(February 6, 2014 / JNS) There is a smug sense of “I told you so” about much of the recent commentary concerning the challenge that Israel faces from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive Director of J Street—a left-wing Israel advocacy group which believes the best way to advocate for Israel is by opposing sanctions on Iran and castigating Israel’s democratically elected government—is one example. Speaking to a Jewish audience in New Haven recently, Ben-Ami talked, and not for the first time, of Israel becoming a “pariah state,” punished for its West Bank policies by an international community increasingly persuaded that the way to create a Palestinian state is through willfully damaging the Israeli economy.
Ben-Ami’s media echo, the columnist Peter Beinart, took a similar tack in a piece for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. After praising the boycott movement for its “tactical brilliance” and for being “tactically shrewd” (OK, Peter, we understood you the first time), Beinart argued that the threat of international quarantine should, in a rational world, persuade U.S. Jewish organizations to actively oppose the growth of Jewish communities in the West Bank.
And then, in the New York Times, there was Thomas Friedman. A writer perpetually on the lookout for a new catchphrase, Friedman described the boycott movement as a “Third Intifada.” Observing that the Europeans are running out of patience, that idealistic activists are searching for a new political romance in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing, and that Secretary of State John Kerry is continually warning that Israel’s actions are grist to the boycotters’ mill, Friedman concluded that everything is stacking up in the Israel-haters’ favor.
There was an air of glee in Friedman’s citation of Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s comment that the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would eventually “hit the pocket of every Israeli.” (Some readers will recall that quotes from Israeli leaders like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert using the word “apartheid” were subjected to similar exploitation by liberal critics of Israel.) But Lapid wasn’t endorsing the boycott movement, and Friedman missed the most significant segment of his remark—“Israel won’t conduct its policy based on threats”—in order to hail Lapid’s recognition that the boycott needs to be taken seriously. But even if we all accept that to be true, it does not logically follow that we have to resign ourselves to the inevitability of a boycott, or concede in any way that boycotting is a morally sound response to an immoral government.
All this breathless admiration for the audacity of the boycott movement has, in fact, generated its own mythology. Read the likes of Beinart and Friedman and you could be forgiven for thinking that the boycott is a Middle Eastern equivalent of the U.S. civil rights movement, led by bold young activists seeking justice for all, rather than what it is: an outgrowth of the older League of Arab States boycott against Israel, companies doing business with Israel, and companies doing business with companies doing business with Israel. (Incidentally, when I say “older,” I really mean “older”—the Arab League boycott was instituted in 1945, when the smoke was still rising from the crematoria at Auschwitz, but Israel’s creation was still three years away.)
If the idea that the boycott movement is a human rights project is one myth, then the contention that its goal is merely to end Israel’s presence in the West Bank is another. Again, read Friedman and Beinart, and you’d think that the presence of anti-Semites and supporters of Israel’s elimination within the boycott movement was a minor irritant. But destroying Israel as a sovereign state is the primary goal the boycotters themselves have never hidden, as much as some naive American Jewish liberals wish they would adapt and sanitize their tactics by concentrating on the West Bank alone. If you don’t believe me, pay heed to Phil Weiss, editor of the anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss: “If BDS is such a powerful tactic that they can use to pressure Netanyahu for a two-state-solution… why shouldn’t Palestinians use the tactic to their ends? Why accept a deal for a fragment of the country you once lived in, negotiated by a collaborationist government?”
What, then, should those genuinely committed to securing a peaceful resolution between Israelis and Palestinians do, if they reject boycotting? I would suggest, at the outset, talking to the right people with the most creative ideas—people like Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of SodaStream, who aced an interview with the BBC’s toughest interrogator, Jeremy Paxman, by pointing out that peace needs to be fueled with economic opportunities for both peoples, even if that means breaking with dogmatic slogans about the illegitimacy of Jewish settlements.
As Birnbaum argued, some of those opportunities might eventually sustain a Palestinian state. But if we unthinkingly buy into the propaganda of the boycotters, there won’t be any opportunities to begin with.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.