Bernard Avishai attacks the BDS movement and claims that it lacks logic and even sanity. Yet I find his own arguments to be lacking in logical coherency, and I would like to explain why.
A new law in the process of being ratified in Israel is about to make my article a felony in Israel, for expressing support of boycott is going to become a prosecutable crime under the new law, and yet I gladly take the risk and write this letter, not because I am a "self-hating Jew" but because BDS is the greatest hope for ushering a just peace to Israel/Palestine that I have known in my lifetime.
Avishai explains the differences between Israel and South Africa. He is right, the regimes are not identical, yet that by itself does not mean that Israel is not an apartheid state. "Apartheid" literally means "separation" in Afrikaans, and separation has been the main trademark of Israel's policy towards Palestinians since Yitzhak Rabin's second term as prime minister in 1992. Israel tries to make it impossible, even illegal, for Israeli Jews to mingle and trade with, befriend or marry Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, sometimes even within Israel itself. In 2002 the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defined apartheid a a universal crime, not isolated to South Africa. Since Israel employs a regime that differentiates people's rights by ethnicity, restricts Palestnians to enclosed bantustans in the West Bank and has turned the Gaza Strip into the world's largest open-air prison, one can say with (sad) confidence that Israel is indeed an apartheid state.
But then I am confused, because Avishai goes on to argue that although Israel is not similar to South Africa, boycott and divestment were inappropriate in South Africa (an argument with which I strongly disagree), and hence they are inappropriate for Israel, which I find to be a rather illogical argument.
Avishai's main concern, his central argument, is that boycott and divestment will hurt the "enlightened" parts of Israeli society who might somehow be persuaded to object to their governemnt's criminal behavior.
Well, where have these "enlightened" people been up until now? The policy of appeasing Israel in order to keep it from deteriorating towards fascism has been a staple of the international community since 1948. So far, it has only pushed Israel further towards fascism. All of Israel's large political parties (Labor, Kadima, Likud, Israel Beiteinu) have merged into a homogenous mass, which embraces apartheid policies. Meanwhile, critical voices have remained a negligible portion of society, and the secret police has begun a crackdown against them since 2006.
A good example of how Avishai's argument should be reversed is the aftermath of Israel's invasion of Gaza (2008-2009), followed by elections in Israel. Tzipi Livni of Kadima, supposedly a "leftist" candidate, presented her argument to the Israeli public: only if a moderate prime minister leads the country will the international community allow Israel to use force. "Don't vote for Netanyahu, because his hands will be tied by international pressure." But her argument sounded very hollow in light of the feeble response of world governments to Israel's invasion. Europe and the United States failed to make Israel accountable, and Israelis happily voted Netanyahu in, hoping to escalate vioence even more. So the influence of the "enlightened" parts of Israel society has only suffered, due to a lack of international pressure.
In light of the shameful inaction of international governments following Israel's invasion of Gaza, Avishai's argument that sanctions would be better than boycott and divestment seems very hypothetical. The United States shields Israel from international pressure, arms it with military aid and has ushered it into the OECD. Civil society and grassroots organizations around the world, however, have already made heartening achievements through bocyott and divestments that have stirred a lively debate within Israel about the limits of power, and whether the occupation can truly last forever under international pressure.
But what if Avishai is right, and academic boycott will hurt even further the few Israeli professors who are truly critical of the government? The answer is that the BDS call is very clearly not targeted at individuals but at institutions. Israeli scholars may express their opinion freely, even supporting the occupation, but the Israeli institutions that discriminate against non-Jewish students, develop weaponry for the Israeli army and participate actively in the occupation policies are not legitimate and their crimes cannot be ignored.
Furthermore, Israeli critical scholars are themselves calling on the international community to take up academic boycott (as part of the wider BDS movement, of which the academic boycott is but one section), because they believe that it bolsters them when they try to convince the Israeli public that urgent action is needed.
Strangely, Avishai argues that the BDS movement "slips" on the issue of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Strangely, I say, because it is the most prominent movement that combines in its call the demand for the end of the occupation, for the right of return of Palestinian refugees and for the equality of Israeli Palestinians (as opposed to most previous movements that focused on only one of the three at a time).
And no, Israel is not a democracy and Israeli Palestinians are not equal citizens. Their limited right to participate in the elections (as long as they don't challenge Israel's definition of a Jewish state, and hence their position as second-class citizens) hardly guarantees them basic civil rights. They suffer from discrimination in every aspect of public policy; their freedom of speech is restricted; and they are quicky arrested and denied the right to an attorney if they dare express opinions which are not permissible by the government.
Avishai hinted that BDS tries to bring about a collapse of Israel's economy. That argument is unsupported by facts. In fact, Israel is rapidly running itself into a economic crisis without any help from the BDS movement, through mounting military expenditures and monstrous social gaps that keep expanding. Israel cannot continue its policies if a powerful boycott and divestment campaign will put a real stopper on its economy, and thus it will have no choice but to respect international law, meeting the conditions to end the boycott. When that happens, Israel will be ready for the greatest economic reform in its history, and will finally be able to deal with the causes of its economic sickness. As soon as BDS will reach a critical mass, political change will be a matter of days, not years.
After all, the BDS movement does not call for a blockade or embargo of Israel (unlike Bush's/Cheney's policies, which Avishai is correct to reject); it calls for a selective form of economic pressure that separates individuals from institutions, and that will target first and foremost the elites in Israel, i.e., the ones who can influence the government and bring swift change.
Most important, Avishai's argument is somewhat patronizing. Palestinians have the right to determine the tools of their struggle for freedom. The BDS call enjoys massive support (much wider than the support for either Hamas or Fatah), by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, in Israel and in the diaspora. The Palestinians know that BDS has its flaws and they will pay a price for it as well, but they made their choice. If Avishai feels that BDS will hurt his Israeli friends, then he should go ahead and say so, but he should not pretend that he knows better than the Palestinians what course of action will be most effective for them.