Will boycott ‘work?’

Four notes on what could be tipping points for — or against — the boycott movement.

A week without a major boycott development in Israel is beginning to seem like a rarity. With a string of celebrity, corporate, cultural and professional threats or actions, the atmosphere is jittery; minor rumors like boycott pressure on Beyoncé are making momentary headlines in Israeli news.

The hot question is what impact will all this have? The peace and anti-occupation camp wonders if such actions will break Israel’s stubborn commitment to its policies (even if many don’t support BDS themselves). Pro-occupation* figures believe the boycott movement is exposing its real face of rabid anti-Semitism, and hope that the ugly truth will drive sensible people away.

Israeli Jews are almost evenly divided between succumbing to the pressure and digging in: the January Peace Index by Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Democracy Institute shows that half of Israeli Jews think the movement will intensify and reach a full-out boycott against Israeli products; nearly one half (47 percent) think it won’t. Nearly half of Israeli Jews (46 percent) think that if the boycott intensifies Israel will not be able to continue its current policies, specifically with relation to settlements, while 49 percent think it can.

I can think of four kinds of developments that might tip the scales – in either direction.

IDF – untouchable? Last week, an Israeli newspaper carried a small item reporting that popular musician Idan Raichel had agreed to perform at a concert exclusively for soldiers doing their mandatory service. The article was saturated with IDF-celebratory tones, including reverential quotes by Raichel. Since cultural figures are commonly assumed to be left wing, such as the Israeli actors, artists and academics who in 2010 protested or boycotted the cultural center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, the article, to my ears, had a defensive, “so there,” subtext. But the fact is that IDF veneration remains a powerful force in Israeli society; the recent rage against a teacher who discussed politicized topics in the classroom ultimately honed in on the fact that he raised critical questions about the IDF. Over the last two decades there have been some high-profile Israelis who avoided mandatory army service, causing controversy. But they rarely, if ever, do so as a clear statement against Israeli policy or as part of a movement. For now, hyped-up IDF support seems like a symbol of Israel’s self-reinforcing self-justification.

The Octopus boycott. Not too long ago, it seemed like the main disruptive boycott-related activity was heckling at speeches by Israeli diplomats or military figures. At present, boycott actions have been undertaken in the spheres of culture, academia, economy, science and possibly architecture, with even governmental bodies getting involved. As the breadth of the movement spreads, touching more professional, social and political sectors either materially or symbolically, Israeli members of those communities will feel the pressure. My prediction is that groups who were not highly politicized before are less likely to fight to uphold current Israeli policies. An architect or a businessperson is probably more invested in the global community than in a hilltop outpost.

Change from within. This has a double meaning. The “Boycott from Within” group calls for Israelis to support BDS’s goal of encouraging foreigners to boycott. So the first question is whether the number of Israelis supporting the Global BDS movement is growing. I doubt it. Another possible change could be within the boycott concept itself. BDS calls for external pressure on Israel, but Israelis can also decide to call on other Israelis to boycott their own institutions, shifting the onus onto local forces rather than external pressure – in effect, civil resistance. Beyond refusal to serve, which seems unlikely, this could also include a withdrawal from civil institutions. In an otherwise shallow Haaretz op-ed yesterday, Rogel Alpher expressed anger at paying taxes that support policies — like the occupation — that he detests. It’s almost a Thoreau moment. Either approach is possible as the Left in Israel grows desperate regarding both traditional solutions and the means to reach them.

Israel is the settlements. Boycotting Israeli enterprises over the Green Line isn’t terribly good for Palestinian employees of those businesses in the short term. Unemployment and poverty do not increase their willingness to put their jobs at risk. Yet the urgency of political change remains. Since a third violent intifada seems unlikely, that energy must go somewhere and it seems like the focus may shift to “Israel proper.” Already, academic and cultural boycotts target Israeli institutions or venues unrelated to their location, while political efforts (such as the EU guidelines or UN resolutions) are generally directed against settlements. But if the world drops the distinction of “Israel proper” and the “territories” or “settlements” (something the Right advocates anyway), more and more Israelis will be affected.

Maybe none of these things will happen. But it’s worth remembering that eight short years ago, there was no BDS at all.

*Using the term “pro-Israel” in relation to the right wing is biased, as it implies that right-wing positions are synonymous with supporting Israel, exclusively so. The term “pro-occupation” is not intended as a polemic. Rather, it is an attempt to describe their position more accurately, devoid of ideological implications.

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