Why I Oppose a Boycott, Mostly

A one-of-a-kind forum on the proposed academic boycott of Israel and the BDS movement, featuring Russell Berman, Colin Dayan, Noura Erakat, David Lloyd, David Myers, Cary Nelson, David Palumbo-Liu, and Judea Pearl.

March 16, 2014

    This is one of eight essays we published today on "Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott." Click here to read the others. 

    THERE ARE FEW QUESTIONS I desire to answer less than this: do I support a boycott of Israel, or some variation of the now-familiar BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement? At the juncture of the two main worlds in which I dwell, the American university and the universe of progressive Jewish politics, the boycott question persistently lurks, hovering like an unwelcome stranger at the corner near your house — as is his right, and to your increasing discomfort.

    Would that we could just will the unwelcome stranger away! But alas, we can’t. The reality beneath which the boycott question rests — Israel-Palestine tout court — is too morally and politically urgent to ignore. In thinking about it, we are, alas, poorly served by the shrill town criers in the opposing camps. There are those among the “Israel advocacy” crowd who vehemently oppose the boycott because they believe that Israel is a beacon of ethical virtue in the world and incapable of anything more than the slightest misdeed. And there are those among the BDS crowd who seem to regard Israel as the only or most egregious criminal actor in the international order. Between these two unreasonable positions lies what I consider the sane center, where one can be fully cognizant of the destructive nature of Israel’s occupation, the unsavory nature of Palestinian politics, and the unhealthy interplay between the two.

    Although some of the best arguments I can muster are in favor of a boycott, I end up opposed to most forms of it. It is not just because of an instinctual resistance to beating up on my own tribe, to which I am deeply and unabashedly connected. (Though I often best that instinct, as angry readers in the local Jewish Journal remind me.) Rather, it is because of the unfair and misplaced passion of BDS advocates who, with laser-like precision, home in on one — and, it seems, only one — issue in a world crumbling under the weight of moral blights. I intend to explain my own calculus at greater length, but first I beg your indulgence to illustrate, via a recent local episode, the lack of nuance that commonly clouds just about everybody’s judgment in thinking about Israel-Palestine. 

    Around a month ago, on February 6 this year, a blast of graffiti defaced a colorful mural on the southern wall of the headquarters of the Workmen’s Circle on the corner of Robertson and Horner in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The mural depicts an array of scenes conveying the quest for equality and justice consistent with the Jewish socialist origins of the organization. In the center of the mural stands a luminous menorah, at the base of which is a broken chain signifying the shattering of the shackles of oppression. Anchoring the mural are two textual inscriptions that reflect the optimism and sense of purpose of the Workmen’s Circle: At the bottom left is a Yiddish line that reads: “A more beautiful and better world.” At the top right is the well known Hebrew verse (from Deuteronomy 16:20): “Justice, justice thou shall pursue.” 

    The graffito that appeared in large white letters on the bottom part of the colorful mural, created by Filipino-American artist Eliseo Silva, read: “Free Palestine!!!!” This is a sentiment with which I find myself in agreement during most of my waking hours, but not as a defacement of a historical mural — and one belonging to an organization such as the Workmen’s Circle at that. The group, which once had some 70,000 members throughout North America, has its origins in the Jewish socialist movement of the turn of the century. Blending a commitment to secular Yiddish culture and strong support for the rights of workers, the Workmen’s Circle and affiliated Yiddish socialist organizations were aligned with the Bund, the Jewish nationalist group that focused its efforts on life in the Diaspora, in stark contrast to its sworn rival, Zionism. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, this once-powerful collection of Yiddish socialists has dwindled to a small number of old-timers and younger sympathizers who have tempered the organization’s historical opposition to Zionism, transforming it into robust support for a two-state solution that positions them on the left of the American Jewish spectrum. In light of this history, there is a certain irony in defacing the building of a onetime anti-Zionist Jewish organization that now embraces a strongly dovish position on Israel-Palestine. For its part, the local Workmen’s Circle issued a statement declaring that “[o]ur organization, both nationally and locally, has spoken out consistently in favor of a two-state solution and full equal rights for Palestinians.” 

