Standing against the right of return: Analyzing the logical inconsistencies in BDS’ arguments

Jonah Garnick

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — which seeks to impose a total academic, financial and cultural boycott on Israel and Israeli goods — continues to sweep across American college campuses, and its appeal is understandable. One sees the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza in contrast to the economically and militarily formidable Israel, and reasons that economic pressure could force Israel to ease the Gaza blockade and level the negotiating table. Unfortunately, though, few of its collegiate supporters really understand BDS’s demands, which, when critically evaluated, prove specious and confused. Let’s take a bit of time to explore BDS’s primary demand: the Palestinian right of return. 

The right of return is the demand that living Palestinians have a right to land in current Israel that their ancestors lived in before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. On the surface, this request seems reasonable. Until you see that this exact logic applies to Jews, who, in a series of expulsions two-thousand years ago, were forced into exile from modern day Israel. Does the right of return not apply to them, too? Clearly, this business of quibbling over “who lived there first” is a bad recipe for resolution.

In fact, all of human history is a series of movements and expulsions. If we’re going to suppose that historical ancestry entitles one to land, we’ll end up on an infinite regress back to the Stone Age. 

My mother had to leave Lebanon as the result of war. My father’s family left Ukraine because of anti-Semitism. But I don’t feel entitled to land in either country. Universalizing this “historical ancestry” principle would lead to total chaos. 

Plus, we must remember that the Nakba was succeeded by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands (many of whom fled to Israel). We don’t see BDS calling for their right of return. 

It’s ironic that much of the rhetoric we see on the far left on this issue—talk of stagnant ancestry—is the same kind of rhetoric that fuels anti-Muslim sentiment among far-right parties in Europe right now. 

But, beyond the general incoherence of the idea of a right of return, there’s the Zionist justification against the right of return — ‘Zionist’ has unfortunately become a slur and stand-in for Jew on the extremes of the left (Zionist pig, Zionist media, Zionist controlled government, etc.), but my use means just “a belief in the mere existence of the Jewish state.”

The ideological underpinnings of Zionism find root in millennia-old anti-Semitism, which I’ll spare you a lengthy history of. The short of it is this: anti-Semitism began about 2000 years ago; had varied causes; and resulted in pogroms, discrimination, expulsions and genocide. 

Zionism arose in the late 19th century as a practical solution to a pernicious problem. If Europeans were going to deny equal rights to Jews (and seek their extermination), security for Jews was to be found only in a Jewish state. 

In the 40 years after the beginnings of Zionism, Jewish immigration to Palestine rose exponentially, spurred by the Nazis’ rise to power—again, it’s odd that many BDS supporters call Israel a colonial enterprise (the Jews coming to Palestine resembled refugees more than anything). In 1947, the U.N. proposed and passed a partition plan for Palestine, which Jews immediately accepted and over which Arab nations declared war and sought explicitly Israel’s destruction. And it was in this war that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes. (What actually happened to the Arab populations of Israel during the 48 war is complicated but there certainly wasn’t an Israeli governmental policy of systematic ethnic cleansing.)

All this is to say that, yes, the Nakba was a tragedy, but the right of return would destroy the Zionist state, which serves as a refuge for Jews everywhere. Why “solve” one tragedy with another? If you truly believe expelling a people from their homes is wrong — which I don’t concede is truly what happened —why would you support the right of return? By its own logic, the right of return doesn’t make sense. 

As anti-Semitism continues to rise across the US and Europe, I am continually reminded of the necessity of that refuge. Jewish emigration from Europe is on the rise explicitly because of anti-Semitism. Half of British Jews will consider leaving if Jeremy Corbyn becomes premier. The vast, vast majority of religious hate crimes in the US are against Jews (considered per capita or numerically). 

Many on the left claim Israel is a racist colonial enterprise against people of color and hence call for its destruction through demanding a right of return. It’s an idea which falls apart under scrutiny, which denies the history of oppression of Jews, ignores the fluidity of peoples throughout human history, exhibits peculiar double standards and is a principle which, if universalized, would lead to chaos. 

Unfortunately, the conviction that eventually all Palestinians will return to Israel, and that Israel’s Jews will disperse back to Europe, is even more pervasive among the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank than it is among supporters of BDS. This total Jewish-state rejectionism has unfortunately motivated many of the repudiations of various peace proposals. 

Obviously, Israel is far from blameless, here. Benjamin Netanyahu is a corrupt fearmonger whose encouragement of settlement building is pernicious and illegal. And Israel’s current wave of right-wing politics must be opposed—I’m writing this before Israel’s election results but I’m praying Netanyahu loses. 

In principle, I’m not against a financial boycott to pressure Israel into stemming settlement building and easing the blockade of Gaza—though I think academic and cultural boycotts are counterproductive. 

But BDS doesn’t offer this kind of measured approach. It offers a boycott that will likely further isolate and polarize Israelis. It offers old anti-Semitic canards dressed up as legitimate anti-Israel criticism. And, ultimately, it offers a policy of Israel’s destruction, which I hope all reasonable people would oppose. 

Jonah Garnick ’23 is from Weston, Mass.