With 2017 marking 50 years of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and the annexation of East Jerusalem you can guarantee that the debate over boycotting Israeli Settlements, whether by ordinary consumers or by businesses, will be a strong feature of the anniversary.
It may also be its most peculiar feature unless we succeed in reframing the terms of the debate and challenge the self-appointed gate-keepers of the discussion – the diaspora Jewish leadership.
Boycotting the Settlements is already a topsy-turvy topic of conversation. It’s one in which the occupiers (Jewish Israeli Settlers, the civilian and military apparatus that sustains them, and the Israeli government that allows it all to happen) present themselves as the ‘victims’ of unfair and unwarranted political and economic pressure.
Of course, in the mind of a significant number of Israelis, there is no occupation of the Palestinian Territories. There is only a return to biblical ‘Judea and Samaria’. In their world there is no such thing as resistance to the theft and occupation of land. There is only terrorism and the murder of innocent Jews. Such views are well represented in the Israeli population and certainly in the political parties making up the current government coalition.
It’s important for those outside Israel to understand that the Settlements don’t exist because of a group of Greater Israel Zionist fanatics who could not be controlled by the authorities. The entire project of population transfer, in breach of the fourth Geneva Convention, is government-led and controlled with a mighty tax-assisted programme to support it. And we’re not talking small numbers of people. There are now 400,000 Jewish Israelis living in the Settlements. The figure rises to more than 800,000 if you include annexed East Jerusalem. That’s 13% of Israel’s Jewish population living on disputed territory.
In recent days the rhetoric over the Occupation and the Settlements has become even more back to front.
Prime Minister Netanyahu now insists that the Palestinians want “the ethnic cleansing” of Jews from ‘Judea and Samaria’ in any 2-state solution to the dispute.
This is truly the ‘pot calling the kettle black’.
If you’ve met any Palestinian families living happily in the Settlements under Israeli civilian law and Israeli judicial process, with their children playing side by side with Jewish children, while mum and dad drive to work on Settler only roads, passing smoothly through the checkpoints to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, then please put me in touch with them since I’ve clearly misunderstood half a century of Israeli policy on the West Bank.
Boycotts as attempted genocide
Meanwhile, any use of boycotts to challenge the legitimacy of these arrangements is presented by Israel, and its supporters, as plunging a knife into the heart of the Jewish State.
Mainstream media reporting on Settlement boycotts has always been odd to say the least. This is true of Britain and the rest of Europe and even more so in North America.
It’s odd because those with international law, human rights and basic human decency on their side have to spend so much time and energy defending themselves against accusations of extremism, divisiveness and, before long, antisemitism. Meanwhile, the opponents of Settlement boycotts present themselves (and are presented by the media) as moderate, respectable, peace-loving folk looking to be even-handed over a complex dispute.
Currently, that’s how the boycott debate plays itself out every time. With its advocates always on the back foot, always having to defend themselves against accusations of hatred and discrimination.
Setting the acceptable agenda
Outside of Israel the opposition to Settlement boycotts is led by the leadership of the Jewish community across the diaspora. Alongside them are the Jewish led pro-Israel lobby groups. Both take their line from an Israeli government desperate to maintain ‘brand Israel’ as a ethically kosher and the Settlements as acceptable business partners for Western democracies and their consumers.
And so the parameters of acceptable public protest are set.
Elected politicians and Church leaders respectfully take their cue and understand that advocating or defending boycotts is the thick red line you do not cross. At least if you care about Jewish votes and Jewish communal relations in your constituency or parish.
Most Jews in Britain support the anti-boycott position of their communal and religious leaders. Even if they’re critical of Israeli government policies and don’t like the Settlements, they still draw the same line when it comes to boycotts.
It’s an emotional rather than a rational response. And one consistently nurtured by our Jewish leadership who leap nimbly from talk of economic boycotts to predicting impending genocide through the “destruction of the State of Israel”. Everywhere else in the world, genuine democracy appears to strengthen national stability, but in Israel it’s presented as the worse possible thing that could happen.
Our communal representatives and our rabbis present any pro-Palestinian boycotts as nothing less than the modern mutation of Nazi boycotts of Jewish German businesses in the 1930s. I always thought my fellow Jews were good at understanding our history and politically astute enough to spot the difference between a campaign aimed at giving back human rights and one designed to take them away. Turns out I was wrong. The otherwise well-maintained Jewish moral compass has a habit of going haywire whenever the Palestinians appear on the horizon.
The tiny minority of British Jews who do support boycotts are usually left-wing, secular and find it difficult to find a comfortable home in any synagogue community. Such has been the success of Zionism in defining what is and isn’t an acceptable expression of Judaism and being Jewish. Thankfully, at least in the United States, we are seeing a new generation of Jews who have found a way to be proud of their Judaism and proud of their Palestinian solidarity. But it’s an uphill struggle.
The 2-State magic trick
So how do our Jewish leaders square their position with the international consensus, including on the part of the UN, EU, United States and the British government, that the Settlements are illegal and an obstacle to making peace with the Palestinians? How do they avoid having to give an opinion, let alone offering a moral judgement, on what the Occupation means for human rights in the West Bank every day of the year for the past 50 years?
Well, this is how it works. It’s the lip-service paid to the 2-state solution that does the trick. At its most emollient, the official establishment Jewish line runs something like this.