    That the defacers failed to grasp not only the redemptive message of the mural but also the Workmen’s Circle’s strong support for Palestinian rights is a reflection of their inability to perceive nuance. Granted, it is too much to ask the mural vandals to have a textured grasp of the particular history and values of this admittedly obscure organization. But we can and should insist on more nuance from those in the BDS community, who sometimes equate all things Jewish with all things Zionist (and Zionist in the most negative light). Indeed, if champions of the Palestinian cause want to make good on their claim that they know the difference between being anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, then they should understand why defacing the Workmen’s Circle’s mural is wrong. If they do not evince that understanding, then they are guilty of ignorance, at best, and Jewish group stereotyping, at worst.

    But supporters of BDS do not hold a monopoly on ignorance. Later in the day on February 6, after the initial defacement, an opposing pair of graffiti bandits superimposed on the word “Free” the word “Fuck,” yielding “Fuck Palestine!!!!” One can surmise that the responsible parties here belonged to those elements within the Jewish community who harbor reactionary and even racist views about Palestinians. Often branding themselves supporters or “advocates” of Israel, they in fact paint that country into a corner while denying the most rudimentary rights to the Palestinian people.

    Free:Fuck Palestine

    And so there displayed, on a mural on the corner of Robertson and Horner in West Los Angeles in early February, was a concentrated and graphic representation of much that is wrong with the way the Israel-Palestine conflict is perceived by its competing sides: noble sentiments wrapped in objectionable framing, dubious morality masquerading as exalted principle, near-total inattention to contextual nuance, and a proud unwillingness to perceive the humanity or complexity of the other. It is this combination of qualities that helps stew the pot of BDS and makes it so complicated and often compromised a proposition. 

    To wit, some supporters of BDS, and here I have in mind one of its chief spokespeople, Omar Barghouti, have a caricatured view of Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement that sought to bring Jews back to their ancestral homeland from the early 1880s. On this view, the aim of Zionism, from the outset, was colonialist control, exploitation, and displacement. Let it be said, undeniably, that there were colonialist elements in Zionism, though more of the settler colonial than metropole colonial model. Let it also be said that the “return “of Zionists to the ancestral homeland coincided with — and was causally linked to — the exile of Palestinian Arabs. But the intent of Zionism was not, in the first instance, to displace the local Arab population. It was to provide a place of refuge for the Jewish people to live a healthy and secure national life in a time of rising anti-Semitism. This ambition was not harbored by Zionists alone as part of some delusional fantasy. It won the approbation of major international authorities and powers, who came to see it as the best (albeit an imperfect) solution to a set of intractable problems, ranging from the British issuance of the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 to the United Nations General Assembly resolution of November 1947 to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. 

    Some within the BDS movement forget or distort — or perhaps simply do not know — this history, mistaking the events of the 1880s for the events of 1948. Some even go so far as to insist in a rather audacious arrogation of authority that Jews are not a “people” at all. Rather, Jews, they declare, are members of a religious faith only, and thus have no legitimate claim to national self-determination. This would come as a surprise to the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Jews who, in the crucial and bloodstained period from 1897 to 1945, understood themselves — and were globally understood by others — to be a nation. 

    But once again, ignorance on one side is mirrored by ignorance on the other. The Israel “advocates” who most vigorously oppose the Palestinian cause, including BDS, blithely dismiss the searing trauma of Palestinian national identity, the “Nakba,” which entailed the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arabs native to Palestine, including through expulsion by Israeli forces, during the war of 1948. Israel “advocates” have moved seamlessly from outright denial of expulsions to justification of them as a necessary consequence of war. In neither case is the slightest concern evinced for the actual victims, the refugees of 1948.

    In related fashion, the “advocates” explain away Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands conquered during the 1967 war. Sometimes, they deny, in a move parallel to that of their ideological opposites, that the Palestinians are actually a people (emboldened by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s infamous statement to this effect in 1969). Sometimes, they resort to the head-scratching tactic of denying that it is an occupation, an assertion that flies in the face of an overwhelming preponderance of international legal opinion. And sometimes, they maintain that Israel must preserve its security interests, including in the West Bank, in light of the fact that there is no credible partner for peace. Alas, this is not entirely baseless, since the Palestinians have not yet developed a mature and functioning political culture or leadership structure to advance their legitimate claims for self-determination. (Rather than spending so much attention on incitement against Israel, a phenomenon that is real and corrosive, the Palestinians would do well to fortify their own institutions of governance and civil society.) At the same time, Israel, as the dominant power in the region, continues to perpetuate its favorite self-fulfilling prophecy that “there is no partner” for peace negotiations. In this sense, the Zionist project has readily assumed the rights of power but neglected the responsibilities contained therein.


