Monday, June 21, 2010

Bernard Avishai: Targeted Sanctions, Yes; Boycott and Divestment, No

Bernard Avishai is one of few consistently interesting writers on Israel/Palestine On the left, yet a fervent capitalist, he is a strong advocate of transforming Israel from an ethnocracy with liberal trappings to a truly liberal democracy. So when he writes against the Boycott and Divestment movement (in the Nation, no less, and on his blog), using economic considerations upon which he is expert, his arguments deserve serious consideration.

He argues that divestment campaigns are counterproductive, just as they were counterproductive in the fight against apartheid in the 1980s. Citing an interview he once conducted with an anti-apartheid South African CEO, he comes to the conclusion that they undercut progressive forces in business and in education. These progressive forces include not only Israeli Jews, but, increasingly, members of the Palestinian sector who are secular and educated. If I understand Avishai here, boycott and divestment makes even less sense in the case of Israel than in the case of South Africa. For one thing it slows the globalization of Israeli commerce and industry, which will be to the detriment of the secular forces in society. He asks:

Who gains from economic decline and the inevitable consequence of most educated Israelis fleeing to, well, the Bay Area? Wouldn't the rightists, also about 40 percent, be most satisfied to see Israel become a little Jewish Pakistan?

Boycott and Divestment would accomplish driving Israel into an even greater siege mentality

How will B and D do anything but make all Israelis feel demonized and prone to apocalyptic thinking and ethnic cleansing? Already, polls suggest that the Israeli center, which is skeptical of the settlers, feels "the West" does not appreciate what it is like to live with suicide bombers and missile attacks.

Targeted sanctions, on the other hand, are something that Avishai supports:

Foreign governments might well ban consumer products like fruit, flowers and Dead Sea mineral creams and shampoos produced by Israelis in occupied territory, much as Palestinian retail stores do. The EU already requires Israel to distinguish products this way. If Israel continues building in East Jerusalem, and the UN Security Council majority sanctions Israeli tourism, the US government might well choose not to veto the resolution. The Pentagon might sanction, say, Israel Aerospace Industries if, owing to continued settlement, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations break down.

What's the difference between divestment and targeted sanctions? Divestment hurts the growth of the private sector, globalization, and the vision of a secular, liberal society. Targeted sanctions make maximum noise without really hurting the Israeli economy, at least not those necessary for progressive forces.

Bottom line:

Sanction the Israeli government for activities that obstruct peacemaking. Hurt the settlements. But boycott and divest from the private sector, and you maycreate an economic implosion. Israel's ratio of debt to GDP looks eerily like that of the weakest EU economies. Unlike Greece, Israel has a rising class of cosmopolitan entrepreneurs who have been politically complacent, especially during the second intifada and Bush administration. But only they can lead the country out of political crisis—and only if they can hold on to their prestige, which is itself rooted in international commerce. This prestige, after all, is what diplomatic "engagement" aims to achieve—does it not? We want the soft power of global markets to encourage the formation of more worldly business and professional classes everywhere, from Russia to Syria

End of piece.

My first reaction is that the global BD movement must have been a lot more successful than I thought for Avishai to get so worked up about it. He seems to think that the movement has the potential of truly emulating the South African BD. But I think that this is highly unlikely. Or perhaps he is gazing into a crystal ball and I am assessing the here and now. But the one effect today of the BDS movement is to serve as a wake-up call to the Israelis who always view themselves as moral exemplars. Or to put it another way, the BDS movement is there to embarrass Israel, to point out its flaws, to keep it in the news, and to reveal its nakedness. That it could seriously damage its economy is, at this stage, anyway, preposterous. Here's an analogy: thousands of Jews put pennies into the little blue charity-boxes of the Jewish National Fund in order to redeem the Land of Israel for the Jews. To this day I know Jews who think that a state was purchased through those pennies! Those boxes had as much effect on getting a Jewish state as BDS has on Israel's economic and intellectual resources – very little.

Yet that doesn't mean that BDS is ineffectual. On the contrary, to an Israeli populace that agonizes daily over its image in the world BDS is enormously important. And not just BDS. One boat with nine dead managed to do what thousands of rockets could not do – force Israel to life the economic embargo on Gaza.

