Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Let Iran Go Nuclear, Ribono shel Olam

Jewish law (and common sense morality) allows one to act in self-defense. It allows preemptive measures to be taken in the case of an imminent danger. It does not allow a person, or people, to attack others because they feel threatened – especially when that feeling is born of neuroses and prejudice.

Iran is an enemy of the State of Israel, but it is not an existential threat to Israel, nor has it threatened Israel with nuclear destruction. But even it had, that would not be a legal or moral justification for an act of aggression against Iran – unless the possibility of an Iranian attack was imminent, and other non-violent diplomatic options had run their course. By diplomatic options, I do not mean sanctions, I mean negotiations, including multilateral negotiations that include Israel and Iranian pledges not to build nuclear weapons or to eliminate current stockpiles. 

Hence, an attack against Iran either by the US or Israel or those in the West is utterly unjustified from a legal or a moral standpoint. It would constitute naked aggression, and Iran would be perfectly justified to retaliate in self-defense.

I am aware that Iran is a violator of certain international agreements, and I am certainly aware that the Iranian regime is a horrible one.  Sanctions can, and should be, used against human rights violators, even if those violators are addressing their own citizens (and that is a tricky issue.) But those sanctions cannot be crippling, especially in a situation such as the present, where one country is doing what many other countries have done in the past – develop nuclear energy, and even a nuclear weapon capability. Why should there be one law for North Korea and Pakistan, and another for Iran? Why should Israel reserve the right to prevent any Arab country from going nuclear, or from joining a nuclear-free zone?

The Jews I know seem to be divided between those who support sanctions and those who support military action. Maybe I hang out with the wrong crowd. I support neither. The drums of war have started again, and the madness should be stopped now. If either Israel (or its proxy, the US) attacks Iran, it will be difficult for any moral person to defend the right of such a rogue state to exist.

MJ Rosenberg on Targeted BDS

The indispensable MJ Rosenberg has written a nice piece railing against those politicians who are progressive except for Palestine.He then endorses what I have called “Targeted BDS,” i. e., boycott, divestment, and sanctions that focus on the Occupied Territories.

But he goes on to criticize those who wish to extend BDS to all of Israel with some of the strangest arguments that I have heard.

Here’s one: “Boycotting Israel, all Israel, only makes sense if one wants Israel itself to go away.” Substitute for “Israel” in that sentence “Iran” or ‘South Africa”  and you see how bizarre this claim is.  If a rock star cancels a concert in Tel Aviv because she wishes to send a message about Israel’s discriminatory policies against its Arab citizens or its legislation against human rights NGOs,  that means she wants to annihilate the state? If I boycott produce from Arizona because of its immigration laws, I want Arizona to be destroyed? Or produce from Israel because of its discrimination of Palestinians on both sides of the green line and the refugees outside  its ever shifting borders?

All strikes, boycotts, sanctions, etc., ultimately affect people who are not involved or responsible.  A boycott of settler products may affect settlers who are not responsible for Israel’s policy on settlements. The point of all these boycotts is to draw attention to the fact that Israel is a massive violator of human rights and to get them to correct that. That’s all.  (Norman Finkelstein disagrees, but he’s wrong on this one.)

There are many who endorse the Solidarity/Global BDS movement’s three calls – ending the occupation, equal citizenship for all Israeli Arabs, and a just resolution of the refugee problem -- but who do not boycott, divest, or sanction everything Israeli with any consistency.  I am not a fan of academic boycotts, although I may be changing my mind about targeted academic boycotts. I once heard Hilary Rose  press her case for a boycott of Israeli academics in front of Israeli and Palestinian academics.  The Israeli Boycott from Within movement supports Global BDS but that doesn’t mean they boycott their colleagues (or themselves). They do so out of a sense of solidarity with the worldwide movement. It is not only the settlers who are responsible for the settlements – the Israeli government and Israeli society shares responsibility.

Here’s another argument, which sounds like something I have heard before.

It is particularly maddening to see Americans join in those boycotts. Did they boycott themselves when we, the United States, illegally invaded Iraq and proceeded to destroy the country? How about when we overthrew Allende, supported fascist death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, and backed blood-drenched juntas in Argentina and throughout Latin America?

MJ should explain why,  if it is wrong for Americans to boycott  Israel  because they didn’t boycott themselves when America acted abominably,  is it right  for them to boycott the settlers?  Who has the right to boycott the settlers? The Israelis who live in the Tel-Aviv bubble who benefit, directly and indirectly, from the Occupation, as do all Israelis?

