Boycott, from within and without

In this writing, I want to portray the psychological aspects and perceptions relating to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement concerning Israel. I will not always refer to BDS as a singular movement, but also to the general idea of “boycott”.

The idea of boycott in itself, may first seem as relating to “pressure from without”. But in fact, there have been considerable attempts from Israelis to boycott the illegal settlements on occupied territories in the past decade, like the one of 2010, when some 60 leading Israeli actors and playwrights signed a letter stating they would refuse to play in the new theatre in Ariel, one of Israel’s largest settlements. After attacks from PM Netanyahu and other government ministers, over 150 leading Israeli academics and writers- including Amos Oz and David Grossman- came to their defense.   

The idea informing such an act can still be well within a Liberal-Zionist perception of “two states for two nations”. Around that time, many Israelis were also proud and boasting about what boycott can do – even when it relates to petty products such as chocolate pudding and cottage cheese. Many outside Israel may not have heard of these protests, which were even regarded in Israel as “the Milky revolution” (“Milky” is a particular brand of chocolate pudding with whipped cream on top) and the “cottage revolution”, but these consumer boycotts, as meaningless as they really were, inspired many Israelis. What may have been more noticed internationally in those years was probably the huge public protests in the summer of 2011, where mostly young, middle-class Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living. Whilst the main slogan of the protest was “the nation wants social justice”, the sense of “social justice” did not extend far beyond the rather bourgeois concerns of Jewish Israelis – and did really include Palestinians in its sense of “justice” – Palestinians whose concerns may come down to simply not having their houses bombed, or demolished.

But to return to the boycott of settlements. Measures were undertaken by the government to deter Israelis (as well as foreigners) from resorting to such acts. In 2011 Israel passed the “boycott law”, which, through indirect corporate pressure, meant that a person or an organization calling for the boycott of Israel, including the settlements, could be sued by the boycott’s targets. At first the law stipulated that the boycott targets would not have to prove that they sustained damage in order to sue, but in 2014 the Supreme Court,whilst upholding the law, ruled that the burden of proof should be upon the targets themselves. In addition, recent legal measures (this year) headed by Culture Minister Miri Regev include the proposed “loyalty in culture” bill which means retroactive state budget reduction for “actions against the principles of the state”, which entails actions such as “denying the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state” as well as “marking Independence Day as a day of mourning” (it happens to also be the Nakba Day).  Regev has also sent out a questionnaire to theatres and other performance companies, asking whether they had performed in the West Bank (obviously meant as settlements) in the recent year – warning that a negative answer will mean a reduction in budget. 

So far, we are speaking mostly about the paradigm of boycott by Israelis, targeting the illegal settlements and the occupation. As mentioned, this is within a certain consensus of Liberal Zionism.

But when we regard the BDS campaign, its outlook goes further. This is not a movement initiated “within” Israeli society. The BDS movement was launched in 2005 by 170 Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organisations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies. It goes further than mere “opposition to the occupation”, in that it not only calls for a complete dismantling of the occupation and its wall, but also equal rights to Palestinians within Israel (who are discriminated against by multiple laws), as well as a return of the Palestinian refugees. These three demands fall well within international law and democratic principles, but are regarded by the wide spectrum of Israeli Jewish society, and certainly by the government, as a somewhat malicious attempt to undermine the State of Israel. Israel’s top diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotoveli calls it “diplomatic terrorism.” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked calls it “the new anti-Semitism.” Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan says BDS activists should “pay a price” and has recently called on Israelis to cooperate with the state in ridding the country of foreigners who support a boycott of Israel:  “If you have information about someone who is pretending to be a tourist but is in fact a boycott activist visiting Israel, let us know and we’ll act to have him expelled from Israel,” Erdan wrote on Facebook last week.

