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How Could Rashida Tlaib Get Caught Using Israeli Technology?

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Rashida Tlaib,  Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019
Rashida TlaibCredit: Susan Walsh, AP

Presumably it was embarrassing for Rashia Tlaib, the Palestinian-American newly elected to Congress and a supporter of the BDS campaign, that her official campaign website was found to be using website-building tools made and marketed by the Israeli company Wix. Or maybe not.

The Wix connection was exposed by the Israel Advocacy Movement, by the simple technique of pushing the “view page source” option in Chrome (it’s a pity investigative journalism isn’t always so simple).

In any case, Tlaib, who rushed to defend herself against accusations of anti-Semitism last month, hasn’t responded to the BDS faux pas.

That could be because the news was limited mainly to the right-wing media and blogosphere. My guess is the real reason is that the BDS movement itself doesn’t take the economic boycott so seriously.

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Last week, for instance, JTA reported that a well-known Dutch BDS advocate, Robert-Willem van Norren, has been riding around Amsterdam with signs calling to “Free Palestine” and “Boycott Israel” on an Israeli-made mobility scooter. He declined to comment.

Other BDS advocates have been found using Wix tools, but it’s hard to know how prevalent this kind of quiet boycott-breaking is. My guess is that it is pretty common.

Israel inside

Wix is unusual because it is a discrete product sold directly to consumers. If Tlaib was serious about her BDS and had troubled to take 30 seconds to do a Google search, she would have discovered that the company is headquartered in occupied Tel Aviv. But most of the time, however, Israeli products, in particular tech products, are buried deep in the bowels of the device you own, the app you use or the website you visit.

If it isn’t an Israeli company that’s providing the technology, it’s Israelis who invented it. That’s because some 250 multinational companies have research and development centers in Israel, most of them set up after the company bought an Israeli start-up. These companies not only forked over tens of billions of dollars over the years to acquire these startups but are now employing tens of thousands of well-paid Israelis, who are paying taxes to the government, doing army reserve duty, and may well be voting for the Likud.

So every time you use Facebook or buy the next-generation iPhone (both Facebook and apple have Israeli R&D centers), you become a small cog in a great machine oppressing Palestinians – if you were to buy  value the BDS contention that everything Israel does is contaminated by the occupation.

Unstealthy technology

However, if you look at the BDS movement’s boycott, this overwhelming reality doesn’t exist. The link to the section of boycotting Israeli products features a picture of Jaffa oranges and then goes on to suggest boycotting SodaStream, a maker of soda machines for the home; Ahava cosmetics; and Sabra brand hummus.

Does BDS think that this is going to have any effect? For the record, Israel exported $198 million of citrus fruit in 2018, equal to 0.36% of total merchandise exports for the year. Sabra products are made in the United States, not in Israel, by a joint venture between Israel’s Strauss Group and PepsiCo. Apropos of PepsiCo, it bought SodaStream last year.

After it was caught using Wix for its website six years ago, the Cornell University branch of Students for Justice in Palestine offered a long-winded defense about why it was okay to use Israeli technology while telling others they should be boycotting Israeli products.

Anyone with the patience to read its long and bombastic statement of principles will find it hard to pin down exactly what the SJP Cornell’s thinking was. But it seems to come down to BDS being a marketing tool for shedding light on Israeli “racialized super-exploitation” of Palestinians.

In other words, you shouldn’t actually boycott Israeli products, because it’s just too complicated. The world economy is a “largely hidden network of financial pipes and tunnels” that makes it difficult if not impossible to known which products have Israel inside (although, to repeat, Wix hardly qualifies as a stealth technology).

It’s an interesting defense, if for no other reason than as an exercise in how to drown out hypocrisy and cynicism inside a torrent of self-justification. But it falls flat on its face because if you look at SJP Cornell’s website today, it is built on WordPress, a Wix alternative. Evidently, not everyone bought the explanation or felt the hypocrisy was too hard to endure.

The BDS hypocrisy goes deeper than this. When push comes to shove, its activists prefer that others do the boycotting and make the sacrifices. Thus Caterpillar and in the past the security company G4s have been popular targets because, after all, how many ordinary people are going to ever be buying a earthmover or employ a security guard? It’s likewise painless to ask a university’s trustees or a big pension fund to divest Israeli shares from their portfolios because that’s someone else’s money.

The requirement to fight the good fight against Israeli oppression is supposed to be borne by others whether they are big, anonymous institutions or useful idiots who take the boycott call seriously. Meanwhile, a boycott campaign is being managed using Israeli website building tools. In the words of SJP Cornell, “BDS is not abstention, nor an absolute moral principle … it is a tactic.”

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