As for that favorite question of apologists for human rights violations everywhere, “Why boycott here rather than in other places?” that question is conclusively  answered by Peter Beinart in his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, and I doubt that MJ will disagree with it.

MJ concedes that

To be honest, I would have supported a boycott against my own country in those days if it was targeted against the people responsible for those atrocities. I would have welcomed it as a way to make those responsible for these atrocities pay a price. But I would not have supported a boycott that targeted all Americans.

MJ doesn’t tell us whether he supported the global boycott of South African sportspeople or other artists during apartheid, those who were not directly responsible for apartheid. That’s the last time I heard a similar argument, and it has some merit. Perhaps he is unaware that the last iteration of the British academic boycott of Israel targeted only those institutions – within the Green Line -- that are most involved with the Israeli military or the occupation and exempted others. Anyway, I haven’t seen anywhere that the BDS movement targets all Israelis for the sake of targeting Israelis. As I said, the goals of the movement are very clear. 

I  agree that  innocent people shouldn’t suffer greatly for the sins of their government, even the ones they democratically elected, and whose policies they support. Those who think otherwise accept  the Bin Laden justification for  9/11.  But how much suffering has the BDS movement afflicted on Israel? With all due respect, a cancellation of a Tel-Aviv concert, or a boycott of Sabra Humus,  doesn’t hurt the Israelis at all, except, perhaps, emotionally. Such boycotts send a clear message, get front page coverage in all the press, and are used by Israelis as proof that Israel is an international pariah. We are not talking about crippling sanctions here.

Let’s face it: whatever steam the BDS movement has is because of the  Occupation. Nobody has cancelled a concert because the Palestinian refugee problem is unresolved, or because Israeli Arabs suffer discrimination. Maybe they should, but they haven’t. The three calls of the Global BDS movement should remind liberal Zionists (among others) that while the Occupation is the most egregious injustice perpetrated by Israel, it is not the only thing rotten in the state of Israel.

Endorsing targeted BDS and disagreeing with global BDS is fine for liberal Zionists. I am glad that MJ is on that bandwagon.  But dissing the global BDS movement, with its three eminently reasonable calls is not. Or rather, it is consistent with the tribal attitude of many liberal Zionists I know who are quick to throw stones against the settlers from their glass houses in Tel Aviv – or their stone Arab houses in South Jerusalem.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pro-Israel and Pro-BDS

Students at the University of Pennsylvania are hosting this weekend the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) Movement’s National Convention. May I take this occasion to wish the speakers and organizers a good conference, with a healthy debate on issues surrounding BDS. This is a wonderful opportunity for the speakers to explain more about global BDS, a non-violent Palestinian movement that includes  Israeli Jews, non-Israeli Jews, and non-Jews.

I have written here and here about the global BDS movement. I have expressed solidarity with that movement, and I have argued that liberal Zionists should boycott the settlements and their products, and companies that make money off the Occupation.  But I do want to consider two  questions that have been raised in conjunction with the Penn conference.

Question One: Is the BDS movement anti-Israel?

Is the BDS movement anti-Israel? Jews are said to like answering questions with questions, and so I ask, “Was the BDS movement against apartheid anti-South African?” The answer to that question depends on whom you ask. For many whites and most Afrikaners, and the South African government at the time, the answer was a resounding yes.  For them, apartheid was an essential part of the South African regime. Dismantle apartheid, and the country, no matter what it’s name, would never be the same. Yet it was possible for those who opposed apartheid to contemplate a better place for all South Africans, blacks, whites, and colored. For them the BDS movement against apartheid was not anti-South African.

The global BDS movement today has adopted three tenets: a) “ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling” the separation barrier; b) granting full civil rights and equality to the Arab minority within Israel, and c)  “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.  The three tenets correspond to the three main population sectors of the Palestinians. Since there is no tenet calling for the abolition of the State of Israel, or its transformation into one state, I conclude that supporters of BDS are as anti-Israel as supporters of BDS in South Africa were anti-South African. Both groups wanted to bring about fundamental changes in their respective societies. To be sure, there are differences; the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora don’t view themselves as Israelis. But no  matter – what is at stake in these three tenets is not the existence of the State of Israel, but its compliance with international law and UN resolutions.

