In the fallout from the Scarlett Johansson imbroglio, there are lessons to be learned. First, that money trumps principles almost always. Johansson proved that. I’m not foolish enough to believe that a brilliant actress is a great humanitarian or lives her life by consistent values, but we all would like to think so, wouldn’t we? This scandal proves we are wrong. Johansson is human and frail as most of the rest of us. Unfortunately for her, she got herself enmeshed in a political controversy which will likely affect her career for years to come. I have seen her act so poignantly in so many films. But I can’t do it again. Nor will others, though I don’t know how many that will be. If BDS becomes as powerful an anti-Occupation weapon as it promises to be, there may be many of us.
Another lesson is that BDS has become a powerful political tool in the struggle against Israeli oppression. In following the history of the BDS movement and the various Israeli responses to it, it’s followed something like the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) though I’ll change the terms slightly: first there is denial. But unlike in facing death, denial takes the form of derision and dismissal. Israel apologists first believed BDS was preposterous. They dismissed it as a vacant threat, something dreamed up by the ultra-left.
Then there were tiny acts of bravery that gave BDS small initial amounts of traction. First, Neve Gordon published his op-ed in the Los Angeles Times personally endorsing BDS. His gesture led to the second stage of Israeli response to BDS: anger. The president of Ben Gurion University tried to persuade Neve’s department to sidetrack his appointment as chair of his academic department. She publicly said she wanted him to quit and wished she could fire him. But she couldn’t.
Like Gordon, members of an Israeli theater group protested their engagement in the Ariel settlement. Though the performance went forward, a number of prominent artists refused to join. Then New York artists signed a petition supporting them which caused the incident to enter the American Jewish debate.
Though BDS had existed several years before this incident, it was the first time I recalled that Israelis as a group joined in a boycott. This gradually gave permission to foreign artists to take a stand themselves. This led to Roger Waters endorsement of BDS and refusal to perform. Of course, artists still agree to appear in Israel. And Israel’s champions trumpet every one as if it’s a piece of gold bullion that proves Israel is just. But there is a tide that is rolling in and it’s carrying more and more power with it as it reaches shore.
The latest Sodastream fiasco has taken BDS to a new level. Now, Israel’s supporters don’t snigger as if it’s a silly game. They don’t like it, but they can’t dismiss it. You simply can’t argue with every major media outlet in the world running a story on the prominent actress’ dismissal (essentially, what it was) from her role as Oxfam’s Global Ambassador. BDS is now a major story.
Of course, those fighting against the movement are hoping it is a fad. They’re waiting for the furor to die down so they can return to business as usual. And for a time they can. The struggle against the Occupation isn’t linear. It’s doesn’t run inexorably toward peace and justice. It meanders through history. It takes one step forward and a half-step back.
But the Johansson story was the crossing of a political Rubicon. Proof of that may be seen in the first-ever Israel cabinet meeting devoted solely to BDS. At this meeting, none of the ministers could coalesce around a single plan to combat it. Haaretz reports that Minister for Strategic Planning (that’s the portfolio that encompasses existential threats like “delegitimization”) proposed a $30-million plan to amplify Israel opposition to BDS. This presumably would involve what they’re already doing, except on a much more intense level.
Examples of this are the Olympia Food Coop lawsuit, which was dismissed by a Washington State court as a SLAPP (nuisance) case. During the deliberations, a Israel TV journalist interviewing deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, elicited the official’s boast that the government was directly involved in, and approved the lawsuit. He didn’t specify whether it was providing funding or other more specific types of support in this campaign.
Electronic Intifada reported recently on the deliberate infiltration of a campus human rights group by a pro-Israel spy who reported on the political views of individual participants. Israel may be planning a Zionist version of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Agents and spies will fan out and identify targets and report back either to domestic pro-Isrel groups like StandWithUs, The Israel Project, or directly to their handlers in Israel. Some may scoff at this. But as EI reported, the ADL did precisely the same thing in the 1980s. Though presumably the ADL effort hasn’t been restarted, it has created a template for what can be done.
