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Israeli liberals are not the right audience for anti-occupation activists

Bernard Avishai thinks that BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) is mostly ineffective, and so do I. But our reasoning is not only different – it actually relies on completely opposite premises about the role of liberal and cosmopolitan elites in Israeli society. This is the first in a series of posts about those elites.

Bernard Avishai’s basic argument against divestment in international companies implicated in the occupation of the Palestinian territories is highly confused, verging on the bizarre. He seems to imply that these companies are incapable of distinguishing between the products they sell to the settlements or the IDF, and the products they sell to other Israelis. By this logic, any successful divestment campaign will force these companies to cease doing business in Israel altogether. While this argument is true for some companies, it is untrue for the vast majority, which can easily stop doing business with the occupation, while continuing other operations in Israel. In fact, that is exactly what happened on several occasions.

But this easily refutable claim is the less interesting component in Avishai’s opposition to divestment campaigns against international companies. The truly fascinating element in his analysis is the section about the positive impact of these corporations on Israeli society (emphasis mine):

But if you cause Israel’s private sector to implode, or cause Israeli universities to be internationally isolated, you will be ruining the lives of the very people who are most likely to be advocating for liberal equality and cosmopolitan values in Israeli society… Motorola’s impact on Tel Aviv is more like MIT’s on Cambridge than the United Fruit Company’s on Guatemala. I lived in Israel in the early 1970s, before Israeli commercial life globalized. The country’s commercial life today is incomparably more liberal and cosmopolitan than it was then, although there is much stronger proto-fascist minority today than there was then. My fear is that the more we undermine liberal forces through things like divestment and boycott, the faster the ranks of liberal Israel will be depleted, and the more we are ceding the field to the cultists and fanatics.

This is not the first time that Avishai has made the distinction between Israeli liberals, on the one hand, and proto-fascists, cultists and fanatics, on the other hand. Despite their vast ideological differences, you can hear the same position from Jeffery Goldberg, although he makes it in much blunter and more prejudiced terms. But I even hear echoes of this sentiment in the words of people I greatly respect, like my BDS-supporting colleague Joseph Dana.

In his excellent article, extolling the virtues of BDS, Joseph argues that the youth of Tel Aviv might be forced to pay attention to the evils of the occupation if their favorite performers cancel their concerts because of it. In response, I countered that these youth do not have much influence, and truly powerful elites are actually strengthening their international connections. But there is broader point to make here, one that addresses a common thread that connects the widely divergent thinking of Joseph, Avishai and Goldberg.

For all of them, the target audience is the “liberal” and “cosmopolitan” section of Israeli society. Avishai opposes BDS because it will weaken this group, and Joseph supports it because it will pressure this group. And this is only natural: they focus on this audience because it is their natural milieu (as well as mine).

Nonetheless, in my opinion, they are making a fundamental error. Israeli cosmopolitans and liberals are one of the last groups that would support an end to the occupation, and they are not in the midst of a struggle with cultists, fanatics and proto-fascists. In fact, the occupation, despite being one of the worst evils in Israel today, does not mark the true line of division in Israeli society and politics. The seeming rivalry surrounding it masks tacit alliances and cooperations which are much more important, and sometimes place “liberals” and “fanatics” on the same side, against the interests of less visible groups in Israeli society.

These alliances, and the place of Israeli liberals in this context, will be the subject of the next post in this series.

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    1. Ben Israel

      We’ll have to wait and see what you say in your following columns, but if you are going to suggest that BDS somehow directly confront the settlers, that leads me to the following question regarding the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations, which are also confronting the settlers directly.
      In Sheikh Jarrah, the Jews who moved into the formerly Arab dwelling were doing that within Israeli law as ruled by an Israeli court. Whether the Left likes it or not, the house is in sovereign Israeli territory and Israel’s courts have full jurisdiction there, as the state of Israel sees it. The Jewish presence there is not like the supposedly “illegal outposts” in Judea/Samaria. I pointed this out to Bernard Avishai. He says the protests are taking place because the law in which the ruling was made is not “fair” because it allows Jews to reclaim former possessions in Jerusalem, but Arab refugees who fled in 1948 are not allowed to reclaim their property. I then pointed out that Avishai’s gripe is then not with Jews in Sheikh Jarrah but rather with the Israeli court system and the Knesset which passes the laws. I then asked if it wouldn’t be more logical if the demostrations be held in front of the Israeli Supreme Court building or the Knesset. I don’t recall what his answer was but I said the REAL reason that the demonstrations are at the houses and NOT in front of the Court or the Knesset was for the simple reason that NO ONE would come to the those demonstrations. The “fun” of the demonstrations comes from confronting the alien bearded, kippa-wearing settlers and that is what generates the adrenalin which keeps the demonstrations going.
      However, the organizers have to ask themselves the question-are the demonstrations eventually going to drive the Jews out of the building? Of course not, even if the demonstrations go on for years.
      So this leads to the question which will be asked if you indeed think BDS should be directed straight at the settlers and whether you think whatever discomfort they may cause will bring about the situation of the Jews abandoning Judea/Samaria. All I know is that several waves of terrorism directed at them has failed to do it.

      Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      Ben Israel’s argument is quite sound. The settlements are no aberration outside Israeli policy, they lie at its heart, in its most fundamental institutions. These are the proper target of any sanctions.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Forgive me, for I do not know where “Sheikh Jarrah” is located. If it lies in occupied territory (e.g., occupied East Jerusalem), then it is not inside Israeli sovereign territory, whatever Israeli courts may say. indeed, if it lies within occupied territory (as the ICJ and UNSC interpret the law), then it is “occupied” whatever the Israeli courts may say.

      I favor the widest possible BDS against all Israeli businesses and cultural and sports contacts WITHOUT REGARD to how Israeli liberals, leftists, rightists, slaves, masters, etc., will “take” it. I believe in one key fact — Israel is a democracy for its Jews and if its Jews are hurt by BDS, they have the means to react by re-examining the occupation project.

      People and nations (and Israel is no exception) do not give up power without struggle. BDS is the name of the non-violent non-governmental struggle at this point. I hope that a government-level BDS will soon emerge. Civil protest is too weak to do much, but it just might help “tilt” governments into undertaking government-level BDS sanctions.

      Israel does not respond to “nice talk” or “appeals to decency”. some sort of real struggle is necessary, or the occupation will last forever, or until global warming or tsunamis (hell or high water) intervene.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Leonid Levin

      Interesting. I’m intrigued and look forward to your next post.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Y.

      Avishai’s basic argument about BDS seems sound: A BDS on the settlements alone has an no chance of being more than a minor irritant at most. Ergo, the only possibly successful BDS route involves the entire country and this is where it will be headed to. Avishai feels the latter boycott type would fail, which IMHO seems accurate.
      The settlements are not over some dark, nigh-impassable mountains. They are usually merely minutes away from the Green Line. At worst, settlers can drive or sometimes even walk across, and this excludes all the jobs who do not require external markets and also all the other support they can get. So they can earn income easily even if a BDS vs them alone had very high levels of support. The reverse (buying stuff) seems trivial once one has money, and given imports to Israel would not be affected in this scenario.
      I recall Channel 10 did a show about the boycotts not too long ago. They interviewed a farmer in the Jordan Valley. He complained for a while about the boycotts. Then the interviewer asked him how much have his business’s exports expanded recently. Answer? 10 to 15 percent…

      Reply to Comment