Interestingly, Stav Shaffir, a Laborite who entered the Knesset on the ticket of her leadership after the 2011 public protests concerning living costs, chides the government not for fighting BDS – but rather for not having been diligent enough much earlier in the fight against it. “If you had to be accountable long ago, we wouldn’t get to a point where in 2016, over a decade after the boycott movement started gathering momentum, there’s still no organized strategy to fight for public opinion around the world,” Shaffir said in her admonishment of the government 

That pretty much shows us that any Israeli activist supporting BDS as a democratic means of pressuring Israel to comply with international law and democratic principles is acting well outside of the consensus. Yet such a movement, of “boycott from within”, does exist. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe noted in 2012, “supporting BDS remains a drastic act for an Israeli peace activist. It excludes one immediately from the consensus and from the accepted discourse in Israel. Palestinians pay a higher price for the struggle, and those of us who choose this path should not expect to be rewarded or even praised. But it does involve putting yourself in direct confrontation with the state, your own society, and quite often friends and family. For all intents and purposes, this is to cross the final red line—to say farewell to the tribe.”

Pappe added that “the responsibility of Israeli Jews is far greater than that of anyone else involved in advancing peace in Israel and Palestine. Israeli Jews are coming to realize this fact, and this is why the number who support pressuring Israel from the outside is growing by the day. It is still a very small group, but it does form the nucleus of the future Israeli peace camp”.

Whilst the Israeli media seems to begin to notice these few Israeli activists, the activist should not expect much airtime, and should expect to be interrupted many times by indignant interviewers, as in this recent interview of BDS activist Ronnie Barkan by Yaron London.

This “BDS from within” is problematic for the Israeli-Zionist psyche, because it disrupts the comfortable discourse that labels BDS as “anti-Semitic”, “questioning our right to exist”, “delegitimizing us” or “undermining our very existence”. If these are people “from within”, and if the accusations hold, then the obvious logical consequence must be that these people are “self-haters” or “traitors”. This is why Pappe regards such an act as “saying farewell to the tribe”. He knows this perhaps best, as a professor then at the University of Haifa who, due to his support for the Palestinian cause, around the time of his treating the Palestinian Nakba as “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (his 2006 book), was condemned in the Knesset; the minister of education publicly called for him to be sacked; and his pictures appeared in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper at the centre of a target. Next to it, a popular columnist addressed his readers thus: “I’m not telling you to kill this person, but I shouldn’t be surprised if someone did.”  

But there is more to ”BDS from within”, if one also regards Jews abroad as a part of the ”Jewish State”. And Israel does regard all Jews, worldwide, as its potential automatic citizens. This is why the support for BDS from many Jews and Jewish organizations, particularly in USA, and particularly from the young generation, has come to disturb the conservative Jewish constituency. The growing support for BDS on American campuses, also by many Jewish students, is what led the American billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban to establish an anti-BDS campaign on campuses. The venture was called Campus Maccabim and was started up with a $50 million fund last year. Saban, who is one of Hillary Clinton’s leading supporters, has meanwhile left the venture, but we should not be in doubt that fighting BDS is a main cause for him: “I know you agree that we need to make countering BDS a priority”, Clinton wrote to Saban last year, a stance she reaffirmed in an article, saying:

“I also will combat growing efforts to isolate Israel internationally and to undermine its future as a Jewish state, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I’ve spoken out against BDS in the United States and at the U.N., and will continue to do so.”  

Whether the BDS is “from without” or “from within”, it is obvious that it is, in its ideological essence, about pressuring Israel from without. It is interesting to note Clinton’s sentence from the last quoted Forward article: “And while no solution can be imposed from outside, I believe the United States has a responsibility to help bring Israelis and Palestinians to the table and to encourage the difficult but necessary decisions that will lead to peace….”

“No solution can be imposed from outside.” One may wonder whether this is some kind of sacred principle that informs the American outlook regarding the whole world? American interventionism hardly suggests such principles. Clinton herself has been a supporter of such interventions, even when they were blatantly illegal and based upon false evidence – like the Iraq war. Recently she even said that “What certainly influenced” her to support the Iraq war was Bush’s billions of aid to NYC. When it comes to countries and leaders who seem to oppose “American interests”, American leaders in general do not shy away from sanctions, even crippling sanctions. In 1996, Madeleine Albright, who was Ambassador to UN at the point (and became Secretary of State under Bill Clinton in 1997), was asked on CBS’s 60 Minutes about the sanctions against Iraq in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. A U.N. report found that, from 1991 until late 1995, as many as 576,000 Iraqi children died because of the harsh economic sanctions, of which Albright was a staunch supporter. Albright was asked whether the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were worth it.

