The BDS Movement and the Question of Radical Democracy

By John T. Chalcraft
Submitted to Session P4070 (Democratic, Left, Feminist and Liberal Activism in the MENA, 2015 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper focuses on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. The movement arose in Israel/Palestine in the wake of the failure of the Oslo Process in the early 2000s and has since attracted increasing support and publicity translocally. It has been characterized by its critics as an “anti-Semitic poison pill” (Brackman). By contrast, this inter-disciplinary paper, drawing on desk-based research, activist archives, and extensive participant observation, explores the radically democratic characteristics of the movement. Treating the movement as an instance of contentious mobilisation, the paper compares BDS activism with other networked, horizontalist, diverse, de-centralized and translocal movements that have emerged in and out of the region since the 1990s in a period of globalisation. The primary goal is ontological: how can we best characterise this mobilising project, with its identities, principles, and goals on the one hand, and its repertoires of contention (organization, strategies and tactics) on the other? The aim is to compare and contrast this mobilising project with both democratic-diverse and anti-democratic-essentialist forms of activism. The paper argues that the radically democratic characteristics of the BDS movement deserve recognition, while maintaining, against the conventional wisdom, that even in highly-networked and seemingly horizontal activism, leadership, strategic interventions, structure, coordination, mobilisation, and well-defined ends play important roles. The paper also draws out homologies between the BDS movement and other democratic movements of recent origin in the region. The paper contributes to debates about what it means to speak of anti-doctrinal and anti-hierarchical forms of contemporary organizing, while developing our understanding of a movement that is playing an increasingly important role on the regional and international scene.