Poem: morning prayer
Kedushat Levi on the role of the spiritual leader (parashat Pinchas)

On the Israeli "Boycott Law" and a wish for nuance

If you follow Middle East politics, you've probably already read about the new Israeli law which makes it illegal to publicly call for a boycott of products made in the settlements. If you haven't heard about this yet, the New York Times has a solid article about it, Israel Bans Boycotts Against the State, which begins:

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Parliament on Monday passed contentious legislation that effectively bans any public call for a boycott against the state of Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense.

Critics and civil rights groups denounced the new law as antidemocratic and a flagrant assault on the freedom of expression and protest. The law's defenders said it was a necessary tool in Israel's fight against what they called its global delegitimization.

Passage of the law followed a string of efforts in the rightist-dominated Parliament to promote legislation that is seen by the more liberal Israelis as an erosion of democratic values.

For a far angrier look at the bill, try Israeli newspaper Ha-aretz, where Alon Idan argues that The boycott law is fascist and where Bradley Burston writes Israel's boycott law: the quiet sound of going fascist. Burston writes "The Boycott Law is the litmus test for Israeli democracy, the threshold test for Israeli fascism. It's a test of moderates everywhere who care about the future of this place.// This is the one. This is where the slope turns nowhere but down." As Israeli papers go, Ha-aretz is center-left -- but the right-leaning Jerusalem Post dislikes the bill, too; see their (byline-less) editorial The bad boycott bill.

For an opinion from outside of Israel, try the article Knesset of Fools in Foreign Policy, which argues that "A harsh new anti-boycott bill will help achieve the exact opposite of what its advocates intended: the delegitimization of the Jewish state."

In the FP essay, author Hussein Ibish writes:

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the Knesset members who passed the "Boycott Bill" and their supporters do not seem to understand that boycotts, divestment, and sanctions that are carefully targeted against the occupation and the settlements but scrupulously avoid targeting Israel legitimize rather than delegitimize the Israeli state. They say, in effect: We do not want to buy or sell the products of the illegitimate settlement program, but we are happy to buy or sell Israeli goods because Israel is a legitimate state. By carefully targeting the occupation and the settlements, such boycotts implicitly recognize the legitimacy of Israel itself. But to supporters of the settlements, this is of little or no importance. To them, it's all simply Israel.

Over at the blog Mystical Politics (in her post Boycott law just passed by Israeli Knesset), Rebecca notes that

To protest against the law, Peace Now has just started a Facebook page [Hebrew] calling for boycotting products from the settlements. The head of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, said tonight that "Someone who buys products from the territories himself funds building in the settlements and the outposts, damages Israeli exports, and deepens the occupation. As Israelis we will not surrender the right to protest and the freedom to say this."

(For more on Peace Now, visit שלום עכשיו or Americans for Peace Now -- and while you're at it, if you're a Star Trek fan as I am, don't miss Leonard Nimoy's letter in support of that organization.) And if you're looking for a round-up of assorted Jewish voices on this law, I recommend the Jewschool post Israel's new law: suing Martin Luther King.

Those of us chutz l'aretz (outside the land of Israel) are impacted by this law only in an emotional and spiritual sense. The Knesset can't legislate what we say or do in the Diaspora. But this is a development which should deeply concern those of us who are emotionally and spiritually invested in the ideals of what we imagine a Jewish state should be.

I hope that the passage of the Boycott Law will offer Diaspora Jews an opportunity to have real conversations about what boycotts and other economic actions mean. I'm often surprised that, in American conversations about BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions), people rarely draw a distinction between boycotting or divesting from Israel writ large, and boycotting or divesting from companies which operate in the settlements and/or which profit from the occupation.

There are, of course, occasional American voices which distinguish between these two. There's a short J Street position paper on the BDS movement which raises the fair point that the global BDS movement can be a thin veil for antisemitism or for broad anti-Israel sentiment, but also acknowledges that there are some -- including the Palestinian Authority -- who favor using boycotts or divestment initiatives to oppose the occupation and not to oppose Israel itself. Another organization which recognizes the distinction between broad BDS and targeted BDS is Meretz USA; their post Buy Israel - Don't Buy Settlements (They're not the Same) reads in part:

The Green Line between Israel and the West Bank/Gaza constitutes the geographic basis for a viable Israeli-Palestinian two-state compromise; four decades of Israeli settlement expansion are destroying that basis. Israel's Occupation and settlement policies compromise Israel's character as a democratic Jewish-majority state, while undermining relations between Israel and the future Palestinian state. These policies isolate Israel diplomatically in ways that are likely to have long-term security consequences. For these reasons, we believe it is of great importance to actively oppose the policies of Occupation and settlement while at the same time struggling to defend Israel against those seeking its destruction. Consequently we: [...]

* Believe that American Jews, in order to express their support for the brave Israeli citizens refusing to cooperate with settlement policy, should refuse to purchase any goods or services, including tourism services, made in or by the settlements. [...]

* Disagree with calls to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel proper (within the Green Line), which we believe are misguided and ineffective.

There's also a long essay about "targeted BDS" on the Meretz USA blog (To BDS or not to BDS...a Targeted Boycott of Settlements), and another on the website of the British org Jews for Justice for Palestinians (Targeted BDS). But in general I haven't found that this distinction has much traction in the American Jewish conversation. At least, not the American Jewish conversation of which I've thus far been a part.

Reasonable people may disagree about whether targeted BDS is productive, useful, or generally speaking a good idea. (I feel certain that within my overlapping circles of friends and family there are people who disagree passionately about this issue.) But regardless of whether or not one supports targeted BDS, it is different from broad BDS, and I wish the American Jewish community did a better job of recognizing the distinction. I think taking this nuance into account might change the tenor of our communal conversations around this in productive and valuable ways.

(On a related note, I also recommend Rabbi Brant Rosen's post Is BDS anti-Semitism?, written in 2009 but still quite current. Rabbi Brant does a good job of naming some of the difficult emotional dynamics of talking about BDS within the American Jewish community at all.)

One way or another, I'm troubled by the new anti-boycott bill in Israel. I imagine that it will have a chilling effect on Israeli civil discourse, and it's one more indication that the current Israeli Knesset is making decisions which make me, as a Diaspora Jew, deeply uneasy. Judging from what I've seen in the Israeli press and blogosphere, and in my own circle of Israeli friends, that unease is pervasive and strong within Israel, too.