Illinois passed a bill this month banning state pension funds from investing in companies that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. While the effort to fight the delegitimization of Israel is praiseworthy, this bill has the additional effect of undermining Israel's position as a sovereign state by denying its role as a moral actor.
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A core tenet of Zionism is the legitimacy of a Jewish sovereign state. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared that after 2,000 years of exile and victimhood, the time had come for “the Jewish people, like other nations, to determine its history under its own sovereignty.'' Part of living in this new reality means that Israel, like every other country, is a moral actor that bears the responsibilities of its sovereignty.
It can, and often does, achieve moral greatness, like when it granted asylum to some 350 Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, established a major field hospital in Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake there, and sent significant humanitarian relief to Nepal after the recent tremblor. Yet, it also succumbs to moral failures: building homes for Jewish settlers on private Palestinian land; introducing segregated buses for Jews and Palestinians; and repeatedly objecting to bids for independence by more than 2 million stateless people who have lived under its military control for 48 years.
In the same way that Israel should be praised for its achievements, it should be held accountable for its failures. This, too, is an essential implication of the Zionist dream: along with the privilege of being recognized as a sovereign state comes the obligation to be treated like other states.
Economic boycotts and sanctions have consistently been considered legitimate responses to other countries’ misconduct: South Africa was boycotted by various organizations in the 1980s and 1990s over apartheid; China has been boycotted over its unfair labor practices and annexation of Tibet; and the American government enforces a variety of economic sanctions on countries throughout the world, including Belarus, Russia, and Venezuela, for their failures to live up to U.S. standards of moral conduct.
Nobody claims that these states are the only countries in the world doing wrong or that they are all committing misdeeds of equal moral weight. People chose to boycott South African apartheid while simultaneously ignoring the Guatemalan massacre of hundreds of thousands of Mayans; many of those who boycott China for its annexation of Tibet have been silent about Russia’s annexation of Crimea; and the United States never claims that its list of sanctioned countries includes every state that commits wrongdoings.
Yet, by singling out Israel and divesting from businesses that boycott it, Illinois effectively holds the Jewish state to a different, less morally accountable, standard than other countries, and in so doing undermines that basic tenet of Zionism.
That is not to say that boycotts are the necessary means for holding Israel accountable for its moral failures. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent of Israel’s misdeeds and the appropriate ways to react to them. But the only premise on which to base a categorical rejection of all boycotts is that a country is incapable of moral failure. By singling out Israel and declaring economic boycotts an inherently illegitimate response to its policies, the Illinois bill – probably inadvertently – denies the Jewish state’s ability to be a moral actor like any other.
Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world.