Ironically, the boycott movement actually expresses some level of faith in Israeli democracy by assuming a little pressure might motivate it to change.
When the most recent flotilla set sail for Gaza to protest Israel’s eight-year blockade, Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote an open letter to the activists. In a tone dripping with sarcasm, he suggested they had taken a wrong turn on the way to Syria. It’s part of a theme repeated obsessively: “there are worse violations elsewhere, but no one ever protests them. Therefore, protesting the occupation on behalf of Palestinians is hypocritical, anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Therefore, it can be ignored.” Nowhere is this argument more prominent than as a response to boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) efforts against Israel.
At first glance, it is a genuinely troubling point. No one who claims to care about human rights should sleep at night knowing what is happening to millions of Syrians who are and have been uprooted, and the hundreds of thousands who have been butchered – for a start.
The problem is not that liberals don’t care. The problem is that the accusations of global indifference are simply false. Whether you support or despise the boycott of Israel, it’s time to stop writing it off as hypocrisy.
Start with sanctions. The U.S. and Europe have both placed sanctions on Iran for human rights violations, not just for nuclear research. International sanctions to end human rights violations began long before the putative “singling out” of Israel, even before the occupation.
In 1965, Britain placed sanctions on Rhodesia; then in 1966, the UN Security Council for the first time in its history authorized international sanctions against the white minority government, for the next 14 years, until Rhodesia created a fairer government and became Zimbabwe. (Israel, incidentally, was one of the countries that did not respect the sanctions – displaying at least moral and political consistency.)
The UN imposed sanctions against Iraq (1990, for its treatment of Kuwaitis during the invasion) and against Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, for its treatment of ethnic minorities. In those cases, sanctions preceded international military intervention, something that has never remotely been on the table in the West’s treatment of Israel.
Numerous other countries perpetrating egregious human rights violations, such as Sudan, Somalia and Sierra Leone have been placed under international sanction regimes. Including, yes, Syria. The charge of “singling out” Israel is dead wrong.
What about boycott efforts that seem to be catching fire among academics and cultural figures? Why don’t they take aim at North Korea, or at ISIS?
First, celebrities probably wish to support what they perceive as the underdog, the party in need of attention, which they can bring. For most of the decades under occupation, Israel’s narrative reigned in the West. Palestinian people were essentially ignored, written off wholesale as terrorists, and their claims and experiences of life under occupation misunderstood, if noticed at all. The last decade of attention to Palestinian reality is essentially a pendulum swing in their direction.
Celebrities may not feel the global attention they command is needed on behalf of ISIS victims. We all agree that being drowned, beheaded, pushed off a building or burned with acid is evil.
Second, it’s attractive to work for a cause where there’s a possibility you can actually make a change. North Korea is an impenetrable fortress that scoffs at arguments of democracy and human rights, if it notices them at all.
But precisely because Israel has a democratic ethos, because it is part of the West and in dialogue with it, activists reasonably believe gains can be made. They’re right. If Israel wants to be more democratic toward all the people it controls, it surely has the political culture in place to do so. The claim to democracy also makes the nearly 50-year occupation so much more offensive.
But there’s an even simpler reason why students, celebrities, academics, and some individuals call to boycott Israel instead of other places: Palestinians asked them to.
The Global BDS movement is certainly problematic. There is a gap between its stated policy goals, and the implication supporters sometimes convey that only erasing Israel will suffice. BDS activists can be aggressive and coercive. Boycott efforts – specifically those in the West Bank – could hurt Palestinians more than anyone else, by taking jobs away from average people on the front line.
Those are major flaws. But just as Israel expects its supporters to “stand with us” despite Israel’s flaws, some Palestinians are asking people around the world for support despite the flaws of its movement. The South African anti-apartheid movement immolated collaborators. That didn’t stop Western governments and corporations, and everyone in my high school, from proudly joining in the boycott of South Africa. We didn’t hate South African whites and boycotters today are not automatically anti-Semites. They just figure solidarity counts, and boycott is how the Palestinians they encounter have asked them to help.
Anyway, what are the other options? Should supporters of Palestinian freedom protest occupation the way the occupying power wants them to? In fact Israel rejects all forms of protest on this issue. Violence is of course wrong. Diplomatic action is considered an anti-Israel plot. Unarmed grassroots demonstrations in West Bank towns week after week are met with tear gas, blasts of putrid water, arrests and sometimes death. Failed negotiations are invariably and entirely blamed on Palestinians. Boycott is called “economic terrorism” – and, of course, hypocrisy.
If the boycott movement is accused of wishing to erase Israel, aggressive “pro-Israel” messagers seek to erase the occupation from our minds. Defenders of Israel’s policies must answer that charge if they expect a reasonable position from BDS.
Otherwise, activists will continue to view Israel as hypocritical: a democracy that holds people in chains. A country that could change, precisely because it is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” In a strange sense (probably one they didn’t intend), their protests show faith that Israel will ultimately honor its democratic values if pushed just a little harder, or if they can point out the internal contradiction to Israelis who simply cannot see it.
Some activists don’t just wish to mouth off opinions. They want something to do, even if it’s not perfect. For any other cause, we would probably find that commendable.