The controversy over boycotting Israel

The controversy over boycotting Israel

For years, the global Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestine was a far-Left movement supported almost exclusive by the European Left; it was considered so deeply anti-Israel that support amongst the Israeli Left was practically non-existent. For most,  boycotting one’s own country was not even a matter of discussion. Over the past year, though, the Israeli Left’s attitude has starting to alter; BDS has become a legitimate top of discussion, although it does not yet have wide support – even amongst the Left.

Neve Gordon, a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University, caused an uproar last year when he came out in favour of BDS in an op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times. Gordon expressed an increasingly common sense amongst Israeli peaceniks that boycott was the only option remaining, given the failure of peace overtures and two Intifadas to end the occupation, and given Israel’s recalcitrant ultra-nationalist government.

It is indeed not a simple matter for me as an Israeli citizen to call on foreign governments, regional authorities, international social movements, faith-based organizations, unions and citizens to suspend cooperation with Israel. But today, as I watch my two boys playing in the yard, I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.

I say this because Israel has reached a historic crossroads, and times of crisis call for dramatic measures. I say this as a Jew who has chosen to raise his children in Israel, who has been a member of the Israeli peace camp for almost 30 years and who is deeply anxious about the country’s future.

Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestine Authority, has also called for a boycott of goods made in Israel’s West Bank settlements. He has enacted some carrot-and-stick measures to convince Palestinian merchants to stop carrying goods made on settlements. Similarly, some EU countries have published suggested guidelines for merchants wishing to label products that are made by Israelis in the West Bank.

In a sign that the calls for a boycott might be starting to worry the Israeli government, a proposed bill introduced into the the Knesset would outlaw boycotts and penalise their supporters. Individuals who initiated, encouraged or provided support or information for any boycott or divestment action would be made to pay damages to the companies affected. Yonatan Shapira, a prominent leftist activist who supports BDS, was questioned about his pro-boycott activism by the Shin Bet.

In a video piece produced by The Real News, an alternative online news source, Israeli supporters of BDS note that the pending anti-boycott legislation would affect activists for activities they engaged in well before the law is passed (if it does pass).


Interestingly, the person who expressed the most eloquent and reasoned opposition to BDS is Amitav Ghosh, a Brooklyn-based Indian novelist and journalist, as well as an anthropologist, who was recently the recipient of a literary award that was presented at Tel Aviv University. In deciding to  accept the award, Ghosh came under fierce fire from the BDS movement. A mutual friend said that he and his wife were disheartened and shocked, and that they felt isolated.

In  response to his critics, Ghosh wrote:

Let us forget about history for a moment, because if it were possible to re-write history there would be much that we would want to change. Let us instead look at the Middle East today: Israel is country of seven million people; it is armed to the teeth and possesses nuclear weapons; many of its citizens have lived there for generations and have nowhere else to go; beyond a certain point, whether or not they have the support of America or anyone else, they will fight to the last. Let us look at these realities and ask ourselves: what is it that we really want for the people of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank? Do we want a bloodbath – an Armageddon of the kind that extremists on all sides (including some parts of the left) seem to be hoping for? Or do we want to prevail on all sides to reach some compromise that allows people to get on with their lives? Such a compromise would of course take the shape of a two-state solution in which Israel withdraws to some negotiated equivalent of its internationally recognized borders; where the dispossessed are paid compensation; the settlements are vacated; East Jerusalem is fully restored to the Palestinians; checkpoints are withdrawn; the siege of Gaza is lifted and both sides agree to a cessation of violence – and so on.

If it is Armageddon and an undoing of history that you want then clearly we have nothing to talk about. If it is the second option then I invite you to ask yourselves whether any compromise solution is possible without fully, completely and sincerelyaccepting the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

According to a mutual friend, Ghosh’s opponents were impervious to his argument.