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August 10, 2011

Israel: Boycott, divestment and sanctions

The Canadian Charger

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In his book BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Omar Barghouti presents a strong and cogent case for BDS. More specifically, the book focuses primarily on boycott. Rather than a single essay, the book consists of a number of essays and interviews, many of which could stand on their own.

Particularly interesting are the quotations from Bishop Desmond Tutu, which Barghouti includes.  While it is widely known that Tutu supports the Palestinian cause, his specific comments on the subject have not been given enough public attention.  So we are treated to this tidbit originally in Vanity Fair: “I think the West, quite rightly, is feeling contrite, penitent, for its awful connivance with the Holocaust. The penance is being paid by the Palestinians. I just hope again that ordinary citizens in the West will wake up and say, ‘We refuse to be part of this.’”

BDS is a Palestinian-led campaign for human rights.  It has three final objectives: an end to the occupation, full equality for Palestinian Israelis, and a right of return for Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel and for their descendants.  A reality to be faced is that a boycott movement brings on board people with different agendas, for as Bismark put it, “Politics is the art of the possible.” 

Part of the possible in this case is the enlistment of left-wing Zionists, some of whom explicitly want to see the end of the occupation in order to make Israel secure as a Jewish state.  Barghouti heaps scorn on them, as they do not accept the full package and hence are supporters of continued second-class status for Palestinians. But waging war on the likes of Amos Oz and Uri Averny, even if they are not on side with all of the aims maybe unwise.  The occupation is the target for today.  Other issues are for tomorrow.

A strong focus on the occupation serves the Palestinian cause because it is a major Israeli weakness.  Barghouti favors a one-state solution, and the occupation serves to make a two-state solution unworkable.  If Israel tried to end the occupation, it would run the substantial risk of a Jewish intifada, by the settlers and their allies.  Such an occurrence might open the gate for the full slate of BDS objectives–and a one-state outcome.  Since Oz has different ultimate goals, an alliance including him and his ilk may be unpleasant, but the continuation of the occupation may make the alliance worth it.  As John Kenneth Galbraith remarked, in amending Bismark, “Politics is not the art of the possible.  It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

Barghouti commits a good deal of space in the book to justifying an academic boycott.  He is careful to declare that the boycott is of institutions, not of individuals.  Much of his argument is somewhat convoluted.  For example, since Israeli academics serve in the military every year, therefore the academy is guilty of repression of Palestinians.  Well, while some brave Israelis are draft-dodgers and go to jail, is it reasonable to expect that every academic who serves must then in effect thus taint Israeli academia?  Are Americans who were drafted to fight in Vietnam criminals as well?  To take it a step further, all Israelis benefit from the exploitation of the Palestinians in one way or another.  Ambrose Bierce put it succinctly in his definition of a non-combatant–“a dead Quaker.”

There are better justifications for an academic boycott.  Barghouti does point to Israel’s closing of Beir Zeit University for four years, but he could have cited other things as well.  Thus, when a group of physiotherapy students in Gaza completed their academic studies and required an internship not available in Gaza, Israel refused to allow them into the West Bank for internship.

 As well, Israel has prevented a number of Palestinians from going abroad to study, even in cases where they have received foreign scholarships. And foreign academics have been prevented from lecturing and teaching in the West Bank and Gaza.  Western academics who argue for the sanctity of the academy should be pressed to address these violations of academic rights.  Are they really defending the academy?

When it comes to boycotting goods, consumer goods present difficulties.  Quite a few multinationals produce many goods under a variety of labels.  It becomes a challenge for the average consumer to engage in a boycott of so many different products.  Better to focus on a few labels that are easy to remember.  And in the first place, hit those which have operations in the Occupied Territories.

Barghouti’s book is a thoughtful presentation of the case for boycott.  It does not adequately address divestment and sanctions.  While the case he makes for boycott is strong, the details of how, why, and what are a work in progress.

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