Friday, May 4, 2012

A Forum On Boycott, Divestment, And Sanctions

The Nation asked Omar Barghouti and myself to debate BDS in light of Peter Beinart's call to boycott products from the settlements. Our exchange can be linked to here.  My full contribution is below.

A boycott of Israel's settlements makes sense, but a broader boycott will most hurt those forces inside Israel that are best poised to change Israeli state policy. 

The American response to Peter Beinart’s New York Times op-ed calling for an economic boycott of Israel’s West Bank settlements—what he calls, usefully, “non-democratic Israel”—will strike Israeli liberals as just a little melodramatic.

Not very much is produced in the settlements, which are largely bedroom communities. Most liberal Israelis have been boycotting products from the settlements for years: Dead Sea creams, organic eggs, boutique wines and spices. Recently, various scholars, artists and scientists signed statements announcing our refusal to cooperate with, or even visit, the college established in the settlement of Ariel, between Ramallah and Nablus; a college originally established by Bar-Ilan University, but now applying—with the support of Netanyahu’s government, and in the face of considerable opposition from the Council of Higher Education—to be upgraded to an independent university. A couple of years ago, writing against the BDS movement against Israel as a whole in these pages, I called for just such a boycott myself.

The settlers have, let us say, a problem with boundaries. Boycotting their products is simple, direct and clearly targeted: if a settler business loses customers, its settlement may prove less viable. This is a way of using obvious market freedoms to manifest our dissent or opposition to the settlement project as a whole. (For their part, and by the same token, most settlers don’t subscribe to the liberal daily Haaretz—in effect, they boycott the newspaper, and want it to go away.)

And Beinart is right to want the boycott of settlements to be international. Presumably, this will pressure Israeli companies, too, into dissociating themselves from the settlements and, in some cases, proving that they are not using settlement components or raw materials. The Israeli right wants to establish facts to erase the boundary between Israel and the occupied territories. A boycott of settlements establishes counter-facts that reinforce an eventual boundary: about a fifth of Israel’s GDP is from exports, and any serious Israeli company is global.

But the settlement boycott has another virtue, which is to bring into relief the kind of boycott that should not be entertained, namely, a general boycott of all Israeli products and institutions. That boycott would erase another boundary, between the Israeli state per se—the country and its civil society—and the state apparatus under particular elected leaders.

Erase that boundary, and you erase the discrete facts of Israeli politics; you repudiate the idea that a more moderate government could ever be elected again, though polls show that a split in the Shas party, or the emergence of a charismatic centrist, or a shift in Israeli Arab electoral strategies (all of which, or none of which, may happen this year), would tip the Knesset and government back to what it was under Ehud Olmert, who just attended the J Street conference, by the way.

Israel, in other words, is a complicated place. Its democracy is certainly more than what produced the occupation of Palestine. Imagine European officials, intellectuals, etc., reading grim headlines about America’s invasion of Iraq, and concluding that the war was the product (as it was to some degree) of America’s imperial political structure and peculiar concepts of liberty. Imagine their advocating a boycott of everything American, from Google, to The Nation, to Berkeley—in effect, an end to the United States as we know it, including Bush’s internal opposition. Would this have been thought sane?

To be sure, Israeli democracy is not what it could be. I defer to no one in having risked what writers risk to tell hard truths about it. I wrote in The Tragedy of Zionism, nearly thirty years ago, that settlements were only the most vivid proof of Israel’s democratic deficiencies; that some of its legal structures amounted to discrimination against Israeli Arabs and valorization of religious orthodoxy—more precisely, reflected the absence of a liberal social contract needed to allow all citizens to meet as equals. And, yes, Israeli state agencies and the IDF have been instrumental in making the occupation what it is. Still, Israel is also a place of progressive and creative forces, concentrated in Israeli elites: again, artists and scholars, but also entrepreneurs and professionals.

BDS aims to hit global companies doing business with Israeli ones. But, as a group, international companies are the most important allies Israeli liberals have. These companies are learning and teaching organizations: Intel’s impact on Israel is like MIT’s on Cambridge. Opposing the bloc of parties favoring Greater Israel is a (somewhat weaker) bloc working toward Global Israel. What would BDS do to the latter, the very people in Israel whom the liberal world needs to strengthen?

You see, the implicit premise of BDS 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 by 1967. In effect, BDS advocates accept the grotesque view of settlers and Hamas both, that the claim of Jews to Hebron in 2012 is exactly like the claim to Degania in 1912. It is not: the actions of a desperate movement are not to be copied by a triumphant state; after he became mayor, Jean Valjean did not keep stealing candlesticks.

On the other hand, BDS advocates argue that the stock of global companies making things used by occupation forces—United Technologies makes IDF helicopters, for example—should be divested, as if companies are big collaboration machines. But the same company’s air-conditioners may be cooling a school in Afula—or Gaza. In both cases, looking at Israel, or at companies, we need to up the magnification.

Some will say, fine, force the implosion of Israel’s private sector and this will finally force Israeli elites to seek political change more urgently. This is mechanistic and shortsighted thinking. Economic implosion, which a fully implemented BDS would bring about rather quickly, will cut the ground out from under Israel’s most educated and cosmopolitan people. It will not just pressure them, it will destroy them—ruin their lives, force the emigration of their children. Settlers and their ultra allies, in contrast, have no problem with Israel turning into a poorer, purer, Jewish Pakistan. Do we really want to cause Israel’s private sector to collapse or its universities to be isolated?

I suppose what offends me most about BDS is that it confuses anger with serious politics. It is something like the Tea Party, mad at “government,” too righteous to distinguish baby from bathwater. What we need, rather, is a vibrant, globalizing Israel, businesses, universities, etc. that expect to be part of the world and show the way to it; people who find Greater Israel an embarrassment and, indeed, will see an international boycott of settlements as a way of selling their case for compromise. Such people will be strengthened, not by BDS, but by a general, persistent anxiety about the conflict’s “opportunity cost”: the conviction that Israel’s manifestly improving quality of life will be a far cry from what it could be with peace.

