Picking products, choosing people: the BDS arguments



Pro-Israel and Pro-BDS
Jerry Haber, Magnes Zionist
02.02.12

JERUSALEM —Students at the University of Pennsylvania are hosting this weekend the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) Movement’s National Convention. May I take this occasion to wish the speakers and organizers a good conference, with a healthy debate on issues surrounding BDS. This is a wonderful opportunity for the speakers to explain more about global BDS, a non-violent Palestinian movement that includes Israeli Jews, non-Israeli Jews, and non-Jews.

I have written here and here about the global BDS movement. I have expressed solidarity with that movement, and I have argued that liberal Zionists should boycott the settlements and their products, and companies that make money off the Occupation. But I do want to consider two questions that have been raised in conjunction with the Penn conference.

Question One: Is the BDS movement anti-Israel?

Is the BDS movement anti-Israel? Jews are said to like answering questions with questions, and so I ask, “Was the BDS movement against apartheid anti-South African?” The answer to that question depends on whom you ask. For many whites and most Afrikaners, and the South African government at the time, the answer was a resounding yes. For them, apartheid was an essential part of the South African regime. Dismantle apartheid, and the country, no matter what it’s name, would never be the same. Yet it was possible for those who opposed apartheid to contemplate a better place for all South Africans, blacks, whites, and colored. For them the BDS movement against apartheid was not anti-South African.

The global BDS movement today has adopted three tenets: a) “ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling” the separation barrier; b) granting full civil rights and equality to the Arab minority within Israel, and c) “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. The three tenets correspond to the three main population sectors of the Palestinians. Since there is no tenet calling for the abolition of the State of Israel, or its transformation into one state, I conclude that supporters of BDS are as anti-Israel as supporters of BDS in South Africa were anti-South African. Both groups wanted to bring about fundamental changes in their respective societies. To be sure, there are differences; the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora don’t view themselves as Israelis. But no matter – what is at stake in these three tenets is not the existence of the State of Israel, but its compliance with international law and UN resolutions.

Question Two: Doesn’t BDS hurt Palestinians?

The Palestinian economy is inextricably linked to the Israeli economy, and for good reason. Israel’s aim has always been to control the Palestinians economically and to use them as cheap labor (when possible) and as markets for their products. The Israelis have done their best to prevent true economic Palestinian independence so as to thwart the possibility of real competition. But they have also been interested in improving the conditions of Palestinians in Areas A and B (not in Area C, where they are interested in restricting their development) on the reasonable ground that that is in Israel’s best interest – so that the Palestinians will have something to lose from fighting for the independence. And also because Israelis don’t have any particular animus against the Palestinians; they just want control of their land and resources.

From time immemorial, Imperialism has argued that empires bring civilization and economic prosperity to the natives, and that the latter is more important than freedom and independence. One of the most stunning examples of the imperialist mentality appeared a few days ago in the Daily Pennsylvanian by a Mr. Dov Hoch, the president of the Penn club in Israel. In Mr. Hoch’s article, “Why We Should Invest and not Divest” , Mr. Hoch urged BDS supporters not to “burn your neighbor’s house despite the fact that you live in connected structures.” He did not explain why disinvestment in, say, Caterpillar, would cripple the Palestinian economy.

In fact, Mr. Hoch apparently knows nothing about the BDS movement, which targets companies that benefit from the Occupation. He also doesn’t know, or doesn’t wish to mention, that the much praised (in the West) nation-builder, Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, supports the boycott of the settlement goods. From the perspective of the typified Anglo colony in Ra’anana, Mr. Hoch can urge Palestinian American Penn Students to

“Come and live in the West Bank and Gaza, joining the 5000 Ivy League alumni living in Israel and the tens of thousands of U.S.-educated Americans who moved to Israel and contribute richly to the economy.”

One of the speakers at the BDS conference is the Palestinian American Penn alumnus, Ahmed Moor. The last time I saw Ahmed, he was being tear-gassed at a protest at Bil’in. Perhaps Mr. Hoch, with his powerful contacts in the PA, can arrange for Ahmed to purchase a villa in Efrat. Or he can join former Yale professor, Mazin Qumsiyeh, in Walajeh, the village that Israel has turned into a ghetto.

Despite the mixture of genuine good will and condescension that typifies the enlightened colonialist, it would be wrong to dismiss Mr. Hoch or his point. For one thing, it is important to find serious investors in the Palestinian economy. For another, sanctions against Israel will hurt the Palestinians, and it will hurt them more than the Israelis.

In 1990, when the question of divestment from South African raged at MIT, a student wrote a letter to The Tech arguing against divestment:

“Assume, for argument’s sake, that MIT divestment did not result in a transfer of ownership but instead was an impetus for the disinvestment of the affected companies. Ignoring, for the moment, the effects on the US and world economy, what would happen in South Africa? Unfortunately, the black population would be the hardest hit. They would lose employment that offers them integrated facilities, equal pay for equal work, extensive training programs, housing assistance and education. Unlike their South African counterparts, American corporations address the single most important need for all South African blacks — a quality education….”

I should hasten to point out that this student was an opponent of apartheid. She simply felt that the tactic was too harsh and would hurt South African blacks. And, indeed, she had a good point. Factories closed, putting black people out of work.

And yet Nelson Mandela supported divestment. And while the role of the divestment campaign in the ultimate dismantling of apartheid has been debated, nobody questions that the international focus on South Africa ultimately helped lead to change.

I am not in favor of sanctions that will constitute severe collective punishment against Israeli public, just as I am not in favor of sanctions against the people of Iran,The Global BDS movement’s attempt to bring sanctions against a serial violator of human rights is of a different order altogether. But, as an Israeli, I am indeed prepare to suffer such sanctions if the price to pay for them is the end of the Occupation and Palestinian independence. Of course, I cannot speak to how much suffering Palestinians are willing to endure. Were sanctions against Israel to bite, I am sure that Palestinians, being human, would disagree on these issues.

But what I would ask Mr. Hoch and others is – how much suffering are they willing to endure for the political and economic independence of Israel? In his article he advises BDS-ers to “throw out their IPhones – Apple just bought an Israeli company?”

Would he throw out his IPhone to end a sixty-year occupation of the State of Israel? Would he be prepared to endure more serious economic hardship?

Would he be prepared to take up arms against the occupiers?

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