The Magnes Zionist on Bernard Avishai's opposition to boycott and divestment

June 23, 2010
Richard Kuper


Bernard Avishai: Targeted Sanctions, Yes; Boycott and Divestment, No

21 June 2010

Bernard Avishai is one of few consistently interesting writers on Israel/Palestine On the left, yet a fervent capitalist, he is a strong advocate of transforming Israel from an ethnocracy with liberal trappings to a truly liberal democracy. So when he writes against the Boycott and Divestment movement (in the Nation, no less, and on his blog), using economic considerations upon which he is expert, his arguments deserve serious consideration.

He argues that divestment campaigns are counterproductive, just as they were counterproductive in the fight against apartheid in the 1980s. Citing an interview he once conducted with an anti-apartheid South African CEO, he comes to the conclusion that they undercut progressive forces in business and in education. These progressive forces include not only Israeli Jews, but, increasingly, members of the Palestinian sector who are secular and educated. If I understand Avishai here, boycott and divestment makes even less sense in the case of Israel than in the case of South Africa. For one thing it slows the globalization of Israeli commerce and industry, which will be to the detriment of the secular forces in society. He asks:

Who gains from economic decline and the inevitable consequence of most educated Israelis fleeing to, well, the Bay Area? Wouldn’t the rightists, also about 40 percent, be most satisfied to see Israel become a little Jewish Pakistan?

Boycott and Divestment would accomplish driving Israel into an even greater siege mentality

How will B and D do anything but make all Israelis feel demonized and prone to apocalyptic thinking and ethnic cleansing? Already, polls suggest that the Israeli center, which is skeptical of the settlers, feels “the West” does not appreciate what it is like to live with suicide bombers and missile attacks.

Targeted sanctions, on the other hand, are something that Avishai supports:

Foreign governments might well ban consumer products like fruit, flowers and Dead Sea mineral creams and shampoos produced by Israelis in occupied territory, much as Palestinian retail stores do. The EU already requires Israel to distinguish products this way. If Israel continues building in East Jerusalem, and the UN Security Council majority sanctions Israeli tourism, the US government might well choose not to veto the resolution. The Pentagon might sanction, say, Israel Aerospace Industries if, owing to continued settlement, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations break down.

What’s the difference between divestment and targeted sanctions? Divestment hurts the growth of the private sector, globalization, and the vision of a secular, liberal society. Targeted sanctions make maximum noise without really hurting the Israeli economy, at least not those necessary for progressive forces.

Bottom line:

Sanction the Israeli government for activities that obstruct peacemaking. Hurt the settlements. But boycott and divest from the private sector, and you may create an economic implosion. Israel’s ratio of debt to GDP looks eerily like that of the weakest EU economies. Unlike Greece, Israel has a rising class of cosmopolitan entrepreneurs who have been politically complacent, especially during the second intifada and Bush administration. But only they can lead the country out of political crisis—and only if they can hold on to their prestige, which is itself rooted in international commerce. This prestige, after all, is what diplomatic “engagement” aims to achieve—does it not? We want the soft power of global markets to encourage the formation of more worldly business and professional classes everywhere, from Russia to Syria

End of piece.

My first reaction is that the global BD movement must have been a lot more successful than I thought for Avishai to get so worked up about it. He seems to think that the movement has the potential of truly emulating the South African BD. But I think that this is highly unlikely. Or perhaps he is gazing into a crystal ball and I am assessing the here and now. But the one effect today of the BDS movement is to serve as a wake-up call to the Israelis who always view themselves as moral exemplars. Or to put it another way, the BDS movement is there to embarrass Israel, to point out its flaws, to keep it in the news, and to reveal its nakedness. That it could seriously damage its economy is, at this stage, anyway, preposterous. Here’s an analogy: thousands of Jews put pennies into the little blue charity-boxes of the Jewish National Fund in order to redeem the Land of Israel for the Jews. To this day I know Jews who think that a state was purchased through those pennies! Those boxes had as much effect on getting a Jewish state as BDS has on Israel’s economic and intellectual resources – very little.

Yet that doesn’t mean that BDS is ineffectual. On the contrary, to an Israeli populace that agonizes daily over its image in the world BDS is enormously important. And not just BDS. One boat with nine dead managed to do what thousands of rockets could not do – force Israel to life the economic embargo on Gaza.

Far from undercutting progressives, BDS – or if you will, BDS Lite — emboldens them to stand up and say, “Hey, look we are really becoming something like apartheid; we are losing the human rights war; we have to do something.”

Avishai talks like the economist that he is. I could agree with him that serious damage to Israel’s economy in areas that are important to Palestinians and Israelis alike are not helpful. I also agree that mild US sanctions may have a greater impact than all the student governments on American campuses voting for divestment from Caterpillar.

But as I have written before, the global BDS movement, though economically symbolic, has psychological effect on Israel, and is sufficiently flexible that you can choose B with D and S, or S without B and D (as Avishai has done.) In fact, what he calls sanctions against settler companies I call boycott of settler companies.

That’s enough for me to see Avishai and us on the same side of “smart BDS.” Three hours before I read his piece in the Nation, I signed a petition calling for TIAA-CREF, my pension fund, to divest from certain companies that “benefit from the Occupation”. The importance of this right now is not the divestment, which, I believe will not happen.

It’s the petition itself.

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