I was actually trying to figure out a title that would incorporate the phrase “moral malcontents,” because that’s the way I see the arguments of the academic and chattering class against BDS. They understand that BDS is a moral critique that needs to be rebutted in order to protect Israel’s claim to legitimacy. But their arguments manage to come across as petulant and rhetorical, rather than deeply rooted in any moral position. I call them moral malcontents because the moral critique deeply unnerves them and they fight desperately to undermine it.
Then after thinking better of it, I figured a seminal Sigmund Freud title (Civilization and Its Discontents) would convey my ideas just as well.
This 2014 essay by Martin Shaw in OpenDemocracy brought one particular aspect of this debate sharply into focus for me. Anyone on the left has heard, perhaps a hundred times or more (certainly in the comment threads here more than once!), the argument that BDS is hypocritical because country x or y has killed far more than Israel. Therefore, Israeli boycotters are morally bankrupt and their special animus against Israel comes into clearer focus. I always found this argument rather weak and beside the point. But even weak arguments have elements that deserve attention and rebuttal.
Here is how Shaw articulated the issue:
Opponents of boycotts and sanctions like the late Norman Geras, a respected Marxist academic, argue that they “single out” Israel when other states are doing far worse things. In the region today, Syria has killed many more, and Egypt’s new regime too, its total soon to be boosted by mass death penalties. Yet the South African boycott, which Norman supported, also singled out one regime, by no means the most murderous of its day. In 1961 Mao Zedong was completing the “great leap forward”, which caused tens of millions of deaths, but there were no calls for sanctions against China from those who targeted apartheid after Sharpeville.
Boycott advocates counter, in any case, that supporters of Israel also single it out, justifying exceptional levels of western political, financial and military support. Clearly it would be strange to rule out boycotts and sanctions from the Israel-Palestine conflict in principle, because Israel is itself applying comprehensive sanctions to Gaza. The real question about such measures is not whether we are applying them to all bad regimes equally, but whether they are likely to help move the political situation forward in the particular case.
There is one important distinction between totalitarian countries like Syria, Sudan, Egypt, the former Red China, and North Korea–which massively violate human rights–and Israel. None of them is a western country. None of them is a democracy. None of them makes a pretence of embracing western democracy. They are, by and large ruled by dictators who thrive in isolation from the pressures of the outside world.
If say, we wished to protest against the depredations of Bashar al Assad or Kim Jong Un, how would we do so? Where would our levers of influence be? Boycott? How would that harm Kim when he has a trusted ally in China to prop him up? Consider even the case of Vladimir Putin, another petty tyrant who struts and frets his petty pace upon the world stage. He has many crimes to answer for. He deserves opprobrium. But where is our leverage? Are we prepared to use force to bring him to heel? That appears not to be in the cards.
The case of Israel is entirely different. It has pretensions of being a western nation. It seeks to be judged by western standards (except when it’s convenient for apologists to note how much better Israel does than its Arab neighbors). It is always striving to prove itself worthy of inclusion in the civilized western world. Israelis have deep ties to the west: their children have emigrated there; their relatives live in the Jewish Diaspora; they live to take their holidays in European capitals. These are a lifeline for a people sentenced to live in a state of perpetual war. The outside world offers a dose of normalcy and sanity to balance the pressure of living with the threat of violence everyday.
Unlike the dictatorial regimes mentioned above, Israel is quite sensitive to how it is perceived in the outside world. Not so much because the latter can bring Israel to heel by a sharp command. Rather, the influence of the world on Israel is subtle. It is both psychological and material. Israelis understand that they are isolated in the region. They understand that they’ve done little to integrate themselves into the Arab world. They have always looked west, rather than east. The west is where Israel seeks validation.
So if BDS convinces those in the west to turn their backs on Israel, this strikes a deep psychic blow. Where Israelis once found moral succor, they now find ostracism. Once the west abandons them, where else can they turn? To China? Some on the Israeli right have advanced that as a solution. But China has its own developing set of environmental and economic problems. It also already has a puppet state of its own (North Korea) to bolster. It doesn’t need another. Some see India, currently ruled by anti-Muslim Hindu nationalists, as a new ally. But all of these are alliances of convenience. The heart of neither of these countries is with Israel in the way that the EU and the U.S. have remained loyal to Israel for decades.
Shaw also raises another important point regarding the legitimacy of boycotts. Israel has laid siege to Gaza since 2006. It has also exerted virtual sovereignty over wide swaths of the West Bank whenever it suits Israel’s security needs. How can a nation engaging in its own form of national boycott against Palestine argue that boycotting it is immoral?
Two Cheers for BDS
The great British novelist, E.M. Forster once offered a rather tepid two cheers for democracy:
“So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.”
Churchill also said it was among the worst forms of government…except for all the others.
These are rather the way I’ve come to think of BDS. To be perfectly candid, I have never been an enthusiastic supporter of BDS. I’ve written in the past that it tends to be a sledgehammer when a scalpel would serve a more useful purpose. But over time, I’ve come to see that even a scalpel will not extirpate the cancer of Occupation from the Israeli body politic. Israel needs shock therapy, not hand-holding or carefully calibrated moral suasion. All of these have been tried in the past. They have failed. Israeli leaders have looked upon these well-meaning efforts and with a dismissive wave of the hand swept them away.
BDS promises a morally clear, non-violent approach that will shake up Israel’s political calculations. To see the success of this approach, we have only to look at the fear and desperation in the faces of Israeli leaders screaming about delegitimization as if it were a Hitler speech at a Nuremberg parade ground. Similarly, the Israel anti-Occupation group, Breaking the Silence, drew even more vicious denunciation than normal when it brought its testimonies about IDF war crimes to New York for the recent Haaretz conference there.
It is one thing for BtS to testify in the Hebrew pages of Haaretz about these massacres. Such criticism is quite easily contained among Israelis long inured to moral reflection. But quite another to go abroad and conspire with the goyim to undermine your brethren at home. This invokes a time-honored Diaspora taboo against informing on your fellow Jews before the non-Jewish rulers. In prior centuries, this could end in pogroms or mass slaughter when Jew went up against Jew. But today, when such fears are no longer founded, Israel’s right-wing leaders dredge up this hoary code to suppress dissent and obscure moral transparency. But we no longer live in ghettos. We no longer fear pogroms. Instead, we need open debate and clarity to see the chasm lying before Israel.