Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Divestment And Other Matters

Last week, at the J Street Conference, I appeared on a panel considering BDS. I made the case I had made last spring in The Nation, that lumping the three together--boycott, divestment, and sanctions--was rash. Moreover, targeting West Bank settlements is not the same as targeting Israel more generally.

For my part, I said, I support a boycott of Ariel's college and of products made in West Bank settlements. When James Baker, back in 1991, told the Israeli government that every dollar spent on settlements would be deducted from US loan guarantees, I supported that. So I could be said to have supported certain sanctions, and would again. At the same time I strongly oppose boycotting Israeli universities or companies or divesting from global companies that do business in Israel, even if some of their products might be used by occupation forces.

In the wake of that appearance, a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace wrote me, asking for clarification. (I shall not identify the person only because I have not asked permission to use the email):

"You said you would boycott settlement products but not multi-national companies implicated in the occupation project. I have to say that I don't understand this distinction on several levels. First, because settlement products are often produced by multinationals. Second, because it sounds like you want to protect global capital but are not concerned about local capital? In other words, if there is a small settlement business with 10 employees selling dates, for example, you think that can be boycotted, but a company like caterpillar, whose weaponized bulldozers destroy trees and homes, should not?"

This questioner deserved an answer. Here with some slight revisions, is what I replied:

THE WAY YOU frame things, it is as if I am being asked why a small perp should be punished but not a big one. Presumably, I'm going after some penny-ante mortgage officer in Dayton, but not the world-historical ripoff artists at Goldman Sachs.

I think this is a very narrow frame. The question that matters to me is, how do we end the occupation? How do I empower my allies and undermine my opponents?

Boycotting products from West Bank settlements is simple, direct, and clearly targeted. If a business started at a settlement loses its customers, the settlement itself may prove less viable; the settlers, in turn, will feel directly that a great many people wish to shun them and condemn their actions. (By the same token, I do not expect that many settlers are subscribers to Haaretz. In effect, they are boycotting a newspaper whose very existence they would want to discourage.)

Now, if you could find an international company that made only something only a settler (or other breaker of international law) could use, I would want to boycott that company. Again, the tactic would be simple, direct, and clearly targeted. I would be denying my opponent a source of supply.

The problem is that the international companies in question make all kinds of things that can be put to all kinds of uses. And, as a group, international companies also empower the most important allies I have. As I said at the conference, why should a Caterpillar bulldozer (another instance of which might be building a neighborhood in Ramallah) be targeted and not the software on the cell phone of the bulldozer’s driver? Why should United Technologies be targeted for its helicopters when its air-conditioners may be cooling a school in Afula--or Gaza? The choice is purely arbitrary.

You may say, well, we have to start somewhere. The boycott of Caterpillar is merely, or mainly, symbolic. But the implication of this answer is that you wish to begin a process--for now, mainly on campuses--in which international companies will be forced to understand that selling to Israel will carry a price; that starting up branch plant operations in Israel, or employing Israelis, will carry a price. The implicit premise here is that the occupation flows from the fact of Israel itself: that Israel is inherently a kind of occupation machine, beginning with 1948 and followed up in 1967. (In effect, you accept the view of the settlers and Hamas both, that the claim of Jews to Hebron is very much like the claim to Tel Aviv, that both claims have the same moral status.)

This view of Israel, after all, is where the symbolism leads. Campuses all over the United States, full of students who are eager to do the right thing, and who (as I remember from my own student days) don't have much patience for a generational battle, or for learning much about the history of a distant country or about its complex social constituencies, will be demanding divestment from the endowment, etc., because it feels so good to take action. For their part, international companies, or many of them, will get the message; the logical end of what you began is the implosion of the Israeli private sector.

You may say, then, fine. If you make the people in the private sector hurt, this will lead to a political change that you want. Some extend this logic to boycotting Israeli universities, whose professors after all contribute in various ways the technologies that make the private sector work. You may even say that teachers of Israeli history, or critics of Israeli literature, are all somehow implicated in creating a context that enables occupation. Why not extend the boycott to Israeli academia, so goes the argument, in order to pressure the system even more?

I think this approach is morally unacceptable the way any form of collective punishment is. But it is also tactically shortsighted. Settlers and their ultra-allies have no problem with Israel turning into a poor, pure, defensive, little Jewish Pakistan. But if you cause Israel's private sector to implode, or cause Israeli universities to be internationally isolated, you will be ruining the lives of the very people who are most likely to be advocating for liberal equality and cosmopolitan values in Israeli society.

Entrepreneurial businesses in Palestine mostly make better distinctions, by the way. Most favor boycotting settlement products, but buy products made by Israelis within the Green Line, or products made by international companies in Israel, even if some of these are also used by settlers.

