Why Peter Beinart Might Be Right on Boycotting the Settlements

A selective boycott might best be thought of as an expression of authenticity, a symbolic act that helps us connect to our Jewish and Zionist longings.

To boycott or not to boycott? Peter Beinart’s New York Times op-ed calling for a boycott of settlement products (or what he calls “Zionist BDS”) is predictably generating much pushback.

The Forward calls the boycott “dangerously misguided.” Too little of Israel’s total export comes from the West Bank, they argue, and it simply won’t have an impact. On the Daily Beast’s new Zion Square blog, Noah Efron argues that it in addition to ignoring Palestinian misdeeds, it would divide both American Jews and Israelis. Because of the “encampment” he sees resulting, it might even draw “moderate Israelis, who are disgusted with the occupation yet are unwilling to view as enemies their relatives and friends living over the Green Line, into league with settlers.”

Alex Levac

But what these writers are missing is that while the personal is political, the reverse is also true.

Now squarely considered a tastemaker for liberal Zionists, Beinart is finally manage to bring into the mainstream a desire many of us have long had. It’s no coincidence that Beinart has made well-known the fact that he attends an Orthodox synagogue, and that his young son has an Israeli flag tacked to his bedroom wall.

Like dipping parsley into saltwater on Passover, boycotting the settlements might allow those of us who oppose the occupation a new and more finely honed expression of our Jewish identity.

We will need to be diligent, though. The last time I was at a community function and was served a glass of cabernet from Efrat, I was markedly uncomfortable. It was only some months later that I learned that the label is not actually linked with the West Bank settlement of Efrat, but is named for a Biblical phrase containing the word. The winery is in fact is based in Motza, in pre-1967 Israel.

It goes without saying that the Jewish community is one with diverse opinions. But however ineffective our small acts of conscience might be, and however awkward the effects may be for those on either side of the divide, we need some new tools for collective expression.

There is already a boycott settlement-products movement afoot among Israelis, with 8500 likes on its Facebook page. But another Israeli anti-occupation initiative came to my attention last summer, when I bumped into an old friend at a Tel Aviv peace rally. He pointed me to Nir Gov, a scientist at the Weizmann Institute, who has been behind efforts to block the granting of university status to what is currently Ariel College in the West Bank. While the petitioners don’t call it a boycott, their petition now has over 1,000 signatures. Next week they will submit it to the Minister of Education and new members of the Israeli Council of Higher Education.

With Ariel College sitting 25 kilometers into the West Bank, and with 85% of its student base coming from within the Green Line, according to Gov, Gov doesn’t believe that the change in status to a university is anything but an attempt by the Israeli government to entrench the occupation. Unlike the purpose of Israeli colleges, “Ariel College doesn’t serve the surrounding geographic area. It’s off-limits to 90% of the population,” meaning to the West Bank Palestinians.

“Establishing a de facto, apartheid-like regime in the territories under our jurisdiction, under our military rule, is completely unacceptable,” Gov told me. “Our petition makes the point that it’s not too late to draw a line in the sand.”

And though they are clearly spelled out in the petition, Gov knows that the moral aspects are likely to fall on deaf ears. So he is aiming for a technical victory, stressing the need for an open and competitive process for granting any Israeli college university status.

And as a cancer researcher, the time and energy it takes him seems somehow ironic. “This whole mess is manmade. There are much, much bigger challenges, like those presented by nature, like cancer. We should be concentrating our efforts on those.”

As an academic myself, I am acutely aware of the ethical problems of academic boycotts. The whole idea of knowledge crossing borders is the beauty of the academic enterprise. But there is something morally enticing about a country’s citizens – particularly those who devote their life to higher-order analysis -- challenging their own government to make a call about its own borders.

For Gov and his thousand-odd other signatories, taking a public stand as an academic on the proper role of institutions of higher learning in his country feels right. And for those of us in the Diaspora who look to Israel as a touchstone of our identity, yet who are concerned about the self-destructive path its occupation policies present, a selective boycott might best be thought of as an expression of authenticity, a symbolic act that helps us connect to our Jewish and Zionist longings. Like personal theology, maybe it does not need to be debated at all.

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