The fight against BDS will take many forms: the government will confront it both head-on and in surreptitious ways. But liberal Zionists and pro-Israel intellectuals and journalists will address BDS in more sophisticated ways. We can see examples of this just in recent days in the American media. As Mondoweiss reports, Hirsh Goodman, the Jerusalem Post’s former security reporter (and husband of NY Times Israel reporter, Isabel Kershner) has penned an attack on BDS in the Times (accompanied by an op-ed favorable to the movement by none other than its founder, Omar Barghouti). Jane Eisner in The Forward, makes another rather feeble attempt to discredit BDS. Max Fisher in the Washington Post too takes on the subject. And finally, Mira Sucharov attempted to poke holes in BDS in Haaretz.
All of these attempted critiques of BDS contain remarkably similar arguments, many of which are either flat-out wrong or distortions. Fisher, for example, says that BDS calls for a boycott of “all Israel.” BDS actually calls for a boycott of Israeli state institutions especially those which serve or maintain the Occupation.
Another argument is that BDS will only antagonize Israelis, rather than persuade them that the Occupation is wrong and has to be ended. I’m afraid we’re far beyond that place. Only the most naive believe that any Israeli, even those on the center-left, can be convinced through moral suasion that the Occupation must end and a Palestinian state must be created immediately.
The Right of Return is another bone of contention. Opponents argue that Israel will be so inundated with Palestinian refugees it will either be destroyed or lose whatever Jewish character it has. This is a patently false argument since a report commissioned by the Knesset (pg. 7) which cited a Khalil Shikaki survey, found that less than 400,000 refugees wanted to return to Israel. Many of these preferred to do so only if they did not have to take Israeli citizenship. Therefore, even that number might shrink (unless there could be a form of citizenship for Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees whereby the former were Israeli citizens, while the latter were Palestinians, even though they didn’t live in the country of which they were citizens). During multiple negotiations going all the way back to 1949, Israel offered to resettle 100,000 refugees, making 400,000 seem not an unreasonable figure today.
Part of the reason that not all refugees might choose to return is that they will be offered compensation for their suffering and lost property. This would enable them to make a free choice where to reside. Some may choose to remain where they are, some may settle in Palestine, if such a state is ever created; and some may return to Israel. At any rate, there is absolutely no possibility Israel will lose its Jewish majority anytime soon. Unless of course, it refuses to create a Palestinian state and the only remaining option is a single state. Then, in fact, Jews would be in a minority and have to learn to fend for themselves within a democratic country in which they did not have supremacy.
Sucharov’s column is a rather representative piece of anti-BDS rhetoric couched in terms slightly more sophisticated than the average diatribe. So let’s address some of her claims. First she claims to want to undo some of the “confusion” surrounding BDS. Undoubtedly when an opponent makes such a claim it is they who are either confused or seek to introduce confusion that doesn’t exist.
She begins by comparing the two Intifadas as forms of violent resistance, with BDS, which is non-violent. Then she adds this odd claim:
But if the means — non-violent, economic pressure — are more moderate than what had come before it [the Intifadas], in some ways the goals are more extreme. Since the peace process began over two decades ago, the conventional wisdom has been that a two-state solution will be the result.
Her historical error is in characterizing the Intifada as a Palestinian battle for a two-state solution. Certainly, there were some Palestinians for whom that may’ve been the goal. But the vast majority of Palestinians simply were expressing their resistance to Occupation. It was a spontaneous political expression, not a planned strategy. So to say its goal was two-states is simply false. Not to mention, that even if this claim was true then, it’s been rendered obsolete by Israeli-generated facts on the ground.
Most importantly, Sucharov falsely argues here that BDS’ goals are “more extreme.” By this she means the following:
…By demanding the full return of Palestinian refugees into Israel and demanding that Israel give up its core identity of being a Jewish state, the BDS movement is out of step with the most likely outcome — and, from the point of view of overlapping needs and desires, probably the best one, too.
