Friend of the blog Liam Getreu and I were having a private email conversation over Peter Beinart’s recent New York Times op-ed — and upcoming book — which calls for Jews to boycott West Bank settlements. The piece has been creating a huge stir on the old interwebs, with responses being thrown-around everywhere and a particularly amusing-yet-insightful Twitter debate going on between Beinart himself, Palestinian researcher Hussein Ibish and MK favourite Jeffrey Goldberg.
The conversation between me and Liam has partly gone public in a post on Liam’s blog. Naturally, I feel that I must also respond in public. Here goes nothing:
while Beinart’s suggestion of boycotts is, yes, aimed at changing settlers’ behaviour (which may have a degree of naivety, if we think it’s going to instantly deconstruct everything overnight), but it’s also about making a moral stand: I do not support the settlement enterprise, and I don’t want my money going to support it. That’s an entirely legitimate point of view.
… Of course a boycott isn’t going to end the occupation, but it will help to undermine the economy that many have going there. And Beinart’s suggestion, that the money you would otherwise spend on settlement products is instead spent on democratic Israel’s products (or, another suggestion, split between that and Palestinian businesses?), is a good one. Your purchasing behaviour may help change realities, in some small way.
Liam is correct in that boycotts can be a legitimate political tool and, for the record, I am also in favour of the Israeli government ending the ludicrous and counter-productive tax breaks and other incentives that it still gives to Israelis who move over the Green Line.
That said, the circumstances surrounding a boycott of West Bank settlements make it impossible to make the point that Beinart and Liam want to make through a boycott of them.
It is important to remember that, with a few fringe exceptions, Jewish communities worldwide (Liam and Beinart included) are completely opposed to the BDS movement. The movement is dishonest to its very core, it claims to be about “Palestinian rights” and that it takes no stance on a one or two state solution to the conflict, however its fundamental tenets effectively call for the destruction of Israel and reject the idea that Jews are entitled to nationhood or self-determination. Boycotts are particularly touchy for Jews as they bring back spectres of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses that served as a prelude to the Holocaust.
Beinart’s boycott idea is derived from Jews who are not comfortable supporting the BDS movement but still feel the need to “do something”; meaning that the West Bank boycott can never be wholly separated from the broader BDS movement. Indeed, as Omri Ceren observes, such initiatives regularly metastatise into full-blown BDS.
This is where Beinart’s thesis starts becoming increasingly problematic. Accepting a partial boycott of Israel is ostensibly akin to accepting some — if not all — of the BDS movement’s ideology. This leads to a dramatic reframing of the debate, which is partially illustrated in an anology given by Ami Eden:
If it’s kosher for Peter Beinart to call publicly for across-the-board boycotts against Jews in West Bank settlements, what is so unkosher about calling for a total boycott of Peter Beinart? Beinart says a settlement boycott is necessary to “oppose the forces that threaten [Israel] from within,” but activists on the right say the same sort of thing in defense of their efforts to get communal institutions to blackball Jews on the left.
No, the parallel is not exact — one could argue that Beinart is calling for an economic boycott on goods made by settlers, not a boycott of settlers speaking at Jewish institutions in the United States. But the parallel is close enough to change the terms of debate: It will no longer be about whether boycotting other Jews is kosher, but about which Jews we should be boycotting.
Liam emphasises the point that Beinart wants to only target settlements beyond the Green Line in what he refers to as “Undemocratic Israel” and advocates that we instead spend the money within what he calls “Democratic Israel”, however others will not see it that way. BDS supporters would argue that no money should be spent on Israel at all; others would argue that any Israeli businesses employing settlors should be boycotted, even if they operate on the “right” side of the Line; still others would argue that the boycott should target businesses that trade with settlements and academics/commentators who express sympathy for settlors.
Then there is the argument about what constitutes a “settlement”: do we include the Golan Heights? East Jerusalem? The major blocs?
Do you see what is happening here? The debate has shifted from whether or not to implement a boycott, to how extensive the boycott should be. In so doing, the idea of boycotting all of Israel becomes immediately more legitimate, as do a whole host of boycotts that are much more harmful than the one suggested by Beinart.
Furthermore, there will be a huge impact within the Zionist movement. While JStreet explicitly did not endorse Beinart’s policy, there are many who will disassociate themselves from JStreet because of their mere association with Beinart. If JStreet and their cohort change tack and start supporting the boycott, they lose any chance that they had of being incorporated into the mainstream “Jewish tent”. The broader community will want nothing to do with them; thus reducing the impact that they would have as their viewpoint would be entirely discredited in the eyes of most Jews.
Finally, I question whether the policy would even work. In my estimation, an external boycott would win sympathy for the settlors from an Israeli public that is suspicious of attacks from outside and becoming increasingly estranged from American Jewry. As Israel’s US-ambassador Michael Oren observed, Beinart is moving so far from the Israeli mainstream that his opinions are no longer relevant to Israeli discourse.
In short, boycotting Israelis in the West Bank will be difficult to implement and counterproductive. While I do not doubt that Beinart and Liam have good intentions at heart, this policy would be a very bad strategic move and would cause more harm than good for their cause.