BDS and the shattering of liberal Zionist taboos

“We welcome the statement’s shattering of the taboo against boycotting Israeli entities that are complicit in—at least selective—violations of Palestinian human rights”, wrote Angela Y. Davis, Chandler Davis, Richard A…..

“We welcome the statement’s shattering of the taboo against boycotting Israeli entities that are complicit in—at least selective—violations of Palestinian human rights”, wrote Angela Y. Davis, Chandler Davis, Richard A. Falk, Rashid Khalidi, and Alice Rothchild, et al. in the New York Review of Books (November 10 issue)->].[[The full list of signatories is available [here]]

Theirs was a response to an October 13th 2016 letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books, titled: “For an Economic Boycott and Political Nonrecognition of the Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories,” authored by Todd Gitlin, Peter Beinart, Kai Bird, Peter Brooks, Michael Walzer, and Edward Witten, et al.

The earlier article, whilst “shattering a taboo”, nonetheless opened with a negative qualification of the BDS movement, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions:

We, the undersigned, oppose an economic, political, or cultural boycott of Israel itself as defined by its June 4, 1967, borders”.

After making that stance to ensure the liberal-Zionist stance of “Israel is not the problem, it’s the occupation and settlements that are”, the article nonetheless called for “a targeted boycott of all goods and services from all Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, and any investments that promote the Occupation, until such time as a peace settlement is negotiated between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority”.

So the aim of this partial boycott is not very controversial; it is in the paradigm of the famous “peace process.”

Nonetheless – the very discussion of boycotts by liberal Zionists outside Israel is, as the response letter notes, a certain shattering of a taboo.

The response article aptly notes: “Defying common sense, however, the statement calls for boycotting settlements while letting Israel, the state that has illegally built and maintained those settlements for decades, off the hook”.

This is showing us that finally, the discussion is cutting to a critical point. The responders further elucidate it:

Moreover, shouldn’t Israeli banks that are not based in settlements but finance their construction be targeted as well?

This is a very important point. Last year, I had translated a whole Israeli Hebrew Maariv article on my Facebook page. The article by Ben Caspit noted that “the banks are in panic following a document produced by the research institute facilitating the EU. According to its recommendations, the union must boycott Israeli banks involved in financial activity in the occupied territories”. The upshot of this was further clarified by officials in the Israeli banking system:

One way or another”…”it’s necessary to understand what will happen here on the day that it will be decided to to ‘credit mark’. When you mark products it can harm part of the market here and there, but when they mark each credit that the bank gives beyond the Green Line [1967 line] and boycott that bank, the meaning of it is a property confiscation warrant on all the banks. The European banking and credit system is inextricably connected to the Israeli economy, no European bank will accompany projects in Israel, it will not be possible to receive credit in Europe and there is nothing we would be able to do about it”.

The consequence of such an act would thus result in a “financial-national tsunami”, as the officials termed it.

In other words, the assessment of the Israeli bank officials completely confirms the point that the whole of the Israeli system is invested in the occupation. It is inseparable.

But EU then opted for a much more benign option. It decided to apply “settlement product marking”. That is, leaving it to consumers to decide whether they would buy the products, which by EU’s definition are produced by illegal settlements. Whilst being a symbolic way for EU to indicate that it “opposes the occupation”, this is an extremely tepid tactic, which could be compared to an agent continuing to import stolen goods, but merely marking them so that the conscientious consumers may be able to avoid them…

Whilst the EU marks its opposition to BDS, it walks a tight rope, because BDS is a democratic form of protected speech. And though countries such as France and UK have participated in the whole or partial outlawing of BDS, it would be a contentious step for EU to take – to side with Israel against BDS.

But recently, and quite surprisingly, in an answer to a question about whether the EU commission will commit to defending BDS activists’ right to exercise their democratic freedom of expression, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini wrote that “the EU stands firm in protecting freedom of expression and freedom of association in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which is applicable on EU Member States’ territory, including with regard to BDS actions carried out on this territory. Freedom of expression, as underlined by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, is also applicable to information or ideas ‘that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population’.”

