The recent boycott resolutions of CUPE and NATFHE against Israel’s Apartheid predictably awakened Israel’s willing apologists, initiating a high pitched chorus of condemnation and self pity across the Western media, not to mention the blogosphere.
Their arguments, however, are flimsy, not to say rotten. I’ll review them one at a time.
But first a clarification. The boycott/divestment/sanctions (BDS) campaign is a very diverse campaign. Each organization has its own specific criticism of what it condemns. Israel’s offensive policies of colonization in the West Bank and Gaza are the common denominator, but some organizations go beyond that. Likewise, each organization has a different take on what action its members should undertake. But all agree on the need for and appropriateness of some kind of collective action that puts pressure on Israel. I have my own take on both these questions -- what to condemn and how to respond -- but my following remarks address only the broad consensus.
1. Boycotting Israel is hypocritical. There are many other and worse human rights violators. Why aren’t these organizations boycotting the UK for occupying Iraq or Russia for its massive slaughter of Chechens?
If a group were to participate in the BDS campaign against Israel while supporting the invasion of Iraq and the massacres in Chechnya, such a group would probably be hypocritical, or at least seriously confused. Are there such groups? I am not aware of any. But if they do exist, they should indeed rethink their stance.
However, there is no direct line from condemnation to choice of action. When considering what action to endorse, a group must take into account other considerations beyond the moral wrongness of what is being condemned.
Responsibility. Are Russian academics involved in the Russian occupation of Chechnya the way Israeli academics are involved in legitimizing Apartheid? Obviously not. If some Israeli apologists believe the opposite, they are welcome to make the case. The case for the complicity of Israeli academia has been persuasively made.
Practicality. Is it practical to try to influence US policy in Iraq through a boycott of US academics? Clearly not. Israel’s small academic world is vulnerable and therefore susceptible to pressure. The British boycott resolution already succeeded in scuttling a proposed cooperation between Hebrew University and the Israeli Security apparatus. There is no point in trying to use the same tactics against the U.S. That is unfortunate. But taking an all or nothing attitude to human rights -- which is what some of Israel’s apologists demand -- is silly. Not to mention the real hypocrisy of those who call attention to human right violations in Sudan or Russia without having any demonstrable interest in human rights at all, but rather out of the desire to defend human rights violations.
Saliency: Most of the organizations that call to boycott Israel have their own different missions that are not focused on the Middle East. Each has to consider the role solidarity with Palestinians and pressure on Israel plays in its overall position and the way it reflects its identity and specific goals. Those groups committed to defending human right are completely within their rights, for example, to consider that Israel damages the framework of humanitarian law more than China does, even though China has jailed more people than Israel has. Israel’s democratic rhetoric and its claim to be a beacon of civilization and morality mean that the occupation in Palestine doesn’t merely violates human rights, it relaxes and degrades the principles of human rights in a way no other rogue state does.
Local leadership: Like most strategies of collective action, the boycott/divestment/sanctions campaign depends on broad consensus. The first requirement for such a consensus to form successfully is that the campaign be actively supported and demanded by the victims, in this case Palestinians. At least for now, there is neither an Iraqi nor a Chechnyan boycott campaign or even demand. Palestinians, on the other hands, are leading the boycott/divestment/sanctions campaign against Israel. Also important is the vocal support from a minority of Israeli groups that support Palestinian rights. This is similar to the way the South African campaign was led by the ANC and was supported by an activist minority of White South Africans. Without local leadership, a campaign lacks legitimacy and is less likely to take hold. Groups are therefore fully justified in taking that in consideration when deciding their priorities.
Tailoring different responses to different transgressions based on complex considerations is not necessarily hypocritical, although it can be. The more appropriate adjective in this particular case is “thoughtful.”
2. The comparison between Israel and South Africa is misguided. Israel is very different and not as bad as South Africa.
“Apartheid” means “separation” and so does “Hafrada,” the Hebrew term for the current policy of Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians. But nobody claims that Israel is “the same” as South Africa. A glance to the globe is enough to ascertain that the two are indeed different countries, and therefore have different, unique and specific histories and institutions. What we claim, however, is that the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the current regime in Israel have a number of significant common traits, and that these common traits are repugnant.
This is not the place to engage in that substantive debate. For those who wish to deepen their knowledge of the issue, Chris McGreal provides an excellent introduction in The Guardian. But one does remark that Israel’s defenders are not in a very good position to argue now that the regime in Israel is not as repugnant as South Africa was. In fact, Israel’s apologists today are often the same groups that used to defend the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Zionist organizations feted the similarities between Afrikaners and Jews, the Anti-Defamation League, for example, even spied on anti-Apartheid activists in the U.S. Israel, for its part, supported South Africa’s nuclear program and later helped it evade sanctions. On the other hand, South African Black and Jewish anti-Apartheid activists who visited the West Bank said that the conditions of Palestinians were similar or even worse than what Blacks endured under Apartheid.
