At University College Cork in the Republic of Ireland from 11 March to 2 April of 2017, a conference entitled International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism will be held. Unlike the recently completed Modern Language Association conference, this will be the first conference to address directly the question behind the whole BDS movement: the legitimacy of Israel. For the conference organizers, it is considered a ground-breaking, historical event on the road toward justice and enduring peace in historic Palestine. The conference is not just concerned with settlements on the other side of the Separation Barrier or in Area C or even in Greater Jerusalem, but with the issue of Israel’s alleged exceptionalism, its legitimacy, and who has been responsible for its creation and sustenance.
There will, of course, be panels on the injustice perpetuated against Palestinians and on their suffering, but the major focus will be on what role international law has played in perpetuating that alleged injustice and what role international law can play in correcting it. I have already written that yesterday marked the BDS ‘deathday’ for boycotting Israeli academic institutions, not because of the debate at the Modern Language Association meeting in Philadelphia, and not because the outcome of that debate was the defeat of the academic boycott resolution against Israel, but because of its irrelevance. The debate took place in a movement clearly losing steam – primarily because large numbers of academics had become distressed at how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not only preoccupying their academic association but tearing them apart.
Yesterday marked the deathday of BDS in academia not because the motion to support BDS passed or failed – it failed – but because BDS itself is irrelevant now that a larger monster has appeared on the field of battle. The debate has been transferred to a whole different level. Boycotting Israeli academic institutions is now relegated to a backwater of academic debates. The primary reason? On 23 December 2016, Resolution 2334 passed at the United Nations Security Council by a vote of 14 to 0 with the U.S. abstaining rather than vetoing or supporting outright the resolution. Res. 2334 called upon all states to distinguish in their dealings with Israel between activities over the 1949 armistice line and activities in what the UNSC considers Israel proper.
We are not just speaking of what most think of as the West Bank and the settlements located there but of twelve large neighbourhoods of Jerusalem – such as Gilo and French Hill – that fall on the other side of the 1949 armistice line. Further, through the Human Rights Council, the UN has institutionalized a process for documenting and labeling activities that take place on the other side of the armistice line, which will probably include many Israeli businesses that conduct some of their activities there.
Further, within the Jewish community, J-Street endorsed Resolution 2334 but opposed academic boycotts. In reality, efforts at promoting academic boycotts are a sideshow compared to this new central battleground. The American Congress has entered the fray with guns blazing. On the other hand, that sideshow has shown how institutions that debate such contentious issues help destroy themselves. As the U.S. under Donald Trump, with no known record of concern for academic freedom, leads the counter-attack, the victim may not just be an obscure academic association. It may be the UN itself, a major vehicle to try to ensure that diplomacy remains at the forefront for resolving international problems. Because of UNSC Res. 2334, the Obama administration’s failure to veto the motion, and the motion’s inclusion of the basic mechanism (the compilation of an authoritative database) for operating a successful boycott, debate will now shift from marginal academic BDS to the centre of international diplomacy.
Hence, 7 January 2017 will mark the deathday of BDS activities on campus as the resurrection and transformation of the boycott movements initiated just two days before Christmas has been resurrected and given a new lease on life.