For the last two decades, solidarity with Palestinians in the West has been expressed largely through the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. BDS has described itself as a call from “Palestinian civil society” for allies in other countries to reduce commerce with Israel, along the lines of the international boycott to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.
The BDS movement characterizes its goals as rights-based and grounded in international law. It seeks an end to the occupation of Palestinian territory as defined by the 1967 borders; equal rights for Arab citizens of Israel; and a resolution of the refugee problem by letting them return to their homes and properties. BDS founder Omar Barghouti, a Columbia University graduate and the husband of an Israeli Arab woman, wants a “one-state solution,” which would dissolve the borders between Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank and establish a secular, democratic state of all its citizens. “BDS is a non-violent human rights movement that seeks freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people,” Barghouti says, “based on international law and universal principles of human rights.”
Western advocates for BDS claim that they are neutral on the constitutional contours of the future state or states; critics have pointed out that this is disingenuous, because giving millions of Palestinian Arabs whose ancestors left Israel in 1948 and 1967 the right to return would alter Israel to the point that it would effectively cease to exist. Indeed, Israel is a proper, recognized nation under international law, and has been a full member of the United Nations since 1949, well before Finland, Ireland, Jordan, or most other countries. Insisting that a nation dissolve itself is hard to reconcile with international law.
Nevertheless, BDS has always couched its demands in the language of rights and a legal framework supposedly following the gist of numerous resolutions of the UN. But the events of the last few weeks have totally changed the tenor and tone of Western support for Palestinians. The recent protests demonstrate that the center of gravity of the demand is not only no longer based in international law but has also effectively leapfrogged even Hamas’s own stated goals, embracing the most radical vision of a Greater Palestine free of the presence of Jews.
At George Washington University—long a feeder to the halls of the State Department—students recently projected images reading, “Glory To Our Martyrs” and “Free Palestine From The River To The Sea.” This rhetoric comes straight from the fevered brains of Hezbollah propagandists. It bears little resemblance in form or content to the relatively dispassionate language of Western-oriented Palestinian civil society think tanks, much less Foggy Bottom conference rooms.
Praising martyrdom and sanctification in blood and fire is the sort of thing associated with ISIS pronouncements or videos from Islamic Jihad training camps. And, after the savagery of the October 7 attacks on Israeli civilians, it is no longer possible to read language about freeing Palestine from “the river to the sea” as metaphorical. Only the most cynical or naive proponent of the Palestinian cause can now say with a straight face that talk of eliminating Israel from the map is really just a call for a nonviolent adjustment of borders. The goal is clearly to create a Palestine without Jews.
The radical Left across the West is backed and emboldened by a population of resentful recent immigrants who validate its goal to “decolonize” the world. Animated by a vision of history neatly divided into right and wrong sides and populated by brown-skinned victims and white-skinned oppressors, the Left amplifies its message on social media and encourages an ideological fanaticism among its supporters, who appear to believe that any form of violence is legitimate if imposed on the right—that is, the wrong—people.
If recent events on campuses and in the streets are any indication, the West faces an extraordinary internal challenge.
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