Peter Beinart’s recent call in the New York Times for Jewish Americans to boycott Israeli settlement goods has been met with angry responses from many Jewish Americans. This includes some who are opposed to the settler movement. The most important of these objections hold that a boycott cannot work because Jewish Americans won’t go along with such a program and there isn’t much to boycott anyway. Both arguments hold little water.
In Jewish American circles, this is a new idea. Initial resistance on the grounds of ethnic solidarity and because of a bitter history of anti-Semitic boycotts was predictable. But there is no reason to think that a sustained campaign to convince Jewish Americans that boycotting settlements is an important aspect of salvaging Israel’s character as a “Jewish” and democratic state cannot make headway.
Already, a significant proportion of Jewish Americans deeply oppose the occupation and settlements. Beinart’s plan is the first program to give them a way to express this opposition in a proactive manner.
Over time, the agenda could catch on, especially among young liberal Jewish Americans in need of a practical program to contest the occupation and support a two-state solution. The vociferous rejection of a boycott implies that one just might work. If the scheme were completely ridiculous, ignoring it would be sufficient.
“Pro-Israel, pro-peace” Jewish American organizations are divided on the idea. J Street has rejected it, while it is embraced by Americans for Peace Now. Others groups argue that the idea is pointless because “there isn’t much to boycott anyway.” This is incorrect.
First, such a boycott need not seek to have a devastating economic impact on the settlement economy. The settlement project is heavily subsidized and is not conceived of as a moneymaking venture. Rather, it is an ideological program. With the exception of the Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights and a few others in the West Bank, what we have is historical irredentism at work, not entrepreneurship. The boycott is a political and symbolic statement. It should be conceptualized as expressing profound political objections, and a refusal to cooperate, whether or not it can make any real dent in the settlement economy.
Moreover, the idea that the economic activities connected with more than 500,000 Israeli settlers are immune from pressure is simply silly. These people live, work and produce on land that does not belong to them in contravention of black-letter international law. In fact, there is a great deal to boycott, while also maintaining the distinction between the occupation and Israel itself.
Since the boycott campaign was initiated by Palestinians, Israel and its supporters have reacted furiously. This again suggests that such a campaign can be effective. However, apart from the refusal of individuals to visit or perform in Israel, almost all meaningful acts of boycott and divestment have been connected to the occupation itself.
British trade unions have endorsed boycotts of companies benefiting from the occupation. The Netherlands recently canceled the visit of a delegation of Israeli mayors because it included settlement leaders. A group of Israeli academics announced they would boycott Ariel University. Several Italian and Irish supermarket chains won’t stock Israeli produce because Israel refuses to label what comes from the settlements, to distinguish it from what is grown in Israel proper. The Norwegian government pension fund divested from two Israeli companies doing business in the occupied territories.
The boycott led by the Palestinian Authority has reportedly led to the closure of numerous factories in several settlements. Elbit Systems, an Israeli company that provides components for Israel’s illegal separation barrier, has been divested from by numerous European companies and governments. The German state-owned rail company has refused to do business with an Israeli firm building a rail line linking Israel to the occupied territories. These are a few examples of how such boycotts can work, and in fact are growing.
Since most countries are united in seeing Israeli settlement activity as illegal and illegitimate, they must at least force the Israeli state to label goods accordingly and maintain separate statistics for the Israeli and settler economies.
Those critics who oppose both the boycott idea and the settlements would be more convincing if they offered viable alternatives, for instance backing the creation of a fund to provide settlers with incentives to return to Israel. But as long as they don’t outline any realistic substitutes, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they prefer to let settlement activity go forward with some mild scolding.