I was standing in line at the Mahane Yehuda post office in Jerusalem. When my turn came I asked the clerk, a young woman, for stamps. She put a sheet of stamps on the counter. The Postal Authority had just printed a new series of stamps commemorating West Bank settlements. I pushed the stamps back. “Give me others, please” I said.
“What’s wrong with those?” she asked.
“I prefer something else,” I replied simply. She shrugged, handed me another sheet, and took payment. As I left the counter, it dawned on her what had happened.
I was halfway to the door when the clerk pushed herself up from behind the counter and shouted, “The settlements will remain ours always!” I glanced at her silently and continued on my way out while other patrons looked curiously.
With the passage of the anti-boycott law by Israel’s Knesset, that clerk could file a legal complaint against me for my choice in stamps.
On another occasion late on a Friday afternoon I was returning from the Golan with my family. We were traveling to Jerusalem after a long day. There was plenty of room in the van so I gave a soldier a lift. At the Beit Shean junction I signaled to turn right, heading west.
The soldier said “I thought you were going to Jerusalem.”
“We are,” I replied.
“Then straight ahead is the way to get there.” That route led through the Jordan Valley, a quicker alternative. “We don’t travel in the occupied territories,” I told the soldier.
He gave me a strange look. “Would you let me off here?” he asked. I did so and he ran across the road to hitch a ride on the highway heading south. My wife woke up with the slam of the door. Our children remained asleep. “I thought the soldier was going to Jerusalem?” she asked. “He is,” I said. “Different politics, different route.”
That difference in routes remains. Today, writing as an Israeli citizen who advocates boycotting the occupied territories, as the result of the new law, I can be sued by any settler or settlement supporter who downloads this article in Israel.
I have been boycotting the occupied territories and their products for decades. The Golan is a national life-and-death security issue and another story. I drink Yarden wines – those I can afford – without qualm. But there would be an unacceptable contradiction between passionate opposition to the occupation of the West Bank on one hand, and on the other hand consuming products or services from the settlements.
In my position as a unit head at a large social research institute I ignored job applications from residents of Kiryat Arba and other settlements. It was an unannounced boycott of colonial thieves of Palestinian land, of people whose theo-fascism I could not stomach, of people with whom my colleagues and I did not want to work. When a friend noticed this pattern – a limited one, since such applications were unusual – I answered, “I only deal with resumes from residents of Israel, not from chul” (abbreviation for ‘outside the country’). Among friends we sometimes referred ironically to Jewish settlers as toshavei chul (residents of a foreign country) or a trip to the occupied territories as nisiat chul (a trip abroad); we refused to use normalizing language such as ‘Judea and Samaria.’
Not only settler-produced goods such as mushrooms from the Tekoa farms got rejected. I refused orders to participate in the occupation as an Israeli army reservist. The army barely noticed. There was similar quiet refusal from a few reservists, but it was inconsequential in terms of the sum of routine daily military work required to maintain the occupation. Like small gestures of postage stamps, driving routes, and selections from supermarket shelves, these refusals gained meaning as a mass collective act. It is this practical and mass collective opposition that the Netanyahu government is now attempting to prevent. If this form of opposition was inconsequential and unthreatening, there would be no need to pass such a law.
Israel’s new anti-boycott law is not the first step toward fascism, as some have claimed. It is a fundamental element of fascism. The European model of fascism emphasized national unity achieved through mass organization, education, and suppression of dissent across society. In Israel, the first two elements are difficult to achieve in a highly diverse cultural environment, although great efforts have been made by right-wing nationalists. The new law aims squarely at suppression of dissent by providing a legal means to sue for political expression that refuses to accept the settlement policies and their fruit. Theo-fascist claims – Jewish national unity as a divine imperative to expand settlement of an alleged God-given land – have long been a vocal and driving force in Israel’s politics. Now they have invented a legal tool to censor and suppress opposition.
Some among this legislation’s right-wing proponents claim that the model is US anti-boycott legislation. This is false. The Export Administration Amendments of 1977 concern corporate compliance with and participation in discriminatory business practices employed commonly throughout the historic Arab boycott of Israel. The US legislation does not attempt to shut down public debate over policy and its outcomes. An attempt to normalize the occupation – the heart of political debate for some 40 years – is the work of Israel’s new legislation. This is legislation that attempts to separate words from actions: opponents may complain, but they may not act. The objectionable core here lies in legal defense of a military-civilian occupation that denies Palestinian self-determination. Defenses such as that made by prime minister Netanyahu that the law defends democracy are risible: it seeks to perpetuate a regime of colonial dispossession.
Neither is there comparability in any of this discussion with the BDS boycott movement advocated by some on the left, including a few – Naomi Klein, Alice Walker, Pete Seeger, Judith Butler, and others – whose political wits have deserted them, possibly out of frustration with the seeming intractability of the occupation and the suffering of the Palestinian people. The BDS movement represents possibly the oldest identifiable form of racism in Western culture: the isolation and shunning of Jewish society in order to express moral contempt and achieve its collective reform. Anti-racists have come full circle, adopting group discrimination to oppose group discrimination. The Montgomery bus boycotters refused to ride segregated buses; they did not boycott white Alabama society. Abandoning such crucial distinctions means becoming segregationists, whatever claimed location on the political spectrum. BDS and the Arab League boycott from which it grew – a little-acknowledged relationship – are ghetto-building in action. The movement has its opposite in Jews who force Palestinians into an archipelago of ghettos.
Good politics reject xenophobia, whatever its rationalization, and reach out to a common humanity. Dialogue with those who reject peaceful dialogue – and a boycott is such a rejection – is pursuit of futility. The boycott/anti-boycott mirror dialectic links BDS, Hamas and Moshe Levinger – all of them boycott advocates and ghetto-builders. This dialectic is anathema to inclusive democratic processes and coalition-building. Exclusionary social advocacies based on racial, ethnic, class, gender, or sexual line-drawing oppose every principle many of us hope our lives and work represent. When a products-and-services boycott is employed as a political tactic, close specificity needs be made in order to eschew broad social line-drawing and discriminatory practice.
The rejection and boycotting of settlements, their products and services, frames a specific target of opposition. It will persist until the settlements are evacuated and the West Bank mini-empire brought to an end. The conclusion of the occupation will be bloody, as the occupation itself has been. An underground Jewish civil war of sentiments has been growing for decades and this anti-boycott legislation can be read as a statement of its sponsors’ anger over continued rejection of the settlements within broad sectors of the Israeli public. The legislation’s passage is another act in this subterranean civil war. With this law, nationalist Jews attempt to destroy resisting Jewish and Arab citizens in financial and symbolic terms. There will come a point where they attempt to destroy us physically. The taunt “Rabin is waiting for you” is not an empty threat. While the current anti-boycott law may well fall on review by Israel’s supreme court, this struggle over the limitation of domestic political expression is a marker pointing toward far worse to come in the country.
This article is a co-publication of Souciant and Babylon Times. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit.