Open Zion

12.03.12

Boycott the Occupation, Engage the Settlers

Samuel Lebens cites some familiar arguments against boycotting Israel in general, and boycotting settlers in particular: boycotts against Israel won’t bring about positive change but will only harden positions; constructive engagement has a better chance of winning hearts and minds; effective economic boycotts may actually constitute collective punishment; it is wrong to boycottt settles who are two-staters, etc.

I would like to make five points about these arguments.

First, their empirical basis is thin. One would expect Lebens to adduce evidence from other cases of state sanctions. This he does not do, substituting for data his own take on the Israeli situation. He does not respond to familiar arguments in support of boycotting Israel, as, for example, the argument that boycotts have a better chance of influencing policy in Israel than, say, in Iran, precisely because Israelis care deeply about their image as a Western style democracy. In Israel, even the most trivial artistic boycott is front page news and is used by progressive elements to make their case in the public sphere.

Second, his arguments seem to be directed against boycotts and sanctions in general. After all, it is hard to find a society that doesn’t have some decent people. Would he have opposed sanctions against Germany in the 1930s on the grounds that such sanctions would harden German attitudes, harm progressives, and constitute collective punishment of the German people? If he believes that boycotts are justifiable in some cases, he has to convince us why they are not justifiable in the specific case of Israel. And given his own position as a settler, his arguments cannot appear to be self-serving.

In fact, Lebens allows that some cases of collective punishment may be justified in order to avert a greater catastrophe (“World War III,” in the case of sanctions against Iran). He implies that the suffering of Palestinians under a long and often brutal occupation does not justify collective punishment of the Israelis, or of the settlers, despite the fact that most countries and legal authorities consider the settlements to be illegal. One comes away with the impression that Lebens is more concerned with the potential suffering of the settlers than with the actual suffering of the Palestinian natives caused by the presence of the settlements. That’s his right, but some arguments are needed.

Third, his arguments are what philosophers call “consequentialist,” i.e., they focus on evaluating the morality of acts in light of their consequences. But some acts may be required, or at least commendable, regardless of their results. Boycotts and sanctions can be merely symbolic, and in the case of Israel, they generally have been. The message underlying the call of the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, endorsed by elements of Palestinian civil society, is that Israel cannot be considered a decent society as long as it discriminates against Palestinians and denies them civil rights. The boycotters wish to deny Israel a place in the company of decent nations until civil equality for the Palestinian people is achieved and many see this as a required moral stance regardless of the consequences.

Fourth, Lebens’s claim that the boycotters are “underpinned by an almost unconscious anti-Semitism” because they rarely boycott any other country involves a leap of logic that I have examined elsewhere. The boycotters may have good reasons for singling out Israel for moral opprobrium—especially if they are Palestinian, who are directly affected by Israeli actions, or their supporters. There is no need for them to be concerned for all, or even more egregious, cases of injustice After all, isn’t Lebens principally concerned with what affects him as an Israeli settler?

And this brings me to my fifth point. Lebens seems to think that the settler boycott is wrong inter alia because it affects settlers like him who are decent two-staters and not “racist colonialists.” This is a familiar argument against boycotts and sanctions in general, and indeed, the argument was used by those who opposed sanctions in South Africa, which caused economic hardship not only to anti-apartheid whites but also to many blacks. Yet the reply to this is also well-known: the boycott is not directed against settlers as individuals, but against an oppressive Israeli occupation. Boycotts and sanctions, like workers’ strikes, make all sorts of people suffer. But that suffering may be justifiable in certain circumstances, and, in the long run, may actually benefit both Israelis and Palestinians, including settlers.

A final comment on boycott and engagement: the one need not exclude the other. People are complex, and winning people’s hearts and minds requires various strategies. I endorse the global BDS initiative as an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people, although I personally purchase items from Israel (when I live there, it’s hard not to) and generally oppose academic boycotts. How and when to implement a BDS strategy—where should there be boycotts, which companies should be divested from—are tactical issues that need to be discussed and weighed in light of competing principles. Unlike Israel, Palestinians have very few means by which they can advance their cause. If the goal is to win concessions from a hardline Israeli government, boycotts may be a less effective tactic than firing rockets or waging an intifada. But it is a non-violent tactic.