I suppose what offends me most about your approach is that it confuses quelling a vague sense of anger and frustration with doing politics. Retaliation and strategy are not the same thing. You remind me, forgive me, of the Tea Party, which is so mad "at government" for putting taxpayer money to bail out Wall Street that it is prepared to hit back, in spite of all the necessary things government does, and irrespective of the question of how much worse things would be if the bailout had never happened.

Hitting back at international companies that do business in Israel (let's be clear, there are no international businesses that do business “only with the occupation”) is this kind of confusion. It is a little like saying Israeli journalism is complicit in the occupation, or at least we have to get Israeli journalists to take a stand against the occupation; so let's engineer the collapse of all Israeli newspapers, or any that ever carries a column advocating for settlements, even if this broad-brush approach will lead, first, to closing down the most vulnerable paper, namely Haaretz. That’ll show ‘em!

Indeed, international companies are not just profit-making machines any more than Israel is an occupation machine. Companies are also learning and teaching organizations. Motorola's impact on Tel Aviv is more like MIT's on Cambridge than the United Fruit Company’s on Guatemala. I lived in Israel in the early 1970s, before Israeli commercial life globalized. The country’s commercial life today is incomparably more liberal and cosmopolitan than it was then, although there is much stronger proto-fascist minority today than there was then. My fear is that the more we undermine liberal forces through things like divestment and boycott, the faster the ranks of liberal Israel will be depleted, and the more we are ceding the field to the cultists and fanatics. By the way, as I noted in my Nation article, many anti-apartheid activists in South Africa took this very position on divestment in the 1980s.

A final word. It is hard not to be moved by your obvious moral anguish regarding how things in Israel are evolving. But there is a way that seizing the moral high-ground can lead to condescension. It has become a convention in the JVP, and supporting bloggers, to dismiss people like myself as "liberal Zionists," that is, people who are not prepared to take the next logical step and move from BDS to regretting that Israel ever happened. There is a kind of unearned superiority here that would be wrong, even if your historical imaginations were complete and your tactics were right.


David said...

Well said, Bernie.

David Guberman

p said...


The problem is that Israel, within the green line (as well as beyond) is not really paying any price whatsoever for the occupation which provides very little incentive for the Israelis (and Judeans) to abandon the BaU approach. The will still go out and vote, predominantly, for parties that don't really have the balls to do what it takes. Or, as Ofer Shlach said a while back that Israeli PMs only start talking about peace seriously when they can no longer really deliver.

Sadly, Israelis, just like Arabs, only understand force and like most only act when it hurts. As I for one think that the Zionist "left" is completely hypocritical in blaming the settlers and settlements instead of the governments it has time and time again elected, I don't think that hurting the settlements/settlers is an honest course of action.

Larry Rosenwald said...

I agree with David: well said. Not sure I agree with everything you say, but I very much admire your candor and precision.
It's my impression that if one agrees with you, and if one lives in the US, then there isn't much in the way of economic action to undertake; there aren't, so far as I know, many West Bank products that I get to make a choice about buying. That I think is the frustration: that the argument, which I find persuasive, deprives me of useful direct actions to take.
Also: I think you believe more solidly than I do in the power of, to use our phrase, "the people who are most likely to be advocating for liberal equality and cosmopolitan values in Israeli society." Do you think those people have a real shot at ending the Occupation?
With admiration, Larry

Potter said...

I am not boycotting. I am wondering out loud about the BDS movement’s ability to possibly make a dent before Israel collapses on it’s own. I am not going to give up my Israeli Feta cheese, nor “Moroccan Oil”. I don’t think it is about the collapse of the Israeli economy, I don’t think it will get that far. Or it should not amount to that unless the situation continues on and on which I don’t think it will one way or another. I think other things will happen before BDS ever gets so strong.

My fear is that the more we undermine liberal forces through things like divestment and boycott, the faster the ranks of liberal Israel will be depleted, and the more we are ceding the field to the cultists and fanatics.

But why should I ,or any non-Israeli for that matter, care more than Israeli’s ( which it seems like I do) if Israel turns into Pakistan? More than those liberal forces? I see nothing from those forces that are making a change in this situation which would be for their own benefit !.

The moral condescension is a result of the loss of patience, the inability to justify anymore, to see any longer anything moral in Israel’s occupation. It is harder and harder to identify with Israel as a Jew. This situation bothers some Jews a lot. Nothing appears to be on the horizon that will cause a change. Obama? Revolution?

It’s the situation that produces the “delegitimizers”, the harsh criticism, the moral condescension (in the above argument as well and I don't mind it), the emotional dissociation, and finally, for some ( not me) the regret that Israel ever happened. The BDS movement is another consequence.

