Answering My Critics on Zionist BDS

Gali Tibbon / Getty Images

My New York Times op-ed proposing that American Jews boycott the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) and instead spend their money inside the green line has prompted three basic right-wing critiques. (There are plenty of left-wing ones too, but I’ll have to answer them later).

The first is that it lets Palestinians off the hook. As Ambassador Michael Oren wrote, my proposal “absolves the Palestinians of any responsibility for the current situation, including their rejection of previous peace offers, their support for terror, and their refusal to negotiate with Israel for the past three years.” Oren has it exactly backwards. What actually absolves the Palestinians of responsibility is the growth of Israeli settlements.

Let’s assume that the Palestinian leadership hasn’t come to terms with the hardest concessions that a two state deal would likely require of them: a merely symbolic refugee return and something less than full control over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It’s much easier for Palestinian leaders to evade those issues when they can point to the expansion of Ariel, a settlement that stretches thirteen miles beyond the green line, and which, as former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has conceded, makes “the question of contiguity… of the Palestinian state something that is very, very difficult to imagine.”

My friend David Frum insists, as hawks often do, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is existential not territorial. But in truth, it’s both, and the latter fuels the former. In both the negotiations that took place in 2000-1 and in 2008, there were huge territorial fights. Israeli leaders wanted to annex somewhere between six percent (Olmert’s 2008 offer) and nine percent (Barak’s 2000 offer) of the West Bank because they believed that annexing less was politically impossible. The Palestinians, by contrast, according to former Barak co-chief negotiator Gilead Sher and Ehud Olmert himself were willing to swallow a two to three percent land swap.

Some Israeli negotiators, like Sher and Yossi Beilin, thought the Palestinians would accept a token refugee return; other observers didn’t. But what is undeniable is that the Palestinians found it easier to avoid that issue because they had legitimate territorial concerns: Israel wanted to keep settlements that impaired the contiguity of their prospective state. That remains true today. Whether or not a Palestinian leader will ever trade mass refugee return for a viable state, they’re much less likely to trade it for a state that even Israeli officials concede isn’t functionally contiguous. And every year, as more Israelis flock to settlements like Ariel, a contiguous Palestinian state becomes harder and harder to create.

The second major critique is that boycotting the settlements represents a kind of gateway drug to boycotting all of Israel. Presumably once people think it’s acceptable to boycott anything Israeli, they’ll eventually boycott all things Israeli. But that fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of the BDS movement. Let’s imagine you’re some left-leaning Christian denomination. You’ve recently sent some of your ministers to the West Bank and they’ve come back appalled because, well, most people who see the occupation up close come back appalled. They want to do something. Their local BDS activists tell them to boycott Israel. Their local Jewish organizational officials tell them that doing so would be anti-Semitic.

Right now, they have no way to oppose Israel’s occupation without opposing Israel’s existence. Zionist BDS offers them that alternative. Without it, the Jewish organizations may pressure them into not boycotting Israel this year, but every time they go back and see the settlements expanding further, they’ll be more inclined to do so. And the more they see the one state reality that settlements are creating, the more they’ll embrace for practical reasons what BDS activists embrace for ideological ones: a future that dismantles Israel as a Jewish state.

The final argument against my New York Times op-ed is that because anti-Semites have boycotted Jews, Jews should never boycott Jews. As Jeff Goldberg declared on twitter, “anti-Jewish boycotts? I know where this ends?” He does? The problem with Jeff’s argument is that Jews boycott Jews all the time. My Zion Square colleague Raphael Magarik offers a few examples.