    Where does this leave us? Incomprehension, disdain, and deafness abound on both sides. The considerable truth and justice that inhere in both national narratives remain blocked from view, entrenched behind towering walls of denial. Both parties are wedded to their enmity for the other — two Semitic brothers, Jacob and Esau, locked in combat, neither able to finish off the other. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, at least on a two-state solution. The longer that Israel’s 47-year occupation remains (with an ever-expanding settler population of over half a million), the more difficult it will be to erect a territorially viable Palestinian state.

    It is in this dire setting that the boycott question arises with new urgency. On the face of it, it is hard to deny the legitimacy of a peaceful means of protest, especially against the occupation. If one does not favor recourse to violence (which all too often has included attacks on innocent civilians), what means are left to protest the occupation in a meaningful way? This is a compelling question, made all the more so by the fact that many advocates of BDS are decent people seeking a long overdue measure of justice for the Palestinians. I too seek justice for the Palestinians, believing it to be a political and moral imperative of the highest order. Accordingly, I am often left pondering how I can fail to support this peaceful expression of protest against an unjust occupying regime.

    One of the foundations of my opposition to BDS, particularly to a sweeping boycott of Israel in cultural, political, and economic terms, is the selectivity of its focus. While many have challenged this criterion, arguing that it leads to a paralyzing abdication of moral responsibility, I cannot rid myself of a sense of the underlying unfairness. Were there a more global regime of sanctions imposed on state actors who violate international law or other established norms of decency, then Israel would very likely be included for punishment. But then, so would the United States and virtually every other member of the international community, each of which shares in responsibility for the present-day State of Israel and its policies — not to mention the many human rights violations committed against groups other than the Palestinians by the countries to which those wagging their fingers at Israel belong. In the end, if one were to follow the logic of moral responsibility rigorously, it’s hard not to avoid the conclusion that we all should be collectively boycotting ourselves. Perhaps one day a truly global accounting will come about. In the absence of such a consistent global accounting, it is hard to justify a boycott against Israel. Can one really single Israel out in a region with so many suitable contenders for censure? Iran, as we know, operates under a heavy dose of international sanctions to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Syria, too, has been subjected to some sanctions by the United States and the UN, even before its brutal civil war broke out and news surfaced of Bashar al-Assad’s criminal deployment of chemical weapons on August 21, 2013. But Egypt, after Mohamed Morsi was deposed as president on July 3, has received little more than a slap on the wrist despite its wholesale suspension of the democratic process. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Gulf states hardly have human rights records to boast of but answer to no sanctions regime. One might argue that a boycott of Israel can be effective and is necessary because the United States is such an important funder of its military. But would not the same logic apply to Egypt and the oil-producing countries just mentioned?

    Admittedly, this is a sordid and demeaning business — the comparison game. But it is required in order to shed light on the question of why BDS supporters train their attention only on Israel and ignore the violations of state actors situated all around its borders, not to mention those beyond the Middle East. Until that question is answered, I can’t support a global boycott against Israel.

    Nor, for that matter, can I support an academic boycott of Israel institutions, as was notably proposed last December by the American Studies Association (ASA). As I have argued elsewhere, Israeli universities are home to some of the most important and influential critics of the excesses of the Israeli government. Shortly after the ASA voted up a boycott resolution, I participated in a conference at Hebrew University in Jerusalem devoted to “What Went Wrong with Zionism Along the Way?” This is a conference that most likely could not be held at UCLA, and if so, only over howls of protest from the Jewish community. But this conference, which brought together staunch nationalists and anti- and post-Zionists, was held in the heart of the Israeli establishment, Hebrew University. It attests to the openness, the salutary and commendable openness, of Israeli academic institutions that are incubators of the kind of social and political critique that any healthy society requires. 

