A Jewish peace group grapples with BDS

by Jeff Warner on August 13, 2010

How can BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) contribute to bringing a just peace and prosperity to the people of Israel-Palestine? That is the question LA Jews for Peace has been grappling with as the BDS idea evolves into an international movement. LA Jews want to be part of the movement, but many of us are concerned that BDS will never accomplish its goals, and some aspects of BDS will likely be counterproductive.

LA Jews for Peace is a small group of Jewish Americans and like-minded people who are committed to peace in the Middle East through a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and opposition to American militarism, imperialism, and exceptionalism. The following outlines my considerations in formulating a BDS project that conforms to our understanding of the dynamics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

LA Jews for Peace is convinced that the unconditional diplomatic, financial, and military support the United States gives Israel has prevented the conflict from being resolved. LA Jews for Peace works to make United States support of Israel conditional on real progress towards peace. With that in mind, we want our BDS project to contribute to changing American policy. This point of view has been enunciated by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in his recent Democracy Now debate with Omar Barghouti. We believe that our BDS action should facilitate talking to Americans about the U.S. role in perpetuating the occupation and settlement expansion, and be a tool to organize Americans for a change in American Middle East policy.

A second guideline is that we want our BDS project to target Israel”s occupation of Palestinian lands and its illegal settlements. So focused, our project would conform to the rule of law. This point of view was expressed by Norman Finkelstein during his Los Angeles appearance last March, and in several published pieces. Finkelstein points out that BDS actions against Israel”s occupation and settlements are consistent with international law and can gain wide support because Americans, particularly Jewish Americans, believe in the rule of law. He continues that BDS actions against Israel in general will be less attractive to Americans.

The corollary to targeting settlements is that our project should not target Israel in general. Many of our members would not feel comfortable targeting Israel, an internationally accepted state with a 62-year record of accomplishment, regardless of its despicable policy of Palestinian dispossession.

I know of no ongoing BDS action that satisfies our first guideline to target American policy, but several BDS efforts meet our second guideline to target the illegal occupation and settlements; three examples:

* The recent Associated Students of the University of California at Berkeley (ASUC) resolution to divest from “General Electric and United Technologies because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” This resolution directly targets two specific American military companies that directly support the occupation. The ASUC resolution goes on, “this ASUC Resolution [should] not be interpreted as the taking of sides in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, but instead as a principled expression of support for universal human rights and equality, and that it is an expression of opposition to Israeli state policies of occupation, racial discrimination, and war crimes, and not an attack on the Israeli people.”

* The Code Pink effort to boycott Ahava cosmetics. Ahava is manufactured in a settlement, partially from Dead Sea mud that is mined in the West Bank.

* The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation “Hang Up on Motorola” campaign. Motorola is deeply imbedded with the Israeli army”s policing the occupation and the wall, and directly supports settlements with security and communications (see here for details).

Other BDS efforts would be more difficult for us to endorse, two examples:

* The Israel Divestment Campaign (IDC), an effort to put a ballot initiative on next June”s ballot calling for California retirement funds to divest from companies that support settlements and/or the Israeli military. The IDC calls for divestment from “companies that provide products or services that contribute to the construction or maintenance of Israeli settlements and/or the Separation Wall in the Palestinian Territories or provide military supplies, equipment and services to the State of Israel.” Going after companies that support the settlements or the wall – both illegal – conforms with the second guideline, but going after companies that contract with the Israeli military seems aimed at Israel in general and does not.

* Olympia Food Co-op, which operates two grocery stores in Olympia, Washington, voted on July 15 to “boycott Israeli-made products.” In doing so, it asked that Israel “end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantles the [security] Wall; [that] Israel recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;” and that “Israel respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” LA Jews agrees in general with these demands, but this action targets Israel as well as the illegal settlements, thus it does not conform to our second guideline.

