DEBATE: To Boycott Israel…or Not?
By Joel Bleifuss - In These Times
At the height of the war in Gaza, author Naomi Klein endorsed the campaign known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). A coalition of Palestinian groups founded the BDS movement on July 9, 2005, as a way for the international community to put pressure on Israel to reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
Naomi Klein and Rabbi Arthur Waskow debate whether divestment will bring peace to the Middle East.
By Joel Bleifuss - In These Times
At the height of the war in Gaza, author Naomi Klein endorsed the
campaign known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). A coalition
of Palestinian groups founded the BDS movement on July 9, 2005, as a
way for the international community to put pressure on Israel to reach
a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
In her syndicated column, Klein wrote, “It’s time. Long past time. The
best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel
to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to
apartheid in South Africa.”
Klein, author of the best selling books, The Shock Doctrine and No
Logo, has taken heat for her position on the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. “Israel is always more emotionally difficult for me,” she
told New Voices, a national Jewish student magazine, “I think mainly
it’s because of the force of the reaction and the closeness [of the]
reaction. It’s not a stranger that is upset about [what I write], it’s
people in my family who write me long letters saying, ‘Oh, I hate you!’
Similar strong feelings are on display at Hampshire College, which has
been debating whether it should divest from companies that do business
in Israel. Hampshire’s Students for Justice in Palestine wants its
college to divest from companies like Caterpillar, General Electric,
Motorola and United Technologies. In response, Harvard Law School
Professor Alan Dershowitz has threatened to lead a divestment campaign
against Hampshire College if the administration gives in to the
Is BDS the right response? Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a contributing editor
of Ramparts and a former fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies,
says that the BDS campaign will not work. He maintains that significant
differences exist between the political situation in apartheid-era
South Africa and present-day Israel.
In 1969, Waskow began campaigning for a two-state peace settlement
between Israel and Palestine. He is co-author of The Tent of Abraham:
Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Currently,
he is the director of the Shalom Center, a Philadelphia-based
organization that he describes as “a prophetic voice in Jewish,
multi-religious, and American life that brings Jewish and other
spiritual thought and practice to bear on seeking peace, pursuing
justice, healing the earth, and celebrating community.”
Recently, Klein and Waskow spoke with In These Times about the efficacy of the BDS strategy.
Naomi, won’t your BDS proposal strategy simply strengthen the position
of Israeli nationalists, who will then be able to turn to moderates and
say, “We are under attack!”
Naomi Klein: The hard right seems to be strengthening all on its own,
if we judge by the results of the recent Israeli elections.
But I’ve noticed a change within Israel. I got quite a few e-mails from
Israelis saying, “I’ve always opposed this, but I feel that it is the
only option left.” I think that’s a reflection of the feeling of
desperation among progressive Israelis who are watching their country
move hard right and seeing the level of violence increase exponentially.
Arthur, you were an anti-apartheid activist who supported a BDS
approach to South Africa. Are there similarities between the
Bantustans, the small areas of South Africa that were under
“independent” black rule, and the Occupied Territories?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow: There are similarities, but the BDS approach is
not the way to bring about the change that is absolutely necessary.
The most important, and probably the only effective, change that can be
brought about is a serious change in the behavior of the U.S.
government. That means we need to engage in serious organizing within
the United States.
Naomi has written about the failure of carrots in changing the way
Israel has behaved so far, and I agree. One carrot the Israeli
government has essentially ignored, with the help of the Bush
administration, is the offer of the Arab League, led by a surprisingly
creative King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It outlines a general peace
treaty between Israel and all the Arab states, on the condition of a
peace treaty being negotiated between Israel and a viable, sensible
Palestinian state with perhaps some variations on the 1967 boundaries.
But the Israeli government of the last 10 years has been totally
uninterested because it thought it could get away with de facto
annexing more and more land of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
If the U.S. government had said, “Here’s the deal: the Arab League
proposal is what we are after, and we will offer carrots and we will
offer sticks, whatever is necessary to bring this about.” Then there
would be very serious change, both within the Palestinian territories
Real political change within the United States could come through an
Abrahamic Alliance, an alliance between big chunks—though, of course,
not all—of the Jewish community, the Muslim community, and the
Boycotts and divestment are not going to do it. I understand that they
express a kind of personal purity—”not with my money you don’t”—but
they won’t change U.S. policy, which is exactly what needs to be
NK: It is not a question of personal purity. It’s a question of basic
solidarity. A call for this tactic has come from coalitions of
Palestinian groups representing a very wide spectrum of political
parties, labor unions and community groups.
