Israel fights back as boycott movement gains strength
- February 8, 2014
Middle East Correspondent
The story of an actress and a drinks company highlights a growing movement against settlements
As Route 90 winds its way through the Jordan Valley, a spectacular desert landscape rises beyond the ancient city of Jericho. Vast date plantations, farms and greenhouses attached to dozens of Israeli settlements cover the lush low-lying agricultural lands below.
Producing grapes, dates, tomatoes, eggplant, capsicum and herbs, most of it for export, the settlers’ agricultural enterprises cover 3300 hectares and are valued at 500 million Israeli shekels ($158 million), according to the Jordan Valley Regional Council.
But the settlement enterprises stretch beyond the Jordan Valley, throughout the Israeli-occupied West Bank, all of it beyond the so-called Green Line that divides Israel and the Palestinian territories. All of it is considered illegal under international law – a point Israel has disputed for decades.
The Israeli company SodaStream is in an industrial park attached to the third-largest settlement in the West Bank, Ma’ale Adumim. Just as conflicted is the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, part of which human rights groups say has been built on land Israel appropriated from Palestinian owners and then illegally annexed.
And it is here that the lives of Hollywood actor Scarlett Johansson and University of Sydney academic Jake Lynch intersect in the debate over the growing economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Both have become symbols on opposing sides of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Johansson stood down as ambassador to the international charity Oxfam, unable to reconcile Oxfam’s opposition to all trade from Israeli settlements with her role as spokeswoman for SodaStream, while Lynch, the director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, is facing court action in Australia this month over his decision to participate in the boycott of an Israeli university.
Inspired by the boycott campaign against apartheid in South Africa that was designed to pressure the government to overturn racial segregation, the BDS movement has both powerful backers and detractors. Formed in 2005 by 170 Palestinian individuals and civil society groups, it calls for the boycott of Israeli companies and products that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory until it meets its obligations under international law. For the BDS campaign, this means Israel must end its occupation, recognise the equal rights of Arab citizens of Israel and respect the right of return of Palestinian refugees (a major stumbling block over decades of failed peace talks between Israel and Palestine).
Its detractors label the movement anti-Semitic and say it is targeting Israel’s right to exist as opposed to its policies, while its supporters say it is a legitimate, non-violent form of protest against Israel’s four-decade long occupation of Palestine.
Such is the concern over the movement’s increasing momentum that at least two senior Israeli cabinet ministers, as well as the Prime Minister, have issued statements on the boycotts in recent days. Finance Minister Yair Lapid told Army Radio on Monday that the boycott could cost the economy 11 billion Israeli shekels and nearly 10,000 jobs. He noted Germany was talking about banning settlement products and warned ”it will hit the pocket of every Israeli if we don’t deal with it” – ”it” being a peace deal with the Palestinians. Lapid’s comments appeared to be partly prompted by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned the status quo of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ”cannot be maintained”.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded bluntly to the idea of boycotts, describing them as ”immoral and unjust” in his weekly cabinet meeting. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told local reporters a new ”inter-ministerial” team has been established to fight the boycott of products produced beyond the Green Line.
It is probably not Lynch’s act of academic boycott from Australia or Johansson’s split from Oxfam that has Israeli political and business leaders most worried but the implementation of new European Union guidelines that explicitly state no EU grants, prizes or financial instruments, such as loans, can be issued to Israeli entities operating beyond the Green Line, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The British government’s warning to businesses in December over trading with Israeli settlements in the West Bank has also raised concern.
It is not just governments that are toughening their stance on settlements. Israel’s constant settlement construction was also pushing private companies to boycott their products and services, said Lars Faaborg-Andersen, EU ambassador to Israel.
Pedalling in the opposite direction, the Australian government representatives at the United Nations in November withdrew support for a UN resolution to stop ”all Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories”. Last month, in another reversal of policy, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: ”I would like to see which international law has declared [Israeli settlements] illegal.”
