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Derfner: The boycott isn’t economic warfare, it’s psychological

on 27 Comments


I never imagined becoming a Larry Derfner groupie, but just a couple of weeks after a terrific column he published at 972 Magazine – on settler violence – inspired me to do a post about it here, he’s gone and done it again. This time, it’s an insightful – and hopeful – response to nay-sayers from across the political spectrum who claim that the BDS movement (he calls it “the boycott”) doesn’t amount to much because it hasn’t yet done any serious economic damage to Israel, and even if it grows, it’s not likely ever to bring Israel’s economy to its knees.

Here’s the gist of his argument:

It’s true that the Israeli economy as a whole is hardly feeling the boycott (though a fast-growing number of companies are), and it’s unimaginable that the economic and political isolation of Israel will ever approach that of apartheid-era South Africa (for lots of reasons, including Israel’s exalted standing in the U.S.). But it doesn’t have to approach what happened in South Africa. The boycott doesn’t have to bring the Israeli economy to its knees, or anything close, for the Israeli body politic – the public, the opinion-makers and the decision-makers – to decide to end the occupation. All the boycott has to do is keep growing, drop by drop – yes, like Chinese water torture – for it to succeed. Because finally, the boycott is not an economic war against Israel, it’s a psychological war, and even the skeptics would agree that it’s already had a deep, damaging effect on this country’s will to continue fighting for the West Bank and Gaza.

The experience of the last nine months, starting with Stephen Hawking’s no-show in Jerusalem for the Presidential Conference – which brought the boycott movement into the mainstream, a process that has been escalating ever since – has begun to work a profound change for the worse in Israelis’ view of the country’s future.

The nature of that change?

 This is the idea that the rise of the boycott has planted in the national consciousness: that for Israel as the oppressor of the Palestinians, there’s nowhere to go but down. There’s nothing to look forward to but more rejection, further isolation. And that’s something Israelis can’t live with. That’s a future they will not tolerate.

So as long as the boycott goes forward, even in fits and starts, Israeli anxiety over what the occupation is doing to their future will deepen. Because what do the nationalist powers-that-be have to stop its momentum? Better hasbara? What future do they have to offer Israelis? More settlements? Bombing Iran? Eternal vigilance against Islamofascism? Except for the right-wing true believers, who are a minority here, that’s not what Israelis want. That’s what Bibi wants, not the public. The public wants to look up at the sky and not see black clouds, which are just what the boycott has become.

Sooner or later, Derfner suggests, the Palestinians in the West Bank are sure to find new ways to challenge the occupation on the ground and in the international arena, and these moves, whatever they are, will work synergistically with the BDS movement to increase the pressure on Israel

And the effects on the Israeli public, he argues, will be both profound and positive:

So lots of things could happen to Israel the Occupier – all of them bad. That’s the realization coming over people in this country. They’re not worried about the threat of poverty, or war – they’re worried about the threat of the light going out in the distance. They’re worried that Israel is about to enter its decline.

Because of this, I believe the nationalists’ control of this country is becoming vulnerable, and so is the occupation, their pet project. I’m not saying a radical transformation of Israel is inevitable, but it’s possible – thanks to the boycott. Before Hawking put the movement into gear, there was nothing out there to challenge the status quo, and there’s nothing else out there to challenge it now. Only the boycott. If it keeps growing, there may be a future.

The problem here, to my mind, that he almost makes it sound easy. In reality, even if the dynamic he foresees begins to work (or already has) among some Israelis, it won’t be the only reaction to BDS: as we’ve already seen, the development of the movement is likely to drive much of the Israeli public – including much of its political and military elite – to new heights of racism, paranoia, and violence. And even if, as he predicts, a majority eventually comes to grip with reality and opts for rationality, the most extreme elements are clearly able and willing to wreak havoc before they go down. We can only guess at the forms that will take, but the prospect isn’t pretty.