Interestingly, the country which has responded the most seriously to
the BDS movement is South Africa, precisely because the parallels are
seen most clearly in South Africa.
A lot of this criticism of the BDS movement has been: Why Israel? Why
not Sri Lanka? And the point is that, according to basic left
principles of solidarity, the tactics should be chosen by the oppressed
In terms of the ultimate solution and what that should be, BDS and
Arthur’s calls for an Abrahamic Alliance are not incompatible goals. I
think that really what we’re talking about is how you build pressure
toward a resolution.
AW: But Naomi, something different is going on inside Israeli Jewish
and Israeli Palestinian society than what was going on within white
South Africa. Leaving aside the fact that in Israel, about a fifth of
the population with some voting power is Israeli Palestinians, within
Jewish Israel there is a real internal split.
Even though during the last election Israelis moved to the hard right,
a serious body of people is still working for a two-state solution. And
the only force in the world that can deliver that is the United States
You’re right that many Palestinians have called for divestment, etc.,
but I disagree that the oppressed automatically get to decide their own
tactics. For example, Hamas made a terrible ethical and practical
political mistake by responding to the embargo and blockade on Gaza
with rocket attacks on civilians in Israel.
I recognize that there had to be resistance, but there were nonviolent
alternatives. There were beginning to be “ship-ins,” in the model of
sit-ins. Small boats that had been certified as not carrying any
weapons, began to cross the Mediterranean carrying medicine and food,
especially baby food, to civilians in Gaza. The first couple got
through, but then beginning with the massive attack on Gaza, the
Israeli navy forced others back.
NK: They rammed one and may have fired shots at another.
AW: Yes. Now, the question is, what would have happened if the
Palestinian leadership, including Hamas, had said to Europeans and to
Americans, “We welcome this vigorous, assertive, nonviolent resistance
to the blockade. We beg for doctors and peaceniks and academics and
everybody under the sun to start joining in and bringing these boats,
and we appeal for pastors and priests and rabbis and imams to start
coming in these boats.” In fact, there was a mass public welcome of the
first boats that got through.
But Hamas did not choose that response. Rather they shot rockets into
civilian neighborhoods, which is both ineffective and unethical.
NK: Let me clarify. I don’t believe any oppressed community deserves
blind support for its tactics. But it’s precisely because there has
been so much blanket criticism of any Palestinian armed resistance that
I think there is an added responsibility to respect calls for
nonviolent solidarity actions like BDS, which are the most effective
tactics in the nonviolent arsenal.
AW: But the question is, “What will work?” And when you say what the
tactics could be, I agree that sanctions are a thousand times better
than shooting rockets at civilian neighborhoods, but they don’t work.
The nonviolent tactic of the ship-ins was direct, visible, and could’ve
become a massive event. It would’ve been as direct a challenge to the
blockade as the sit-ins in the restaurants were to American segregation.
The sit-ins in the American South were extraordinary because people
didn’t say, “Pass a new law to end segregation.” They said, “We
ourselves are going to end segregation. We imagine the future without
segregation, we’re going to do it, and then you all are going to have
to decide what to do with us. Kill us or change the law.” So that was
extraordinarily effective. For me, the question is, “How do you create
that kind of change?”
The Presbyterians and a few other Protestant groups broached the
question of divestment from Caterpillar, which was producing the
bulldozers that were knocking down Palestinian houses. I told the
Presbyterians, “This is a waste of time. What would work would be if
you all decided that every Presbyterian Church in America was going to
bring an Israeli and a Palestinian at the same time to lay out the
Geneva Initiative for a two-state peace treaty and the Presbyterian
Church was going to commit itself to lobbying for that with the
Congress and the president.” That would’ve been incredibly effective,
and still would be, if the churches and some Jews and some Muslims got
together on this.
