The Boycott Debate: No Longer Taboo in Progressive Pro-Israel Circles
Dov Waxman* and Mairav Zonszein**
TO BOYCOTT or not to boycott? That is the question that growing numbers of American Jews on the left wing of the pro-Israel community have reluctantly and uneasily begun to ask themselves in recent months. After initially categorically rejecting the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (or BDS, as it has become known)—a movement launched in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups that’s now a global campaign—progressive pro-Israel groups and individuals are now starting to reconsider and revise their position. They are not—at least not yet—embracing BDS, but they are for the first time giving it serious consideration and debating it merits.
The clearest sign yet of this new willingness to discuss what was previously off-limits occurred during a recent conference organized by J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group. Holding its second annual conference in the cavernous Washington Convention Center (also the site of the yearly conference of AIPAC, J Street’s much larger and richer rival), J Street included a panel session entitled “Who is Afraid of the BDS?” Among the speakers was Rebecca Vilkomerson, the director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization that advocates the boycott of companies that profit from the Israeli occupation and has been labeled by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top ten anti-Israel groups in the United States. Her inclusion was noteworthy in itself, but what made the panel even more remarkable was the fact that it was conducted in a calm, reasonable manner, free of diatribes and invectives. In other words, it was completely different from the way in which discussions of BDS usually take place in the American-Jewish community. Instead of assailing the legitimacy of BDS in principle, the discussion focused on the efficacy of BDS—can it help promote an end to the Israeli occupation and a two-state solution? The large audience that packed the room (people were even queuing outside to get in) listened calmly and intently and asked the panel earnest questions.
To hold a rational and civil debate on a topic that until now has been hugely inflammatory for American Jews and Israelis is quite an achievement for J Street. Even more commendable is the fact that it took place despite fierce criticism of J Street for including JVP—an organization that is shunned and vilified by the mainstream American-Jewish community— in its program. Contrary to the accusations of its critics, by allowing BDS to be debated at its conference, J Street did not embrace these controversial tactics (it continues to oppose BDS). Rather, J Street has asserted that BDS is a subject that cannot and should not be ignored by the American-Jewish community. By upholding the values of freedom of speech and inclusive dialogue, J Street is insisting that grappling with the pros and cons of BDS does not in itself delegitimize Israel or deem one to be an anti-Zionist. As such, J Street is helping to break the BDS taboo in the American-Jewish community in general and among progressive pro-Israel activists in particular.
THE BDS taboo is only the latest in a long line of Israel-related taboos that have been broken by American Jews. For a long time, negotiating with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and recognizing the right of Palestinian statehood were taboos that only radical left-wing Jewish activists were willing to openly advocate. In 1976, for instance, members of Breira, an organization that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, met with representatives of the PLO, considered at the time a terrorist organization. Breira was condemned and ostracized by the organized American-Jewish community and forced to disband in 1977. Despite its brief existence and rapid demise, Breira helped pave the way for other Jewish organizations to promote “land for peace” and to insist that Israel end its occupation. The erosion of the BDS taboo has come about for several reasons. The first is the widespread disillusionment among American Jews with the “Israel right or wrong” approach propagated by the mainstream Jewish establishment. Peter Beinart’s much-discussed article in the New York Review of Books gave powerful voice to this disillusionment. Beinart urged his American-Jewish contemporaries to openly challenge Israeli policies and actions that conflicted with their own liberal beliefs. A similar call for American-Jewish dissent was issued during the Second Intifada in a collection of essays written by American-Jewish writers and intellectuals entitled Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In their opening essay, the editors stressed the “centuries-old Jewish traditions of lively dispute and rigorous, unapologetic skeptical inquiry.” These are merely two examples over the past decade of growing public opposition to what is regarded as the attempt by the American-Jewish establishment to stifle open Jewish criticism of Israel and silence those who refuse to toe the mainstream line.
The most significant example of this trend is the establishment of J Street itself, as an alternative to AIPAC and as a political home for Americans Jews who do not question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but oppose its occupation of Palestinian territories. J Street has tried to redefine the meaning of being “pro-Israel,” and, at least judging by its growing membership—it now boasts nearly 200,000 members—it has succeeded in doing so. With such a large base of support, J Street cannot simply be written off as a marginal movement among American Jews.