YMedad said...

So you do not support the Arab view that all "settlements" are to be boycotted and whatnot. All the "settlements" in Jerusalem are okay? And if there are Arabs who claim Tel Aviv is a "settlement", you ignore that also? Being selective is okay then, based on one's own interpretation and understanding of history, law and politics? And how far does that freedom of choice go for others who are different thinkers from you?

Potter said...

The "Tel Aviv is a settlement" argument is fear mongering. BDS is based on international law which does not maintain that Tel Aviv is a settlement and illegal. Extremist Palestinians may maintain that just as some extremist Jews maintain that it's all Israel, Judea, Samaria, all of Jerusalem. These are religious arguments too and they go on forever and are on both sides based on selective interpretation of history and one side or another's politics. That is why international law.

ofer said...

B. Avishai does not even support BDS against arms dealers profiteering from Israel's apartheid. That's worse than immoral, that's just plain weird.


david fisher said...

Avishai raises questions about the BDS campaign against Israel. I do not support the campaign of boycotting products either of those made in the territories or those in Israel proper. I do not support the BDS campaign even though I do not support everything that Israel does, think the settlements are illegal and did support the boycott of South Africa. Even though I am a pensioner and don't have enough money to make much difference I would still like to say why I oppose the BDS campaign against Israel.

1. The boycott of South Africa hurt nothing outside of South Africa. It increased feelings against South Africa, but the feelings against South Africa disappeared when apartheid ended. A BDS campaign against Israel will hurt the Jewish people outside of Israel by increasing antisemitism. I wish we Jews outside of Israel were not identified with Israel. The fact is that we are whether we want to be or not. The BDS campaign against Israel can hurt all Jews even those who support the BDS program.

2. The boycott of South Africa had one clear aim - that was to end apartheid. The BDS campaign is backed by groups which have a number of aims. Some of them are to end the occupation, to end the existence of Israel itself, to express Jew hatred, to oppose the United States since some people see Israel as a surrogate for the United States and to carry on the traditional animosity of Marxist Jews toward Zionist Jews. Without a clear goal there is no particular way the BDS campaign can be ended.

3. There are many countries with far worse human rights records than that of Israel. Some countries have fascist, Marxist or other kinds of dictators. The United States has a greater percentage of its population in prison than any other developed country and is carrying on two wars which were neither declared nor have UN approval. China is suppressing the populations of Tibet and Sinkiang, suppresses free expression and dissent and exploits labor. Saudi Arabia oppresses women and Shiite Muslims, has no freedom of religion and is a family kleptocracy as are many other tyrannies. Russia is carrying on the czarist and soviet tradition of suppressing dissent. If we are concerned with expressing opposition against tyranny and oppression why restrict BDS to Israel?

4. The BDS campaign against Israel, if successful, will simply cause suffering to the people of Israel without making any positive changes because there is no specific action that Israel can take which will satisfy all the participants in the campaign.

Avishai mentions United Technologies. I will not knowingly buy a UT product because of the nature of their business. They, to use the old phrase, are merchants of death.

David Fisher

Amir Schwarz said...

as one of those israeli liberals that potter talks about, and well,the BDS movement does brake the floor on which i stand, you see it doesn't hurt the settlers too much, the hard core of them gets money in easier ways than that - tax deductible contribution in the u.s by religious jews and those born again Christians, those are the people who are paying for the new settlements... but who cares about where the money really comes from, it is easier to boycott israel, give more power to the facists who claim everyone all around the world is already against us (and they also work hard to make that happen). i have a feeling that those who read this are jews, so why not instead of talking if you should boycott me here, try ask your family and i promise you someone there is giving money (by mistake probably) to build some new neighborhood on some small hill, anyway, find that person and ask him to "divest" the money into one of those zionist (liberals) funds instead.

and as for those who "take the next logical step and move from BDS to regretting that Israel ever happened." - remember rabbi kahane is not the product of the israeli school system... instead of regretting that israel ever happened work in you community so at least I don't have to deal with your wackos also, i have enough of my own, thank you.


Potter said...

Amir- yes you have enough wackos, including in government. So deal with them! They are the ones who break and shake your floor.

But there is a settler making machine abroad, here especially. It probably does not produce on the level of Kahane but there is pressure for kids growing up in "certain quarters" to visit Israel as a rite of passage and then to make Aliyah. The Israeli government and organizations like Nefesh B'nefesh make it easy and affordable to settle in the territories. Relatives (parents) here aid as well...no mistake.

We decided to help re-settle within "Israel proper" a relative who has returned from the territories and who was about to move to another settlement out of necessity because of it's affordability. This could be a program don't you think?

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