Still, even if you can’t quite buy Derfner’s optimistic scenario, I think he’s on to something: the real power of BDS can’t be measured in dollars, cents, euros, or shekels, but in its psychological and political impact. In fact, I’d argue that’s really what happened in South Africa too: though the movement by the late 1980s had generated serious economic pressures on the apartheid regime there – far, far beyond anything today’s BDS movement has been able to do to the Israelis – those pressures alone didn’t do the trick; it was fear of the future – the prospect of accelerating isolation and decline, together with mounting turmoil at home – that finally forced the Afrikaner elite to cry uncle.

Obviously today’s BDS movement is far from having that kind of impact, but the  events of the last year and especially the last month bear out the core truth of Derfner’s argument: a little bit of boycott goes a long way politically.

Henry Norr

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27 Responses

  1. Kathleen on February 14, 2014, 9:36 am

    “I’m not saying a radical transformation of Israel is inevitable, but it’s possible – thanks to the boycott. ” No way to put their institutionalized racism and discrimination back in the shadows. No way

    • seafoid on February 14, 2014, 10:16 am

      It’s going to be really painful- the only way to reset Judaism IMO

      “it’s unimaginable that the economic and political isolation of Israel will ever approach that of apartheid-era South Africa”

      Why? I don’t buy this for a second

  2. on February 14, 2014, 9:55 am

    Derfner’s kidding himself, pure and simple. He wishes this were the Israeli response; in fact, “Bring it on” is far more like it.

    “There’s nothing to look forward to but more rejection, further isolation. And that’s something Israelis can’t live with.”

    Can’t live with?? It’s why they live there.

    • Shingo on February 14, 2014, 8:36 pm

      He wishes this were the Israeli response; in fact, “Bring it on” is far more like it.

      That’s what Henry has said, but that reaction will only be self defeating and accelerate the decline and make it more painful. The outcome is going to be the same, the variable is what path Israel will take to get there.

    • ivri on February 15, 2014, 7:06 am

      I would not go as far as saying that normal people expect problems, yet you have a point here. In the Israeli mind this is just another chapter in the historical Europe vs. Jews saga. The fact that Europe is now posed as human-rights defender in justifying the BDS makes very little difference – after all in every past round there were the accusations were morally based (Jews are thieves and exploiting others, traitors for national causes, involved in “unethical” acts as mixing Christian blood in Matzos, or wishing outright control of everything – as in the protocols of the elders of Zion). From this angle, the question at stake is what difference did the emergence of Israel in this regard, namely by having it will this round go less disastrously for “the Jewish team” than the past ones.

  3. pabelmont on February 14, 2014, 10:21 am

    “Israel the Occupier” is a great phrase. What does BDS delegitimize? Israel the Occupier! Who breaks international law? Israel the Occupier! Whose leaders will be brought (with any luck) before the ICC for prosecution for war-crimes? The leaders of Israel the Occupier! Who should all good and decent people and governments boycott and sanction? Israel the Occupier!

    Not Israel. Not Jews.

    Great phrase. Thanks, Larry!

  4. seafoid on February 14, 2014, 10:31 am

    “I think he’s on to something: the real power of BDS can’t be measured in dollars, cents, euros, or shekels, but in its psychological and political impact”

    It can be measured in dollars. BDS is about brand failure. Either the average Goy agrees with Israel in which case it is kosher to buy Israeli and support Israeli industry or there is a dissonance that means Israel is tarnished.
    The bots can do whatever they want in the territories and have been doing so since 1967 but they also have an open economy that supports their rather agreeable standard of living.
    And they like that standard of living . And it’s supported by trade with Galut.
    BDS is about taking narrative control away from the bots. When the grip is loosened everything is possible.


    • ritzl on February 14, 2014, 10:49 am

      @seafoid- “It can be measured in dollars. BDS is about brand failure.

      Bingo. South African economics were about a fairly large country with substantial [strategic?] natural resources, where Israel’s economic prospects are about a small country that relies on critical consumer perceptions and choices. The psychology and economics surrounding Israel are vastly more intertwined than in SA.

      Derfner seems reflective enough to start to get “it” and lead with thoughtful and meaningful warnings, but he seems to still be in denial (or cautious) just enough to be uncomfortable with describing the full picture/implications.

