This past Thursday, Yousef Munayyer and Peter Beinart held a debate on the solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict at the New America Foundation in New York City. During his segments, Beinart reiterated his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement on the grounds that it allegedly implies a single-state solution. Beinart’s arguments have been productively critiqued in numerous forums, including by Munayyer himself in the course of the debate and on this website, from his desire to separate different classes of refugees to his fundamental misunderstanding of the goals of the BDS movements.
However, listening to Beinart, what strikes me is how nonsensical his argument is, even on its own terms. That is to say, even if we accept Beinart’s proposal to distinguish between Israel’s systematic legal discrimination against Palestinians within the Green Line and the undoubtedly even more severe systematic legal discrimination practiced by Israel against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; even if we are willing to countenance his desire to forgo international humanitarian law by establishing distinctions between first- and second-generation refugees; and even if we are willing to entertain his increasingly isolated opinion that drawing a border to divide Palestine from Israel would be a relatively simple matter – in other words, even if we grant every single questionable claim Beinart makes – his conclusion to oppose BDS remains continues to defy all logic.
Let’s begin by briefly reviewing his stated position on Palestine-Israel: Beinart is willing to recognize “the unjust, immoral one state reality that exists today.” In other words, he is willing to acknowledge that the Israeli state maintains an apartheid system in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He also acknowledges that systematic legal discrimination exists within the Green Line, although he does not classify what he calls “Israel proper” as an apartheid system. Therefore, while Beinart supports a boycott of settlement products, he is unwilling to endorse a wider boycott effort. As becomes clear in the course of the debate, for Beinart, this is not simply a question of tactics. Adopting the talking points of apologists for Israeli human rights violations, Beinart argues, that the BDS movement has unfairly “singled-out” Israel and applied a “double-standard,” as there exist other countries which violate human rights that are not subject to similar international boycott campaigns.
For those of us who have worked on labor and human rights campaigns in the past, Beinart’s criticism of the BDS movement displays a shocking ignorance of how a boycott – any boycott – actually works.
First, boycotts target those responsible for maintaining oppressive systems, in the hope that such pressure will cause those responsible for these injustices to change their ways.
To be effective, a boycott must focus on those who (a) are responsible for maintaining oppressive situations and (b) have the power to change that situation. However, because all countries and companies are engaged in diverse activities at any one time, bringing effective pressure to bear on those who violate basic human rights entails boycotting not only the specific activities that are the immediate impetus for the action, but the company or country itself. For instance, few years back, farm workers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched a consumer boycott of Taco Bell, a major consumer of Florida tomatoes, demanding that the company leverage its buying power in order to insist that workers be paid better wages and improve working conditions. Of course, Taco Bell serves many products that do not contain tomatoes and, as far as I know, no one had called for a boycott of any of their other ingredients. But, as a major purchaser of tomatoes, Taco Bell was responsible for running a system that exploited farm workers. The boycott – whose demands were fully met in March 2005 – targeted the responsible entity because it ran an unjust system. Calls to boycott clothing companies who manufacture some of their products in unsafe factories in Bangladesh following the collapse of a factory in that country in 2013 followed a similar logic. Consumers were not asked to check the labels of individual shirts to ensure they were not sourced from these dangerous factories. Rather, the companies responsible for maintaining an exploitative system were held responsible for their actions. Just as boycotting Taco Bell’s tomatoes while eating the rest of their menu would be nonsensical, so too is Beinart’s call to only boycott settlement products. If, as Beinart readily admits, the Israeli state is responsible for maintaining an apartheid system, then it is the Israeli state and its complicit institutions which must be targeted with nonviolent direct actions. Doing any less would undermine the basic logic that undergirds all boycotts.
Second, boycotts do not work by ranking and comparing suffering. Instead, they select target that is violating somebody’s rights and mobilize people to pressure that target, in the hope that these actions will force them towards displaying the basic moral behaviors that they should have been upholding all along. In other words, all boycotts necessarily “single out” a target for direct action. In fact, it is precisely this focus that allows these movements to achieve success. For instance, Colombian activists have called for a boycott of Coca-Cola products, due to their partnering with paramilitary groups that murder and intimidate union organizers. (This despite the fact that Coca-Cola products in the USA are not manufactured in Colombia.) Is Coca-Cola the single worst violator of labor rights in the world today? Who knows? Who cares? Workers at Coca-Cola asked for international solidarity in order to uphold their basic human rights. Similarly, over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations have asked us to stand with them as they demand that their own basic human rights be respected. Asking any boycott to wait in line for other struggles to be addressed first is anathema to the very concept of solidarity, which undergirds all boycotts.
If Peter Beinart believes that Palestinians’ basic rights are not being violated or simply does not care, then he is free to scab. However, if, as he claims, Beinart truly is willing to acknowledge that the state of Israel is running an apartheid system – even if he believes that it is only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – then he has a responsibility to endorse the nonviolent solution which actually targets the responsible party: boycotting, divesting from, and bringing sanctions to bear on Israel itself.
The objections raised by Beinart against the BDS movement are not actually objections to this boycott so much as they are objection to all boycotts. Assuming Beinart does not think boycotts are an inherently illegitimate political tactic, it is he, rather than the BDS movement, which is applying a double-standard.