“The price is worth it,” she replied

When it comes to more recent interventions, pertaining to the region of Israel-Palestine, the USA has not been shy to provoke what David Rose, in an exhaustive article in Vanity Fair, has called “a Palestinian civil war” in Gaza. In the immediate aftermath of the 2006 elections, which Jimmy Carter called “fair and square”, and which Hamas won, the US did want the “democracy” of the elections – but it wouldn’t accept the results. “Vanity Fair has obtained confidential documents, since corroborated by sources in the U.S. and Palestine, which lay bare a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by [Mohammed] Dahlan [Fatah strongman], and armed with new weapons supplied at America’s behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power”. David Wurmser, a neoconservative within the Bush administration (who resigned as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East adviser in July 2007, a month after the Gaza coup) said that USA was “engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory.” He said he believes that Hamas had no intention of taking Gaza until Fatah forced its hand. “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen”, Wurmser said. 

The whole decade-long Gaza siege by Israel is in itself a boycott. As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy noted, Israel is “boycotting not just Hamas, but the rest of the Gaza Strip along with it”. 

Beyond Hillary Clinton’s staunch support for the Iraq war, she had more recently promoted the invasion of Libya, turning it from “a stable, developed nation into an ISIS safe haven using tactics that would have made even William Randolph Hearst a bit queasy”, as Riley Waggaman put it. Clinton has expressed no regrets in this respect, and she even has the capacity for a bellicose joke about Ghaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died”, she quipped.

Finally, USA’s current killer-drone warfare in countries far away, is perhaps the most extreme form of violent intervention, which Noam Chomsky describes as “target[ing] people suspected of perhaps intending to harm us some day, and any unfortunates who happen to be nearby”, and noting it as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”. 

It is thus very hard to see, why “no solution can be imposed from outside”, when it regards Israel, Palestine and the “peace process”. What Hillary Clinton is really saying is, that the US can intervene, whilst others shouldn’t. Not the UN, and not the BDS campaign. Clinton is essentially suggesting that BDS is “imposing from outside”, whilst the classical USA “honest broker” role in the famous “peace process” is “helping”, yet not “imposing”.

But many have become disillusioned not only with Israel’s will to achieve peace (whilst constantly expanding its settlements), but also with the United States’s will or ability to achieve it. Whilst the US merely calls the settlements “an obstacle to peace”, it systematically shields Israel from UN resolutions, and continues to provide (and increase) the billions in military aid, as Israel plunges into ever growing massacres in Gaza and increased destructions and displacements in the West Bank.

It is no wonder that many people around the world perceive this protectionism of Israel by the United States as a double standard. When the Palestinians seek to make steps which Israel and the US do not approve of, they can be sanctioned by both Israel and the US. In the wake of last year’s accession of Palestine into the ICC, Alexandra Whitney noted that

“It is no secret that the U.S. has a record of double standards when it comes to its policies toward Palestine compared to how it protects Israel at all expense. A current example would be the soft touch applied toward Israel for freezing Palestinian tax funds, a violation of Israel’s responsibilities according to the Paris Protocol. The European Union [foreign affairs chief], Federica Mogherini, issued a statement holding Israel accountable for this violation. The U.S. followed with a statement opposing actions that would raise tensions. While the State Dept. spokesperson, Jen Psaki, was condemning the tax freeze on Monday, U.S. legislators were filing documents to cut funding to Palestine”. 

When it comes to boycotting or sanctioning Palestine, even for diplomatic non-violent acts, Israel and USA have no moral scruples. But when it comes to Israel, this popular grassroots movement called BDS, is “diplomatic terrorism”, and must be countered. The legal acts to counter it in USA are of course infringing, even if indirectly so, upon rights which stand at the very core of the American constitution, its first Amendment of 1791, which “guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely”. Boycotts have been recognized in the US as a protected form of free speech. But we are basically being told that Israel should be an exception.

Israel does not want to stop “intervention from outside” when it is “positive” intervention – when it is about financial military aid from a foreign country. But when it’s intervention that challenges and demands compliance with international law, it becomes a “strategic threat”, as Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin said.

Neither the United States nor Israel can pretend to have moral authority to decry pressure from outside, boycotts in general, or BDS in particular. They may not like what the boycotts call for, but they simply do not have the moral authority to condemn it.

Jonathan Ofir