That is the vision a re-elected President Obama should be preparing to bring: for Israel’s security everything, for Israel’s occupation nothing. That is the vision he tried to bring before 2010’s electoral reversals spooked all Democrats into the arms of AIPAC. With the Palestinian Authority on the brink of collapse, and successive Centcom commanders warning of a mean turn in the Arab street if the settlements are not stopped, is it too much to hope that the embrace is not permanent?


pabelmont said...

People who oppose full-Israel BDS speak as if its effects would be immediate and devastating. This is unrealistic.

It will take years for BDS (whether limited to West Bank products or total-Israel) to take hold, and economic (and even cultural and sports) consequences will take a long time to ripen. The effects will occur gradually -- like global warming (for example) and I hope) as surely.

The purpose of either BDS is not to bankrupt anybody (because putting the settler enterprises out of business would not end the settlements) but to persuade all Israelis to dismantle Israel's Greater Israel project, along with the wall and the settlement buildings (in my opinion), and to strengthen Israeli democracy.

Since total-Israel BDS would be easier to implement, I believe that BDS folks should follow whichever path makes sense to themselves, but no-one should criticize total-Israel BDS. considering how hard it may well be for a consumer (or government) to determine what products contain settler-produced content, total-Israel BDS may be simpler and more effective.

Potter said...

I agree you need not defer to anyone about taking risks to truth-telling.

“Still, Israel is also a place of progressive and creative forces, concentrated in Israeli elites: again, artists and scholars, but also entrepreneurs and professionals.”

Absolutely. Unfortunately some who don’t deserve it are already being boycotted and it hurts to see that but…..

Opposing the bloc of parties favoring Greater Israel is a (somewhat weaker) bloc working toward Global Israel. What would BDS do to the latter, the very people in Israel whom the liberal world needs to strengthen?

It’s Israel (Great and Global together) that is doing the stealing, not (only) the Jews of Hebron. And if Israel is Jean Valjean, then he keeps stealing candlesticks but no Bishop( the US, the International community) is going to come, cover for Israel and say it’s all right.

I must be missing your analogy, but Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is pregnant with possibilities.

I think there is a good case to be made for boycotting and divesting carefully, or even the threat, because it would awaken the electorate and government, people who are indirectly and directly responsible. This would shows objection to certain ( not all) business activities. Those working for peace and compromise within and outside the settlements should not be boycotted. This would be should be clear. This BDS movement should not be a total rejection of Israel. Many people care enough to want to help bring about these changes in Israel not to destroy Israel.

I don’t think a fully implemented BDS is achievable either—though the movement could broaden if the situation is prolonged. It’s a stretch and threat against one available form of protest to say that a “poorer, purer Jewish Pakistan” will or even may result. That seems hyperbole. Something else I think is going to destroy Israel before a truly strong BDS gets together. But it should be a threat. And kids, the bright and creative, will be leaving or are already, they know what the future looks like from the current trajectory.

So why aren’t Israeli businesses and universities already pushing for compromise instead of waiting for a BDS movement? Or will some businesses, as you fear, move elsewhere if things get hot?

Again the occupation is not something separate and apart from Israel proper. So I don’t think the baby-bath water analogy is applicable. The push from outside is to Israel itself. If the push was made only to settlements it would absolve Israel proper; and it would be, to many, tolerable.

Potter said...

Olmert evolved to his of mind at the end of his time in office. When he came to this he had little to lose by going out on a limb for peace. He was not elected in this frame of mind.

Potter said...

in fact Olmert was very low in the polls when he was doing his best work!

Y. Ben-David said...

FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF THE PALESTINIANS AND THE ARABS, this is nothing but gross hypocrisy. They see it as being like a thief who steals $100 dollars and who then tells the victim that he feels remorse and they he feels morally obligated to return ONLY $20 to the victim. After all, Ariel and the other West Bank settlements were built on empty hill-tops. It is Dr Avishai who lives in a house lost by an Arab in the Nakba and it is "progressive" Tel Aviv University that sits on the land of the Arab village of Sheikh Munis, and it is "progressive" Hebrew University whos Givat Ram campus is on the land of the Arab village of Sheikh Badr and it is the many 'progressive' Kibbutzim of the MERETZ-affiliated Kibbutz Artzi movement that is on the land of dozens of Nakba-abandoned Arab villages. As the Arabs see it, justice will only be done when that land is returned.
That is why should Beinart and Dr Avishai succeed and get a boycott of the settlements (something that won't happen in the end) it would only be the prelude to a bigger BDS in order to get rid of Israel ENTIRELY because only that will bring justice to the Palestinians as they see it. Dr Avishai and Beinart and the rest who think like them are a testament to the human capablity for self-delusion.

Larry Rosenwald said...

Bernie, I'm largely in agreement with what you write, and by temperament in any case prefer the particular to the general. But I was wondering: what do you think of such related questions as whether the Methodists, or other organizations, should divest themselves of their holdings in companies that profit from the occupation?

bar_kochba132 said...

Larry Rosenwald-
Are you aware the Dr Avishai (and the rest of us) "profits from the occupation" because Israel controls east Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories outside Jerusalem which prevents rockets from falling on his house in west Jerusalem? That would certainly be the case if Israel pulled out of the area, just like what happened when Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip, exposing southern Israel to ongoing rocket attacks.

Potter said...

B_K132- You would profit a whole helluva lot more from peace (a peace agreement, compromise) than occupation and keeping a finger in the dyke while the political/strategic situation deteriorates.

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