      • seafoid on February 14, 2014, 11:58 am

        SA has raw materials like gold, diamonds, metals. Israel has nothing. Derfner still hedges his bets but the bots bet the farm on YESHA and when the bond rout starts Israel will have zero options.

      • hophmi on February 14, 2014, 12:31 pm

        “Israel has nothing.”

        LOL. It exports hundreds of billions of dollars of stuff each year and has one of the most dynamic high-tech industries in the world. And it has natural gas now.

        Boy, are you dumb, seafoid.

      • Shingo on February 14, 2014, 8:39 pm

        It exports hundreds of billions of dollars of stuff each year and has one of the most dynamic high-tech industries in the world.

        And still relies on the biggest welfare cheque in the world to remain viable.

        And it has natural gas now.

        So do many countries in the region, and a lot more of it.

      • seafoid on February 15, 2014, 1:46 am

        Stuff processed from imports, Hoph. Number one cash cow is diamonds. Unless I am mistaken there is no diamond mine anywhere in Eretz Israel.

      • ritzl on February 15, 2014, 1:11 pm

        The GDP of Israel, total, is only $288B. Exports are $63B, 20% of total, none of which is natural gas, now or for the near future, let alone other country’s natural gas (Gaza and/or Lebanon). Largely consumer products. Largely sensitive to BDS calls and effects on consumer behavior.

        Even Israel’s claims of future natural gas prospects are subject to reduction by the application of centuries-old, settled, explicit (except, of course, when it comes to Israel) maritime law overlaid using existing borders (“Leviathan” is in good part in both Syrian [hmm], Lebanese, and Cypriot territorial waters).

        So much for “hundreds of billions of dollars” in exports. “Dumb” must not mean what you think it means.

      • yrn on February 15, 2014, 1:18 pm

        “Israel has nothing”
        You are right, we are poor we have no land, no infrastructure, no technology, no gas resources, no culture, no music, no universities.
        Please help us Seafoid, we count on Jews like you.

      • seafoid on February 15, 2014, 2:10 pm


        no land, – it was never paid for

        no infrastructure – mostly run on Azeri oil

        no technology – loads of tech but mostly needs oil to function

        no gas resources, – not generating cash yet

        no culture – how much in Bn dollars does Israeli culture generate a year ?
        the IDF culture is pretty worthless IMO

        no music, – music isn’t bad

        no universities – how do they rank globally ?

  5. amigo on February 14, 2014, 10:36 am

    It,s psychological warfare.Cry me a river.

    Israeli jets pass over Gaza making sonic booms to make Palestinians lives unbearable.

    IDF pours skunk juice over Palestinian homes to make their lives unbearable.

    IDF breaking into Palestinian homes at 2 am and arresting 12 year old boys to make Palestinians live unbearable.

    IDF stands by as illegal squatter terrorists attack Palestinian farmers or destroy their crops to make their lives unbearable.

    I could go on and on but suffice it to say screw Derfner and his infernal whining.

    Bloody hypocrite.

  6. DICKERSON3870 on February 14, 2014, 1:37 pm

    RE: “I never imagined becoming a Larry Derfner groupie” ~ Norr

    MY COMMENT: I readily admit to being a Larry Derfner groupie. For years I even held my nose and went to the Jerusalem Post website just to read his commentaries. That’s real devotion! ! !
    P.S. Its really nice that Derfner is now at +972 so that I no longer have to visit the dreadful Jerusalem Post site.

  7. gingershot on February 14, 2014, 2:03 pm

    This is the most exciting moment in the 20 yrs I have been aware of Palestine.

  8. adele on February 14, 2014, 2:20 pm

    The fact that we are even having this conversation about the possible consequences on Israel of the current BDS is amazing. That needs to be said over and over because it is a huge victory.

    It is true that the elements of the South African and Israeli economies are different, the bottom line is that they both need(ed) outside investment and investors do not like to put their money in ventures that as Seafroid aptly describes as “tainted”. BDS may not in and of itself deal a lethal blow to the occupation, it is all the other factors and actors that will have a domino effect. All we can do is continue to advocate and keep the pressure up.

