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The Boycott of Israel, Eight Years In

by LAWRENCE DAVIDSON

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement directed toward Israel is eight years old. It was started back in 2005, when a coalition of Palestine-based social and economic organizations called for such a comprehensive effort.

At first the BDS movement appeared to be a long shot. Israel, with its worldwide coterie of Zionist supporters, both Jewish and Christian, seemed invincible. Particularly in the Western world, the belief in Israel’s legitimacy had reached the status of sacred tradition. The Zionists worked very hard to achieve this status by controlling the historical interpretation of events that had led from World War I and the Balfour Declaration to the creation of Israel in 1948, and beyond. They might well have been able to maintain control of Israel’s past, present and future if the Zionist leadership had not succumbed to the sin of hubris. They became so ideologically self-righteous and militarily muscle-bound that they believed their place in the world to be untouchable. Thus, as they built a country based on discrimination and colonial expansion in an age increasingly critical of such societies, they refused all compromise with the Palestinians and treated criticism of their behavior and policies as at once anti-Semitic and irrelevant. They therefore failed to notice that their stubbornness was allowing others to erode the Zionist version of the history of modern Palestine/Israel.

Eight years is not a very long time, but a surprising amount has been accomplished. Increasing numbers of people, particularly in the Western world, have been made aware of the plight of the Palestinians as well as their version of the history of Palestine/Israel. With this change in historical perspective, BDS established a foothold and started to grow. The movement has spent most of its time since 2005 coordinating a series of efforts to convince private-sector consumers, businesses, academics and artists to cut their ties with the Zionist State and its colonies. The latest success in this effort came just recently, when two of the largest supermarket chains in the Netherlands announced they would no longer sell Israeli merchandise manufactured or grown in the Occupied Territories (OT). Indeed, so successful has BDS been that the Israeli government has established an official task force to counteract it.

The European Union Makes a Move

Another recent event may be even more significant, because it suggests the potential for expanding BDS from the private to the public sphere. This was signaled when the European Union (EU) issued new rules for implementing certain categories of funding agreements with Israel. Funding of grants, prizes, loans and other financial cooperative ventures will now exclude Israeli institutions located in or doing business with the OT.

I want to emphasize the notion of “potential” because the EU move is not a boycott action as such. It is a signal to Israel that the EU will not recognize Israel’s claim to any part of the Occupied Territories without a peace settlement, and therefore this move serves as a point of pressure on the Israeli government to give up its hubris and negotiate with the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). By the way, the PNA as presently constituted is not a representative body and therefore has no legal authority to negotiate anything. However, the EU (along with the Israelis and the United States) persistently ignores this fact.

Nonetheless, this EU ruling is a step in the right direction, and some important Israelis understand the message. For instance, the Israeli peace organization Gush Shalom released a statement that said that the “EU has started to confront the government of Israel – and every citizen of Israel – with a road sign that cannot be ignored.” At least not without moving Israel toward “being an international pariah.” The renowned columnist and reporter for Israel’s newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy, has declared “The change [Israel needs] won’t come from within. . . .Change will only come from the outside.” Therefore, “Anyone who really fears for the future of the country needs to be in favor of boycotting it economically.” And, Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, the present government’s only minister publicly in favor of negotiations with the Palestinians, has warned that the threat of European economic sanctions extends beyond the OT. “It’s true that it will begin with the settlements,” she stated. “But their [a growing number of Europeans’] problem is with Israel, which is perceived as a colonialist country, so it won’t stop with the settlements and will reach all of Israel.”

Livni is correct. Israel’s version of history notwithstanding, the country’s origin is as a colonial settler state. As suggested above, the result was an inherently discriminatory society. This is not because most Israeli citizens are Jewish. It is because most are Zionists. Modern Zionism, which still reflects the colonial outlook of nineteenth-century imperial Europe, is the guiding ideology of Israel, and it proclaims that the country must be a Jewish State. Unfortunately, you can’t design a country for one group only, in a land where there also exists other sizable groups, and not end up with a discriminatory and oppressive society. Therefore, even if, by some miracle, the Israelis see the light and withdraw from the OT, there will still be a BDS movement agitating for an end to discrimination against non-Jews within the 1948 borders.

Israel’s Negative Reaction

Becoming a real democracy, where all citizens enjoy genuine political equality, is Israel’s only way of escaping the inevitable isolation that comes with the growing BDS movement. Yet, there is no reason to believe that the ideologues who now control the Israeli political and religious power structures are going to move in this direction. One can see this not only from the growing effort the Israeli government is putting into countering BDS, but also from the angry reaction of its political leaders to the EU decision.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the EU decision with the temperament of a monarch. “We will not accept any external edicts on our borders.” That was, perhaps, the royal “we” he used. Then it was back to the first-person singular: “I will not let anyone harm the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, in the Golan Heights, or in Jerusalem – our united capital.” The prime minister was quite off base in his pronouncements. He is the head of a country that has meticulously avoided setting borders for decades just so Israel could expand at opportune moments. That sort of imperial behavior is not well accepted in today’s world. Also, unless he can greatly increase Zionist lobby leverage on the EU, he has no way to prevent the “harm” that may finally befall his compatriots for naively assuming the whole world will accept their criminal behavior forever.

The entire episode points to the fact that, both in the private and public sectors of Western society, greater numbers of people no longer follow the line of historical interpretation set down by the Zionists. This is a major shift. Many Zionists might see this as a sign of growing anti-Semitism, but it really is nothing of the sort. There is nothing inherently Jewish about discrimination and colonialism. However, the same cannot be said for modern Zionism.

Again, the BDS movement is only 8 years old. We can compare this to the more than 30 years it took the boycott of South Africa to end apartheid. So, comparatively, BDS is only at the beginning of its trek. Its fast start and ongoing achievements should bring hope and pride to those involved in the movement. They should also raise some serious second thoughts in the minds of those Israelis who think Netanyahu and his government of ideologues can prevent their country’s increasing isolation.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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