by Cinnamon Stillwell
What do Middle East studies professors do when they're not in the classroom? Write books? Engage in research? Advance important scholarship? Conduct outreach to students? In the case of two anti-Israel activist professors—Mark LeVine, University of California, Irvine history professor, and Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies and director of the Middle East studies program at the University of San Francisco—plotting strategies for furthering the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is the unfortunate answer.
In his latest Al-Jazeera op-ed, LeVine conducts an interview with Zunes on the all-important question, "Can the BDS Movement Go Global?" Attempting to address the failures of the BDS campaign, which stem in part from accurate criticism that it "singles out Israel" and also leads to what Zunes describes as "spurious charges of 'anti-Semitism,'" the always-inventive professor has come up with the following solution:
[W]hile there are dozens of countries that are major human rights abusers globally, there are only three current cases of what the United Nations and the international community formally recognises as foreign belligerent occupation and/or the denial of self-determination of a recognised non-self-governing territory: Israel and its occupied territories, Morocco and Western Sahara, and Armenia and small strip of Azerbaijani territory. Virtually no major international companies support Armenia's current occupation. However, a number of companies support Morocco's ongoing illegal occupation of the nation of Western Sahara in a matter comparable to companies that support the Israeli occupation.
I argue that the Palestinian solidarity struggle would be considerably strengthened if, instead of calling for divestment specifically from companies supporting the Israeli occupation, international activists called for divestment from companies supporting both occupations.
Zunes spends much of the interview intoning the language of human rights and international law and to his credit, is on record acknowledging global threats to human rights, even when they emanate from Islamic regimes (of course, he usually manages to somehow blame the U.S. in the process). Yet when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Zunes, like so many of his peers, loses all objectivity and engages in the very single-minded fixation—some would call it an obsession—that he purports to decry. Moreover, his claim that broadening the BDS campaign would "help bring attention to the little-known but important self-determination struggle of the Sahrawi people against the illegal and oppressive Moroccan occupation of their country," comes across as a cynical ploy to punish only the alleged "occupier"—never mind that neither the West Bank nor Gaza is occupied—he really cares about: Israel. He even acknowledges as much, albeit without realizing it:
. . . it would help move the debate away from a divisive pro-Israel vs anti-Israel dichotomy, where people often end up just talking past each other, to where the debate belongs: human rights and international law.
In other words, Zunes is using the Sahrawi cause to further the pretense that the BDS campaign is about "human rights and international law," not about delegitimizing Israel.
Zunes acknowledges the challenges of implementing his vision, which include opposition from within the BDS camp, but fails to realize that the Palestinian cause, such as it is, is so grounded in hatred, supremacism, and narcissism that its proponents are unlikely to forge alliances that involve focusing on other "struggles." To do so would be to admit that the Palestinians aren't the center of the universe and also to allow factual comparisons, two things that don't tend to sit well with this crowd.
Indeed, LeVine, after noting that he "wrote a similar call for a more universal BDS movement in 2005," adds that:
[M]any left-wing activists were uninterested, while Palestinian activists and scholars, however sympathetic, felt Palestinians were in such a lopsided situation against Israel that they couldn't afford to also boycott other countries such as the U.S. or China. They also argued that no other anti-occupation or pro-democracy movement was presently calling for a BDS style campaign, and that if one did, they would support it.
Convenient excuses aside, I wouldn't hold my breath.
Perhaps we can be thankful that neither LeVine nor Zunes's plans to globalize BDS are likely to pan out, even as we wonder why a UC Irvine history professor and the director of USF's Middle East studies program don't have something better to with their time.
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