Question Two: Doesn’t BDS hurt Palestinians? 

The Palestinian economy is inextricably linked to the Israeli economy, and for good reason. Israel’s aim has always been to control the Palestinians economically and to use them as cheap labor (when possible) and as markets for their products. The Israelis  have done their best to prevent true economic Palestinian independence so as to thwart the possibility of real competition. But they have also been interested in improving the conditions of Palestinians in Areas A and B (not in Area C, where they are interested in restricting their development) on the reasonable ground that that is in Israel’s best interest – so that the Palestinians will have something to lose from fighting for the independence. And also because Israelis don’t have any particular animus against the Palestinians; they just want control of their land and resources.

From time immemorial, Imperialism has argued that empires bring civilization and economic prosperity to the natives, and that the latter is more important than freedom and independence. One of the most stunning examples of the imperialist mentality appeared a few days ago in the Daily Pennsylvanian by a Mr. Dov Hoch, the president of the Penn club in Israel.  In Mr. Hoch’s article, “Why We Should Invest and not Divest” , Mr. Hoch urged BDS supporters not to “burn your neighbor’s house despite the fact that you live in connected structures.” He did not explain why disinvestment in, say, Caterpillar, would cripple the Palestinian economy.

In fact, Mr. Hoch apparently knows nothing about the BDS movement, which targets companies that benefit from the Occupation. He also doesn’t know, or doesn’t wish to mention,  that the much praised (in the West) nation-builder, Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, supports the boycott of the settlement goods. From the perspective of the typified Anglo colony in Ra’anana, Mr. Hoch can urge Palestinian American Penn Students to

Come and live in the West Bank and Gaza, joining the 5000 Ivy League alumni living in Israel and the tens of thousands of U.S.-educated Americans who moved to Israel and contribute richly to the economy.

One of the speakers at the BDS conference is the Palestinian American Penn alumnus, Ahmed Moor. The last time I saw Ahmed, he was being tear-gassed at a protest at Bil’in. Perhaps Mr. Hoch, with his powerful contacts in the PA, can arrange for Ahmed to purchase a villa in Efrat. Or he can join former Yale professor, Mazin Qumsiyeh, in Walajeh, the village that Israel has turned into a ghetto.

Despite the mixture of genuine good will and condescension that typifies the enlightened colonialist, it would be wrong to dismiss Mr. Hoch or his point. For one thing, it is important to find serious investors in the Palestinian economy. For another, sanctions against Israel will hurt the Palestinians, and it will hurt them more than the Israelis.

In 1990, when the question of divestment from South African raged at MIT, a student wrote a letter to The Tech arguing against divestment:

Assume, for argument's sake, that MIT divestment did not result in a transfer of ownership but instead was an impetus for the disinvestment of the affected companies. Ignoring, for the moment, the effects on the US and world economy, what would happen in South Africa? Unfortunately, the black population would be the hardest hit. They would lose employment that offers them integrated facilities, equal pay for equal work, extensive training programs, housing assistance and education. Unlike their South African counterparts, American corporations address the single most important need for all South African blacks -- a quality education….

I should hasten to point out that this student was an opponent of apartheid. She simply felt that the tactic was too harsh and would hurt South African blacks. And, indeed, she had a good point. Factories closed, putting black people out of work.

And yet Nelson Mandela supported divestment. And while the role of the divestment campaign in the ultimate dismantling of apartheid has been debated, nobody questions that the international focus on South Africa ultimately helped lead to change.

I am not in favor of sanctions that will constitute severe collective punishment against Israeli public, just as I am not in favor of sanctions against the people of Iran,The Global BDS movement’s attempt to bring sanctions against a serial violator of human rights is of a different order altogether. But, as an Israeli, I am indeed prepare to suffer such sanctions if the price to pay for them is the end of the Occupation and Palestinian independence. Of course, I cannot speak to how much suffering Palestinians are willing to endure.  Were sanctions against Israel to bite, I am sure that Palestinians, being human, would disagree on these issues.

But what I would ask Mr. Hoch and others is – how much suffering are they willing to endure for the political and economic independence of Israel? In his article he advises BDS-ers to “throw out their IPhones – Apple just bought an Israeli company?”

Would he throw out his IPhone to end a sixty-year occupation of the State of Israel? Would he be prepared to endure more serious economic hardship?

Would he be prepared to take up arms against the occupiers?