Last week, the Park Slope Food Cooperative in Brooklyn, New York had scheduled a vote on whether or not to hold a co-op wide referendum on boycotting all Israeli products, to protest Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. The event drew so much attention, it had to be moved to a larger, 3,000-seat venue.
The vote went against holding the referendum, but that didn’t matter. It’s not like that particular boycott would have brought Israel around to ending the occupation. The purpose was served by the attention and the publicity, making it clear that even in Brooklyn, tolerance of the occupation is waning.
As many of my readers know, I neither support nor oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In my view, it is perfectly legitimate for citizens to organize what economic power they can to try to address injustices. My reasons for not supporting the BDS movement despite this were explained here, but in summary, it is because A. BDS is a tactic, not a movement, but it is too often, though not always, treated as the latter by its activists B. I believe, at least at this point in time and in the foreseeable future, that it will not prove to be effective in changing Israeli policies and actions and C. I agree with Daniel Levy, who said, in an excellent piece this week in the Atlantic: “I cannot support or accept the call of the BDS movement. It has nothing to say about Jewish rights or collective, communal, or national Jewish interests.”
The BDS movement was born out of a call for BDS by the bulk of Palestinian civil society in 2005. It calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from all land occupied in 1967, full equality for Arab citizens of Israel, and “Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”
That is precisely what a Palestinian popular call should be. And it is embraced by those who see their roles as Palestinian solidarity activists. As my quote of Levy shows, I see my own role as an American Jewish activist somewhat differently.
But this was not the biggest splash for the issue of economic pressure against the occupation. In an op-ed in the New York Times, times to promote his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart called for a boycott of settlement products, a program which he labeled, in an unfortunate choice of words, “Zionist BDS.”
The idea is far from new. In fact, the first major Jewish group I’m aware of that called for economic action specifically targeting the settlements and the occupation was Jewish Voice for Peace. I played a key role in writing that policy when I worked for JVP, and I think it has held up well over the years (though I understand it has been revised since I left.) Last year, Americans for Peace Now, a group mainstream enough to be a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (COPJ) also called for a boycott of settlements, a call powerfully reiterated by their Director of Policy and Government Relations, Lara Friedman, in a recent op-ed.
But Beinart’s long-held and high-profile position in the mainstream Jewish community has caused his echo to generate much more controversy than others have in the past. And that’s a very good thing.
The controversy demonstrates just how incongruous the arguments of apologists for the occupation are. In particular, those who claim to be in favor of a two-state solution, along the lines of the various plans, like the Clinton Parameters, that have been unveiled, yet also argue that no pressure should ever be brought to bear on Israel prove that their position is utterly bankrupt.
As I’ve often argued, setting aside various ideologies and characterizations of both Israelis and Palestinians, the notion that Israel can simply be convinced, through nice talk, appeals to finer sensibilities and the use of incentives, to abandon the West Bank is the ultimate flight of fancy.
Israelis believe that withdrawal from the West Bank is a serious security risk, whether one thinks they are right or wrong in that view. There needs to be a reason for them to take that risk. At this point, especially, Israel’s economy is strong, the security situation, while far from perfect, is as good as it’s ever been in terms of day-to-day life for most Israelis; the Palestinians on the West Bank are policed, in part, by Palestinian Authority forces while the administrative costs are mostly borne by foreign donors, mostly from Europe and the US and, to a lesser extent than they’d like you to think, other Arab states.
So why, absent outside pressure, would Israel take on a perceived major security risk? The answer is they wouldn’t and they won’t. And, honestly, I can’t imagine any country that would.
This is precisely why BDS holds such an appeal. It is the only course open to everyday citizens around the world to create the kind of pressure that is needed.
But there is also no reason to think it will work. In South Africa, the country most often used as an example of how such a movement can make a difference, the conditions were very different, and even then, it took more than two decades for any effect to be seen.
Israel is much more integrated in, and integral to, the global economy than South Africa was. The narrative about South African apartheid was much less sympathetic for the Afrikaners than the Israeli narrative, born of pogroms, the Holocaust, the Biblical connection to the land and the David vs. Goliath of “tiny Israel” gaining its existence and fighting for its survival against the much larger Arab countries surrounding it.
Until major corporations, powerful governments (recall, the sanctions against South Africa only reached the tipping point when the heretofore reluctant United States finally joined the international community in isolating South Africa – don’t hold your breath waiting for even a very mild version of that with Israel) and other large institutions join the BDS movement, it will have no impact on Israelis. Instead, BDS will do what it has been doing: raising a popular voice and, one hopes, bringing more awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, but meanwhile giving Israel and supporters of its worst policies in the US and Europe a “de-legitimization” propaganda point which has proven very useful.
The main contribution of Beinart’s “Zionist BDS” proposal has been to invigorate discussion of the occupation and the massive damage the settlements have done to hopes of peace in the global Jewish community. And for this, he should be applauded long and loud.
But that has also come at a price, and it can be found in his terminology. By calling his program “Zionist BDS” Beinart did certainly stir the cauldron he intended, in the organized Jewish community, which is really his exclusive audience on this point.
But it also drove a wedge between Jewish anti-occupation activists and the BDS movement, something I don’t think he is concerned with. The phrase “Zionist BDS” is provocative, but will also be offensive to the Palestinian-led BDS movement. That movement is diverse, and, having been inside it some years back, one that I know has two-staters in it, and even some few who would consider themselves some sort of Zionist. But most BDSers would find the label “Zionist” distasteful.
It’s not just a matter of terminology. The tension between targeting only the settlements and full BDS has been divisive, and I fear that this could grow even worse now.
I hope this is not the case. The biggest obstacle anti-occupation activists in the US have faced is the intense divisions between us. Whether it’s two-staters vs. one-staters, right of return activists vs. those wishing to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel, ideologues vs. pragmatists, liberal Zionists vs. anti-Zionists, the inability of these groups to put aside their differences has made an already lopsided struggle virtually impotent.
In the United States, there is a desperate need to change the generally accepted view of Israel and the “necessity” of the occupation, the Separation Barrier, the siege on Gaza and Jewish control of all of Jerusalem. Once that’s done and US policy is open to change, all these various factions can pick up the fights.
AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, Christians United For Israel…these groups have differences and are just as ideologically diverse as the anti-occupation groups. But they put those differences aside and unite to form a powerful lobby. Until all of us, from J Street to Jewish Voice for Peace to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to the global BDS movement can do the same, we’re going to keep losing. And the occupation will go merrily on.