Who has more credibility on the subject of how repugnant the Israeli brand of “Hafrada” is, Abe Foxman, head of an organization that supported Apartheid in South Africa, or the victim of Apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu?
3. Putting pressure on Israel is one-sided and therefore unfair. It would be better to encourage both sides to engage each other in dialogue.
Israel’s apologists have a simple narrative about the history of the relations between Jews and Palestinians. In that narrative, Jews came to Palestine with open palms, and have tried ever since to achieve peaceful co-existence with Palestinians, only to be repeatedly rebuffed by hostile and belligerent Palestinians. Base on that narrative, Israel’s apologists demand more “dialogue,” and excuse all Israel’s actions as self-defense.
Unfortunately for them, nobody else accepts that fairy tale today. Actual history is very different. Since the very beginning, the Zionist leadership was clear about its intention to displace and dispossess Palestinians to make way for a Jewish state. That goal had been largely accomplished in 1948. Thereafter, Israel found the status quo comfortable, and saw no urgency in resolving its conflict with the Palestinians. At every occasion, Israeli leaders expressed disinterest in peace. Ben Gurion said the solution for the Palestinian problem would be that Palestinians would become “human dust.” Moshe Dayan told them after the 1967 occupation, “we have no solution, you will continue to live like dogs.” Golda Meir said there was no need for dialogue because “there is no Palestinian people.” Begin and Shamir refused to negotiate on Palestinian rights in the face of serious U.S. pressure. Begin even invaded Lebanon to avoid having to talk with Arafat (who had already agreed to a “two state solution” in 1974.) After Oslo, despite their lip service to advancing a “two state solution,” Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak have all refused to evacuate a single settlement. All three built new settlements, Barak being the most industrious. At no point has any Israeli leader agree to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in full, not to mention to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees.
The evacuation of Gaza, contrary to the fairy tale, is not a withdrawal at all. Israel is still the occupying force in Gaza. The situation of Gaza today is in fact the closest Israel comes to the full South African Apartheid model; Gaza is an effective separate Bantustan under full Israeli military control. Finally, Olmert’s latest plans for “unilateral separation” in the West Bank point in the same intensified Apartheid direction.
Those who might fear that this historical excursus is threading stale water should consider how Sharon’s advisor Dov Weissglass recently described the purpose of evacuating the settlements from Gaza:
“…we succeeded in removing the issue of the political process from the agenda. And we educated the world to understand that there is no one to talk to.…As long as there is no one to talk to, the geographic status quo remains intact….. [until] Palestine becomes Finland.”
There you have it succinctly. Israel’s consistent policy is to avoid dialogue in order to maintain its domination. Based on this analysis, peace can only be advanced by putting pressure on Israel. This is exactly the purpose of the divestment, boycott and sanctions campaign.
4. The boycott advocates are anti-Semitic.
Writing in the Boston Globe, Reason magazine’s Cathy Young insinuates that Mona Baker is guilty of anti-Semitism.
Young’s evidence: Baker says that in the U.S., “Zionist lobbies are extremely powerful with both Congress and the media.” Apparently, according to Young, you’re either an anti-Semite or an idiot. Because only an idiot would argue with what Baker said.
Young’s smear, to put it mildly, is despicable, but very much de rigeur in almost every standard apology for Israel. Dear Ms. Young, please read the first half of Norman Finkelstein’s book, Beyond Chutzpah, and copy the following sentence 500 times in your notebook: “I will not use accusations of anti-Semitism to smear critics of Israel and Zionism.”
Now, there are certainly a few lost souls out there whose motive for supporting Palestinian rights is anti-Semitism. It’s a pity. They are the mirror image of the Zionists who support human rights in Sudan for the sole purpose of deflecting attention from Israel. We wish both kinds of bigots full recovery. But we won’t stop eating Broccoli if we discovered that it was Hitler’s own favorite food. Nor should we stop supporting Palestinian rights because David Duke support them too.
Besides, outside the fervid imagination of Israel’s willing apologists, the problem of real anti-Semitism is negligible. To gauge how negligible it is, consider that in 2003, the ADL, which is supposed to lead the struggle against anti-Semitism, honored former Italian PM Berlusconi, weeks after the latter made sympathetic remarks about Mussolini -- Hitler’s sidekick in World War II -- a dictator who enacted race laws and sent Jews to the death camps. Furthermore, taking into consideration the Christian Zionist right in the U.S. and the anti-Muslim right in Europe, I think it is safe to say that there are more anti-Semites among Israel’s friends than among those who express solidarity with Palestinians.
Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer who writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Gabriel Ash
The Israel Lobby
and Chomsky’s Reply
* Dear Ayatollah
* Settlements: A User’s Guide
* A Victory for Israeli Democracy
* Don’t Get Mad, Get Going!
* Pink Delusions