Far from undercutting progressives, BDS – or if you will, BDS Lite -- emboldens them to stand up and say, "Hey, look we are really becoming something like apartheid; we are losing the human rights war; we have to do something."

Avishai talks like the economist that he is. I could agree with him that serious damage to Israel's economy in areas that are important to Palestinians and Israelis alike are not helpful. I also agree that mild US sanctions may have a greater impact than all the student governments on American campuses voting for divestment from Caterpillar.

But as I have written before, the global BDS movement, though economically symbolic, has psychological effect on Israel, and is sufficiently flexible that you can choose B with D and S, or S without B and D (as Avishai has done.) In fact, what he calls sanctions against settler companies I call boycott of settler companies.

That's enough for me to see Avishai and us on the same side of "smart BDS." Three hours before I read his piece in the Nation, I signed a petition calling for TIAA-CREF, my pension fund, to divest from certain companies that "benefit from the Occupation". The importance of this right now is not the divestment, which, I believe will not happen.

It's the petition itself.



Anonymous said...

Israel itself admits that the blockade of Gaza is meant to strangle its economy and punish its people. This is so well-known that Chuck Schumer can recite the same Israeli rationale to an Orthodox group in the US. Palestinians in the West Bank cannot travel and their economy is limited by Israeli control.

This being the case, why is it not appropriate for Israel to drink its own medicine? I no longer see any need for a tortured and nuanced discussion on BDS. I can't believe I was so blind for so long.

Murray Reiss said...

If the point of BDS is, indeed, psychological, you have to think about it psychologically. You have to ask yourself, how are most Israelis most likey to react to being publicly embarrassed? How do most people? How do you? With an admission of wrongness & guilt? Or with deeper entrenchment into their current attitudes? And to having their nakedness revealed? My guess would be, reach for their armour.

JM said...

Louis Proyect shares his thoughts too, alneit more harsh with him as a revolutionary marxist.

Y. Ben-David said...

I assume you saw the news that Israel is going to pretty much end the blockade of goods going into Gaza. Maybe you don't give the "peace camp" in the gov't (i.e. Barak with Peres cheering him on from the side) enough credit. Maybe Barak carried out the attack on the flotilla KNOWING it would lead to pressure on Israel to ease up. So at the price of nine dead, Gaza, HAMAS and the "peace camp" have benefitted. Similarly, maybe Barak deliberately intended to use massive firepower causeing extensive casualties in Gaza during the "Cast Lead" war KNOWING there would be a massive international outcry and Goldstone. For a price of several hundred dead, the world community (of "progressives" at least) is mobilizing against Israe, again, which is what you want.
You have to look a recent Israeli history with an open mind. Peres, Beilin and the "peace camp" have immense patience and they have known how to leverage violence which one would think would push the Israeli population to the Right (indeed as has been the case since Oslo in the 1990's) and yet to have Israel make more concessions. For example, they got, as a result of the massive suicide bombings to get the government, a RIGHT-WING government, to expel the Jews from Gush Katif, even though Sharon was elected explicitly with a platform not to do it.

This "right-wing" government has agreed to a complete settlement freeze in Judeda/Samaria and an unofficial freeze on building in east Jerusalem. I know, you and your fellow "peace camp" members will always say it is not enough, but, looked at in the long term , you are getting what you want, even if it is costing lives of both Arabs and Jews. But as the great hero of the "progressive" camp, Lenin said, "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs". Patience, patience, I, as a "right-winger" say that the Israeli political system (as opposed to public opinion, which as I have shown in not relevant) is slowly moving in your direction, at least until there is a major war which all these policies are leading all of us.

Y. Ben-David said...

Do you seriously think the Jews living in Judea/Samaria are going to leave because of possible sanctions against the settlements. There have always been companies coming and leaving. Remember all the terrorist attacks against settlers? There you have something even better than sanctions or freezes that were designed to get the Jews out of there, as Sternhell advocated. Yet that failed as well, there are more Jews living in Judea/Samaria than ever before. So do you think sanctions driving some companies out of the area would really make a difference?

BTZalel said...