BDS proponents argue that BDS is a non-violent, moral force that will cause Israel to end its occupation. They say that BDS is analogous to the South Africa boycotts that ended apartheid, and some aspects of the American civil rights movement. Many of us think that is an overly optimistic analysis.

Even if the BDS movement gains broad acceptance, we don”t see believe that it will push Israel into negotiating a just agreement with the Palestinians. Rather we are already seeing that BDS is causing Israel to adopt an even more “the world is against us” attitude that prompts the Israeli people to unite behind their government. The Israel government, and supporters like Eran Shayshon (Ha”aretz, March 26, 2010, ) and Nathan Guttman (Ha”aretz, April 13, 2010, argue that BDS is part of an organized campaign to delegitimize Israel, and that argument is accepted buy the many Jewish Americans and a majority of Jewish Israelis. A paranoid Israel in “circle-the wagons” mode will not negotiate seriously with the Palestinians to end the occupation.

BDS supporters like Mustafa Barghouthi say that “Israel will [not] change its policy unless it hurts,” but military force will not work and is wrong, so boycott is the only way to hurt Israel (quoted by Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss, The Nation, 9 June 2010). We don”t see that working either. BDS efforts indeed hurt their targets, but generally do not trigger policy change. The 1965-70 grape boycott is a notable exception, but it is well to remember that the grape boycott was targeted at a small group of corporate farmers with few options to diversify their business. The 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott lasted over a year and “succeeded” when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling that declared segregation on buses unconstitutional. The 1960-61 lunch-counter sit-ins targeted small merchants who, like the grape farmers, had few options; they jumped at the chance to follow the lead of the mayor of Greensboro, North Carolina who said discrimination against a person solely on the basis of their race or color was wrong. These special circumstances do not apply in Israel – the Israeli courts and essentially all elected officials support the occupation.

Finally, as noted above, LA Jews for Peace believes that the United States plays a key role in resolving, or perpetuating, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By shielding Israel from accountability when it violates international law, and by rewarding it with continued financial support, the U.S. guarantees that Israel will continue to dispose Palestinians. To get Israel to end the occupation, BDS must be aimed at changing United States policy – most BDS actions are aimed at the wrong target.

BDS will not directly affect Israel policy, but BDS can be used to help change American policy that will indirectly cause Israel to change its policy. We need to focus on the political situation in the United States to end the unconditional diplomatic, financial, and military support that the United States gives to Israel. Once American support for Israel is conditional on real progress towards peace, LA Jews for Peace believes Israel will quickly change its policies to conform to international law and conclude a just agreement with the Palestinians.

Code Pink”s boycott of Ahava is retail in that it engages the American people on a one-to-one basis. Every time Code Pink tells an American not to purchase Ahava cosmetics, Code Pink is explaining to that American why Israel”s occupation is wrong, and that American Foreign Policy that supports the occupation must change.

The Ahava boycott is quantitatively different from most BDS efforts in the United States that are aimed at institutional divestment of large corporations. Those efforts do not engage a broad segment of the American people, and will be little help in changing American policy towards Israel.

LA Jews for Peace has talked about doing a retail “Hang Up on Motorola” project. The suggestion is to protest in front of Verizon, ATT, Radio Shack, Best Buy or other retail store that sell Motorola phones. Our message will be not to buy a Motorola phone because Motorola, along with United States, supports Israel”s occupation of Palestinian lands and violation of international law. We will ask customers to sign a petition to the Obama Administration and Congress to make American support of Israel conditional on progress towards a just peace.

A Motorola boycott, like the Ahava boycott, can be used to talk to the American people about changing U.S. policy in the Middle East. For this reason I think LA Jews for Peace should launch a “Hang Up on Motorola” campaign.

Jeff Warner is co-chair of LA Jews for Peace (www.LAJewsforPeace.org) and is active in Jews for Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians and Americans for Peace Now. Warner has worked with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions rebuilding a Palestinian homes in the West Bank and was a member of Viva Palestina, a humanitarian mission to Gaza that consisted of 175 Americans.

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