On Wednesday Israel confirmed a further 349 new units would be built in East Jerusalem, while settlement monitoring group Peace Now says plans for 5349 new units had been announced since peace talks restarted in July.
While the BDS movement may have appeared marginal and extreme when it began eight years ago, it is now impossible to ignore, says Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion analyst based in Tel Aviv and an adjunct lecturer at Ben Gurion University and Tel Aviv University.
Boycott puts the issue of ending the occupation and the conflict back on the map, Scheindlin says, when nothing else seems to have worked. ”I do consider boycott a non-violent tactic and I reject the argument … of saying that ‘boycott is economic violence or political violence,’ ” she says. ”Boycott doesn’t kill people. It barely puts anybody out of a job.”
Increasing numbers of performers have also cancelled appearances in Israel following pressure from the global boycott movement. ”It is very effective, it hits a very mainstream group, it is like a personal insult to every Israeli who ever bought a ticket for Elvis Costello or Roger Waters, for anyone who bought tickets for shows that were cancelled.”
In December, the 5000-member American Studies Association made waves when it passed a resolution that bans ”formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions”. That followed the Association for Asian American Studies resolution last April that also endorsed a boycott.
In the past fortnight alone, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, has been barred from investing in two Israeli companies due to their ”serious violations” of individual rights, while Denmark’s largest bank added an Israeli bank to its list of banned companies. Soon after, Danskse Bank, which had already withdrawn its investment from Africa Israel Investments and Danya Cebus, announced it was banning investment in Bank Hapoalim because the latter is funding settlement construction.
An Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Yigal Palmor, described the Danskse Bank’s decision as ”preposterous” and part of what ”appears to be an Israel-bashing fashion”.
There is no doubt the boycott is a blunt tool, and it can leave those against whom it is directed feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
The Hebrew University academic who approached Lynch seeking permission to use his name on an application for the Sir Zelman Cowen fellowship program, Dan Avnon, has spent much of his career promoting co-existence between Jewish and Arab Israelis.
Lynch, one of several people approached by Avnon, declined the request, citing a boycott of institutional links with universities in Israel, under the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which is part of the broader BDS movement.
Avnon did not want to be interviewed for this story, but said he would speak to the media once he had taken up a position in the University of Sydney’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights next month.
Lynch says the boycott movement has only ever been about institutional collaboration. Just like there was no non-political way to play sport with apartheid South Africa, he says, there is ”no non-political way to engage in institutional collaboration with Israeli universities”.
But those arguments hold no sway with Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who says an academic boycott creates losers on all sides. ”Academic work is all about collaboration and co-operation and free movement from one place to another – participating in conferences, joint research and joint teaching programs,” Carmi says. ”An institution that is being boycotted is being isolated from all of this.”
Ben Gurion University, which has about 1000 Arab, Bedouin and Palestinian students, as well a handful of Arab and Bedouin faculty members, is also increasingly collaborating with Palestinian academics, she says.
”For those of us who speak in favour of free speech, academic freedom and human rights, the boycott movement is really undermining all of this and damaging these efforts of collaboration.”
For Scheindlin, the attempt to prosecute an academic who is participating in a boycott, as the Israeli organisation Shurat HaDin is attempting to do to Jake Lynch in Australia’s Federal Court, is more damaging than the boycott itself.
”Trying to prosecute somebody under anti-discrimination laws for refusing to support an academic – that to me is a more dangerous and insidious form of silencing,” she says.
Lynch was unable to comment on the case, which is due for a directions hearing on February 12.
In the meantime, since the furore over Johansson’s involvement with SodaStream, the company’s share price fell 3.3 per cent to $US35.34 ($40), its lowest since November 2012. Chief executive Daniel Birnbaum defended his company over the weekend, saying it employed 500 Palestinians out of its 1300-strong workforce.
Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement, said that many Palestinians were ”left with no choice but to work for complicit Israeli companies to be able to put food on the table for their families”.