Opinion

Israel's Travel Ban: How Banning Settlement Boycotters Is Driving Me Into the Arms of BDS

Israel's entry ban on settlement boycotters has left me, and many other anti-occupation Diaspora Jews with deep ties to the Jewish state, bewildered, frustrated and unmoored.

Pro-Palestinian protesters rally for BDS in Paris, in August 2015.
AFP

Now that Israel has passed a law barring entry to those calling for a boycott of even settlement products, I’m wondering if I should throw my weight behind full-fledged BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) after all. Driving me into the arms of BDS is probably not what the bill’s drafters had in mind, but ill-conceived legislation often has unintended consequences.

In 2012, I wrote in Haaretz that “boycotting the settlements might allow those of us who oppose the occupation a new and more finely-honed expression of our Jewish identity.” It’s an argument I repeated here six months later.

And last fall I joined over 300 others in signing a call for a settlement boycott sponsored by Partners for Progressive Israel. Curiously, the most vocal opposition I heard about that petition wasn’t from Israel advocates but from BDS supporters.

In a letter to the New York Review of Books, where the original petition had appeared, 100 BDS activists, including Alice Walker and Roger Waters, criticized the call.  

“Defying common sense,” they wrote, “the statement calls for boycotting settlements while letting Israel, the state that has illegally built and maintained those settlements for decades, off the hook.”

There are legitimate political and policy reasons to favor a settlement-only boycott rather than full BDS. It reignites debate about the Green Line and thus reminds audiences of the importance of a two-state solution.

It casts the occupation as illegitimate. In short, for some, settlement boycott has been the classic expression of liberal Zionism, leading Peter Beinart to call a settlement boycott a form of “Zionist BDS” when he first laid out his vision for that sort of move.

And there are decent principled reasons to oppose full-blown BDS — partly because it could curtail the important person-to-person work needed to change Israeli hearts and minds, and partly because there are some components of the BDS call, namely the academic boycott, that pose a challenge to other crucial principles, namely academic freedom.

But as the prospects for a two-state solution rapidly dim, and as liberal Zionism’s promise loses its lustre with every move to more deeply entrench the occupation, and if those of us who wanted to maintain our ties to the sort of person-to-person work we thought crucial no longer have access to it because we’ll be barred anyway, the call to BDS seems more justified.

And if one decides to embrace the claim that the academic boycott is intended to target institutions not individuals (a claim I still don’t fully buy, but could be prodded towards as I have recently found myself landing somewhere in the middle of that debate), and if the idea of a Jewish State now seems more and more problematic in light of Israel’s straining democracy and the measures it takes to exclude, and if the idea of calling for refugee return doesn’t feel as jarring to our cultural sensibilities as it once might have, it might be time for a more full-throated call for justice using all the non-violent tools available.

When it comes to BDS, I realize that I have been painstakingly dancing around it and carefully keeping it at arms length partly to remain in the good (enough) books of Israeli customs agents at Ben Gurion Airport.

Maintaining access to Israel has shadowed my every activist move. There have been petitions I have not signed out of fear of being denied entry. But now that the Knesset has made no distinction between selective boycotts and full-blown BDS, maybe there’s no reason for the rest of us to either.

I am picturing what I will feel like if I am indeed denied entry on my next visit, as I insist that my interrogation is conducted in Hebrew — my favorite language on earth to speak. I will probably feel a mixture of anger, frustration and shame. I will feel great disappointment that I cannot visit the people — family and friends — and places — urban and pastoral — that I love.

I will probably wish I had sought citizenship during one of the three years I lived in the country while I was in my twenties. I will probably feel a sense of cognitive dissonance that the country to which I remain attached and yet so resentful for its early blindness over injustice and its continued slide to illiberalism has now used the same siege mentality I once studied and researched dispassionately — to bar me from its fortress walls. In short, I will feel bewildered, shaken and unmoored.

But I know that ultimately I have my own country that grants me freedom of expression, freedom of movement and freedom from state violence. That is immeasurably more than what Palestinians living under occupation have.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov