Jewish Peace News debates BDS
The following is an exchange between editors (and a guest-editor) of Jewish Peace News on the topic of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement. The exchange was precipitated by a blog posting on August 31 by Mitchell Plitnick on the subject, and the responses below, written over the past few days, are by Lincoln Shlensky, Rela Mazali, and Ofer Neiman (our guest editor). The exchange is presented from top to bottom in chronological order, except that Mr. Plitnick’s original blog post referenced in this exchange is included at the end, as is customary in JPN dispatches. As readers will see, the views expressed strongly differ on the subject of BDS. Jewish Peace News, as an editorial group, does not take a position for or against specific BDS or other political programs; each editor, however, is free to present an opinion, and we place a high value on such editorial diversity.
Lincoln Z. Shlensky writes:
Mitchell Plitnick, a former editor of Jewish Peace News and former co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace, who has worked for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and now is blogging for Examiner.com, Meretz USA, and other sites, writes informatively in a recent blog posting about recent successes of the BDS movement — and also about the movement’s weaknesses.
He cites as an example of the BDS movement’s successful tactics the recent decision by the government of Norway to divest from Danya Cebus Ltd. and Africa-Israel Investments because of the companies’ involvement in building Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Norway’s decision to divest would have been unlikely, Plitnick maintains, were it not for the BDS movement’s activism. He rightly points out, however, that what’s really hurting the illegal Israeli settlements economically is not divestment by small Skandinavian countries but rather an increasingly stringent boycott of settlement products by the Palestinian Authority. This has sharply cut into the settlements’ industrial and trading profits, according to the settlers themselves.
But what distinguishes the PA boycott from other more conspicuous BDS efforts is that the Palestinians have explicitly stated that they are boycotting settlement products — and not other Israeli products in general. Such a clear distinction between Israel and the settlements is at odds with the strategy of most activist groups associated with the BDS movement, because the BDS movement’s agenda has become, by and large, a one-state program. That program implicitly anticipates the end of Israel as a predominantly Jewish, democratic state and therefore serves to radicalize Jewish Israelis against it and to make its aims unacceptable to almost all Western governments –as well as to most Palestinians, the majority of whom demand a separate Palestinian state.
Plitnick argues that it’s time for those who seek a democratic and peaceful Israel, and particularly for those who object to Israel’s reprehensible occupation of the Palestinian territories, to participate emphatically in the time-honored nonviolent tactic of boycott — and to do so while clearly drawing a distinction between the settlements and Israel proper. Such a strategy can succeed if the occupation, and not the existence of Israel itself, is the clear target. So far, boycott and divestment have not been nearly as successful as they could be because such tactics have been taken up bluntly rather than, as Plitnick prefers, in a broad-based yet focussed campaign against the settlements. I fully agree that such a well-defined yet inclusive campaign by peace groups and religious and civic organizations against the settlements is increasingly necessary — and, if articulated potently and cogently, it’s attainable.
Rela Mazali writes:
I take serious issue with Plitnick’s categorical claim that the tool of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions “was taken up by one-staters who believe the only way to address the historic, and massive, injustice done to the Palestinians is by promoting a single state where Jews lose their political self-determination and quickly become a minority in the area in question.” As a member of the group supporting BDS from inside Israel and a public supporter of BDS since the early years of this decade, I fail to see any evidence supporting this empirical claim. While prominent members of the BDS movement may concurrently believe in, and support, a one-state solution, there is no necessary link between that and supporting BDS. Many others may support two states while some, in fact, systematically reject the question altogether, concentrated instead on how to end the relentless oppression and dispossession of Palestinians. See, for instance, Michele Warshawsky’s formulation, in a piece featured last October on JPN and introduced by editor Joel Beinin, “whether the final result of … de-colonization will be a one-state solution, two democratic states (i.e. not a ‘Jewish State’), a federation or any other institutional structure is secondary.”
However, implicitly and misleadingly establishing such a link-by-association (through claiming that it just happens to be the fact that supporters of BDS are supporters of one state), provides an easier means of discrediting the 2005 Palestinian Civil Society call for inclusive BDS. It allows opponents such as Plitnick, who supports selective BDS of settlements only, to taint the campaign for inclusive BDS as a tactic of those who reject “Israel’s very existence” or those who would totally forfeit “political self-determination” for Jews in Israel. The opposite, self-determination and (supposedly) ensured existence, are in turn erroneously and implicitly equated with “a Jewish Israel,” as if this link too were a self-evident fact. These scare allegations, then, serve to sidetrack legitimate debate about the grounds for, and effectiveness of, general BDS.
