Thursday, September 13, 2007

Boycotting Israel | New pariah on the block

from the Economist: "

FOR once, Israel's critics and cheerleaders agree on something: the Jewish state risks greater international isolation. Pro-Israel groups such as NGO Monitor and the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs say a new assault is on the way. In the other camp, Shir Hever of the Alternative Information Centre, an Israeli-Palestinian activist group in Jerusalem, says that advocating a boycott is no longer always treated as anti-Semitism. Both sides have a motive to exaggerate such claims. But “boycotts, divestments and sanctions” (known in the activist world as “BDS”) do seem to be growing.

Pro-Israel lobbyists see this as part of what they call the “Durban strategy”, devised by activists at a United Nations anti-racism conference there in 2001, which marked a new high point for Israel-bashing. The real trigger, though, seems to have been a call two years ago by a coalition of Palestinian outfits to boycott products made in Israel or in its West Bank settlements, and to divest from (ie, sell shares in) Israeli firms, or foreign ones seen as profiting from Israel's occupation of the West Bank and (then) Gaza. Caterpillar, whose earth-movers are used for demolishing Palestinian homes and building on settlements, and Motorola, whose clients for communications equipment include the Israeli army, are popular targets.

This year two big British trade unions and the much smaller National Union of Journalists (NUJ) called on their members to boycott Israeli products. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions backed divestment. The public-sector union in the Canadian province of Ontario voted to support BDS last year; local activists are campaigning against Indigo, a retail chain that sells books and music. Its majority owners run a charity for Israeli veterans. In February an “Israeli Apartheid Week” was held on North American and British campuses for the third year running. Motions to boycott Israeli universities have passed at the conferences of two British teaching unions. A handful of American churches and the ecumenical World Council of Churches have considered divestment from companies like Caterpillar, as has the Church of England, Britain's established church.

Many more minor events—from a protest against Israeli products outside a German food store to the Dutch government's warning to a company that was helping to build the separation barrier in the West Bank—show how hostility to Israel, or at least to its treatment of the Palestinians, is finding expression.

Under closer inspection, the boycotts look flimsy. Most of the motions passed have been non-binding recommendations, or instructions to investigate the practicalities of BDS. Activists' votes at conferences may be slapped down by the membership, as with the NUJ's boycott, which was reversed after furious complaints from members. After pressure from Jewish groups, American Presbyterians, who voted in 2004 to look into divesting from up to five American firms, backed off last year without having removed a dollar. The two British teaching unions merged and voted anew to consider suspending links with Israeli institutions only to provoke a huge counter-attack by American college presidents.

All this recalls the haphazard campaign against South Africa before sanctions got UN backing in 1962. But the anti-Israel movement shows little sign of getting such official support. One reason for this is that Israel has more powerful lobbyists—both in Jewish organisations and in America's evangelical Christian movement, to whom the birth of the Jewish state is a fulfilment of prophecy (some BDS motions passed in American churches really reflect internal Christian rows). Unlike the African National Congress, which acted as both a moral beacon and an organiser for sanctions, the Palestinian leadership does not support BDS—fearing that it will hurt Palestinians as much as Israelis—and is much weaker and more divided.

The chief difference between the Israeli and South African cases is, however, in the moral sphere. Israel is a robust democracy with vibrant academic freedom. Whereas it was plain to most South Africans that “separate development” was a cover for a gross system of racism, the rights and wrongs in Palestine are both murkier and more fiercely contested. For all these reasons left-leaning diaspora Jews and campaigners against the occupation often argue against BDS and for more “constructive” engagement. Boycotting Israeli universities, they note, actually hurts some of the occupation's most trenchant critics (and may thus be unlikely to bother Israeli hawks).

Even fans of BDS do not fully agree on the best way forward. While some call for broad boycotts, others think “smart sanctions”, such as banning goods produced from settlements in the occupied territories, or from specific firms, will have more effect and sidestep claims of anti-Semitism. Israel's economy, they say, is more vulnerable to pressure than South Africa's—smaller, more globally connected and with fewer natural resources. “I don't think the boycotts will be as widespread as with South Africa,” says Mr Hever, “but a small and specific economic impact can change many people's minds.” Perhaps. But blaming Israel alone for the impasse in the occupied territories will continue to strike many outsiders as unfair.

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