Whilst the statement qualified that “the EU rejects the BDS campaign’s attempts to isolate Israel and is opposed to any boycott of Israel”, it nonetheless made a decisive mark in regards to targeting of BDS activists and activism.

The campaign against BDS activists and activism has been launched as if BDS was a military, “strategic threat” as Israeli officials have claimed. Israel has assigned a special task force to deal with this “threat”. As Ali Abunimah notes, citing Yossi Melman of Maariv (a reporter who has covered Israel’s spy agencies for decades): “Melman sounds a somewhat skeptical note, pointing out that the fight against BDS may be more of an excuse for the ministry to maintain its budget after its original purpose, facing the ‘threat’ from Iran, became irrelevant following last year’s nuclear agreement.”

Indeed, the big noise about BDS began in Israel, in earnest, one and a half years ago. Although the decision to consider it a “strategic threat” was taken already in 2013 (following considerable BDS victories), the more public commotion came around the time when it was becoming clear that the Iran deal, despite Netanyahu’s desperate attempts to thwart it, was very close to being a done matter (finalised on July 14th). On the 25th of May 2015, MK Gilad Erdan was appointed as minister of public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy, and noted on his Facebook that his two major focuses were Iran and BDS. Alas, with the Iran threat losing its validity, Erdan’s focus inevitably became BDS. BDS thus became the new major villain, with Erdan to tackle it. This year he has claimed that “the message has to be that it’s not worth being a BDS activist” and that “they [BDS activists] should know that there will be a price”.
The anti-BDS task force, consisting of 25 hired classified workers plus assistance from military intelligence and Shin Bet, acts under the auspices of the Ministry for Public Security. The minister is Gilad Erdan, and the director general is Sima Vaknin-Gil. Vaknin-Gil told the Knesset transparency committee recently that “We want most of the ministry’s work to be classified.” Why? Because “there are many sensitivities, and I can’t even explain in an open forum why there are such sensitivities.” So: “A major part of what we do stays under the radar.” She added that the ministry aims to “build a community of warriors.”

This military stance against a grassroots non-violent campaign was emulated this summer by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who played the vigilante anti-BDS hero by signing an executive order that directs state agencies to divest themselves of companies and organizations that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activity regarding Israel, “either directly or through a parent or subsidiary.”

Cuomo’s move was first proclaimed at the Harvard Club in Manhattan, to an “audience including local Jewish leaders and lawmakers” as the New York Times reported– following which he went out to participate in the Celebrate Israel march on 5th Avenue.

This was surely an egregious mocking of the US First Amendment – and yet it follows a series of anti-BDS legislative measures that have been washing across America, following Israel’s lead.

Yet there are more taboos apparently being shattered – recently B’tselem’s Hagai El-Ad made a quite sincere appeal for the UN to intervene and stop the occupation, which of course drew the ire of Netanyahu, who slammed him on Facebook. And Israeli Knesset coalition chairman, Likud MK David Bitan called El-Ad’s remarks “explicit breach of trust by an Israeli citizen against the state, and as such he should find himself another citizenship.”

But El-Ad’s speech was factually quite conservative and uncontroversial in the issues it considered. It did, in fact, not even regard refugees – which are an integral part of the occupation and the continued dispossession policy that Israel enacts. It must therefore be concluded, that it was El-Ad’s decision to air the dirty laundry outside and ask the world to intervene that was the big sin.

It would seem, that the cracks in the Israeli-Zionist dam of taboos are becoming quite large, and this is making the rather disempowered Zionist left look bad, if it doesn’t step up the battle. Because not only people like journalist Gideon Levy are noting “blatant and unapologetic fascism” in Israel – even faux “leftists” such as former PM Ehud Barak concede that “Israel has been infected by the seeds of fascism.”

If the left cannot oppose this, as it has apparently been unable to, it would mean capitulation to fascism – Zionist fascism.

As Larry Derfner writes in Haaretz, calling upon “leftist” writer Amos Oz to come to the barricades in order to bring down the occupation: “The Israeli peace camp has not exhausted all possible means to end the occupation of the Palestinians. Far from it. We need to start raising some non-violent hell, and keep it up”, he writes vigilantly.

