Partial B(DS)?

07.18.12 6:00 PM ET

The recent Presbyterian decision to boycott settlement products (while rejecting a "total" BDS resolution), and Peter Beinart’s call for a "Zionist BDS" may very well turn out to be one of the year’s biggest challenges facing Israel and the Jewish world. In light of the ongoing assault on Israel's legitimacy, the issue of boycotting settlement goods could potentially divide the Jewish community and Israeli society, and further damage Israel's international standing. In order to successfully confront this challenge, a brutally honest conversation is needed.

The BDS movement is propelled by primarily marginal anti-Zionist groups. On the band-wagon of growing criticism over Israeli policies, these groups use BDS to catalyze an anti-Israeli zeitgeist. The BDSers are often more interested in sparking the conversation about the boycott, which in itself generates false associations between Israel and apartheid (the reason "Zionist BDS," which buys into their terminology, is highly problematic). Submitting to this zeitgeist unwittingly, many critics have come to perceive Israel as a country that can do no right.

Yet in the past year, Israel's allies have achieved a relative degree of success in containing "total" BDS efforts. Although not stopped everywhere, exposing the true colors of the BDS movement generated a series of setbacks to their efforts. This exposure even brought Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, individuals BDSers often quote, to publicly denounce their tactics and goals.

This success forced many of the BDSers to compromise in calling for "only" a partial boycott on settlement products.  In their eyes a targeted boycott still constitutes an "act of delegitimization," albeit to a lesser degree, that tarnishes Israel's reputation. Importantly, the movement's leaders say openly that tactical needs often require carrying out a selective boycott of settlement products as "the easiest way to rally support"—a milestone on the path towards a comprehensive boycott.  Indeed, it is easy to make the case that partial boycotts fuel the assault on Israel's legitimacy.

However, it is clear that the call for "Zionist BDS" comes from a different place: This call often represents a genuine loss of trust by liberal Zionists regarding the commitment of the current Israeli government to peace. They claim that boycotting settlements will help to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and end Israeli control over the Palestinians. In fact, many "delegitimizers" explicitly refrain from supporting a partial boycott lest they be seen as Zionist sympathizers. As such, it is possible to make the case that a partial boycott focused on settlement products is in fact a legitimizing act. Indeed, this targeted act is perceived in the world as a well-intentioned, legitimate, non-violent protest against Israeli policies aimed at "saving" Israel from itself.

The paradox lies in the fact that while the BDSers and the "Beinarts" agree on the means (partial boycott), they disagree on the end goals: Leaders of the BDS movement express openly that their true goal is to undermine the moral foundations of the Jewish State and the Two-State for Two Peoples paradigm, while advocates of “Zionist BDS” are trying to secure Israel’s identity and future within this very paradigm. 

Coupled with the expansion of settlements, the tendency of the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups to delegitimize "partial boycotters" is often perceived as a sign that Israel is not genuinely committed to the two-state solution. Thus, the Israeli government should focus on conducting a genuine Heshbon Nefesh, an internal moral accounting, focused on the question of why it has been losing the support of many progressives Jews. At the same time, pro-Israel groups should be committed to creating a safe space for conversation that increases the tolerance for diverse opinions on Israel.  Additionally, they should focus more on generating constructive alternative measures, such as investing in campaigns for peace and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue opportunities. Such actions will likely draw support away from BDS–often formulated as the only option to protest.

However, a real Heshbon Nefesh is also needed from liberal Zionists. The ability of Israel's allies to undermine the BDS movement this year is, in many respects, the result of a united and diverse front across the Jewish political spectrum. The concept of a "Zionist BDS" challenges this Jewish unity, and offers in its place a simplistic zero-sum mentality that puts the onus of the conflict on Israel’s shoulders, and disregards, for example, the constitutional deadlock within the PA, as well as Hamas’s declared goal to destroy Israel.

Finally, I am regularly asked which groups should or should not be included in the "tent" based upon the the Reut Institute's call for the creation of a broad political tent to combat delegitimization. Our call stems from an understanding that the most effective voices against delegitimization often come from the left—a result of the alleged ideological proximity of Israel’s delegitimizers to liberals. But these are the wrong questions: the tent is a metaphor for the Jewish world's ability to stand united against delegitimization by fostering diverse ad-hoc partnerships against it—it is not a closed and permanent list, in which one is either “in” or “out.” That being said, I am skeptical whether the concept of a "Zionist BDS" enhances the required ethical clarity necessary in order to create a Jewish unity to fight delegitimization and drive a wedge between liberal Zionist and the BDS movement. What is certain is that a compelling and constructive alternative is critically needed to defeat BDS.