    The final and most difficult question revolves around a more selective boycott of Israel’s presence in the occupied territories. This proposal rests on a bright-line distinction between Israel within the pre-1967 Green Line and the Israel of the territories occupied during the Six-Day War of 1967 — what the author Peter Beinart characterizes as the divide between a democratic Israel and a nondemocratic Israel. Beinart proposes a “Zionist boycott” — that is, a boycott of products made by Jewish settlers at settlements or by Jewish-owned businesses in the occupied territories. Awareness of this form of protest came to wide public attention recently over the kerfuffle involving the actress Scarlett Johansson, who had signed on as a celebrity endorser of the SodaStream seltzer maker. The fact that SodaStream’s plant is located across the Green Line in Mishor Adumim generated considerable controversy over Johansson’s association with the product.

    A more local instance of this kind of limited action was the divestment resolution vetted by the Undergraduate Students Association Council at UCLA on February 26 this year. The resolution called on the University of California and UCLA to divest from five multinational companies that make materials or equipment used by the Israeli army in support of its military control over the West Bank.

    How should one think of such targeted actions? On the face of it, a resolution such as the USAC divestment proposal or a SodaStream boycott would seem entirely unobjectionable. Nonetheless, critics have mounted a range of challenges. First, the same logic of selectivity of focus that was discussed above comes into play. Are there serious calls to boycott Chinese, Russian, or even American products produced under dubious circumstances? Or those of countries involved in disputes over territory such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serbia and Kosovo, or India and Pakistan? Why the focus on Israel? A second claim, recently advanced by blogger Harris Silver, is that a boycott of SodaStream or like businesses may do more harm than good to those whom it is intended to help. That is, a boycott of settlement goods would bring to an end one of the few successful realms of Jewish-Arab coexistence by forcing the closure of a factory in which the two groups productively interact. A third argument that pushes in a different direction (toward wider sanctions against Israel) is that this kind of boycott fetishizes a line of demarcation, the Green Line, that has been rendered irrelevant by the presence of 500,000 Israeli settlers in the territories. If Israel has invested so much in the settlements, and if its presence in the West Bank will and cannot be uprooted, then it seems as if the distinction between a democratic and a nondemocratic Israel, as Peter Beinart proposes, no longer holds.

    Were one to accept all or some of these arguments against a limited boycott, one might be induced into a state of paralysis that effectively gives Israel carte blanche to continue its oppressive presence in the territories. But that is unacceptable. What then to do? First, as a general matter, one must insist on a much higher degree of contextual nuance than either side’s supporters evince (as was made clear at the local level by the serial vandalism of the Workmen’s Circle’s mural). The totalizing narrative that Zionism and Israel are the pure embodiments of colonialist evil, with few or no redeeming features, is reductionist to the point of the absurd. But so too is the totalizing narrative that Palestinians are a murderous band of terrorists who are chiefly responsible for their own fate. In fact, both groups possess rights, have truth in their national narratives, and are deserving of dignity and respect. 

    But second, and more to the point of a limited boycott, one must recognize that while both have rights, the two entrenched parties are not equal in strength. Israel is the stronger party, and it must take the first and major steps toward change. It must acknowledge, accept its share of responsibility for, and join in an international effort to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem. It must also take immediate steps to bring to an end its presence in the West Bank as a necessary precondition to the creation of a Palestinian state. If it does not, then pressure must be brought to bear by the only logical actor, its close ally, the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry’s veiled warning from early February that Israel will face growing delegitimization if it does not accept the overall framework for peace on which he is currently working was neither inaccurate nor inappropriate. Israel will and should face growing condemnation if it continues to control the lives of Palestinians in the territories in the way that it does through land expropriation, checkpoints, military incursions, and economic restrictions. President Obama, now in his second term and facing no more election campaigns, possesses the leverage to persuade and even force Israel to accept the terms of the impending Kerry framework — both as an essential step toward Palestinian sovereignty and as an act of salvation for Israel itself. If Israel resists, or if President Obama does not apply the requisite pressure by the end of this year, then a boycott of Israel’s settlements and commercial activity in the West Bank may have to be the necessary next step.


    David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and the Robert N. Burr Department Chair of the UCLA History Department. Among other books, he is the author of Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz.


    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!