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.