By David K. Shipler
A couple of years ago, a retired Israeli journalist, Yehuda Litani, walked into his favorite local grocery store in Jerusalem and noticed cartons of eggs from a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. He had words with the storekeeper. “I asked the grocer to bring eggs from other sources,” Yehuda told me. “He refused, and I stopped buying there since that day.”
Such settlements are widely considered by the Israeli left—and officially by the U.S. government—as obstacles to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state on West Bank territory, which was captured by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 war. The settlements have spread and grown into commercial enterprises, and leading settlers have risen into the ranks of the parliament and government. For this and other reasons, the door appears to be closing on a two-state solution.
So Yehuda, who speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew, and who covered the West Bank as a reporter, has mounted his tiny, principled boycott. He has no illusions. “Some of my friends in Jerusalem are behaving the same way,” Yehuda emailed, “but I must say that we are but a small minority—most people do not care about the exact source of the agricultural products they are buying.”
The question of how and whether to use purchasing and investing power to influence Israeli policy has inflamed some campuses in the U.S. and Europe, mobilized several Protestant church assemblies in the U.S., and alarmed the Israeli government and its American supporters. Boycott proponents comprise all sorts of folks: the idealistic, the malicious, the honorable, the anti-Semitic, those who think they are trying to save Israel from an immoral quagmire, and those who care nothing for Israel’s continued existence.
As Yehuda demonstrates, the boycott takes two basic forms: focused and broad. The focused is aimed only at goods from settlements and is facilitated by laws in both the U.S. and the European Union that prohibit West Bank products from being labeled as originating in Israel. “It is not acceptable to mark the aforementioned goods with the words ‘Israel,’ ‘Made in Israel,’ ‘Occupied Territories-Israel’ or any variation thereof,” U.S. Customs explained in a recent statement. If the law is observed, the accurate labeling would allow shoppers to make informed choices. Some Methodists in the U.S. have signed on to this focused approach.
A strictly commercial impact has been seen. To avoid the boycott, at least two West Bank manufacturers, the SodaStream sparkling water company and the Ahava cosmetics firm, have decided to move from the West Bank into Israel proper. (Ironically, the companies’ Palestinian employees will presumably suffer the side effect of losing their jobs if they don’t have the hard-to-get permits to work inside Israel.)
But the pressure seems unlikely to hamper the settlement movement. Even if the economic viability of some settlements is harmed, most can survive as bedroom communities for Israeli Jews who can easily commute to work inside Israel. Distances are short. The thuggish element of settlers, while a minority, would continue to harass, threaten, and attack Arab residents, further radicalizing Palestinians. Nothing short of a dramatic change in government would turn around the settlement policy, and that would require a sense of security that does not now exist.
A subcategory of the focused boycott, which could have some bite, is divestment from companies that do business with settlements or provide equipment that facilitates the occupation. The United Church of Christ voted last year to divest from such firms, as did the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) in a narrow vote of its general convention the year before, naming Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions as companies that would no longer get any of the church’s $21 million in investments. Some proponents have urged a boycott of Israeli banks to pressure them into halting business and housing loans to Jewish settlements. Israeli law, however, prohibits such “red-lining,” and banks would be subject to legal action.
The broad variation, known by its initials BDS, for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, was initiated years ago by Palestinians and appears even less likely to succeed. In fact, it could be counterproductive. It calls for a complete isolation of Israel economically, academically, scientifically, culturally, and athletically, something equivalent to the sanctions leveled against South Africa during white minority rule.
Israel is not South Africa, however, and the grinding conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs is not apartheid. A resemblance to apartheid might develop if Israel absorbs the West Bank and denies Palestinians there the rights of citizenship. In the meantime, it’s a flawed analogy. The subordination of the Palestinians to Israeli occupation, which will mark its fiftieth anniversary next year, is victimization of a different kind, one without an adequate name, perpetuated in a twilight war between two nationalisms coveting the same ground.
No matter, some BDS proponents reply: Analogies aside, Israel is vulnerable to economic pressure and to the exclusion of its athletes from international competition. Just as South Africa finally bent, so will Israel. Some Israelis on the left agree.
Others see a different result. First, most of the academics and artists who would be swept up in a broad boycott reside in a liberal subculture that generally opposes settlements, supports withdrawal, and advocates a Palestinian state. A boycott cuts off the very people who agree with its goals. Nevertheless, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America endorsed BDS last August, and two U.S. academic groups, the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies have as well. This is self-defeating.
An exclusion of Israeli playwrights, directors, and actors, for example, would preclude the searing series of Israeli plays being produced this season by the Mosaic Theater Company, which is bringing to audiences in the nation’s capital searching examinations of the moral quandaries of Israel’s wars. Silencing such plays would forfeit an opportunity to illuminate the issues for Americans who cared to learn.
Second, the broad BDS variation risks an even more damaging result: a backlash in Israeli society and politics. Israel has moved to the right, especially since its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which it had also occupied since 1967, resulted in a takeover by Hamas, the militant movement that denies Israel’s right to exist. Hamas used cement meant for housing to build smuggling tunnels from Sinai (which Israel relinquished to Egypt as part of their peace treaty). Weapons flowed in, and Hamas has periodically fired rockets indiscriminately toward Israeli towns and cities. Israel has retaliated with air strikes and ground attacks.
This experience has not made many Israelis eager to withdraw from the West Bank, which is much closer to major Israeli population centers. The prospect of a post-withdrawal takeover by a radical movement just down the street, whether Hamas or ISIS, does not warm Israelis’ hearts. Witness the current spate of stabbing attacks by Palestinians, the ramming of civilians with cars, the shootings. These contribute to a sense of insecurity that radicalizes Israelis and heightens their resolve to dig in.
Of course BDS cannot be complete without governmental enactment by the U.S., as in the case of South Africa, and domestic American politics dictate against that possibility. Israel’s American supporters are well organized. At the most, if Washington were willing to tinker with aid, it might find a pressure point by withholding a dollar or two for every dollar Israel spent on settlements, for example, and their expansion and growth might be curtailed.
But going beyond that, to an actual withdrawal from the West Bank, would require Israelis to believe in the probability of peace in their neighborhoods, and in no way can the BDS movement offer such a prospect. On the contrary, international isolation only reinforces the sense of siege. Coming out of the persecutions that run through Jewish history, Israeli Jews need to feel safe to take the risk of territorial compromise. Only an Israel that feels supported, and not alone, will find the strength to make accommodations.