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Recent Opinion Pieces

Thoughts on the Movement to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel

I’ve been immersed in discussions about the campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel (BDS) for its occupation and repressive rule over Palestinians, and many have become quite heated, even though almost all my friends are critical of Israeli policy. The heat comes from shrillness and exaggeration on both sides—calling Israel fascist, calling BDS supporters anti-Semites, for example. I want to offer here the perspective of a scholar of social movements. I see BDS as a strategy for applying global pressure in the hopes of changing Israeli policy, a strategy that I support because it is having an impact. In fact, it is the only nonviolent strategy that has had an impact thus far. Here are two arguments for supporting it—and for making exceptions and trying something else as well, something that may be more productive for those of us in the US.

To explain, I have to out myself. I can’t participate in a total cultural or educational boycott of Israel because of the “Hand in Hand” schools. [Yad b’Yad in Hebrew ] They are my brother’s life work and project. But my main attachment to them is not mainly because he’s my brother, but because of what they are and what they do. Begun by Lee Gordon and Amin Khalaf in 1997, Hand in Hand consists of five bi-cultural bi-lingual schools for Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israeli kids kids, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. 1200 kids and over 3000 adults are involved—parents, teachers, community activists. Every class is taught half in Hebrew, half in Arabic, and every child emerges fluent in both languages and, more important, with commitment to a future of co-existence with freedom and justice for both groups. There are now adult classes and programs and a wide array of community programs and activities outside the classroom. And Hand in Hand is growing, aiming to open 10-12 more integrated schools over the next 10 years.
Through the 2nd intifada and the ghastly Israeli assault on Gaza, these children and their parents have stood fast in their commitment to the Hand-in-Hand community and to mutual respect. As we used to say in the New Left, a new world must appear visible within the old or it can never happen. If you cannot imagine it, you cannot create it.

But I don’t feel in the least apologetic or hypocritical in my selective support for BDS. BDS supporters have produced many versions of what the boycott should and shouldn’t include, and many supporters believe that constructive relationships and projects should continue and even be initiated. It is perfectly possible, as always in social movements, for individuals to contribute in ways that suit their situations. (“From each according to their ability” has long been a winning social-movement organizing principle.) What should be challenged, however, is attacking the BDS strategy as if it were insisting on some version of Stalinist party discipline, or treating the most outrageous pro-BDS statement as if it spoke for the whole. BDS is, after all, a global, decentralized social movement.

BDS is working because it does two things well. The first is educational. BDS creates newsworthy events that force the media to cover the widespread condemnation of Israeli occupation of Palestine. BDS argues implicitly, and its spokespeople explicitly, that the occupation is not just one aspect of the Israeli nation but has become fundamental to most of its policies, including those within Israel. The news stories that appear when groups and individuals sign on to BDS also provide information about the repressive conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live, and even about the discriminatory treatment when they are Israeli citizens. Churches throughout the world are discussing and educating their members about the Israeli occupation and illegal settlements on Palestinian land. So are many labor unions. BDS has led to nation-wide discussions in European countries, with several legislatures condemning Israeli policy.

In the US BDS has led to similar discussions among scholars, of great breadth and intensity. Though only a few scholarly organizations have voted to support BDS, scholars are becoming more educated and more concerned about injustice to Palestinians at a rapid rate. Students and faculty are pressuring colleges and universities to divest from companies that provide military equipment to Israel. In response, some defenders of Israeli policy have attempted to suppress student freedom of speech and to fire faculty; these conflicts bring ever more members of university communities to defend freedom of speech and, more important, to recognize that the greatest suppression of free exchange of opinion is coming from supporters of AIPAC, not from BDS. Equally important, precisely because BDS offers a Left-wing, participatory, direct-action strategy, it creates the political space in which those more hesitant to criticize Israeli policy can express their concerns (here I am thinking of J Street).

