Boycotting Israel means denying its right to exist

Most boycotters would deny Israel’s right to exist, or deny Israeli’s right to self-determination. They would install Palestine in its place, instead of by its side.

By Noam Wiener

Apartheid week is here again and with it the debate about Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Norman Finkelstein gave an interview, Sean O’Neil responded indignantly. Bradley Burston wrote a piece in Haaretz, Noam Sheizaf responded here on +972. I want to focus more on the choice to boycott, and less on whether it is effective, whether BDS is a big or a small movement, or whether the one state solution is beyond the pale of the international community. I am interested in the morality of the boycott and what it symbolizes. If boycotting is the right thing to do, the international community will eventually come around.

Sometimes in the heat of discussion, important elements get lost. It is important to start with some basic understandings. The plight of the Palestinians under the occupation is terrible. It is unjust and unjustifiable and should have ended yesterday. It is a travesty that the government of Israel is elected by a population of nearly 8 million people, but governs more than 12 million people.

I also believe that oppressed groups (and I think it is reasonable to state that disenfranchisement is oppressive) do not win their rights by virtue of being right. Rather, oppressed groups need to voice their discontent, and since that is usually not enough, they need to force their oppressors to stop the oppression. This is where it gets tricky. Despite what Noam Sheizaf wrote here, I do not think oppression should be overthrown by all means necessary. There are means that are completely illegitimate for use in overthrowing oppression (I am fairly sure that Noam Sheizaf would agree that blowing up coffee shops is not a justified means for the shaking off of oppression). The question is whether boycotting a country is a legitimate means.

One major advantage of a boycott is that it is non-violent. Another major advantage is that it is a highly visible means of protest that garners a lot of attention. But boycotting has other attributes that make it an illegitimate means of attaining Palestinian liberation.

A blanket boycott is simply too broad. When I choose to boycott somebody, I am telling that somebody that they are, for me, a non-entity. They become transparent, not to be addressed, not to be dealt with, and not to be considered. Boycotting means denying not just an entity’s business, but its voice. In this sense, the boycott is a direct continuation of the longtime policy of Arab states refusing to recognize Israel – for what is lack of recognition if not a diplomatic boycott?

For me, the time to boycott Israel will be when I think that not just a specific administration, but the entire regime is illegitimate and needs to be overthrown. Boycott, as a non-violent means, is the equivalent of revolution and should be undertaken when the state itself should be toppled and a new state put in its place. In the context of Israel, most boycotters would deny Israel’s right to exist, or deny Israelis’ right to self-determination. They would install Palestine in its place, instead of by its side.

I think that this is the point that Finkelstein got wrong in his interview. Finkelstein said he supported the method used by BDS – the boycott – but that he thought their goal – the end of Israel’s existence – is illegitimate. He explained that if the boycott was applied only in order to end the occupation, he would support it fully. But Finkelstein misunderstands that in the case of a boycott, the method is inseparable from the goal. A boycott against Israel is, by definition, a call for the denial of its right to exist.

Perhaps it is redundant to have to explain why Israel has a right to exist – I will do it anyway. Other nations, in the course of history, have done some pretty horrible things and nobody doubts their right to exist. This doesn’t make what we do right. It is not. But my right, as an Israeli, to self-determination is no different from the rights of Palestinians. Through a fluke of history, two nations with completely different cultures call the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea their national homes. This land therefore has to be shared, and a sovereign state created for each group where they can practice self rule. It is our (the Israelis’) duty, as a nation among nations, to affirmatively act to afford the Palestinians this right and create a place where they can govern themselves. But it is also the Palestinians’ duty to recognize Israelis’ right to the same.

It is not my place to tell the Palestinians what means they should use to end their oppression. But if they want me to join in their fight, they have to choose means that I, and other liberally-minded individuals around the world, can live with. Denying the right of Israelis to self-determination is not such a means.

Noam Wiener is an Israeli doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. His research focuses on international criminal law.