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Why the Critics Are Wrong

Olympia Food Co-op Boycotts Israeli Goods

by STEVE NIVA

On July 15, the Olympia Food Co-op Board of Directors  decided to boycott Israeli goods at their two locations in Olympia, Washington. The July 15 meeting was  packed with Co-op members when the Board reached this consensus. The Co-op becomes the first US grocery store to publicly join the international grassroots movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) on Israel for its human rights abuses. AC / JSC

Critics of the Olympia Food Co-op’s recent decision to boycott several Israeli products until Israel ends its inhumane occupation of Palestinian land and its suppression of Palestinian human rights have no moral or ethical basis to criticize the Food Co-op unless they can offer an alternative strategy to end Israel’s occupation.  Until they do so, they are simply embracing and providing cover for the injustices of Israel’s occupation, whether they are willing to admit it or not. 

Everyday, Israeli soldiers arrest and assault Palestinians in their own cities and towns, many of whom are tortured or forced into becoming collaborators with the occupation.  Everyday, Israeli armored bulldozers destroy Palestinian homes, orchards and wells in order to clear land to build more Jewish settlements and their massive road infrastructure on Palestinian lands.  Everyday, Israeli checkpoints and walls deny Palestinians access to essential food and medical supplies and deny them the right to travel freely between their own towns and to conduct  basic life functions.  Everyday, Palestinian lives are torn apart by Israel’s occupation.  All of these practices are illegal under international law and all are condemned by international human rights organizations and institutions. 

And for what reason?  It is now clear that the primary function of these Israeli actions is not security but to steal Palestinian land for Israeli settlements and repress Palestinian opposition to this project, forcing Palestinians to live in ever shrinking enclaves.  If Israel truly wanted security and peace rather than Palestinian land, it could easily accept the internationally accepted terms for peace and withdraw all of its over 400,000 settlers and soldiers to its 1967 borders with international guarantees for its security.  But Israel has chosen settlement and stealing Palestinian land over peace and security.  As with other national liberation movements, some Palestinians have indeed committed reprehensible crimes against Israelis, but the moral burden is always greater for the more powerful and oppressive, as it always has been in cases of colonization and dispossession. 

Many members of the Olympia community have lived and worked with Palestinians enduring these inhumane conditions and have witnessed Israel’s brutal occupation and dispossession of Palestinian people for themselves.  They know there is no justification for Israel’s occupation.  Many others in our community have also come to the same conclusion.  They have long sought avenues to struggle for justice and to raise awareness on this issue only to see Israel’s occupation deepen and Palestinian suffering increase.   They have seen the U.S. government fail time and again to advance an agenda for justice and ending Israel’s occupation, with Obama as no exception. They have also seen courageous Israeli peace activists marginalized and suppressed within Israeli society and Israel recently elect the most right-wing government in its history.

As a result, many are now embracing a new strategic approach in which they are using the familiar tools of non-violent social justice activism to raise awareness and pressure Israel directly to end its occupation.  This strategic approach, inspired by a call by Palestinian activists several years ago and embraced by many Israeli and international peace activists, is often called BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions).  The basic premise of this strategy is to raise the economic, social and moral costs for Israel as a way to pressure Israeli society and politicians to do the right thing, which is to end its occupation.  It is a strategy that no longer waits for governments, whether the U.S. or European, to use their immense leverage to pressure Israel to do the right thing, but rather empowers all of us as citizens to use whatever power we have directly, and as a way to pressure our own governments to act as well.  BDS contends that with no external pressure, Israel will not voluntarily relinquish control of the Palestinian territories or negotiate a just resolution if there are no negative consequences for maintaining the status quo.

Nevertheless, the recent decision of the Olympia Food Co-op to embrace this BDS strategic approach by boycotting several Israeli products has brought out numerous critics who condemn its actions and threaten boycotts of their own.

But unless these critics are offering an alternative strategy to end Israel’s occupation they are simply legitimating and defending the status quo of Israel’s occupation and thus embracing injustice.  They are in effect saying that stealing Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, destroying Palestinian homes and orchards, torturing and turning Palestinians into collaborators with the occupation, and starving or denying medical aid to Palestinians is acceptable to them.  

Critics of the Food Co-op decision are therefore faced with a clear choice.  If they are indeed opponents of Israel’s occupation and its injustices, then they should cease their criticism and engage in a strategic dialogue with supporters of the Food Co-op’s boycott of Israeli products over the best way to end Israel’s occupation and offer a better alternative. 

They could point to several options that have been mentioned by principled and ethical critics of the BDS strategy.  Some have argued that a better strategy would be to build a new domestic movement in the United States to pressure the U.S. government to advance a peace plan whose central component is an end to Israel’s occupation in all its forms by removing all its settlements, soldiers, checkpoints, and walls and fences from Palestinian land occupied in 1967.  Others argue that the best way to end Israel’s occupation is to build massive support for Israeli domestic opposition to Israel’s occupation; support for Israeli feminist peace activists, soldiers who refuse to defend an occupation and the many Israelis who are protesting Israel’s settlements and its horrendous wall that is carving up Palestinian lands.  Both of these strategies would require radically transforming many people’s relationship to Israel and demand bold action and courage to challenge all the entrenched interests who claim to be “pro-Israel” but merely provide cover for injustice.  And both of these options are facing serious challenges at this time, so the burden would be on opponents of BDS to explain how and why they could be more successful. Perhaps all of them are necessary and needed.

But the fact that we do not see these strategic ideas brought forward and debated by critics of the Food Co-op indicates that as of now, most critics are either in denial about the injustices of Israel’s occupation or unwilling to embrace and act on their principles.  They appear to be more concerned about protecting their own image of Israel or criticizing anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable by confronting their own complicity in injustice. 

Critics of the Food Co-op cannot have it both ways.  One cannot critique a principled and promising strategic approach to ending injustice without an alternative and claim to be acting on an ethical or moral basis.  The crimes of Israel’s occupation are too well known and documented to merit any more dialogue and debate on that matter.  It is manifestly clear that not only does Israel’s occupation constitute one of the world’s major injustices but also that it does little to bring Israel the security and peace that many of its supporters claim to desire.  The only dialogue worth having now is over the most effective strategy to end Israel’s occupation.

As for the critics of the Food Co-op who do not want to engage in a strategic dialogue about ending Israel’s occupation, they should just be honest and admit that they have no interest in justice and that killing and imprisoning Palestinians for the sake of Israeli territorial expansion is acceptable to them.  They should openly embrace Israel’s brutal occupation and settlement expansion in all its forms and accept its consequences.  At least that would be principled, if cruel and inhumane.  But it doesn’t mean that anyone should listen to them any longer.

STEVE NIVA is an Olympia community member who teaches Middle East studies and international politics at The Evergreen State College.  He can be reached at NivaS@evergreen.edu.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

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