Why I’m for boycott

Israel/Palestine
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Qalandiya checkpoint, West Bank, Occupied Palestine (photo Activestills.org)

This is a great week in New York because the idea of boycotting Israel is in the news, and many people will become informed about the issues. The usual grip of the Israel lobby over the conversation has been loosened, and two boycott advocates will be speaking at Brooklyn College on Thursday. Shades of the anti-apartheid movement re South Africa.

I am for boycott because I have many times observed conditions under military occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Gaza that reflect apartheid policies effected by Israel. I have seen ethnic cleansing, village demolitions, collective punishment, suppression of demonstrations, confiscation of land, hateful checkpoint systems fit for livestock, and violent targeting of civilians, and all these policies carried out on an ethnic basis. If you were Jewish, it wouldn’t be happening to you. If you were Jewish, you would be able to go to the Mediterranean Sea that you can see from your rooftop. But you’re not Jewish, so you can’t get out of the West Bank. Noam Sheizaf and Henry Siegman have both stated that Palestinians have no rights in the West Bank; and they are two Jewish writers. Palestinians who experience these conditions go further. Whenever I visit Palestine, I spend a lot of my time weeping; and I reflect that I have supported boycott in conditions that were less oppressive– California migrant harvests, for instance.

The conditions I’ve observed are revolutionary conditions: they are the tinder of violent uprising and annihilationist dreams. Any people subject to these conditions would take up arms. I know that New Yorkers would. And Palestinians have taken up arms many times, and violence has never served them. And that is why I am for boycott. Boycott is painful but it is nonviolent. And we need a nonviolent solution to the tyranny that exists in Palestine. A nonviolent solution is highly unlikely, but it is the best hope; and boycott has the potential to isolate and punish the Israeli regime in such a way that it might begin to transform itself, and that international human-rights norms will at last apply.

But I am American, and I am for boycott because of the American paralysis over the issue, best demonstrated by the Chuck Hagel hearing last week. Our political parties have an inability to talk about Palestinian conditions frankly. Hagel’s words about Palestinians being treated like caged animals were stuffed down his throat, and no Democrat could speak up for those views. Our politics are broken on this issue. Four years ago I was in Cairo and sat in the audience as Obama spoke of Palestinian humiliations and declared, The settlements must end. The young people in the audience cheered him, their faces were lit with smiles. Four years on that policy is a shambles; Obama has walked away from his words, the settlements go on unabated. When liberal Zionists say that Obama must pressure Israel, they ignore this political wreckage. Why is he going to change now and pressure Israel when the lobby has handed his head to him (and Netanyahu) over the last four years? When governments fail to act on crying injustices, the people must act, people of conscience, like us. When the United States government was controlled by the slave power in the 1840s and 50s, abolitionists pushed the country forward, they changed the American discourse. I do not seek the violence that ended slavery, but I am a fellow traveler today to the abolitionists of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I think BDS is a popular movement, and it can force governments to act. I don’t believe that Israel can continue to be a Jewish state when 20 percent of its citizens are non-Jews. I don’t believe that the two-state solution is still viable; I want to see a peaceful transition to a democracy, perhaps involving binationalism, or federation as initial steps.  

I have avoided all discussion here of cultural and academic boycott, anti-normalization measures, and the desire some have expressed to transform Israel with a flood of returning refugees, to revolutionize 1948. I am sometimes troubled by the rhetoric of the camp I follow, but I am a fellow traveler, and I know as Tony Judt knew 10 years ago (and as Charles Dickens knew in 1842, when he republished abolitionist tracts) these people are on the right side of history; and as to the right of return, it is very difficult to visit an ethnically-cleansed land, Israel, and see it market itself as a European high tech country and also a fantasy of Jewish power, and know that it does so on the ruined villages of people who live a few miles away, even as it invites Jews from around the world to “return” there. That is the return that most disturbs me as a Jew, the injustice I see before my eyes.

Omar Barghouti once said to me, If you want to boycott an egg, we want you to boycott that egg. That is now my slogan. I welcome all who would seek to punish Israel’s behavior in the occupied territories by doing something. Governments have failed to do anything. Boycott is my way of taking action about a human-rights calamity that is perpetrated in my name, as an American and a Jew.

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