As is common with such arguments, Sucharov sets up a strawman and then knocks him down. She defines the “full return of Palestinian refugees” to mean that every single refugee eligible to return will do so. This is a false argument and Sucharov knows it, is as I’ve noted above. Even in the unlikely event that 1-million refguees resettle themselves in Israel, this is no more than the number of Soviet Jews who make aliyah to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. Given the far more generous funding that will be available to resettle Palestinian refugees from states which will contribute billions for this purpose, the process of return should be no more complex or traumatic than it was for Soviet Jewry.
Her other straw argument is that BDS demands that Israel give up its identity as a Jewish state. Actually, BDS makes no such demand. It only demands justice and defines this as allowing refugees to return. BDS demands that Jews give up supremacy and transform Israel into a truly democratic state. Even this doesn’t preclude Israeli Jews from honoring their traditions within such a nation (nor does it preclude Palestinians from doing the same). My strongest objection to such arguments is that they project a settlement between Israel and Palestinians as a zero-sum game. Either one group wins or the other. There is no scenario by which both win. This is a fatally flawed concept.
The most comical claim above is that BDS is “out of step” with “the most likely outcome” and “best one.” An aspect of the hasbara debates seen in comment threads here is that readers substitute their opinion for facts or evidence. Here Sucharov has substituted her own prejudices, her own preconceived ideas, for reality. They become the most likely and best outcome because she can’t stretch her mind to consider any other. That’s simply not what academics, scholars and analysts do. Their careers, if successful, are based on considering many different possibilities and scenarios. She clearly has only considered the ones she prefers. If she has considered any other, she certainly hasn’t given it serious thought.
In fact, the two state solution, abrogation of the Right of Return, and the supremacy of Jews in Israel are neither the most likely or best outcomes. In fact, Israel in future will most likely be much different from Sucharov’s conception. It may even be different from mine, but it will be far closer to mine than hers because mine encompasses the interests and aspirations of both sides, while hers only admits of the interests of one side.
The Canadian-Jewish academic continues her disingenuous analysis of BDS with this:
Maybe, then, we should assume that the goal of those who support BDS is not a two-state solution at all, but is indeed a “one-state solution,” whereby Israel ceases to be a Jewish state in any meaningful way, and all refugees are granted return.
In the very first phrase of this passage Sucharov “assumes” a fact concerning BDS that isn’t the case. As a number of prior analysts have noted, BDS doesn’t posit any particular plan for Israel-Palestine. There are of course many BDS supporters who support a one-state solution (largely because Israel itself has foreclosed other options). There are others who support two-states.
Also note the claim that BDS would preclude Israel being a “Jewish state in any meaningful way.” This depends on how you define your terms. By Jewish state, do we mean that Jews should have a monopoly on political power as they do now? Or do we mean that Israel would be a state in which Jews would find a homeland and self-determination as a people (with another people, the Palestinians, offered the same rights)? If the former, then BDS is arguing against Jewish supremacism. But it is not arguing against Israel as place in which Jewish traditions, culture and religion underpin the state (just as Palestinian ones would).
Sucharov rather naïvely argues that rejecting a Sodastream factory in the West Bank is counter-productive, because it is just such economic development that will be necessary if Palestine is to succeed economically. There are so many fallacious assumptions here it’s hard to know where to begin. But first let’s hear her argument:
Such a company would continue to employ the 500 Palestinian workers it currently employs, while also paying taxes to the Palestinian government. The company’s CEO has even explicitly stated his willingness to do this in such a post-two-state scenario.
Sodastream is located in the Territories for one reason–well, two reasons: first Palestinians are so desperate for work due to Israel’s strangulation of their economy that they’ll work for a pittance compared to Israelis. This keeps wages down. Second, Israel provides massive subsidies for enterprises that locate beyond the Green Line. As soon as that subsidy ends (as it would after a peace agreement), Sodastream will hightail it back to Israel.