But before anyone gets too excited about this seemingly revolutionary call, let us not forget who Derfner’s subject, Oz, really is:

On July 31st, 2014, at the midst of Israel’s unprecedented assault on Gaza, Oz gave an interview to the Deutsche Welle. He opened the interview with two questions of his own, defying world opinion:

“Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

“Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?

With these two questions I pass the interview to you”.

Oz was thus, in his eloquent rhetoric capability, voicing two widespread Israeli fictitious myths, disseminated from the PM office itself: That Hamas uses the population (particularly young children) as human shields, and that it has “terror tunnels” that lead to Israeli nurseries.

The first myth hardly deserves mentioning, in that Israel systematically obliterated whole families with over 30 members in Gaza 2014, because a wanted Hamas member was amongst them. To regard those family members, including babies, as human shields, deserves nothing but contempt. As Amira Hass notes in her introduction to the project Obliterated Families: “Behind every erased Gazan family is an Israeli pilot”.

The second myth, of Hamas “terror tunnels” leading to kindergartens in nearby villages, was a deliberate lie disseminated by the Prime Minister’s office and widely circulated in international media, serving as an important hysteria-creator and means of manufacturing consent for the ground invasion, where the actual casus belli (missing before that) became these tunnels. But this myth was debunked shortly after.

No tunnel led into any Israeli village. The sole purpose for which the tunnels were ever used in the handful of cases – was military engagement, legitimate under international law.

Oz was thus serving as an ignorant and zealous propagandist for Israel’s 51 days of death and destruction, and I have not noticed that he has ever corrected himself, for I have not seen him address this myth in the Israeli mainstream.

This is the man whom Derfner wants to lead the battle. He writes:

Imagine if Amos Oz, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna led a few dozen or more Israeli peaceniks to a settlement construction site this Friday, and they all sat down in front of the bulldozers and refused to leave, forcing the army or police to drag them off, possibly to arrest them. I bet this might get some attention, not only in Israel but overseas as well.”

Yes, imagine. There is a lot that the Zionist left can imagine. But it can apparently not imagine itself supporting a democratic, non-violent international protest that presses Israel to comply with international law – which is what Palestinian civil society has been calling for since 2005, seeing that its diplomatic negotiation option has brought it pretty much nowhere. This option is literally considered criminal in Israel (boycott law of 2011) and is treated as a strategic, military threat.

If Palestinians are left with no non-violent means of action, one could hardly chide them for applying armed struggle.

Even “leftists” understand the motivation of armed struggle very well. As Ehud Barak told Gideon Levy in an interview in 1998:

If I were a Palestinian at the right age, I would have joined one of the terrorist organizations at a certain stage”.

Apparently, armed struggle is preferred even by the Israeli “left” to international boycott of Israel. Because a boycott of Israel risks taking the game out of Israel’s hands. If international law happens to endanger Zionist aspirations of Jewish political sovereignty, Zionists will reflexively fight to oppose international law, and hence those who advocate it. And yet, we are seeing attempts to promote a “partial” boycott, even by liberal Zionists, internationally. This has been something that Zionists have been very wary of speaking openly about, even when it is a careful boycott, as it were.

Yet the question of boycotting Israel is about more than the precise object of one’s campaign. As Angela Davis, Rashid Khalidi, and Alice Rothchild and others wrote, a statement that “calls for boycotting settlements while letting Israel, the state that has illegally built and maintained those settlements for decades, off the hook”, is “defying common sense”. Indeed, even if one advocates for only opposing the 1967 occupation and the settlements (whilst disregarding the discrimination against Israeli Palestinians and Palestinian refugees, which BDS addresses), the question of why one does not target the direct sponsor of these settlements – Israel – continues to baffle.

This is the debate that is finally taking place, as even the liberal Zionists speak openly about boycotting Israel, albeit partially and indirectly. Israel will no doubt seek to silence this debate, as it seeks to silence BDS. Yet this is an important, indeed crucial discussion, which needs to be protected and expanded.