Monday, August 22, 2016

Olympic "BDS" And Israeli Personhood

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, there were two separate occasions on which Israeli athletes were targeted for their nationality. On Friday August 5th, Lebanese athletes attempted to block Israeli athletes from boarding a bus to the opening ceremony. Separately, on August 12 an Egyptian Judo athlete refused to shake his Israeli opponent's hand.

Members of the BDS movement have hailed both of these actions as forms of solidarity. By refusing to associate or engage with Israeli athletes, so the logic goes, the Arab Olympians express solidarity with Palestinians and increase international pressure against Israel for its policies toward them. The continued isolation of Israelis, conceivably, would culminate in policy changes that could benefit Palestinians.

There are three flaws in the premise of this argument, which are instructive with regards to the broader problems of the BDS strategy toward Israel.

First, there is no evidence that either incident was motivated by pro-Palestinian concerns. The BDS community has projected its own interpretation onto the incidents but facts supporting this interpretation are sparse. The athletes in both cases were motivated by anti-Israel sentiment, but whether there was a deliberate pro-Palestinian element of their actions is not at all obvious.

Second, the incidents are being understood among the pro-Israel community, predictably, as evidence of anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic sentiment. In other words, the community understands these incidents as motivated not by occupation or oppression, but by Israel's very existence as a state. The incidents also evoke the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre in which Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes. Being targeted for being Israeli at the Olympics has deep resonance for Israelis, and not in terms of political activism. Rather, it entrenches the Israeli public's siege mentality and bolsters the narrative that no policy change would ever erase the intrinsic prejudice of Arab people against Israelis. BDS may have good intentions, but there is no evidence that in these cases it will have the desired effect of improving Palestinian lives.

Thirdly - and most importantly - the incidents contradict what BDS is supposed to stand for. The BDS movement claims to support empowerment and humanization. But the snubbing of Israeli athletes at an international event designed to bring people together represents the opposite. It's one thing to boycott a government, a company, or an institution - it's quite another to snub individual Israelis. This is because such actions construct individual Israelis exclusively as subjects of the Israeli state. If we agree that people are more than their passport, it is illegitimate to essentialize Israeli men and women to a passport or National ID. In that BDS deconstructs the identity of Israeli people, it isn't humanizing oppressed Palestinians. Rather, it's picking and choosing who is a person and who is merely a "state agent." If BDS seeks the moral leverage to argue that Israel is denying Palestinian people the right of self-actualization, it cannot simultaneously advocate denying that right for Israeli people too.

While these incidents are unlikely to have a lasting effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are an important example of flawed elements of the discourse surrounding it. On both sides, it is critical not to use either words or actions to deny agency to multifaceted human beings, especially those with a genuine desire for positive political change.