Prominent Liberal Intellectuals Speak Out For The First Time For A Selective Boycott Of Israel — But Is It Enough?

The New York Review of Books is not known as a venue for the venting of debates on Israel-Palestine, but that is exactly what has happened. Recently, two statements were….

The New York Review of Books is not known as a venue for the venting of debates on Israel-Palestine, but that is exactly what has happened. Recently, two statements were issued that outline in sharp relief both a dramatic liberal Zionist break with Israel’s occupation and the distance they still need to go in order to address the actual roots of the occupation.

First, in the October 13 issue of the NYRB, a group of prominent intellectuals including Todd Gitlin, Peter Beinart, Michael Walzer and more than 70 others issued a statement entitled, “For an Economic Boycott and Political Nonrecognition of the Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories.”

After first rejecting an academic boycott of Israel, the authors then make a case for a very targeted boycott of Israel:

“We call 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.”

They end by asserting that this is the only way toward a two-state solution:

“It is our hope that targeted boycotts and changes in American policy, limited to the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, will encourage all parties to negotiate a two-state solution to this long-standing conflict.”

This is indeed a momentous statement, coming as it does from a group that includes individuals who have up until now decried any notion of a boycott of Israel and indeed have been reluctant to voice criticism of it in such strong terms. This statement can and should be taken as an indication of the growing frustration on the part of liberal Zionists with regard to Israeli state policies, which are becoming more and more deeply entrenched in extending and making permanent Israel’s illegal Occupation. The statement in effect recognizes that “dialogue” and “open conversation,” two things supposedly threatened by boycotting, have proven ineffective in changing an ever-worsening situation.

But this laudable statement has two real problems. First is its goal—the authors continue to believe that anything like a “two-state solution” could even be a possibility, given Netanyahu’s clear statement during the Israeli 2014 elections that that was never going to happen under his watch. And Netanyahu may now even be considered a moderate within the government, which is increasingly consolidated in extreme right wing politics. Looking at this situation, even Roger Cohen, who has long been an advocate of a two-state solution, wrote in the New York Times:

“A two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more distant than ever, so unimaginable that it appears little more than an illusion sustained by lazy thinking, interest in the status quo or plain exhaustion…Greater Israel is what Israelis know; the smaller Israel west of the Green Line that emerged from the 1947-49 war of independence is a fading memory. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with its contempt for Palestinians and dissenting voices in general, prefers things that way, as the steady expansion of settlements demonstrates.”

This in effect calls for opening a broader discussion of possible alternatives to this now moribund idea.

But adherence to a problematic “solution” is not the main flaw in their proposal. The main flaw is that in seeking to isolate the Occupation and name it as the exclusive object of its boycott, the letter misses the structural logic that supports the Occupation—this means that ending the Occupation will not end the violations of Palestinian human rights of which the Occupation is only one manifestation. And this in turn means the Gitlin letter lacks moral constancy—it falls short of addressing the machinery that perpetuates wrongs against the Palestinians.

In a response to this letter, a group including Angela Davis, Richard Falk, Rashid Khalidi, Joan Scott, Roger Waters, and 117 others issued their own statement, “On the Boycott of Israeli Settlements,” which points out how the settlements are inseparable from Israel’s larger colonial project.

After first acknowledging the move forward by Gitlin et al, the authors of the second statement explain why this is not enough:

“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. 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….

By omitting Israel’s other serious violations of international law, the statement fails the moral consistency test. Aren’t Palestinian refugees, the majority of Palestinians, entitled to their UN-stipulated rights? Shouldn’t Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoy equal rights by repealing Israel’s dozens of laws that racially discriminate against them?

Palestinian civil society has called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against all entities, Israeli or international, that are complicit in denying Palestinians everywhere their rights.”

The idea of a limited and targeted boycott such as that suggested by Gitlin et al may be attractive to some who wish to distance themselves from the increasingly blatant violations of human rights perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians. But to be morally and ethically consistent, one cannot leave unaddressed all three of the areas in which rights are denied—in Occupied Palestine Territories, in Israel-Palestine itself, and the denial of rights to Palestinians in diaspora. To target only the OPT is to leave intact the machinery that supports the ongoing settler colonial project of the state of Israel.

In seeking to draw a bright line between what it condemns (activities in the Occupied Palestine Territories) and what it leaves free from condemnation (activities within the so-called Green Line), the Gitlin Letter ignores the basic contradictions that reveal the futility of their effort—in actual practice Israel’s project has little respect for the boundary upon which the Letter pins its hopes. In fact, Israel is intent precisely on erasing it through its persistent and unrelenting annexation of the OPT by various means, a process confirmed by Israel’s maps that fail to display boundaries.

For instance, Israel forbids its banks and companies from separating their business inside Israel from those in the colonies. So would the signers of this letter boycott banks not located in the OPT but helping to finance and enable illegal settlement business, these banks would include Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank? Would they follow the example of the huge Dutch pension fund, PGGM, which decided to exclude these banks because of their involvement in financing Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and to discourage other banks and corporations from settlement-related projects, citing possible international law violations?

The Letter averts its attention from the obvious, and for them uncomfortable fact—colonization does not start in the colonies—it begins in and is sustained by a colonizer whose interests are manifested in a systemic program that incorporates the colonies through structures and mechanisms that cannot be severed without endangering the heart of the enterprise. Israel is not likely to simply end the Occupation, because in matter of fact it does not see the Occupation as such, but has long claimed the West Bank to be a territory of “disputed sovereignty” and long described by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

The weapon the Letter chooses is not aimed at the core—to threaten an economic boycott of the businesses in the OPT has no real meaning—the colonies count for less than 2% of the Israeli economy. There is no hope to put pressure on Israel just by targeting less than 2% of the economy.

Most important—moral consistency demands respecting the UN-stipulated rights of all Palestinians and not simply selecting for action only the rights of those living under Occupation while ignoring the rest who suffer from the same systemic abuse of rights within Israel. Just as there is a continuity between illegality of the Occupation and the illegality of uneven rights for Palestinians in Israel and the denial of the internationally recognized right of return for Palestinians in the diaspora, so too do we need boycott, divestment, and sanctions of the state that is the agent behind these systemic denials of rights.

Boycott is, by definition, not a goal but a nonviolent strategy, or set of strategies, to achieve a goal. The goal of the absolute majority of Palestinian civil society, as expressed in the 2005 BDS Call, is to achieve freedom, justice and equality, as well as to reach a just peace with Israel. Being anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, BDS is an ethically consistent, effective strategy to achieve Palestinian rights while categorically rejecting all forms of racism and discrimination, including anti-Semitism.

In the spirit of the global solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the US Civil Rights Movement, all those who are serious about addressing the situation of the Palestinian people should support effective, context-sensitive boycott and divestment measures against Israel’s regime of occupation, dispossession, and colonial oppression and against academic and cultural institutions as well as corporations that are complicit in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights under international law.