The second reason BDS is working, or beginning to work, is economic. It is unlikely to bring the Israeli government to its knees, not until the US government quits arming Israel. But it is being felt. According to Israeli newspaper Maariv, the international boycott of Israeli settlement products has already caused Israel's economy financial losses amounting to about 100 million shekels ($30 million). Soda Stream has been forced to close its West Bank factory, and settlement exports to Europe, about $90 million, are now threatened. PGGM, the Netherland's largest pension fund management company, has withdrawn all its investments from Israel's five largest banks because they have branches in the West Bank and/or finance construction in the settlements. Similar withdrawals are likely across Europe. Yossi Mekelberg, of the British Royal Institute of International Affairs, points out that even Germany, usually cautious in such matters, “made it clear to Israel that grants for Israeli high-tech companies and the renewal of a scientific cooperation agreement depends on the exclusion of Israeli entities based in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” In June of this year, the EU-Israeli scientific cooperation agreement contained the same strictures. The Gates Foundation withdrew investments from G4S, the security company that helps run Israeli prisons. A Presbyterian Church USA resolution to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard for similar reasons lost by one vote. A recent Israeli Finance Ministry study cited the boycotts as the largest threat to Israel's economy, anticipating a possible 20 percent drop in exports, more inflation and thousands of job layoffs should Europe commit to boycott Israeli companies. Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said that "Israel's economy is more vulnerable than its national security." Running scared, many Israeli businessmen are demanding government supports.

These costs descend on Israelis already bearing the costs of Israel’s own policies.
The huge military expenditures and the outlays for the settlements contribute to a considerable decline in the Israeli standard of living. (Meanwhile Israeli soldiers bear even heavier costs to their lives, their health, and their spirits, suffering the demoralization, brutalization, and shame that inevitably comes to an occupying power.) The Israeli government has recently announced a budget cut for the ministries of health, education, transportation, and other agencies so as to finance an increased budget for the Ministry of Defense. This in turn leads the Netanyahu government to demand even more military aid from the US. And this leads to my second argument about BDS: for people outside the US, it may be the best strategy, but it need not be the most important within the US. As an American Jew, I think our primary responsibility should be changing our own government support for Israel’s repressive policies.

The amount the US gives Israel is typically under-estimated because it has many components. US taxpayers spent $3.1 billion in 2013, even more so far in 2014, in direct military aid, amounting to nearly a quarter of the Israeli military budget. But note that this $3.1 billion is just the beginning. It does not include “joint defense projects” for which the US spent, cumulatively, $8.5 billion from 1949 through fiscal year 2011. It does not include another $504 million for Israel’s “Iron Dome,” “David’s Sling,” and “Arrow” II and III armaments. For fiscal 2015 military spending on Israel will grow. In addition Israel held $3.8 billion in US loan guarantees as of 2013, and our tax expenditures—losses of revenue—due to American tax-exempt contributions to the west-bank settlements amount to untold tens of millions of dollars. Then there is an emergency stockpile of US military equipment maintained in and for Israel, valued at $1.2 billion. The US contributes “refugee and migration assistance” to help new settlers in Israel, including in the settlements. And there is, no kidding, the $2.7 billion that Israel has earned in interest on previous US aid. Israel, with .001 of the world’s population receives one-third of our total foreign aid budget.

During the Gaza assault, Israeli leaders were taken aback when for the first time President Obama disallowed a shipment of antitank missiles to the Israeli army. These were, of course, not intended for use against Hamas fighters, because they have no tanks; instead they are often used against residential buildings and bunkers. That one small hesitation suggests that doubts are emerging. Americans need to do what we can to enlarge these doubts, to point out how this blank check to Israel violates our own national interests—not to mention hopes for global peace and for a democratic Israel. BDS arguments do not in themselves educate Americans about the US responsibility for the enormous suffering and injustice Israeli policy is creating. We need, in short, a specifically American form of protest—one which would both strengthen and be strengthened by the international BDS movement.