Is the settlement boycott misdirected?

On the surface, the settlement boycott seems to be a wise ‘middle way’ for Jews that are critical of Israeli policy yet unwilling to join a Palestinian-led nonviolent initiative. However, it’s a step that might prove to be counter-productive

The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) of Israel continues to be one of the most controversial issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a remarkably short time, the call has achieved numerous successes including the divestment of major European companies such Duestche Bahn in Israeli business deals, the support of international artists such as Roger Waters and the end of academic relationships with universities from South Africa to the United States. While BDS continues on its nonviolent path of resistance to Israel’s 44 year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, progressive Jewish voices in the United States and Israel have been slow to embrace the potential of Palestinian nonviolence.

Now almost six years after the initial BDS call, some elements in the Jewish milieu have adopted a version of BDS called ‘settlement boycott.’ On the surface, settlement boycott seems to be a wise ‘middle way’ for Jews that are critical of Israeli policy yet unwilling to join a Palestinian-led nonviolent initiative. However, a deeper look at the logic of settlement boycott reveals serious logical failures of the movement.

My fellow writer on +972, Mairav Zonszein has written a thoughtful and well researched piece on the BDS movement among Jews in the US in Dissent Magazine. She begins with congratulatory statements for Jstreet, the ‘pro-Israel, pro-Peace’ lobby in the United States which emerged in 2008 to give voice to those in the polarized American Jewish community who love Israel but dislike its current policies. The article makes clear that the American Jewish community is changing, albeit slowly, and progressive voices are beginning to emerge. The major proof of this change is increased acceptance of the settlement boycott. What is the settlement boycott?

According to the piece, the settlement boycott is

A boycott of settlement goods [which] is aimed at anything that is produced in the occupied territories, not just goods actually made in Israeli settlements. This includes a wide variety of agricultural produce (such as fruits and flowers) and manufactured goods (such as plastics, textiles, cosmetics, food, and wine) that are made in factories located in large Israeli industrial zones within the occupied territories.

Sounds good enough but I see two problematic issues. The major issue is that the settlement boycott has nothing to do with the actual Palestinian BDS call which is designed to isolate Israel until it abides by international law in the occupied Palestinian territories. By co-opting the BDS movement and changing it to fit the narrow needs of the progressive Jewish community in the diaspora, more harm than good is done for the aspirations of Palestinians living under occupation.

The second problematic issue is that a settlement boycott creates a division between the settlements and Israeli society. The settlements (and Occupation) are part and parcel of Israeli society. The soldiers which guard the settlements and allow them to continue come from both Israel and the settlements. If you are willing to boycott the settlements, in effect you are boycotting all of the state of Israel as it stands today.

In fact, to be most effective in targeting the settlements, you must target the infrastructure that upholds the settlements. This is what the Palestinian boycott call, molded on the successful boycott of Apartheid South Africa, seeks to do. For example, the boycott of an Israeli academic institution that is directly connected to the Occupation dries up the infrastructure which allows the settlements to flourish. Every Israeli university (most of which are state funded) include programs of security studies which are run by current and former military personnel who devise new ways of maintaining, justifying and defending the control of the West Bank and Gaza. In this way, Israeli academia is deeply connected to the Occupation notwithstanding the numerous individual academics which have taken bold stands against the Occupation.

One must address the root of the illness as opposed to the symptoms. Boycotting settlement produce only addresses the symptoms and ignores the root of the problem, which is the decision by Israeli society to maintain and engrain the occupation of Palestinian land. While the settlement boycott is an important first step towards the internationalization of nonviolent initiatives against Israeli occupation it is misdirected. The settlers will be the last ones to change. The people that have the power to end the occupation live in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. They are the ones that need to be forced to comply with international law through the nonviolent Palestinian call for BDS.