Resisting that, I propose to return the debate to the actual issue at hand: as is very obvious from the meticulous work and website of “Who Profits?”, numerous major players in Israel’s economy profit directly and substantially from the violent military oppression and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other thorough research (such as that of Shlomo Swirsky) has identified the prolonged conflict as a major means of averting social unrest inside Israel, accordingly allowing widespread exploitation of Israel’s underclasses. This further benefits major economic players. In resisting the exploitation of Palestinians and their resources, BDS therefore targets Israel’s occupation-based economy as well as the cultural structures and patterns enabling and often camouflaging this profiteering, aiming to affect the complacency of Israeli elites. Accordingly, in my view, the convenient compartmentalization proposed by selective boycott and sanctions, may be more catchy and more “marketable,” but in fact misses much of the point.
Finally, to comment briefly, nevertheless on Plitnick’s scare claims, I would like to point out that there isn’t and never has been “a Jewish Israel.” What there is, what I live in, is a Jewish-controlled Israel. Which is not a democracy.
Ofer Neiman writes:
[Ofer Neiman is a contributing editor to Occupation Magazine and The Only Democracy? website. In the near future, we hope to welcome Ofer to the existing list of editors already contributing to Jewish Peace News. Meanwhile, as Ofer is also an activist with the group inside Israel supporting the Palestinian call for BDS, JPN asked him to add his comments on Plitnick’s piece. This is his response:]
The Palestinian BDS call is first and foremost a call for the promotion of universal principles of human rights. From this universal perspective, it should not be difficult to see that there is something inherently flawed about Israel’s entire constitutional fabric when it comes to the treatment of its Palestinian citizens, not to mention the specific policies pursued by successive Israeli governments on this issue. Public support for many of these policies has been strong.
Is this situation a result of Israel’s construction of settlements, or is the construction of settlements a symptom of a fundamental, collective Israeli ailment? A recent statement issued by Peace Now supporter and Israeli Professor, Yossi Ben Artzi (“I too believe that settlements are the source of all evil in Israel”) should serve as a warning sign to us all. Israel will not necessarily become a model society once the settlements are dismantled (and certainly not if they are partially dismantled, under the “settlement bloc” schemes). Uzi toting sheriffs who currently terrorize the inhabitants of the West Bank may end up doing the same in the Negev or in the Galilee under some Judeaization program initiated by a government eager to “compensate” the erstwhile lords of the land for their “humiliation”. As responsible Israeli citizens (or concerned Jews all over the world), we must try to preempt such disastrous developments by addressing all the maladies of Israeli society. This means that even the most unpleasant topics should be on the table, including the ongoing plight of the Palestinian refugees since the ethnic cleansing of 1948. The Palestinian BDS call’s focus on not one but three issues (Occupation, Discrimination of Israel’s Palestinian citizens and Israel’s responsibility for the Nakba) is thus morally justified.
Is the BDS call a call for a one state solution? Well, these lines are being written by an Israeli citizen who supports the Geneva Initiative and believes that no BDS campaign can be effective if the only option presented to Israelis is the dismantling of their entire state. Indeed, the BDS call, as Mr. Plitnick admits, is not a call for a single state solution. Do those Palestinian leaders of civil society who are behind the BDS call support a one-state solution? Some of them do, perhaps most of them. If the aforementioned flaws of Israel are incurable, they may even be right. In any case, it should be stressed that there is a difference between the call and its proponents. And when the discussion of UN resolution 194 is implicitly presented by Mr. Plitnick as a bête noire from any pragmatic point of view, it should be noted that even the Geneva initiative presents an agreed upon implementation of this resolution in the framework of a two-state solution. It is also unfortunate that Plitnick puts a statement like “the root of the problem in the Middle East is Israel’s very existence.” in the mouths of “radical” BDS activists, when these people tend to be the ones who see the broader picture, including the destructive consequences of US meddling in the Middle East, or the non-democratic conduct of reactionary Arab regimes in the region.