Further, in a future Palestine it should not be the responsibility of Israelis to develop the Palestinian economy. That is the role of Palestinians themselves. If Palestine determines such a factory is beneficial then it should exist if the CEO is willing to do business there. But if Palestine determines it has other economic priorities, then it shouldn’t. In short, this isn’t a game of noblesse oblige in which Israeli entrepreneurs are doing Palestinian a big favor by giving them business.
The Haaretz blogger concludes with yet another unreasonable demand she makes of the Palestinian justice movement:
..If it’s [BDS] meant as a coherent, causal-chain form of political action, then BDS supporters also need to be clearer on what the intended endgame is for any given act of protest.
What she’s done here is to conflate BDS with a peace agreement. BDS isn’t the Geneva Initiative. It isn’t envisioning the political future in specific detail. It’s laying out three basic principles that must undergird any future agreement. But aside from those three concepts the sky’s the limit. There may be one state or two. The beauty of BDS is in its flexibility. It is just such flexibility that unnerves liberal Zionists like Sucharov. For if BDS was more specific it would lose supporters and opponents would far more easily poke holes in its argument.
It’s important to acknowledge what BDS cannot do: it cannot single-handedly topple the Occupation, no more than sanctions against South Africa defeated apartheid. The international struggle against the Occupation must use many tools to convey its message and persuade the world and its leaders of the justice of its cause. BDS will be one of them.
As I’ve focussed in this post on the deficiencies of the anti-BDS argument, there are some powerful affirmations published recently as well. One of the best is this NY Times op-ed by Prof. Avi Shlaim. Among his most telling argument is this:
Israeli leaders have always underlined the vital importance of self-reliance when it comes to Israel’s security. But the simple truth is that Israel wouldn’t be able to survive for very long without American support. Since 1949, America’s economic aid to Israel amounts to a staggering $118 billion and America continues to subsidize the Jewish state to the tune of $3 billion annually. America is also Israel’s main arms supplier and the official guarantor of its “quantitative military edge” over all its Arab neighbors.
In the diplomatic arena, Israel relies on America to shield it from the consequences of its habitual violations of international law. The International Court of Justice pronounced the so-called “security barrier” that Israel is building on the West Bank to be illegal. All of Israel’s civilian settlements on the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, but Israel continues to expand them.
Since 1978, when the Camp David Accords were brokered by President Jimmy Carter, the United States has used its veto power on the Security Council 42 times on behalf of Israel. The most shocking abuse of this power was to veto, in February 2011, a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion that had the support of the 14 other members of the Security Council.
Though neither Israel nor its advocates in this country foresee a time when American support will wane, neither did East Germans foresee the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany, Russians never believed Communism would self-destruct either. History has a way of making fools of those who believe the status quo can last forever. The harder we try to maintain it, the harder it tries to return to some form of social or political equilibrium. Eventually, this will happen to Israel too. It’s leaders and voters who elect them can continue to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to compromise. They will wake up one morning abandoned. Then their choices will be far more limited.
Yair Lapid seems to have advanced to the grief stage of bargaining. He understand the dollars and cents cost of BDS:
Yair Lapid, Israel’s centrist finance minister, warned this week, “If the negotiations with the Palestinians get stuck or break down and we enter a reality of a European boycott, even a very partial one, Israel’s economy will retreat.” Speaking at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, he said that “every resident of Israel will get hit straight in the pocket.”
Moral suasion has failed. Political jawboning has failed. One of the only arrows left in the quiver is economic threat. The truth is that Israeli obduracy has made BDS successful rather than the other way around.
That doesn’t mean that Yair Lapid represents any sort of Israeli pragmatism. His offer to a Palestinian interlocutor would be little different than Bibi’s. Lapid merely favors a different arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. He still has another level or two of BDS to work through before he gains ‘acceptance,’ the final one. But at least he understands the efficacy of BDS, which is more than you can say for most of the rest of the cabinet ministers.
F.W. DeKlerk had gone through all the levels of grief when he negotiated the end of apartheid. Whatever shortcomings he may’ve had, he was smart enough to understand that the white minority had little choice but to concede and reach a suitable compromise. Israel’s leaders have yet to get to this point, the final stage of grief: acceptance.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.