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Against Boycott and Divestment | The Nation

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Against Boycott and Divestment

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Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Actually, that is just scientific irrationality. In human affairs, alas, insanity is doing the same thing and expecting the same result. A case in point is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, which—considering what happened at the University of California, Berkeley, in late April, and off the Gaza coast in late May—will be coming soon to a campus near you.

About the Author

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai lives in Jerusalem and New Hampshire. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an...

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If you missed it, Berkeley's student senate passed a BDS resolution against Israel, targeting General Electric and United Technologies, which presumably support Israel's occupation force. The student president vetoed the resolution. The senate then failed to override it, but the vote was thirteen to five in favor, with one abstention. The reports I've read of the debate suggest people falling into a familiar pattern: professors, students, union activists, etc. torturing logic to depict Israel's faults—which are serious enough to be unique—as "apartheid," while rehearsing the principles of action that arguably worked against South Africa a generation ago.

I say "arguably" because some of apartheid's most courageous critics, who helped to bring about an end to white rule, were opposed to B and D, even when they cautiously favored S. In 1987, when I was an editor of the Harvard Business Review, I interviewed Tony Bloom, CEO of the South African food processing giant Premier Group. Early on, Bloom rejected apartheid's foundations, and his company hired political detainees after they were released from prison. He had been among the small group of white business leaders who risked all in 1985 to meet with ANC leaders in Zambia—a great turning point. He befriended future South African President Thabo Mbeki and worked to support the transition to democracy. Though he eventually moved to London, he continued to transform his conglomerate into a model postapartheid firm.

What Bloom told me in 1987 was that, yes, foreign government sanctions on South African trade made sense in certain cases. But the boycott of South African universities and business people, and especially divestment campaigns against international companies doing business in the country, were seriously counterproductive. Why? Because those actions generally undermined the very people who advanced cosmopolitan values in the country. To get social change, you need social champions, in management as in universities.

Corporations like GM, Daimler and IBM did profit from the apartheid era, in the sense that they made the cars, trucks and computers South Africa needed and made enough profit to stay in business. But by this standard, tenured professors of democratic philosophy at Witwatersrand profited, too. The point is, great corporations, like great universities, are teaching institutions. Bloom thought foreign, technology-heavy corporations were especially important breakers of apartheid taboos, bringing what might be called scientific doubt—not to mention international management protocols opposed to racism and bigotry, like the Sullivan Principles. Their managers were Bloom's elite allies; had they been forced to pull out by their shareholders, it would have been a disaster for him and others devoted to reform.

This, I hasten to add, was a regime whose original wealth was almost entirely extractive, built on the labor of black Africans in mining and farming, and an economy whose trade was still largely in diamonds, minerals and produce. Sanctioning South African trade meant distressing, mostly, mine and plantation owners who profited directly from the old exploitation. There was a common political language, English, and despite strong local ethnicities and tongues (Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, etc.) a perversely unified culture divided by class and race. Yet people like Bloom personified a growing urban industrial sector (mainly with British roots) that needed global technological culture, financial services and commercial know-how. The entrenched security state seemed to him a throwback to naked colonialism, defending a more retrograde capitalism and a huge (largely Afrikaner) public sector. Even under apartheid, that is, you had enlightened people who needed the world's backing, and B and D cut the ground out from under them. In contrast, Bloom thought, state officials might be shunned. Segregated sports teams might be shunned. South Africa might be kept out of regional free-trade agreements, so the economy as a whole might be seen by the public as promising and yet held back by racism.

Which brings us to Israel today. Some Israeli democrats and peace activists welcome the BDS trend, if reluctantly. They argue what seems plausible, that the only way to influence the Israeli government (and the Israeli right more generally) to end the occupation is through mounting outside pressure. And, true enough, the Israeli state apparatus persists in according semiofficial status to various institutions—the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund, the Orthodox rabbinate—that privilege J-positive blood. The warped legal frame accommodating these institutions, from the administration of national lands to the "status quo" agreement banning interfaith marriages, valorize a settlement mystique, a tribal conception of Jewish identity and a cult of Jerusalem; the groups resisting democratic reform of the state are, unsurprisingly, the same that support Greater Israel. (I argued all these points in my book The Tragedy of Zionism in 1985—hence, my interest in Bloom.)

Nevertheless, is Israel really like apartheid South Africa? No. The Israeli economy does not depend on Arab labor—and never did. (From 1967 to the 1990s, it is true, Israelis did employ tens of thousands of Palestinians in construction and agriculture; but these proved marginal industries, and foreign workers eventually replaced them with little dislocation.) What, if not residual colonialism, accounts for residual discrimination? Tragically, the very institutions that make Israel discriminatory today consolidated their power during the 1920s and '30s, under the British Mandate, and were meant to cultivate autonomous "Hebrew labor" and economic self-sufficiency separate from the Arab feudal culture. The idea, then, was a revolutionary, secular Hebrew culture (which is why most Diaspora rabbis thought Zionists to be apostates). This separatism led to the globalized Hebrew republic in greater Tel Aviv, a civil society that's become a greenhouse for technology start-ups as independent of labor-intensive industry as Silicon Valley. Economically, the ideal solution for Israeli entrepreneurs would be to saw Tel Aviv and the coastal plain off Eurasia and float it out toward Cyprus. The internal rival to Greater Israel is Global Israel.

And, not coincidentally, Israelis and Palestinians can hardly be thought of as antagonistic classes in a common political economy. Rather, they both cherish linguistic and other cultural distinctions they want to protect—distinctions that morph into inflamed nationalisms and "religious war" when people on either side of the Green Line feel backed against the wall. Finally—despite institutionalized discrimination and the disquieting excesses of its security apparatus—the Israeli state still accords its citizens, including about 1.5 million Arabs, a functioning democracy, the right to vote, a free press and an independent judiciary. Democratic Israel is under threat from growing numbers of rightists for whom settling "Eretz Yisrael" is of a piece with containing, if not disenfranchising, Israeli Arabs and Jewish dissenters skeptical of their version of the Jewish state. But, then, how to strengthen dissent? By isolating dissenters?

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