If the Palestinian BDS call’s moral foundations are accepted, one should still discuss its practical value. Should the boycott campaign be aimed only at the settlements? The Israeli government has indeed expressed concerned over the Palestinian authority’s boycott measures. However, a great deal of the protest is related to what Israeli officials and settlers, high on hubris, see as Chutzpah on behalf of what they view as a subordinate authority. The boycott actions are an independent move by the Palestinian Authority, but the muscles it is flexing have atrophied long ago. After all, the global BDS movement’s success is due to the fact that the Palestinian Authority has been consistently co-opted by Israel and the US. The Israeli actors’ refusal to perform in Ariel has also generated some public debate. However, these recent developments should be put in perspective. The settlers (including those living in East Jerusalem) make up only 7% of Israel’s citizens. Most of the
settlements are small communities, and many of their inhabitants make their living either through work in Israel (west of the green line) or as state employees in their communities. Therefore, a selective boycott against settlement products will not affect all these settlers. Moreover, Israel can relocate factories currently operating in the West Bank to nearby industrial zones inside the green line borders.
In a 2009 Haaretz article, Journalist Aluf Benn wrote: “Only one thing does bother the Israelis, according to the polls: fear of a diplomatic embargo and an international boycott.” It seems that the average Israelis who are concerned about an international boycott are fearful of the broader BDS measures more than they are fearful of selective measures, which may have no impact on their pockets or on their sense of normalization with the outside world.
Lincoln Z. Shlensky responds:
Rela Mazali responds to Mitchell Plitnick’s blog posting, and implicitly to my endorsement of it, by rejecting any claim that the BDS movement is necessarily linked to one-state positions that deny Israel’s legitimacy in its current form. But Plitnick’s point, with which I concur, is that folded into the premises of the most prominent elements of the BDS movement is the deeply held notion that Israel cannot remain a legitimate, predominantly Jewish, state without compromising the universalist principles of democracy.
The BDS movement’s foremost advocates demonstrate this in their unswerving support for the right of Palestinian refugee return, which, if literally (whatever that means) put into practice, would end the current demographic majority of Jews in Israel and precipitate a further massive displacement of population. It’s inconceivable that an actual “return” of refugees and their descendents would do otherwise. Of course, one way that those who support the right of return have tried to evade this issue is to suggest that through negotiations, refugee return might only entail a quasi-symbolic gesture involving the actual repatriation of a small number of Palestinian refugees with the rest receiving monetary or other compensation. But in that case, the “right” of return is not really a right, after all. And who is to say whether most of those refugees who wish to return would be satisfied instead to receive a different form of compensation?
Although I support the general idea that refugees of conflict should be allowed to return whenever possible, it becomes clear, in the complicated and protracted context of Israeli and Palestinian history, that the question of Palestinian refugees cannot simply be resolved by demanding their right to return. The same could be said of analogous cases elsewhere in the world (for example, in the US and Canada), where indigenous peoples who were forcibly transferred from their land will never regain it, but yet must be compensated (that is, assured justice) in other negotiated ways. So to continue to speak of the “right of return” is, strictly speaking, to anticipate indirectly (or through obfuscation) the end of Israel in its current form — precisely what Plitnick is concerned the BDS movement does.
The problematic focus of the BDS movement on the Israeli state itself, above and beyond Israel’s immoral settlement policy, was demonstrated yet again in the past two days. Yesterday, 150 well-known American actors and directors, organized by the group Jewish Voice for Peace, issued an unprecedentedly powerful statement in support of Israeli academics, artists, and actors who recently declared their refusal to participate in any cultural events in the settlements. Then today, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) just as quickly upbraided these cultural figures and their supporters for taking a stand against Israeli cultural productions in the settlements but not equally against all other cultural events and academic institutions within Israel itself. It strikes me as astounding that PACBI would decide that artists and intellectuals who support a boycott of the settlements and are willing to put their careers on the line for it deserve not encouragement but rather a scolding. Such are the dilemmas of the BDS movement at present.
The Power and Weakness of Boycott
August 30, 2010
by Mitchell Plitnick
Recently, Norway announced that a major Israeli company and a subsidiary were to be excluded from its national wealth fund’s investment list. The reasons were past activity in building settlements in the West Bank and working on construction of the Separation Barrier.
Before I go into what this means for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), let me say I applaud this action. Continued development of industry in the settlements only entrenches their presence. It is crucial that foreign governments and corporations stop supporting that development and make it clear that settlement industries cannot expect “business as usual” and, most importantly, that those companies are not in Israel. That is a line that must be drawn clearly, in the boldest green. The message must be sent in no uncertain terms that the settlements are NOT ISRAEL!