NK: I think those are wonderfully complementary strategies. This
problem is going to take everything we’ve got. And that’s why I’m so
resistant to taking such powerful tactics as BDS off the table at such
a crucial moment. The U.S. government was hardly a world leader when it
came to sanctions against South Africa. But when universities and
municipalities joined the sanctions movement, it eventually forced the
federal government to get with the program.
I support the BDS strategy for Israel because it will work again, and
it will work because it cuts to the heart of something that is so
important to so many Israelis. And that is the idea of normalcy, the
idea that Israel is really an honorary adjunct to North America and
Europe—even though it happens to be located in the Middle East.
At the moment, it is possible to lead a very comfortable, very secure,
very cosmopolitan life in most parts of Israel—despite the fact that
Israel is at war with neighbors. I don’t think Israel has a right to
simultaneously rain bombs and missiles on Gaza, to attack Lebanon in
2006, to massively expand the settlements, and also have this state of
normalcy within its borders. For justice to come, the status quo will
have to first become uncomfortable.
When concerts are canceled in Tel Aviv, when tourists don’t come to
Israel, then, I believe, many Israelis will start putting pressure on
their political leaders to finally negotiate a lasting peace. So I
don’t buy the argument that they’ll just feel isolated and become more
right wing. The threat of isolation can be a very powerful tool for
progressive change in a country like Israel.
Naomi, Helen Suzman, a white South African who was a leader of the
anti-apartheid movement, who died this past January, argued that
economic sanctions against South Africa during apartheid had hurt the
entire population, particularly the poor. Would not the same thing
happen in the occupied territories?
NK: It is true that in South Africa it did hurt the entire population.
And the call for sanctions was consciously made despite that fact. And
that is why it is so extraordinary, that there has been such a
widespread call from Palestinians despite the fact that they will also
suffer under BDS.
But we can’t compare the kind of suffering Gazans are facing under the
Israeli blockade and embargo to what Israelis would suffer if a BDS
campaign were to get off the ground. We’re talking about people in Gaza
lacking life-saving medicine, cooking oil and food, versus Israel
losing some foreign investment, and not having concerts and some
academic conferences. These are not in the same league.
AW: Naomi, you said you see them as complementary strategies, but in
the real world, people have to decide what to put their energies into.
Do we think that if the Presbyterian church is trying to put its
energies into boycotts this time, not just of Caterpillar but of all
Israeli society, that that’s going to be workable alongside of, and at
the same time as, mobilizing Israeli and Palestinian voices
simultaneously in those churches, and then those churches lobbying
Congress on these solutions? I don’t believe it.
NK: That is what happened with South Africa. The BDS strategy
personalizes the dispute. You follow the money at your own school, your
own shopping habits, your own government, and extraordinarily lively
debates ensue that are not just about the boycott strategy but are
about why the boycott is happening. That’s happening right now at
The boycott starts the debate, it brings teeth to it so you’re not just
signing yet another statement that can be ignored. Or bringing together
like-minded people to listen to another speaker or dialogue.
And that’s the dynamic that BDS promises. Just as in South Africa,
where you had a lot of industry saying to the apartheid regime, “We
can’t live with this any longer,” we would have that dynamic within
AW: But there is a huge difference between South Africa and Israel. In
South Africa, the U.S. government was not pouring billions of dollars
into the country. Whereas, in the case of Israel, the U.S. government
is. That support seems to me to be far more the point.
The likelihood of Israelis saying, “Wait a minute, this is a serious
problem,” is going to be much greater if the Obama administration says:
“Here’s the deal. There’s going to be an emergency peace conference in
the Middle East. It’s going to come out with a Palestinian state that’s
really independent, not chopped up in little bits, and there will be a
peace treaty with all the Arab states.” I can see the possibility of a
whole new American outlook making peace in the Middle East.
NK: Once again, the question is how do we get to the point where the
Obama administration feels the need to get tough and say, “Here’s the
deal.” I don’t believe that mere dialogue will bring us there. I’m
arguing that BDS is a fantastic movement-building tool precisely
because it is a conversation starter; it ignites the debate. It makes
the conflict personal in the same way as the amazing grassroots
movement we had in the ’80s against South Africa did in the United
States. It is only once those debates are raging that there will be the
kind of bottom-up pressure on Obama that could lead to a real shift in
AW: Yes, there needs to be a real life, day-by-day connection to making
change happen. But from my point of view, if you could bring Muslims
and Jews and Christians together, meeting each other, talking to each
other, getting past the fear and stereotypes about each other, if you
could get that happening, that would be a piece of the future the way
the sit-ins were a piece of the future.
