There are easy ways to oppose social problems and then there are real ways to oppose social problems. The easy way, typical of politicians in liberal democracies, is to oppose the problem in abstraction from its causes. Social inequality is paradigmatic: politicians all come to office promising to end it in one way or another (either by unfettering the market or better regulating it) but no one ever provides an account of its causes. They oppose themselves to the idea of social inequality while ignoring the reality. If they opposed themselves to the reality they would have to oppose themselves to the causes, and if they opposed themselves to the causes they would have to confront the very powerful people who control society’s resources and productive enterprises and operate them according to economic principles that cause social inequality.
The problem of Palestinian statehood is analogous to the problem of social inequality. Most Canadian politicians support it as an idea, but refuse to confront the reality that the two-state solution is becoming more and more impossible because of on-going Israeli occupation and expanding settlements. There are now 570 000 Israeli settlers living in occupied Palestine. Unsurprisingly, as in the case of social inequality, verbal support for an abstract idea fails to address the causes, and so the problem persists and gets worse.
The touchstones of real opposition are whether one is willing to name the cause of the problem and willing to support the struggles of victims through meaningful acts of solidarity. When oppressed people organize a movement and call for international supporters to adopt its demands, then real allies adopt those demands and do what they can in their own contexts to ensure their realization. The main thrust of the Palestinian movement for self-determination is directed towards a two-state solution, and its primary international dimension is the call for Boycott of, Divestment from, and Sanctions against Israel so long as it continues to occupy Palestine. Those are the terms set by the movement of the oppressed themselves. Anyone who is a genuine supporter of Palestinian self-determination must support those demands and, outside Israel, that means supporting the BDS movement.
When the African National Congress called for a boycott of South Africa, millions of supporters around the world heeded the call. There was no progressive cover for anyone who did not support this international call for solidarity. Anyone who opposed the boycott and supported the South African state was obviously and manifestly a supporter of apartheid and thus obviously and manifestly a racist. I cannot think of a single instance of anyone who claimed to favour self-determination for black South African’s simultaneously worrying that the ANC’s call for a boycott was anti-white.
In 2016, by contrast, the world abounds with faux progressives who claim on the one hand to support the right of Palestinians to self-determination and at the same time maintain that there are no legitimate means for them to act on this principle. If self-determination should come, it will only be by an act of Israeli noblesse oblige. If Palestinains fight for their right to self-determination, they are called terrorists. If they demand a boycott via voluntary and peaceful means, they are accused of fomenting anti-Semitism. There are only two practical poles in politics: violent resistance and non-violent resistance. If both are judged illegitimate by people who nevertheless claim to support self-determination, then the reality is that the oppressed are deprived of any means of realizing the principle.
Anyone who claims to support a principle but rejects the legitimacy of any and all means of realizing it is not a supporter of the principle. In the case of the Palestinians, Canadian politicians who pontificate in the abstract about statehood but denounce all means of getting there they do not support self-determination. The very term self-determination entails that it cannot be granted by an outside force but only achieved through the group’s own efforts.
This issue has become increasingly pressing in Canada. In February, the vast majority of Justin’s Trudeau’s caucus voted in favour of a Conservative motion condemning the BDS movement. While Trudeau’s government is trying to position itself as responsive to First nation’s demands at home, abroad it is abandoning the Palestinians as they struggle against structurally similar political forces squeezing them into tinier and tinier zones of control. In the summer, Trudeau’s Ontario cousins did help to defeat a motion brought by failed Conservative candidate for premier Tim Hudak to make BDS movements illegal. However, in its wake premier Kathleen Wynne (then on a trade mission to Israel) promised to pass a ‘non-divisive’ anti-BDS motion in the near future. Elizabeth May, leader of the Canadian Green Party, has put herself into a similar situation. May has threatened to resign unless Green Party members reverse their support for a motion they recently passed in support of the BDS movement. All three leaders would no doubt support the principle of self-determination, but the truth of principles is practice, and in terms of practice, that means supporting the Palestinian movement for self-determination, which none of them do.
The hope that problems can be resolved without divisive movements is mystificatory magic thinking. On a divisive issue any motion against one side must must be divisive, just because it divides along the different sides of the dispute, and thus separates supporters and opponents. The truth, therefore, is that behind the narcotic language of inclusiveness and non-divisiveness there is always an attack on those who fall on the other side of the issue (who can then be attacked for being divisive)!
The attack takes the form of an effective denial of the right to self-determination of (in this case) the Palestinians. Self-determination is a recognized human right– indeed, for colonized people denied a state of their own, the most important right. As the Kenyan political philosopher and critic of a Euro-centric liberal understanding of human rights Makau Matua argues, “the most fundamental of all human rights is that of self-determination and … no other right overrides it. Without this fundamental group or individual right no other human right could be secured, since the group would be unable to determine for its individual members under what political, social, cultural, economic, and legal order they would live.”(p. 108) To deny people the right to self-determination is, at the deepest level, to refuse to recognize their humanity: their capacity to shape their conditions of life and the values that will guide their collective existence on the basis of their own interpretation of their history.
Now if it should be rejoined that a movement for Palestinian statehood is an existential threat to Israel, the only cogent response is to deride it for the red herring that it is. In the current state of affairs, who is unable to exercise their right to self-determination, the Israeli state, or the Palestinian people who daily watch the Israeli government colonize more of their land? Who controls water and electricity provision to the occupied territories? Who imposes collective punishment, arbitrary detention, torture, and extra-judicial killings on people resisting the illegal occupation of their traditional lands? Who has just signed an arms deal worth 38 billion dollars over ten years? Who has nuclear weapons? It is abundantly clear who is the existential threat to whom and who has carte blanche from the so-called “international community” to continue its colonization of Palestinian land.
At a minimum, therefore, anyone who believes in the principle of self-determination must be in solidarity with Palestinian demands to boycott Israeli firms working on colonized lands, and to impose sanctions on analogy with the principle that supported sanctions on South Africa during the apartheid years. If those sanctions were not anti-white, but anti-racist, then sanctions against Israel are not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, but anti-colonial.
When Europeans first arrived on the lands of the First Nations and decided to stay, they needed some justification for displacing the people living there and appropriating their lands. The principle was called terra nullis: empty land. In the face of undeniable evidence to the contrary, the European settlers simply declared that– in effect- there were no people here, and proceeded to put that principle into practice. The way in which the principle of terra nullis denied the humanity of the people of the First Nations is overt, and no one who claims to support their current struggles for self-determination would be at all reticent about admitting the racist denial of the humanity of the peoples of the First Nations that the principle presupposed. But Israeli settlement activity presupposes the very same principle, and yet, in Canada and around the world of official politics: silence, but a silence that speaks, a silence that says: “we do not recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people.”