Predictably, supporters of the BDS movement have been declaring how this incident proves their strategy is working, that their “movement” is making real progress. But that is really overstating the case.
This is, indeed, a victory for the BDS movement, but not nearly the one they will,understandably, purport. The two companies are part of the corporate group owned by billionaire Lev Leviev, who actively promotes settlement expansion. Leviev has been targeted by BDS activists spanning the spectrum from anti-occupation groups to anti-Israel ones for years.
European companies have, for years, divested from Israeli companies seen as doing the business of settlement or occupation expansion. This has been, and remains, a limited trend, but some European companies will stop doing business with Israeli businesses when involvement with the settlements or occupation is brought to their attention (it often requires some investigation to find these things out). So, yes, this is the sort of thing activist groups can do, though it happened with less frequency before the BDS movement really rose up.
Still, this was certainly caused by the BDS activities. And they can rightly take credit for it.
But the larger impact that is being felt in the settlements is not the result of this movement’s efforts. It’s the result of the Palestinian Authority doing what it should have done a long time ago—cut itself off as a market for settlement products.
The PA boycott of settlement products has been very meticulous. They have specified which products are made in settlements so that the boycott does not affect Israeli businesses located inside the Green Line. They have acted to stop Palestinians from working in the settlements as well. This is what is hurting the settlement businesses that, perversely, do a very large amount of business by selling to Palestinians.
Two factors have allowed this tactic to succeed and to resonate well in Europe. The Palestinians have effectively communicated their goals and strategy behind this boycott in Europe, where they tend to be heard far better than in the United States.
But the major factor is that the PA, and specifically Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, has gotten the point across clearly that this boycott is aimed at the settlements and not at Israel. Europe is not going to boycott Israel, for many reasons. But there is a lot less tolerance in Europe for the settlements than there is in the US, and a good opportunity to strike at the settlement project alone is likely to win at least some European support.
The BDS movement is diverse and different people and groups in it have a wide variety of views on many issues. But, despite the fact that not all of the groups who engage in BDS activism hold to these views, the movement as a whole has become associated with one-state ideologies and support for the Palestinian Right of Return, two points that fall well outside the international diplomatic consensus and are non-starters for most of Europe’s elites.
This is why the Netanyahu government is able to twist a legitimate protest tactic into an attack on Israel’s very existence—because it is being employed by some who do indeed believe that the root of the problem in the Middle East is Israel’s very existence.
Economic actions like boycotts and divestment are legitimate and time-honored non-violent tactics to express protest and to try to take concrete action against policies people believe are wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with employing such economic action against the occupation and the siege of Gaza. The test of such tactics is whether or not enough people will come to agree that the policy in question is wrong; if they do, the tactic will be effective, otherwise it will not.
Unfortunately, a targeted program of economic action was not pursued by those who realize that the problem is the settlements, and that peace with two states, one of which is a Jewish Israel, is possible. The tactic was taken up by one-staters who believe the only way to address the historic, and massive, injustice done to the Palestinians is by promoting a single state where Jews lose their political self-determination and quickly become a minority in the area in question.
Now, it’s harder to take up the tactic, despite the fact that, from talking to many two-staters, both activists and politicians, I know that many such folks now realize that a well-orchestrated campaign targeting the settlements could very well be effective.
The PA, however, has proven it can be done. And a handful of artists and performers in Israel have also given us an opportunity to pursue an effective campaign against the settlements. A pro-Israel, pro-peace boycott campaign has the potential not only to really affect the status quo but also to bring back many Jews who feel less and less affinity to an Israel whose identity is increasingly being radicalized by the settler movement.
Thus far, Diaspora Jewish peace groups have been largely silent on this issue. That’s understandable, because there will be considerable political fallout from it. But this is a real opportunity to back and Israeli initiative, brought by ordinary Israelis not career leftists or radicals. This is a chance to back an Israeli initiative that clearly targets the settlements from within Israel.
It would be a shame if Israeli and American peace groups let this chance go by. They screwed up once by leaving a powerful tactic in the hands of those who cannot possibly use it to maximum effect. One hopes they don’t make the same mistake again.
Jewish Peace News editors:
Sarah Anne Minkin
Lincoln Z. Shlensky
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