Against Boycott and Divestment

Against Boycott and Divestment

Punishing Israel’s most progressive elements will not help to end the occupation.


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.

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?

People who advocate for boycott and divestment often slide over these matters. They may say they are modestly trying to pressure Israeli elites into ending the occupation. But take the Berkeley initiative to scale and add in the boycott of Israeli universities, recently proposed in England’s academic union. How would cutting off the most progressive forces in Israel from global corporations and international scholarly events accomplish this? Even generalized trade sanctions, like keeping Israel out of the OECD (which, in fact, it recently joined), would have mainly impaired Israel’s estimated $25 billion in high-tech exports, not extractive, postcolonial industries, as in South Africa. Polls show that about 40 percent of Israeli Jews have abidingly secular and globalist (if not liberal) attitudes. Who gains from economic decline and the inevitable consequence of most educated Israelis fleeing to, well, the Bay Area? Wouldn’t the rightists, also about 40 percent, be most satisfied to see Israel become a little Jewish Pakistan?

Besides, divestment on the Berkeley model assumes the capacity to identify companies specifically supporting occupation activities. But Israel’s networked economy makes this virtually impossible. Is United Technologies bad because one division, Sikorsky, makes Israeli attack helicopters—or is it good because another division, Carrier, makes Palestinian air conditioners? And what about GE CAT scans? For that matter, what about the Samsung cellphone the attack helicopter pilot may be carrying, or the Android software on the cellphone? OK, some will respond, just make the boycott more general. But the idea that precipitating Israeli economic collapse will somehow hasten a democratic outcome is like smacking a TV to fix the picture. Come to think of it, it is like blockading Gaza to sink Hamas.

My impression from various encounters with advocates for B and D is that they are simply unable to imagine that the post-1967 Israel, an Israel of occupation, is not the only possible one. They take for granted that all Israelis are colluding in an immoral, outdated structure—that, QED, a "Jewish state" must mean racist privileges for Jews. They imply, but will not just say, that the two-state solution is an illusion and that Palestine is bound to become a bantustan; that we are on the path to a binational state, one person, one vote, in the whole of historic Palestine—and that punishing Israeli globalization will hasten its arrival. (Presumably, as in South Africa, the citizens of this new state will all speak an exotically accented English.)

But what seems far more likely than a binational state, given the irredentist instincts of the Israeli right and the precedent of violent "steadfastness" of Palestinians (reinforced by the Islamist trend gripping many Palestinian young people), is a kind of Bosnian war. It could start tomorrow with, say, a riot among increasingly impoverished Jerusalem Arabs and spread like wildfire across the West Bank and Israeli Arab towns of the Triangle region. How will B and D do anything but make all Israelis feel demonized and prone to apocalyptic thinking and ethnic cleansing? Already, polls suggest that the Israeli center, which is skeptical of the settlers, feels "the West" does not appreciate what it is like to live with suicide bombers and missile attacks.

Targeted sanctions against the occupation are another matter, however. Foreign governments might well ban consumer products like fruit, flowers and Dead Sea mineral creams and shampoos produced by Israelis in occupied territory, much as Palestinian retail stores do. The EU already requires Israel to distinguish products this way. If Israel continues building in East Jerusalem, and the UN Security Council majority sanctions Israeli tourism, the US government might well choose not to veto the resolution. The Pentagon might sanction, say, Israel Aerospace Industries if, owing to continued settlement, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations break down. Any US sanctions would dominate Israeli headlines for weeks. These would not much hurt the economy directly but would gesture toward the larger truth Israeli managers understand in their bones, namely, that an advanced, networked economy is built as much on expanding relationships with global companies as algorithms, and political isolation will naturally lead to economic isolation.

Israelis, indeed, must be made to choose between Global Israel and Greater Israel, but you do not automatically hurt the latter by wrecking the former. Sanction the Israeli government for activities that obstruct peacemaking. Hurt the settlements. But boycott and divest from the private sector, and you may
create an economic implosion. Israel’s ratio of debt to GDP looks eerily like that of the weakest EU economies. Unlike Greece, Israel has a rising class of cosmopolitan entrepreneurs who have been politically complacent, especially during the second intifada and Bush administration. But only they can lead the country out of political crisis—and only if they can hold on to their prestige, which is itself rooted in international commerce. This prestige, after all, is what diplomatic "engagement" aims to achieve—does it not? We want the soft power of global markets to encourage the formation of more worldly business and professional classes everywhere, from Russia to Syria. Isn’t that why we invest such hope in Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad? We said Bush, Cheney and Rice were wrong to boycott whole countries. They were.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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