We support a 2-state solution to the conflict. The Settlements are not in themselves an obstacle to peace. The future of the Settlements will be decided during peace negotiations. Everyone knows that mutually agreed land swaps will mean that the main Settlement blocs will be incorporated into Israel. In the meantime we should encourage dialogue between the two sides and not favour one side over the other through boycotts. And since so many Palestinians are now employed in the Settlements, boycotts will directly harm the very people the boycotters claim to support.
The levels of denial and hypocrisy in this formulation are exasperating. As for Jewish ethics, they’re nowhere in sight. But as a holding position that deflects any moral accountability it’s proved extremely useful.
No comment required
By hiding behind a non-existent ‘peace process’, no judgement need be passed on how land is acquired to build new Settlements or to expand existing ones.
No comment is required concerning the control of Palestinian water resources and their diversion to the Settlements.
No protest needs to be made when Palestinian homes are demolished to make way for Jewish homes.
No concern is necessary when Palestinian farmers are forced to give up the fight to sustain their businesses or when their crops are destroyed by rampaging settlers bent on intimidation. As for freedom of movement, a discriminatory judicial process and the complete absence of any democratic say for Palestinians in Area C (60% of the West Bank), none of this warrants a spec of criticism.
No responsibility. No comment. No morality.
Of course, if we Jews were suffering this kind of treatment anywhere in the world there would rightly be an outcry, calls for sanctions against the perpetrators and, without doubt, boycotts.
There would certainly be no patience from our Jewish leaders to wait for a long-term diplomatic solution to address injustices taking place in the here and now.
But when it comes to the Palestinians and it’s us doing the oppressing, our Jewish leadership in the diaspora can only bring themselves to say that the Palestinians will have their troubles sorted when they finally agree to negotiate a peace agreement.
The peace process is dead
But it’s now approaching 30 years since the PLO unilaterally recognised the legitimacy of the State of Israel and agreed to accept a Palestinian state on 22% of historic Palestine. That’s the generous Palestinian offer that never gets much credit. It’s now nearly a quarter of a century since the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn. Yet no Palestinian state exists. The American led ‘peace process’ died long ago and the Occupation looks more permanent than ever. These are the facts on the ground created deliberately by successive Israeli governments. In the Israel Knesset,the political debate has turned from negotiation to annexation.
And before you get caught up in the idea that both sides are equally to blame, always keep at the front of your mind that only one side is occupying the other’s land. And only one side is a regional super-power backed by a new 10 year $38bn military aid package from the United States. This has never been a battle between equals.
As for preparing Jewish communities for accepting the necessary compromises a 2-state solution requires (the return of land, the sharing of Jerusalem, a recompense to Palestinian refugees) such debates only take place on the fringes of the Jewish community and are never led by our leadership. The Jewish diaspora leadership must take considerable responsibility for killing off the 2-state solution through its silent acquiescence to Israeli intransigence.
Calling time on Jewish objections to boycotts
So, as the 50th anniversary year approaches let’s shift the dynamics of the debate, invert the topsy-turvy Occupation and make those opposing Settlement boycotts take appropriate ownership for the behaviour and policies they are, by clear implication, choosing to defend.
Because if you’re opposing Settlement boycotts it’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that you are logically advocating normal trading relations for businesses and consumers. And in the light of all that we know about how the Settlements, how is this position justified? The Settlements may be eventually transferred into Israeli territory but what relevance does that have to the abuse of human rights which they cause right now?
The Jewish expressed concern for Palestinian livelihoods would be comical in its disingenuousness if it wasn’t also tragic for families and communities now reliant on the casual field labour and factory work offered by the Settlements. As the latest United Nations report makes clear, the Occupation has destroyed the ability of the Palestinians to build a strong economy. Try farming your land when the Settlements have dried up your wells. Try building international trade when your produce gets stopped at check-points and left to rot.
As for boycotts being antisemitic – it’s defending Settlements that looks distinctly anti-Jewish to me.
Is there anything more at odds with Jewish values and experience than humiliating people, denying their rights and identity and deploying collective punishment. Unless of course we’ve redefined Judaism in recent times. But that’s a different blog post.
An integrity free zone
Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, likes to call for better communication between the two sides. But Mirvis needs to do a great deal more listening before he tries to make some new Palestinian friends.
The Board of Deputies has published a booklet called ‘A Better Way than Boycotts’ in an attempt to sound pro-active for peace when all they really want is to close down the boycott debate. Their strategy is an integrity free zone.
The Board’s latest campaign, launched this week in partnership with the National Union of Jewish Students, is called ‘#BridgesNotBoycotts’. But who can take such slogans seriously?
Are they honestly saying that the real solution to peace will come when Palestinians and Israelis get to know each other better? And how do you build a bridge through an 8-metre high concrete separation wall? In any case, the Palestinians’ familiarity with Settlers and Israeli soldiers is hardly lacking, in the same way that a prisoner has little problem in getting to know her jailer.
The real question
So in readiness for 2017 let’s be bold, not only in our actions, but in defence of our actions. Throw back the accusations of discrimination and demand apologies for describing a campaign for human rights as antisemitic. The question is not: ‘Why are you boycotting the Settlements?’ The question is ‘Why would anyone do business with the Settlements?’
It’s time to call out who’s defending the indefensible and where the lack of common humanity can really be found.
This post first appeared last week on the Patheos site.