Beyond Israel Boycott: Pragmatism Needed in a Time of Polarization

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From the Jewish Voice for Peace video.Credit: screenshot

A new animated video from Jewish Voice for Peace claims to explain the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum and prescribe a solution. Over six minutes, the video traces the familiar story of Jews escaping political persecution to rediscover their historical homeland, only to result in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the erasure of hundreds of Palestinian villages. The video goes on to identify institutionalized discrimination within Israel in the area of land ownership and housing, and condemns the network of settlements and pattern of land grabs in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the “United States-led” peace process, the narrator declares, has been nothing but “theater.” Uncle Sam has been a “terrible friend” to Israel, the video argues, only serving to enable Israel’s addiction to expansionist policies in the West Bank. The solution, therefore, should come from concerned citizens everywhere: boycott and divest from Israel.

Is the video reasonable in its assumptions and in its demands?

There are at least three distinct policy issues here: the refugees, the West Bank occupation including the settlements, and Israeli laws vis-a-vis its own citizens. Let’s start with the occupation.

The international consensus is that there should be — and, if both parties can manage to eke out an agreement, there may eventually be — a Palestinian state in the West Bank (and likely the Gaza Strip.) So, on the issue of the settlements, the allusion to Ariel College, and land confiscation policies and settler-only roads cutting up the territory, Jewish Voice of Peace is within the realm of reasonable prescription — and of international law, which forbids an occupying power from moving its settlers into occupied territory.

Regarding the Israeli laws that discriminate between Jews and Palestinians — particularly in the area of land ownership — JVP is also well within reasonable bounds. Israel’s democracy struggles with its definition of being a Jewish state, and few, if any, liberal Zionists would disagree that these sorts of discriminatory practices require rectification. Indeed, there is a network of Israeli NGOs — including New Israel Fund and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel — that addresses precisely this democratic deficit.

It’s on the issue of refugees where the far-left parts ways with the liberal consensus. While the non-binding UN General Assembly Resolution 194 stated that Palestinian refugees should be able to return to their homes “at the earliest practicable date,” the refugee issue has long been considered one which both sides will have to negotiate. Most knowledgeable observers predict limited return to inside Israel, some family reunification, and some material compensation. Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has renounced personal claim to “Jaffa, Acre [and] Haifa.”

Zionists realize that allowing a wholesale Palestinian return would tip Israel’s delicate “demographic balance” in favor of Palestinians. And while critics of Israel consider discussion of “demographics” to be racist, those who are more empathetic to Jewish collective yearnings understand this as a key Israeli identity issue. One could go on to argue that every country is allowed to dictate its own immigration policy.

The strategic question that must be asked is whether Israel should be boycotted at all, or whether both sides are at fault. One way of looking at it is that whoever is the more militarily powerful actor must be the one to concede. So while realpolitik might dictate that it is the powerful who naturally dictate the terms, a social justice perspective would point to the need to pressure Israel to withdraw. After all, Israel is occupying the Palestinians in the West Bank, not the other way around.

On the other hand, there is work to be done on the Palestinian side as well. While studies have shown that compared to Israeli textbooks, Palestinian textbooks are not as rife with incitement as critics have said, the Palestinian Authority could do more to prepare its people for peace, for example, given the culture of martyrdom that still casts a shadow in some pockets.

Unfortunately, in the polarized space that is discourse around Israel/Palestine, videos like these will end up entrenching existing positions. Those who believe that Israel is the victim of Palestinian rejectionism and misplaced global “delegitimization” will see this effort as one more example of unfair criticism of the one homeland that Jews call their own. Those, on the other hand, who focus on American-abetted Israeli power will agree that boycotting Israel until it responds to Palestinian demands is the right thing to do.

Ultimately, the video fails to address one of the most important questions: given respective Israeli needs and identities, what is the most practical solution? From what we know of Jewish and Israeli history, global isolation in the form of a blunt boycott is more likely to result in a hardened siege mentality, rather than in concession-making. And on the issue of refugee return, we know that Israel is not going to give up its core identity of being a Jewish state. So, while JVP’s moral simplicity is alluring, a dose of pragmatism points to the international consensus — a two-state solution with a negotiated solution to the refugee problem — as the most reasonable of all.

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