Boycotting Israel

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Antony Loewenstein and John Docker, chaired by Jake Lynch. It was a presentation in favour of boycotting Israel. It was a 2 hour talk, and halfway through perhaps 20 people poured in, perhaps more, who were overwhelmingly hostile to what was being said, who aggressively asked hostile questions, who used the opportunity to give lengthy talks reciting Israeli government talking points (one young man even spoke in favour of Israel’s “achievements” in Gaza). Suzanne Rutland gave a 5 minute presentation against the boycott, a young man spoke against the boycott, because of his experience of activism in Israel. The striking thing about the interlocutors is their complete absence of any concern for Palestinian rights being violated. I might say there was a partial exception – Rutland spoke against the boycott, but without giving any recognition of Palestinian suffering, she explained that she opposed settlements: not to explain their illegitimacy, but to show how credible her position should be considered.

That said, I was not an hour late, but about 20 minutes late, and so I heard most of the speeches. When they were done, I spoke against the BDS campaign, though unlike the latecomers, I was quickly cut off by the chair. Afterwards, I spoke to Docker about why I oppose a blanket boycott.

One of the latecomers called out to Lynch that he would like to see a forum organised to discuss the issue. Indeed, I very strongly agree, and I would love to take part in such a debate if anyone would host it, though my perspective is more of a third perspective than in favour of the Israeli state loyalists, or the BDS campaigners.

In my brief comments, I noted that whilst Loewenstein cited Naomi Klein and Neve Gordon in favour of the boycott, in a sense they are not orthodox boycotters. Klein went on a book tour of Israel, and explained that she boycotts Israeli state institutions, not Israelis. Similarly, Gordon has joined the BDS campaign, but in an interview which you can hear on ZNet, he advises that this be contextual, and focus on boycotting the occupied territories (ie, the settlements etc).

This sort of boycott is different from a blanket boycott of Israel. For those whose boycott is to implement a two state solution, it will be an effective campaign. It means they can unite with Israelis who would be willing to support a viable two state solution, against their government. For those who boycott Israel as a whole, they simply fan the flames of Israeli nationalism, and push the population to the right. It may be held that this doesn’t matter, but this is only the case for those who support a one state solution. Yet those who support a one state solution do not, in my opinion, do any service to the Palestinians.

People who support a one state solution go on to decry Zionism, to say how unjust Israel is and so on. I think this largely misses the point. It seems to me little different from a socialist who refuses to campaign against Workchoices, because capitalism itself needs to be dismantled. Well, it’s nice to have ideological purity, but if you want to struggle for something, it’s worthwhile asking how this can be achieved. There is no support for a one state solution in Israel’s Jewish 80% of its population, and even among the Palestinians – under occupation, and likely among Israeli Palestinians – the majority supports a two state solution. Hamas and Fatah both support a two state solution (though Hamas is more equivocal, but it is becoming increasingly committed to it), the international community supports a two state solution, and the Arab League is becoming openly supported to the two state solution. A few countries might be expected to be willing to support a one state solution, but it would hardly be wise to place bets on the sincerity of the anti-Zionism of Syria or Iran. Syria would happily sell out the Palestinians for the Golan Heights, and Iran had no problems buying arms from Israel in the 1980s. Given Israel’s nuclear weapons, military power, support by the US, it is inconceivable that Israel can be forced to do anything against the wishes of its population.

On the other hand, a boycott of the occupied territories makes perfectly plain that the issue is over the occupation: Israel can achieve normalcy if it abides by the two state solution it offers lip service to, or it can become a pariah, like apartheid South Africa, because the occupying regime in Palestine is an apartheid regime. This does not change that Israel discriminates against the Palestinians in Green Line Israel, that the refugees suffer in camps in Lebanon and Gaza and so on because of the crimes of Zionism and so on. It simply means that supporting Palestinian rights for sober observers cannot mean insisting on demands that have no prospects of being achieved.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop talking about Zionism or anything like that. It means we take a few simple questions seriously in activism.

Firstly, what would we like to see achieved? Secondly, what can be achieved? The second one is considered unimportant by some, yet surely is no less important. A two state solution has the backing of the international community, most of Israeli and Palestinian populations, and so on. The only things blocking it are the Israeli government and the American government (and occasionally, Tuvalu, Micronesia, and on occasion Australia). Saying that the two state solution has failed because we haven’t achieved it is remarkable. If we have not yet ended the occupation with these factors on our side, that hardly makes the case for switching to a one-state struggle. The switch would only make sense if it were shown that a one-state solution were somehow more achievable. And this plainly and obviously is not the case.

Having said this, we should reject those who claim support for a one state solution is racist, anti-Semitic and so on and so forth. And we should reject those who pretend that a two state solution is just, that Israel has a right to be racist, to treat its Palestinian citizens with contempt, to refuse to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes because of Israel’s “demographic balance” (ie, a euphemism that could be called ethno-national purity). Zionism still deserves honest discussion, and Palestinian suffering still deserves to be known and deplored.

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