    Years ago when I would tell people (in a non-preachy way of course, more as a btw) about the settlement products and the oppression that those products are built upon, hardly anyone thought their singular contribution could make a difference. Now when I mention it those same people are much more receptive and want to have more information.

    It won’t happen overnight, we need to keep telling ourselves this, but happen it will. Unfortunately, as Henry states, it seems inevitable that there will be violence and resistance from the Israeli socio-political spectrum, but what choice is there? Not the status quo that is for sure.

  9. eGuard on February 14, 2014, 2:47 pm

    So this is before Derfner learns that there is also a cultural and academic boycott going on.

  10. bilal a on February 14, 2014, 7:53 pm

    I hear Israeli Hebrew on the streets often now in Queens, NYC, under 40s with kids, getting out, making a future for their families, escaping the shame of being a racist nationalist colonizer, one told me, ‘Its not the Israeli of our parents”. This hasnt been explored on MW much, but I think this has a lot to do with a cultural divide between European Israelis and the new Russians, possibly the most racist national culture in the world, where black US Marines are not allowed to leave their compound , for fear of murder in the streets if seen with a local girl.

    But the Russian nativists and their sympathizers react in an opposite direction towards even greater extremism, Bayit Yehudi, this is our home, your are an unwelcome trespasser.

    The Russian emigres have scant knowledge of the Jewish culture which was eradicated in the USSR; this is anti-Jewish , much like Al Qaeda is anti-Muslim.

    Schultz defends his Knesset speech after Bayit Yehudi walk out, says “extreme right wing party” has received Kerry’s peace efforts in similar fashion.

    • mcohen on February 16, 2014, 6:04 am

      Bilal a says……..russians

      You have a point there but remember too that the russian orthodox church are back big time and are prepared to defend Jerusalem.the war in chechnya was an example of what the russian military are capable of.the same goes for protecting syrian orthodox is no coincidence thay there are over a million russians living in israel.

  11. Erasmus on February 15, 2014, 5:29 am

    Too early and ill-timed

    I disagree with Derfner’s headline : “The boycott isn’t economic warfare, it’s psychological.”

    We are not there, where Derfner thinks we are already.

    BDS has barely taken off to exert its influence on Israeli business and the Israeli electirate. Of course, in the very first instance BDS’s is -as of now- majoritively an economic instrument in order to create political awareness. And as of now, all efforts have to be directed to massively increase the economic effects of BDS, so that these will really thoroughly and undeniably be felt in Isarael. That is the first priority…. for the coming years.

    Even if “the real power of BDS can’t be measured in dollars, cents, euros, or shekels (alone)…” and even if there is a critical “psychological and political ” component to BDS also, Derfner’s emphasis belittles the economic component and overrates – at least at this point in time – the psychological and political impact.

    Such lobsided analysis is imho premature and ill-timed, possibly it could even have an (unintended) effect of letting the steam off the BDS-efforts before it runs full steam.
    Global Promotion of BDS in all spheres has utmost priority for years to come, before the collateral pdychological effects on the Israeli electorate and its political awareness will make voters elect another KNESSET and permit -finally – a JUST settlement of the I-P-“conflict”.

  12. mcohen on February 16, 2014, 2:31 am

    I read a bit of larry derfner and his logic does have some magic to make the medicine go down,but i am convinced that the settler movement is on the right track,regardless of bds which is a throwaway eu economic lever for cheap gas from israel,s gas fields much like the sailing to gaza project was,except turkey blinked.
    the bds is a fully funded eu pressure tactic but they cannot have it both ways and eventually they will have to accept settlement goods that are taxed by the PA
    this movement with weiss and e1 is a sign of things to come in israel.
    one thing i can say for certain that kerry will not be back,and instead Jordan,s king will be the one to break the good news that the money,s in the bank and e1 will become a monument to peace and cooperation between is. and pa.

  13. TheWatcherWatching on February 16, 2014, 5:43 pm

    Why won’t the economic boycott grow. Bs you are listening to gatekeepers who want to keep you on the path of controlled dissent. The huge hedge fund divested from Israel.

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