Israeli liberals are not the right audience for anti-occupation activists

Bernard Avishai thinks that BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) is mostly ineffective, and so do I. But our reasoning is not only different – it actually relies on completely opposite premises about the role of liberal and cosmopolitan elites in Israeli society. This is the first in a series of posts about those elites.

Bernard Avishai’s basic argument against divestment in international companies implicated in the occupation of the Palestinian territories is highly confused, verging on the bizarre. He seems to imply that these companies are incapable of distinguishing between the products they sell to the settlements or the IDF, and the products they sell to other Israelis. By this logic, any successful divestment campaign will force these companies to cease doing business in Israel altogether. While this argument is true for some companies, it is untrue for the vast majority, which can easily stop doing business with the occupation, while continuing other operations in Israel. In fact, that is exactly what happened on several occasions.

But this easily refutable claim is the less interesting component in Avishai’s opposition to divestment campaigns against international companies. The truly fascinating element in his analysis is the section about the positive impact of these corporations on Israeli society (emphasis mine):

But if you cause Israel’s private sector to implode, or cause Israeli universities to be internationally isolated, you will be ruining the lives of the very people who are most likely to be advocating for liberal equality and cosmopolitan values in Israeli society… Motorola’s impact on Tel Aviv is more like MIT’s on Cambridge than the United Fruit Company’s on Guatemala. I lived in Israel in the early 1970s, before Israeli commercial life globalized. The country’s commercial life today is incomparably more liberal and cosmopolitan than it was then, although there is much stronger proto-fascist minority today than there was then. My fear is that the more we undermine liberal forces through things like divestment and boycott, the faster the ranks of liberal Israel will be depleted, and the more we are ceding the field to the cultists and fanatics.

This is not the first time that Avishai has made the distinction between Israeli liberals, on the one hand, and proto-fascists, cultists and fanatics, on the other hand. Despite their vast ideological differences, you can hear the same position from Jeffery Goldberg, although he makes it in much blunter and more prejudiced terms. But I even hear echoes of this sentiment in the words of people I greatly respect, like my BDS-supporting colleague Joseph Dana.

In his excellent article, extolling the virtues of BDS, Joseph argues that the youth of Tel Aviv might be forced to pay attention to the evils of the occupation if their favorite performers cancel their concerts because of it. In response, I countered that these youth do not have much influence, and truly powerful elites are actually strengthening their international connections. But there is broader point to make here, one that addresses a common thread that connects the widely divergent thinking of Joseph, Avishai and Goldberg.

For all of them, the target audience is the “liberal” and “cosmopolitan” section of Israeli society. Avishai opposes BDS because it will weaken this group, and Joseph supports it because it will pressure this group. And this is only natural: they focus on this audience because it is their natural milieu (as well as mine).

Nonetheless, in my opinion, they are making a fundamental error. Israeli cosmopolitans and liberals are one of the last groups that would support an end to the occupation, and they are not in the midst of a struggle with cultists, fanatics and proto-fascists. In fact, the occupation, despite being one of the worst evils in Israel today, does not mark the true line of division in Israeli society and politics. The seeming rivalry surrounding it masks tacit alliances and cooperations which are much more important, and sometimes place “liberals” and “fanatics” on the same side, against the interests of less visible groups in Israeli society.

These alliances, and the place of Israeli liberals in this context, will be the subject of the next post in this series.