Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine

Author: Nick Riemer

Review by: Mark Furlong

Buy this book

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has three arms: the commercial, the cultural and the academic. The dedicated focus of the book is the latter. Before discussing Riemer’s book it is important to outline the key points of the larger campaign:

‘The BDS movement was launched by 170 Palestinian unions, refugee networks, women’s organisations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the Palestinian BDS call urges nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands:

  • Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality’
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.’ (

The BDS movement has no investment in any particular political structure subsequent to these aims being realized. This is an important point as it speaks to the campaign’s commitment to respecting the exclusive right of Palestinian people to self-determination. The campaign’s neutrality with respect to political form also serves a different purpose: by taking a position that is exclusively ethical, rather than political, BDS advocates are able to rebut the accusations of bias that come its way from mainstream media and Zionist spokespersons. The reply to comments is: ‘As was the case with apartheid South Africa, our objections are ethical not racial.’

This position is made clear early in the text. Riemer also clarifies another central point at the outset: the BDS academic campaign does not propose a complete academic boycott. Rather, what is proposed is that individual-to-individual academic cooperation continue, but that institution-to-institution, high level collaboration be formally and publicly eschewed.

Due to the density of its scholarship, and the cumulative nature of its argument, the book is very difficult to respectfully discuss in a short form review. As a general comment, perhaps Riemer could have been more critical of those academics who have little to worry about materially – the tenured, senior echelon of university scholars and administrators. Yes, contract staff and early researchers need to be very careful, but the top dogs have little or no excuse for political non-engagement. One suspects hubris and fusty complacency contribute more to this class’s political remove than does the fear of institutional jeopardy. As Pierre Bourdieu drily noted, academics can amorally descend into a ‘coquettish relationship’ with their subject.

Criticisms to one side, the theoretical depth Riemer displays – literally from Adorno to Zizek – sparkles and stimulates. There is also fine expression and meticulous referencing; nearly one-quarter of the book – 53 pages – is devoted to endnotes. More impressive still are the striking arguments Riemer puts forward. For example, rather than be spooked by what looks like the Mack sized truck that is coming at us – the IHRA definition of antisemitism that conflates criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli state with racism – Riemer argues this discursive trompe d’oeil, is a last gasp sign of desperation. Such a vigorous reframing is welcome; so much that is unjust, even deranged, is currently being allowed to pass unquestioned. Believe it or not, Mike Pompeo, the ex-USA secretary of state, recently said ‘I am confident that the Lord is at work here’ when commenting on the accord reached between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. Somehow, his premise – that Israel has a biblical claim to the land, and can therefore never be an occupying force – was allowed to escape scrutiny. Riemer contends this kind of deluded thinking must be called out rather than slide by as unremarkable, even normal.

Like other Palestinian advocates, Riemer is keen to contest Israel’s endlessly re-cycled status as a progressive exemplar in a backward region: ‘(Israel) is an island of democracy amid a sea of autocracies’ (Peter Hartcher, SMH / The Age, 07.03.23: 22). The BDS movement de-centres this exceptionalist claim in its critique of Israel as a racist, ethno-theocratic, increasingly fascist and essentially colonialist polity. Similarly, Israel’s ‘world leader’ hi-tech reputation deserves attention. However advanced its cyber industry may be, this prestige cannot be reconciled with the official nonchalance that allows companies to develop and export an avalanche of unsavoury ‘products’: advanced weaponry (e.g. surveillance technology, including ‘black ops’ hardware, that is sold to anyone, including repressive regimes; military drones; remote controlled bulldozers; state-of-the-art disinformation platforms (armies of fake social media profiles; made to order bot farms); programs for rigging elections (‘Team Jorge’, a private company, rents its Advanced Impact Media Solutions package to manipulate public opinion and voting behaviour).

Riemer’s arguments are especially timely given the recent ascent of an opportunistic and noxious ruling coalition in Israel. As expected, this dark phenomenon has resulted in tensions in Palestine / Israel escalating, and in events deteriorating. In this context it is necessary for reactionaries to double down on their fictions in order to obscure the ever more obvious injustices that are being perpetuated. The BDS solidarity campaign has an important role to play in shining a light on these injustices and, at a different level, in exposing the mechanisms, the discursive deceits and perversions of logic, that are employed to impede these wrongs being recognized. ‘Settlers’ allowed to illegally invade and occupy the West Bank? If this proposition is externalised, and then subjected to even the most basic of inspections, it is exposed as a replay of the fallacious, totally discredited Terra Nullius argument.

This review leaves out far more than can be acknowledged. Anything but a jolly page-turner, what has been achieved is an argument that is exceptionally well developed. Riemer’s text is also rigorous and astonishingly scholarly. Not coincidentally, this book is a work of ethical and affective commitment where the latter, perforce, is animated by the former. As Riemer notes in his last chapter: ‘pessimism and depression are infectious and lead inexorably back to the status quo’ (143). His book challenges us not to slip into the all too easy default of complicit torpor.