The way to build the movement in the United States is for the people
who are here to build a movement among themselves. A big chunk of the
unrepresented Jewish population in the United States—somewhere between
half and two-thirds of it—agree that there needs to be a two-state
solution. Their institutions either don’t agree or won’t do much about
Arthur, during the war on Gaza, J Street, which is a new “pro-peace,
pro-Israel” group, posted an editorial on its website stating, “We
recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on
right or wrong.”
In response, Noah Pollack, on the Commentary magazine blog, wrote, “It
is time that thinking people start calling J Street what it actually
is: an anti-Israeli group.” What is it about Israeli politics that
makes it so difficult to discuss?
AW: Well of course Commentary would say that. But it’s not difficult to
discuss. In fact, J Street has gone right on and continued speaking out.
Much more to the point, and much more upsetting, was that Rabbi Eric
Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote an op-ed in
Forward condemning J Street, saying that J Street’s “words are deeply
distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch
with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naive.” He represents, in
theory, a million Jews. But it didn’t kill J Street.
You can’t do now what was done in the 1970s to the first American
Jewish organization to talk about a two-state solution, Breira, which
got killed by attacks from the center as well as the right wing of
Jewish institutional life. That’s not working this time.
NK: While I understand that the Jewish community is finding voices that
are more diverse, we have to be clear that this is not just a Jewish
issue. And maybe it shouldn’t even be Jews who lead this issue. In
Europe, it isn’t just Jews who are leading this issue.
AW: Well, the other difference between Europe and the United States is
that in Europe, the Jewish community, for reasons of history 75 years
ago, doesn’t have much political clout. In the United States, the
Jewish community does. So changing the Jewish community, building
progressive organizations is both possible and necessary in the
American Jewish community.
I don’t attack BDS as unethical. I’m saying it won’t work. But there is
one major ethical defect to it, I think, which is that it doesn’t
embody the future in the present. The future it does not embody is the
one most precious and most legitimate for Israel: peace with all the
I agree that a policy of all carrots for Israel and all sticks for the
Palestinians is both an ethical and practical disaster. But sticks-only
for Israel won’t and shouldn’t work, and that’s what the BDS approach
feels like. Sometimes that works anyway—it did in South Africa. But it
hasn’t worked (and shouldn’t) when used against Palestine—what stronger
BDS could there be than the one against Gaza?—and it hasn’t worked (and
shouldn’t be used) against Cuba.
In the United States around civil rights, it was embodying the future
in the present that worked. What will and should work now is that One
Big Carrot of peace, with sticks right behind it if an Israeli
government rejects the carrot.
NK: First of all, Israel has received all carrots all the time, and
introducing any sticks at all would represent real progress. Also I
think BDS does embody the future, because it says that Palestinian
lives matter deeply. There is such an asymmetry of outrage on this
issue—the uproar about Israeli universities facing a boycott at the
same time as Palestinian schools and universities are being bombed, for
instance. When we treat Israeli war crimes as deserving of
international sanction, we are rejecting this double standard and
embodying the future we want, which is a future of genuine equality.
AW: But what would have happened if Hampshire College had twinned
itself with the university in Gaza and a university in Ramallah and had
done its best to make real-life connections?
NK: Frankly, not as much as what is going to come of their bold BDS
stance. At Hampshire College, there have been plenty of exchanges and
dialogues of all kinds, but those don’t change the economic and
political dynamics of the conflict, which are what need changing.
AW: I agree that that is what needs changing, but I don’t think this is
the way to do it. I don’t think we’re going to agree on which set of
tactics are best, but I guess people are going to have to make up their
own minds. I do think we have to recognize that nothing is going to
happen unless the policy of the United States changes.
NK: I agree with that. We just have a disagreement about how we get
there. I think BDS changes the dynamic, because it inserts multiple
other economic powers into the equation. It would put grassroots
pressure on the Obama administration that could become hard to ignore.
And also pressure within Israel. I certainly agree that it will piss
off Israelis, but I also think we need to acknowledge that ignoring the
call is an active position toward Palestinians, it’s not a passive one.