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Boycott supporters: which side are you on?

The BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement is growing, causing alarm in Israel and the American Jewish establishment. But the arguments being employed by the mainstream Jewish community are not likely to make headway with those who support BDS or the larger, more important group that is trying to decide whether to endorse it.

When contending with BDS, Israel’s adherents usually tick off dry, abstract political arguments to show why Israel is not comparable to South Africa under apartheid. But these arguments don’t matter to people toying with the BDS movement, because most of them are motivated by a sincere, urgent desire to end Palestinian suffering. They see that the experience of Palestinians under occupation is as bad as the experience of South African blacks. They also know that the Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated as –and feel like they are– second-class citizens. No long list of the rights enjoyed by Israeli Arabs can make a dent in that perception. Nor do they care if BDS is a veiled effort to “delegitimize” Israel. What matters to them is changing the Palestinians’ plight as quickly as possible.

There are arguments, however, that take potential BDS sympathizers on their own terms:

1) It will take much too long for the world to get behind an effective boycott of Israel. So even if BDS were the right thing to do (and I don’t think it is), it is thoroughly impractical.

There is a human rights emergency in the occupied territories and Palestinians need relief now. To be sure, diplomacy might not create a two-state solution or any other arrangement that might work, but at least it has a very slim chance to succeed in the next few years. There is no feasible way to garner enough support for BDS in the near future to have a tangible impact on Israel.

2) Boycotts almost never work. One could engage in a spirited, complicated debate about whether the South Africa boycott had a major impact on the Afrikaner establishment (some say it did, some say it didn’t), but even if it did, that would be the exception that would prove the rule. Boycotts didn’t change any policies in Cuba, Iraq or, for that matter, the Gaza Strip.

3) If you decide to back BDS, you will be taking sides in a bitter internal struggle within the Palestinian community. Are you really so certain of the merits of this cause that you are willing to insert yourself into this argument ?

On one side are those led by the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas and Salem Fayyad, who are trying to build the institutions of a state in preparation for an end to the occupation. This has involved hundreds of community development projects, the first steps towards creating a central bank and the work of internal Palestinian security services. Much of this progress requires working cooperatively with the Israelis. The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization have not called for a boycott of Israel, although the PA actively supports a boycott of products made in Israeli settlements.

On the other side are those who think that cooperation is collaboration, that the Palestinian Authority is selling its people down the river by settling for small bandages on the wounds of occupation. Much of the BDS movement is made up of this faction.

While the African National Congress clearly spoke in the name of the majority of black South Africans when it called for a boycott, the BDS movement does not have the same authority to speak for Palestinians. Even Hamas has not called for a boycott.

Referring to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), one of the most important BDS groups, David Hirsh of ENGAGE UK notes:

“PACBI was formed in order to manufacture a `call from the oppressed’ along the model of the ANC’s call. Far from wanting to boycott Israel, the PLO has, since the 1980s, wanted to normalize relations with Israel, and has encouraged links between Palestinians and Israelis, within civil society, academia, in trade and on a governmental level….

… Pacbi pretends that `the oppressed’ call for BDS with one voice. This is not true. In Palestine, as anywhere else, there are different opinions and different arguments – there is politics, there is disagreement and there are different ideas about the way forward.

4) The BDS movement has no use for promising, stirring joint cultural and economic projects in which ordinary Arabs and Jews are trying to figure out how to live together. For example, there is the cooperative work being done by people in the West Bank Palestinian town of Jenin and the Israeli region of Gilboa, which includes an industrial zone that will produce olive oil and other agricultural goods. The BDSers, presumably, would boycott those products.

PACBI hasn’t just called for a boycott of Israeli academics and cultural figures. As noted in a previous post, it also wants to quash efforts of Israeli Jews and Arabs to sit down, talk and find ways to bridge –or work together in spite of– the yawning gaps in their narratives.

So the BDS movement puts those Palestinians who want to cooperate with Israelis in a bad spot. That, in turn, takes away an important tool to persuade the Israeli electorate that its neighbors want peace, according to Ken Bob, president of Ameinu. He told me “You know how small Israel is. All of a sudden, people in your neighborhood know a kid who is part of the joint call center company in Jerusalem-Ramallah. People in the Gilboa Region tell their relatives about their joint project with Jenin…If there is a more successful BDS movement, Palestinians will perhaps feel like `OK, that tactic might work,’ let’s abandon the joint projects.’ I don’t think that will help the progress towards peace.”

Some diehard BDS supporters are quite willing to play favorites in this internal Palestinian debate. I suspect that many checking out this movement don’t even realize that they are being asked to take sides. That realization should give them pause.

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