The second reason for the lifting of the BDS taboo is the widening gap between the liberal political views and attitudes of American Jews and increasingly illiberal Israeli policies and rhetoric. The Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai, and Bibi Netanyahu trinity in Israel’s government, which encourages further settlement construction, continues to employ rabbis who call on Israeli Jews not to rent or sell property to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and pushes forward anti-democratic bills (such as the loyalty oath and the investigation into NGOs critical of Israel’s occupation), challenges American-Jewish ideals. There is a growing sentiment in the American-Jewish community that Israel is on a downward spiral that endangers its standing in the international community and threatens its democratic character.
Finally, progressive American Jews are frustrated with the paralysis of the peace process and disappointed with the Obama administration’s failure to advance it. After almost two decades of fitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, a resolution to the conflict still does not appear to be in sight. If anything, it seems to be receding further into the distant future, if not disappearing altogether. Few once-ardent American-Jewish supporters of the peace process now hold out much hope for it.
Nor do many progressive American Jews believe any longer that President Obama can deliver a peace agreement. The high hopes that President Obama initially raised about his desire and determination to swiftly resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have now been transformed into bitter criticisms of his administration’s inept handling of the conflict and especially its vacillating treatment of Israel—from confronting the Netanyahu government over its settlement building to capitulating to it. Having dropped its demand that Israel end all settlement construction as a condition for negotiations and vetoed a resolution in the UN Security Council that condemned this settlement activity as illegal (which is, after all, the official position of the U.S. government), the Obama administration has so far demonstrated an unwillingness to really pressure the Netanyahu government, especially when Congress opposes such pressure. In fact, the Obama administration has preferred to try to bribe Israel (for example, last September offering it twenty fighter jets worth $3 billion if Israel extended the West Bank settlement freeze for only ninety days), rather than cajole it. But this too has achieved few if any results.
Fading faith in the peace process, in the United States’ ability to act as an honest broker in it, and in Israel’s willingness to compromise in order to make peace (reinforced by the recently leaked “Palestine Papers,” which revealed that major Palestinian concessions were still not enough to satisfy Israeli negotiators) have created a new political space in which once inconceivable ideas are gaining currency. American-Jewish “doves” are considering what other options exist to peacefully end the occupation, bring about a two-state solution, and “save Israel from itself.” For better or for worse, the only option that appears to be available is BDS. These combined tactics promise to gradually raise the economic cost of the occupation for Israel, thereby supposedly making the status quo increasingly intolerable for Israelis.
It is out of a deep sense of anguish and despair that left-wing pro-Israel activists are starting to assess the possibility of BDS as a means of essentially coercing Israel to end its self-defeating, forty-four-year-old occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. While advocates of the global BDS movement praise it as a means of direct, grassroots action and proclaim its nonviolent nature, for most members of the left-wing pro-Israel community these positive attributes do not outweigh the many negative aspects of the BDS campaign. Put simply, BDS is widely regarded as both unfair and unhelpful.
However critical American-Jewish “doves” are of Israeli policies and actions, by and large they do not think it is fair to punish Israeli society as a whole, as BDS seeks to do. Israeli Jews may be politically complacent and apathetic when it comes to the occupation, but for the most part they do not support it—they just don’t believe it can be ended any time soon, at least not without jeopardizing their own security. Most Israelis still favor a two-state solution and a withdrawal to some negotiated version of the 1967 lines, and they are not opposed to a Palestinian state, as long as it doesn’t threaten them. Targeting them with sanctions and boycotting their businesses, therefore, seems fundamentally misplaced and unethical, as it would penalize the innocent along with the guilty.
By appearing to lay the blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exclusively on Israel, BDS is also seen as one-sided by many progressive American Jews. While Israel is by no means blameless, according to this view, neither are the Palestinians, especially Hamas and its supporters. To identify Israel as the aggressor and the sole perpetrator of human rights violations is historically inaccurate and morally simplistic.
Finally, the global BDS movement is believed to be unfair because it singles out Israel for pariah status. Israel is by no means the worst violator of international law and human rights, so why just pick on it? Why not target Sudan, Iran, or any number of other states that repress and brutalize their citizens? Or other countries that occupy the territory of others, such as China in Tibet and Russia in Georgia?
