Revisiting Boycott & Divestment

Bernard Avishai wrote an interesting article over at The Nation magazine almost a month ago. I think it’s worth discussing in light of what’ll surely be increasing pressure by college students to pass resolutions similar to Berkeley’s this past spring.

Avishai’s article is a little confusing because in his critique of BDS in general, he draws a parallel to the critics of South African apartheid, some of whom were large business owners like Premier Group CEO Tony Bloom and thus (of course) didn’t support the B and the D parts. Bloom was an important figure in negotiations that led to the end of apartheid, and it was his belief that foreign multi-national corporations were crucial educational institutions; if they were model post-apartheid conglomerates, they could spread the values of the countries from which they came. Avishai’s argument seems to be that while the rest of the world believes that BDS worked in South Africa, it’s possible that it was merely incidental to the demise of the apartheid regime. And it may be true that by standing by American and European values of (relative) equality, Tony Bloom and his colleagues were able to wield some influence, change some minds, and ultimately give the movement some momentum. So I more or less follow Avishai to that point. But then he goes and delineates differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa, and the reader is supposed to follow him to his ostensible conclusion: That though B&D worked in South Africa (and he just spent the first third of his article saying that it maybe didn’t, maybe it was all counterproductive), it won’t work in Israel. Sanctions, he says, might.

Corporations like GM, Daimler and IBM did profit from the apartheid era, in the sense that they made the cars, trucks and computers South Africa needed and made enough profit to stay in business. But by this standard, tenured professors of democratic philosophy at Witwatersrand profited, too. The point is, great corporations, like great universities, are teaching institutions.

In this case, I hardly think that GE is teaching Israel much of anything, particularly because it comes from a nation where the professed values are pretty similar to Israel’s own. And I, personally, am not an advocate of boycotting educational institutions. But boycott and divestment is about identifying the companies whose goods specifically fuel the occupation, as opposed to those who merely do business in Israel and profit from its citizens. It’s about finding a way to target the United Technologies’ subsidiary that makes Israeli attack helicopters without targeting the subsidiary that makes Palestinian air conditioners (Side note: Do those actually get to Palestine?). How discriminating can we be when boycotting? (Almost as importantly, how can I reconcile a boycott of GE with my love for its NBC show, 30 Rock?).

Avishai’s idea is an interesting one: that because Israel is almost entirely a self-sustaining society—because it doesn’t, in fact, need American aid, and because it survives largely on its own citizens’ labor—a policy of boycott and divestment wouldn’t really hurt the Israeli right that’s making decisions. It would, however, politically isolate the country to the extent that it did economically. The economic ostracizing of Israel would push its political center—those who take issue with the settlements, but not so much that they’re really doing anything yet—to the right, since that very political center already believes that its Western allies are out of touch with the legitimate fear of occasionally witnessing a bus blow up in the street. And a sustainable far-right Israel isn’t something that very many people, including Avishai, want. He suggests that we continue to allow the “soft power of global markets” to engage Israel, draw it into political discussion and allow its leaders of international commerce to do their thing (“their thing” presumably precipitating a leftward shift in Israeli policy toward Palestinians). Avishai offers as concession:

Foreign governments might well ban consumer products like fruit, flowers and Dead Sea mineral creams and shampoos produced by Israelis in occupied territory, much as Palestinian retail stores do. The EU already requires Israel to distinguish products this way. If Israel continues building in East Jerusalem, and the UN Security Council majority sanctions Israeli tourism, the US government might well choose not to veto the resolution. The Pentagon might sanction, say, Israel Aerospace Industries if, owing to continued settlement, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations break down.

Let’s forget this last part, where he assumes Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are actually happening. We’ve already seen that the U.S. government won’t take even the smallest necessary steps to pressure its Israeli counterpart, so BDS is one of the few viable options for a public outraged by Israel’s ongoing human rights abuses and circumvention of international law.

Thoughts on any other alternatives?

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