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?