Coupled with these criticisms of BDS as essentially unfair is a more practical assessment of its effectiveness. Most left-wing pro-Israel activists are highly skeptical that BDS will actually work. In fact, they tend to believe that it will be politically counterproductive because it deeply alienates Israelis and feeds into a suspicious and defensive Israeli mentality summed up by the popular Israeli expression, “The whole world is against us.” This only reinforces right-wing Jewish nationalism in Israel and weakens what is left of its peace camp. Even for left-wing American and Israeli Jews, BDS is highly controversial and polarizing. As such, it serves to divide and thus debilitate the one group of people who can steer Israel in a better direction.
Perhaps the single biggest problem that BDS poses for progressive American Jews is that it is widely perceived as being anti-Israel, not just anti-occupation. That is, the BDS movement is seen as aimed at delegitimizing Israel as a Jewish state. Nor is this perception wholly inaccurate. Although the global BDS movement is very broad and diverse, many of the activist groups associated with it openly express hostility to Israel as a Jewish state, and many BDS advocates are “one-staters”—supporters of a single, binational state in Israel/Palestine rather than a two-state solution. More specifically, the BDS movement supports the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel proper—something that is a red line for pro-Israel supporters since they see it as tantamount to the destruction of a Jewish state.
The fact that BDS generally fails to make a clear distinction between Israel and the occupied territories is something that troubles American Jews who support Israel but are against the occupation. For them, it is imperative to distinguish between Israel within the Green Line—which is seen as legitimate—and Israeli rule beyond it—which is deemed illegitimate. By blurring this distinction, intentionally or not, BDS makes a resolution of the conflict harder, not easier, to achieve.
WHAT, THEN, are progressive American Jews to do? If the peace process is a waste of time, and BDS is unfair and unhelpful, is there another alternative? Indeed there is: a selective boycott against settlement products, not Israeli products or people in general. This is already being practiced by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and several Israeli peace organizations, such as Gush Shalom and the Coalition of Women for Peace, both of which actively advocate the boycott of settlement products and companies that profit from operating in the West Bank. Left-wing American-Jewish groups like the New Israel Fund and Meretz USA have also recently expressed support for such a boycott. A boycott of settlement goods is aimed at anything that is produced in the occupied territories, not just goods actually made in Israeli settlements. This includes a wide variety of agricultural produce (such as fruits and flowers) and manufactured goods (such as plastics, textiles, cosmetics, food, and wine) that are made in factories located in large Israeli industrial zones within the occupied territories. While most of these products are purchased locally by Israelis and Palestinians, some are exported abroad (Israeli wine from the West Bank and Golan Heights and skin-care products from the Dead Sea inside the West Bank, for example, have a large international market). Although it would target only a small fraction of the goods Israel exports—an estimated 2 or 3 percent—a boycott of these goods still has an economic impact. In particular, by penalizing Israeli companies now operating in the territories, a boycott of their goods encourages them to relocate their production inside the Green Line, as some have reportedly already done due to the boycott. In practice, however, it can be difficult to boycott only goods produced in the territories, since they are not clearly labeled and companies operating in the territories are permitted to have marketing addresses within Israel. A labeling campaign, such as the one that has been conducted in Europe in recent years, is one remedy for this.
A more focused and limited boycott of products made in West Bank settlements has many advantages. It combines BDS’ appeal of direct consumer activism with commitment to a two-state solution as the only acceptable outcome to the conflict. It underlines the fact the settlements are not in Israel, and hence that boycotting their products is not the same as boycotting Israeli goods produced inside the Green Line. While it will certainly not hit Israeli pockets in the way that across-the-board BDS intends to do, it will not alienate Israelis in the same way either. It also has a much greater chance of gaining broad support among Americans and Europeans, who are unwilling to boycott and sanction Israel as a state.
Whether growing numbers of progressive American Jews support this “third way,” however, depends on their willingness to reject the hard line against all boycotts taken by Israel and much of the American-Jewish establishment. Major American-Jewish organizations frequently depict any boycott, however limited, as being anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic. The Knesset recently passed the first reading of a bill to impose a hefty fine on Israeli citizens and a ten-year ban on entering the country against foreign nationals who call for or engage in any type of boycott against Israel, including its settlements in the West Bank. But these pressure tactics are unlikely to succeed if Israel continues its settlement activity and the peace process remains all but dead. As long as Israel’s occupation drags on, boycotts of one form or another are bound to grow.
*Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
**Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist based in Jerusalem and a writer and editor at 972mag.com.
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