Y. B-D,

Why, in your view will freezing settlement building and opening Gaza bring Israel to a major war? If this is so, what should Israel do to avoid this and make the situation more liveable for everyone. If there is nothing that Israel can do right, and the whole problem is due to Israel's evil enemies and their 'progressive' supporters, where does that leave Israel? With no control over its life as a nation its future?

Eric said...

The only thing that will drive the settlers out of their occupation sites in the west bank is the the army of the state of Palestine supported by the IDF's refusal to intervene. May that day come soon -- one state or two. Whatever gets rid of the these zealot inciters who are a criminal class is good for am yisrael.Anything that can be done encourage this within the bounds of legality (something they know nothing about) is to be encouraged. They are a greater threat to Israel than a nuclear bomb in Tehran.

Anonymous said...

shoot jerry, instead of signing some stupid petition...why dont you follow helen thomas' suggestion and just go poland...germany...wherever

you are living on land that is not yours...dont you get it?

by continuing to reside in any part of are denying the rightful owners their land

go home jerry

Anonymous said...

I think the US should boycott the UN until UNWRA is dismantled and the Palestinians become like any other refugee group on the planet by falling under the auspices of the UNHCR. Now that would be a targeted sanction that would bring about peace faster than you can say "Hamas charter."

While the US is at it, peace-loving people should unite to have their governments and the UN end all international contributions to the Palestinians. That would bring about peace faster than you can say "Fatah charter."

Finally, anybody who cares about justice should expend his or her energies on ending the ridiculous singling out of Israel which has taken on the perfidious stench of the type of scapegoating Jews have had to endure throughout their history.

Supporting BDS or any form of sanctions against Israel only helps and supports those who seek perpetual war. Those who seek peace understand that the problem lies with the Palestinians and their Muslim sponsors in Saudi and Iran. The joke here, in case you've missed it, is that all these beautiful, peace-loving, leftists and do-gooders like Magnes Zionist, have allied themselves with ideologies that they should, by all rights, find utterly repugnant and contrary to their most cherished ideals. And their enemy is literally the only country in the region where the forces whose ideals resemble those of the leftists remain dominant. One can only marvel.

Anonymous said...


just wondering if you have read this article from haaretz

i was wondering if this is the level of orthodoxy that you subscribe to.

and surprise, if how you hold of the first rashi in the torah is true, then what is the grandson of rav ovadiah yosef doing quoting it?

i do love how haaretz notes that shimon hatzadik's tomb has always been in the area, and it didnt really bother the arab residents...why should it...its only the live jews that bother them.

ben azzai said...

Also, bacci40, what Yonatan Yosef doesn't get is the major theme throughout rabbinic Judaism (at least prior to modern religious Zionism) of the distinction between God's actions and human actions, especially with regard to land and sovereignty.

The Rashi text refers to "God's ability to do whatever He wants with the world." It does not imply that Israel has a right to do whatever it wants.

Traditionally, the theological view was that God gave Israel permission to dwell in the land and have sovereignty, but has suspended that right to sovereignty in this current period of exile, and will return sovereignty to Israel in the messianic future.

Secular Zionism rejected this scheme as a whole. But what religious Zionism has done (in part due to Rav Kook's Hegelianism) is to retain the structure but to conflate the immanent with the transcendent, equating divine prerogative with human prerogative.

With this conflation, all the traditional texts which did *not* justify human plunder, now can easily be seen as justifying such plunder. In other words, God's assertion (Deut. 32:35) that "Vengeance is mine, I will repay" (i.e. God will do and not Israel) can come to mean "Vengeance is Israel's, it will repay." Pretty scary!

Judaism today needs a strong medical treatment of de-Hegelianization!

Jerry Haber said...

bacci40, I saw the article and will blog on it. The article described different levels of orthodoxy. I am more sympathetic to Sharon than to Ben Sasson ideologically (by the way, he is not one of the *leading* activists there, but of course, he is the son of a former Kadimah member of parliament, so that gets him points in the eyes of the press.)

As for the first Rashi on Bereishis, Yosef is quoted as saying something like "every child knows that," which is true. But apparently Yosef himself never got past a childish and immature understanding of Torah. It was Rabbi Amital who blasted datiyim for their superficial education.