Three Cheers for a Settlement Boycott

The backlash against Peter Beinart's principled call for Jewish Americans to boycott Israeli settlement goods mirrors a debate that has been raging within the pro-Palestinian community. While many Jewish Americans, including those who are highly critical of the settlements, have reacted angrily to Beinart's idea and reject the notion of any boycott of any Israelis whatsoever, in pro-Palestinian circles the debate has been whether or not to boycott all of Israel or to focus on the occupation and the settlements.

For several years now I have been strongly advocating robust boycotts aimed at the apparatus of the occupation and settlement goods, but not against Israel as such.

This position has been based on two essential understandings: first, that a generalized boycott against Israel would find few takers in the United States; and second, that such a boycott would unite Israelis and play into the hands of those who argue that “the future of the settlements is the same as the future of Tel Aviv.” This stance has won me considerable condemnation from many supporters of the BDS movement.

I've also argued that grassroots boycott campaigns that are disconnected from the policies of the Palestinian national leadership are pointless: any momentum they generate cannot be translated into political gains. The Palestinian Authority has not only supported settlement good boycotts, it has enforced them by law in areas under PA control in the occupied territories. This was wise and overdue, as it is unjust and unreasonable for Palestinians to continue underwrite the colonization of their own lands by purchasing goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements. But the Palestinian national leadership has not supported generalized boycotts against Israel for numerous reasons, not least of which that ultimately they must negotiate a peace agreement with the State of Israel.

Some of Beinart's critics have argued that a Jewish American boycott of settlement goods is unjustifiable because they say “Palestinian intransigence” is the primary reason for the lack of peace. David Frum has even argued that the settlements are the consequence of such supposed intransigence, not a cause of it. But he has never explained how that justifies continued settlement expansion. His argument is a total non sequitur: how does Palestinian intransigence justify settlements?

In fact, Israel's settlement activities are incompatible with a viable, reasonable peace agreement with the Palestinians. Every settlement expansion increases the size and power of the Israeli constituency with a vested interest in opposing territorial compromise and makes any potential border more difficult to draw. Moreover, settlement activity is clearly illegal under black letter international law, most importantly Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention is a human rights instrument designed to protect civilians. Settlement activity is prohibited because it is a human rights violation against those living under occupation, who have a right not to have their lands seized and given to other people.

Others, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, have expressed queasiness about the idea because of the bitter history of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic boycotts in the past. The argument is essentially a tribalist one, that Jews should not be pitted against other Jews. However, everyone interested in peace will need to see beyond bitter histories and be prepared to pay serious prices to end the conflict. Indeed, Jews need to confront other Jews, as Arabs need to confront other Arabs, to stop policies, actions and rhetoric that are making peace unattainable. Refusing to do so on the basis of ethnic solidarity is an unprincipled copout.

Moreover, in a 2011 New York Times op-ed I co-authored with Goldberg, we argued that, "It is understandable that Palestinians are supporting boycotts of products made in settlements... since the settlements are illegitimate and must not be legitimized." Why, then, would it not be equally understandable for Jewish Americans to take the same position?

The American Task Force on Palestine has a long history of taking principled stances against Palestinian and other Arab actions and rhetoric that undermine peace. However the organization has supported a settlement goods boycott. In 2010, ATFP President Ziad Asali wrote “We have also supported nonviolent protest efforts such as popular boycott of settlement goods that call attention to the important and undeniable distinction between Israel itself on the one hand and the occupation and the settlements on the other hand. Some Israelis are not comfortable with this distinction and see such efforts as part of a delegitimization campaign. We respectfully disagree. The occupation is not and cannot be synonymous with Israel since the occupation must end for peace to be accomplished."

The final objection to Beinart's proposal is that it won't work. But why not? Every effective BDS action I am aware of to date has been clearly linked to the occupation. One of the biggest problems in pursuing peace is that Israeli society feels little pain from the occupation and mainstream Israelis have no incentive to confront the powerful and belligerent settlement movement. Boycotts that focus clearly on the occupation and settlements are vital to getting the Israeli majority to understand that even its friends vehemently object to settlement activity and underscoring the distinction between the occupation and Israel itself.

Opponents of Beinart's call at the very least need to propose a viable alternative that can achieve these effects. If they don't have one, they should either admit that they prefer allowing settlement activity to go forward, or they should think again.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article listed the year of Goldberg and Ibish's op-ed as 2001; the actual year was 2011. The article has been corrected to reflect this fact.