Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Boycotting settlements is not anti-Israel

NEW YORK (JTA)—On her way out the door to defend the SodaStream company, the suddenly political Scarlett Johannson threw a grenade at her erstwhile cause, the international aid organization Oxfam.

According to her spokesperson, “she and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”

Full stop. The global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which harbors more than a few people who want to put the entire project of a Jewish homeland out of business, is not the issue between Johannson and Oxfam. SodaStream has its main factory in the occupied territories. The company is contributing to the health and prosperity of the occupation while providing income for the settlement enterprise—an enterprise that is corroding Israeli democracy, deemed “illegitimate” by the American government and considered illegal under international law.

Boycotting goods and services coming from the settlements, although sometimes difficult to implement in practice, means putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, if one has been saying that the settlements are an impediment to the two-state solution and to peace.

What’s so hard to understand about that?

My organization, the New Israel Fund, which supports more than 100 progressive civil society organizations in Israel at any given time, made a clear distinction some years ago in our funding guidelines. We don’t fund organizations with global BDS programs. We will not disqualify organizations for funding if they support the boycott of settlement goods because we see it as entirely consistent with our opposition to the occupation, our defense of Israeli democracy and our support for a two-state solution.

So let’s take a look at those who are profiting from blurring the lines—the Green Line, to be precise. The current Israeli government and its well-funded organizational allies have popularized the word “delegitimization” to describe opposition to Israel. But in making no distinction between calls to boycott Israel itself and calls to boycott the settlement enterprise, they are deliberately conflating two very different things while erasing the distinction between Israel inside the Green Line—the pre-1967 border with the West Bank—and military control of settlements in the territories. Defunding the settlements equals delegitimization equals anti-Semitism equals destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, or so goes their formula. Those for whom any progress toward ending the occupation is their worst nightmare have been somewhat successful at making this false equivalence stick.

The truth is, Israel has real adversaries who equate Zionism with racism. But it is also true that criticizing Israeli government policy, especially support for the settlement enterprise, is not delegitimizing Israel. According to last year’s Pew study, only 17 percent of American Jews believe the settlements help Israeli security. Do the other 83 percent not think that Israel is legitimate?

By some accounts, the Palestinians who work at SodaStream are well treated by the standards of occupation enterprises. But suggesting that those Palestinians don’t have much choice about their employment because the West Bank is entirely aid dependent, and because it’s hard to have a vibrant economy under foreign military control—that’s not delegitimizing Israel either. That’s the truth as pro-Israel progressives worldwide see it.

But let’s leave the Palestinians aside for a moment. What blurring the lines between Israel and its military occupation accomplishes is not just the perpetuation of the occupation. Israel’s existence as a democratic state is grounded in the values and institutions it shares with other democracies, including freedom of speech and conscience, an independent judiciary and an untrammeled civil society. It is no accident that in the past five years, those values and institutions have come under attack from those whose defend the settlement enterprise at virtually any cost. The harassment and punitive legislation aimed at human rights groups, which inconveniently document the abuses inherent in occupation, is a deliberate strategy as well.

Anyone who has spent 10 minutes watching Palestinians queue up at a checkpoint to get to work or a hospital in Israel knows that Israeli democracy comes to a halt at that checkpoint. Anyone who drives on a road forbidden to Palestinians and guarded by barbed wire and watchtowers, or reads the graffiti left at the scene by settler vigilantes during their “price-tag” attacks, cannot help but understand why the occupation is compared to other historical examples of oppression and injustice.

Abraham Lincoln said of our own country that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” Although the occupation is not slavery, he would have recognized that a pernicious institution poisons the entire body politic, and that there can be no such thing as freedom for one group and subjugation for another in a functioning democracy.

The blurring of lines between Israel and the territory it occupies and administers militarily serves the short-term purposes of the settlers and their apologists. In the long term, however, if and when those lines really disappear, when Israel becomes identical to the occupation and its democracy is sacrificed to those with a messianic vision of the Jewish state, then the Zionist enterprise will have failed. And those of us who love Israel, and believe in the promise that a state founded by Jews would reflect the love of freedom and equality that is part of the Jewish heritage—we will have failed, as well.

Naomi Paiss is vice president of public affairs for the New Israel Fund.


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