bds.jpgTo Boycott or Not Boycott–that is the question?
Sol Salbe’s previous post got me thinking, so I have written this post which is my personal view, and no one elses!
It’s become a nostrum in some left circles (including some supporters on the Israeli left), that there is no alternative but a general or selective boycott of Israel, or Israeli products, or for divestment from Israel. There’s also been some attempts to associate AJDS with boycotters (false).
The most recent call for a boycott came from Neve Gordon, an Israeli academic (http://tiny.cc/E6XB0), which released a torrent of critical opinion on ‘right’ side of politics.
For someone like myself, the boycott poses a dilemma, particularly because so many people of my age supported a boycott against South Africa during the worst years of apartheid–

–I used to go tell the grocery manager at my supermarket in the US to get rid of South African grapes. Whether it was anti-apartheid demonstrations in Melbourne, or boycotts in the US, there was a definite feel-good element too it, reinforced by the pathetic defences of Afrikaaner spokesmen on TV.
But in this case, will it work?
The blunt answer is no. why?
The memory of Nazi boycotts is too embedded in Jewish consciousness to regard calls for a boycott anything but inherently anti-Semitic, no matter what moral justification is put for boycotting Israeli products, culture, or the country itself.
Given the rhetoric that has come out from pro-boycott circles — or at least that which is publicized by the right –there is reason for concern about the tone and vociferous denunciation of all things Israeli which by implication, are linked to the oppression of Palestinians.
The results of boycott activities thus
1) serve to further butress up diaspora resistance to considering the injustice of what Israel does through its occupation on a daily basis
2) serve to further butress up internal Israeli resistance to taking anything that the world says or regards, seriously (encouraging ‘victimhood’).
3) serve to always silence and vilify internal critics of the occupation and militarization of Israeli society. Neve Gordon’s own university has held fears for losing its donations from abroad because of Gordon’s criticisms
4) regrettably, set up the elements of a culture war between boycotters and Israelis or Jews. The boycotts of Israeli films and cultural events or calls to boycott academics in particular, undoubtedly have a sublimal message for many Jews that such cultural products are unjustifiable because of the structural basis (Zionism, the occupation, nationalism and their Jewish association) which underlay them. This is very dangerous stuff because subtleties get missed in such activity.
5) Critics of the boycotters or divestment advocates see complete hypocricy in calling for boycotts when authoritarian regimes around the world (including various Arab countries and Iran) are engaged in all sorts of nasty activity including state terror, arms trade etc.
The boycott activity appears to be highly selective, putting Israel in the same category as Burma. There is also hypocricy in critizing such things as the ‘Jewish’ character of Israel when of course, Islam underwrites consitutional arrangments in so many countries, but this is conventiently ignored by many western secularists on the left.
(But to make it clear, there is a place for severe criticism of the threat posed by ethno-religious politics in Israel, but this does not seem a justifiable reason to argue against the country, given the the intolerant arrangments that exist elsewhere in the region).
6) If boycotters were genuinely serious about suppporting positive change in Israel, their efforts should be much better spent on actively, and positively working with critical friends of Israel and Palestine to support the message of the need for fundamental political and military change within the country and thus, the occupied territories rather than setting off a severe, inverse reaction which plays right into the hands of Israel propogandists and nationalists. Some Palestinians are aware of the dangers of such blanket boycotts, morale lifting as they might be–see Daoud Kuttab in Bitter Lemons, http://www.bitterlemons.org/previous/bl160505ed16.html#pal2.
7) One of the problems with the boycott movement is that a lot of it appears to be associated with less accommodating positions on conflict resolution (thus denying Israel any legitimacy as a state or ‘community of interest’). But by working with critical ‘insiders’, such ‘hardliners’ would be giving de-facto legitimacy to some form of accommodation with Israel and/or accomodation to a new set of political arrangements.
This is a point at which unfortunately, those genuinely interested in conflict resolution will have to part way with left sectarians or Islamic-natonalists(whether in ‘western’ or Arabic-speaking organisations).The sectarian left finds it useful to use boycotts as another tool in its general stuggle against imperialism, rather than a strategy for conflict resolution in the middle east.
8) A solution might be to develop endorsed ‘internal’ boycotts against careful targets in conjunction with a coalition of progressive , Israeli and I hope Palestinian organisations, for example, products produced by ‘sweated’ labour in the westbank, or ‘defence’ products which clearly have no other purpose than killing and making money for military industries. At the moment, boycott calls within Israeli (or by Israeli expats) are individualised rather than associated with NGOs–this is where the critical mass is necessary, particularly from some of more mainstream NGOs).
These also need to be accompanied by a media campaign–akin to a ‘fur is murder campaign’ to the Israeli public to break though the myopia that covers the country about its practices of oppression and the destructive effects of the militarization of Israeli society. Of course, the great difficulty is that almost all adult (Jewish) citizens, bar the religiously exempt, have some form of connection to the military.
Of course, sectarians will oppose such partial action boycott, because to their way of thinking, all adults are part of the military machine…but you have to start somewhere. There is nothing like local shaming to bring around change (as the asbestos scandals in Australia, or shaming of corporate polluters in the US have shown), even though such events don’t necessarily solve the whole problem.
From the Israeli perspective, Gideon Levey, in a recent opinion piece in Haaretz (http://tiny.cc/ivgik) put the problem very well: “If Israel were sure it is right, it would not be so frightened and be so aggressive against everyone who objects to its official line. If we were convinced that the soldiers of Breaking the Silence are making up stories and that Gordon’s call for a boycott and his description of Israel as an apartheid state are unjust, we would not be so abusive toward them. …… It is not just a question of basic intolerance for different and even subversive opinions, whose expression is a fundamental value in every democracy. It is also a manifestation of edginess and aggressiveness that prove what Gordon and others like him want so much to show in Israel and abroad: that something very basic and very deep is flawed in the third kingdom of Israel.”
See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_and_political_boycotts_of_Israel
Naomi Klein and her critics:
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090126/klein
http://www.thenation.com/bletters/20090126/klein
Note: this blog post is a personal opinion, and should not be considered an official view of AJDS or any other organisation, for that matter.