, Biden’s willingness to pressure the Israeli PM, and a viable ceasefire deal means an end to this conflict is possible.

Protests laser-focused on echoing Israeli anger at Netanyahu, backing Biden’s pressure on Israel, and championing the ceasefire could succeed in nudging policymakers towards a deal. If protests continue to call for the end of Israel (with “end” defined however you want) or remain vague in terms of what they want beyond divestment, this won’t happen. Instead, Israelis may (rightly) feel threatened, increasing support for Netanyahu. And if Biden has to choose between backing Netanyahu and abandoning Israel, he will choose the former.

Adjusting expectations is not a defeat

One could respond to this by pointing out that it’s natural for movements to evolve. The concrete, gradual steps of the Oslo Process (which granted Palestinians self-rule as a first step towards a two-state solution) gave way to the more expansive goals of BDS. These expansive goals weren’t working, so a new form of contentious politics emerged focusing on issues with Zionism itself. This is true: movements evolve. But that evolution doesn’t necessarily make them more effective.

Alternately, one could accuse me of concern-trolling: they would say I don’t really care about Palestinians, I’m just trying to sound smart. I don’t really have a way to push back on this besides insisting I do care about Palestinians. I want to see this war stop and humanitarian aid reach Palestinians. I also want the remaining Israeli hostages freed and a more stable and responsible power than Hamas in charge of the Gaza Strip. So interpret that how you want.

It’s important for protesters to remember that adjusting expectations is not a defeat or compromise. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch and a noted critic of Israel, argued that activism is most effective when there is a “clear violator, violation, and remedy.” Protesters have the first two in Israel’s war on Gaza and broader occupation of Palestinian territories. The third is where they struggle. Coming up with a clearer remedy, even if it does not solve all of the problems, would be useful.

This move would not resolve all aspects of the situation for Palestinians, but it improves their situation right now.