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columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Why boycotts of Israel are never kosher

A call to reconsider investing in Israel because of judicial reform isn’t the same as BDS. Yet that distinction is meaningless since it still validates anti-Zionist lies.

Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.
Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have thought that he was initiating a truce in the battle over judicial reform when he paused efforts to pass his legislative initiative. But the demonstrations against the effort to introduce some democratic checks and balances into the system have continued, despite the Passover holiday and a series of deadly terror attacks within a matter of days. The debate about it also continues elsewhere with the sympathies of largely liberal American Jewish organizational leaders clearly in evidence as the warm welcome afforded to opposition leader Yair Lapid in New York showed this week.

Among those with whom Lapid met was Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who has endorsed the efforts of the anti-Bibi resistance in the streets of Israel. The irony of an American who has sought to pack the U.S. Supreme Court with liberal justices joining along with Lapid, who himself backed Netanyahu’s proposals before he saw it as an avenue to reverse his loss in last November’s election, to support an Israeli judiciary that has far more power and lacking in any accountability to the democratic process was not lost on some. But, as has long been clear, the rhetoric of the left in both countries has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with their desire to maintain their hold on power.

Still, the fallout from the debate about Israel’s judicial reform is about more than just the hypocrisy of political hacks like Nadler and Lapid. Far more serious is the blowback from the open letter to Netanyahu issued last month by 255 U.S. Jewish business leaders in which they threatened to halt investments in the Jewish state unless his efforts to reform the judiciary were shelved.

The willingness of these Americans to mimic the talking points of Netanyahu’s opponents is unsurprising. There is nothing new about liberal American Jews taking sides in Israeli politics. Everyone is entitled to their point of view about how Israel should be governed. After all, it is the center of Jewish life and of vital importance to Jews wherever they live.

What isn’t legitimate is their desire to use their financial clout in this manner. Calls to re-evaluate investment are a body blow to the country’s efforts to thrive and maintain its economy. To do so in order to aid one side in political battles is disgraceful. But they are following the lead of secular liberal Israelis who are appalled at the idea that the nationalist and religious voters who gave Netanyahu a clear majority in the latest Knesset election should have a say in the country’s governance. Some of them, especially in the high-tech sector, have said that if the country’s Supreme Court is stripped of its power to prevent the majority from governing, then they will pull their businesses and money out of the country. Like those who have refused military reserve duty to protest judicial reform, they seem to be saying that an Israel that isn’t run by those who share their political views doesn’t interest them.

If they prefer to depart for the Diaspora rather than live in a country in which the growing number of nationalist and religious voters will predominate, that is their choice. But their protestations and virtue signaling notwithstanding, that has nothing to do with preserving democracy. An Israel with some checks on the power of the Supreme Court will still be a democracy, as it was prior to former Chief Justice Aharon Barak’s judicial revolution in the 1990s in which it seized power it hadn’t had prior to that.

It also has nothing to do with what is in the objectively best interests of their businesses or those of Americans who share their opinions, and who are also ready to pull their money out of Israel.

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This call for a boycott of Israel also hasn’t escaped the notice of those who would like to destroy the Jewish state regardless of which political party runs it or how much power its judiciary possesses. As American leftists have pointed out, if it’s OK to boycott Israel over judicial reform, what’s the difference between that stand and those who support BDS campaigns predicated on the lie that it is an “apartheid” state?

Indeed, some leftists who support partial boycotts of Israel and oppose anti-BDS legislation on the false grounds that they restrict free speech have been quick to point out that Netanyahu’s critics who think their stand is different from BDS are hypocrites.

To that, liberal American Jewish groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, which oppose BDS, answer that there is a huge difference between the two positions.

They are right about that. The business leaders who oppose judicial reform are not motivated by the same desire to destroy the Jewish state that lies at the heart of the BDS movement. They just want to use their economic leverage to aid the efforts of Lapid and his allies to topple Netanyahu, and to preserve the power of the Israeli judiciary to prevent the right from governing even when they win elections. Some of them may also actually believe the canard about Netanyahu being a would-be authoritarian and that the point of judicial reform is to set up a dictatorship of the right.

Such a stand is both irresponsible and utterly disconnected from the truth since—contrary to the lies about it spread by both the Israeli and American media—judicial reform would make the Jewish state more democratic, not less. But it is a far cry from the thinly veiled antisemitism and anti-Zionist hate that drives support for BDS campaigns. It’s also true that even the letter from the business leaders to Netanyahu stopped well short of a clear boycott threat.

Yet when placed in the context of growing efforts by an aggressive intersectional left-wing of the Democratic Party to oppose Israel’s existence, that is a distinction without a difference.

As has been obvious ever since the anti-Bibi resistance started taking to the streets shortly after Netanyahu’s government was sworn in, the unintended consequence of their claims that the prime minister wishes to destroy democracy is to validate the propaganda of the BDS movement.

And though the threat to re-evaluate investment is not the same as a boycott, to those Americans not familiar with the issues, it sounds very similar to calls for BDS resolutions. They are also predicated on the bogus notion that Israel needs to be disciplined by self-righteous foreigners.

Whether or not those who signed the letter—and those cheering for them—wish to acknowledge it, threats to disinvest from Israel over judicial reform are not just wrongheaded. They also make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for the pro-Israel community to oppose BDS campaigns and to push for anti-BDS legislation.

Anti-BDS laws are not restrictions on freedom of speech. On the contrary, they are no different from other anti-discrimination laws that are already on the books on the federal and state level throughout America since what they ban is discriminatory commercial conduct—a refusal to do business with Israelis and those who do business with or support Israel—in the same manner as those laws that prohibit the same sort of behavior with respect to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians or other groups.

Try explaining that to Americans who are being asked to accept the idea that it’s fine for American Jews to pull their money out of Israel because of the lie that Netanyahu is a dictator but to oppose those who want to boycott Israel because of the lie that it’s an “apartheid state.”

Boycotts or disinvestment campaigns of Israel are wrong, no matter what the motivations of those calling for them may be. Those who think it’s kosher to do so in order to topple Netanyahu or to preserve the power of the Israeli left need to understand that what they are doing is legitimizing the false arguments of an increasingly influential intersectional left that wants a future in which there is no Jewish state, regardless of who might be running it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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