Opinion

Only a Conditional Boycott of Israel Will Lead to Change

You want a sporting event or rock concert in Jerusalem? Reserve tickets for residents of East Jerusalem and the territories. That’s just one possibility

Protesters march behind a BDS banner in Marseille, France, June 13, 2015.
Georges Robert/Citizenside/AFP

“This isn’t the way,” Ahad Ha’am wrote in the paper Ha-Melitz in 1889, criticizing “practical Zionism.” As he put it, “Any belief or opinion that leads to action is necessarily based on these three sentences: 1. That achieving a known end is a heartfelt need. 2. That known actions are the means to achieve this end. 3. That these actions aren’t beyond our power and the exertion they require doesn’t exceed the value we place on this end.”

Anyone trying to take action to create a different Israel should keep the words of this Zionist philosopher in the front of his mind.

A sense of whining confusion and forlorn powerlessness arises from the debate in Haaretz over what the Israeli left should do in the current situation. Various writers have made various proposals, each according to his own worldview and political loyalties.

Some call for pragmatism: The left must leave its purist bubble and take shelter under the wings of parties (Zionist Union, Yesh Atid) capable of replacing the protofascist government that’s gradually consolidating here (Emilie Moatti, June 28, Tzvia Greenfield, May 28, Uzi Baram, May 29). Others urge us to wake up from our naivete and embrace the vision of annexation and apartheid (Eitan Cabel, May 25), or view the very term “left” as a stigma (Nachman Shai in an interview with the paper Makor Rishon, May 25).

Some insist on sticking to the mainstream left’s traditional values (two states for two peoples, a welfare state, the rule of law) and hope to expand their ranks within the accepted political game. They believe that if the left stops apologizing and holds its standard aloft, an Israeli Spring will arrive (Tamar Zandberg, June 22). And there are some bound by political commitments laden with intrigues and special interests, paying lip service to the anachronistic frameworks they’re committed to (Ayman Odeh, April 18). But all this prattling is no more than a barren debate on the deck of the Israeli Titanic.

There are also Israeli organizations fighting tooth and nail to create an alternative to the conversation and practices that prevail at the top – an alternative that favors Israeli-Arab coexistence, humanistic education, human rights in the territories, exposing the injustices of the occupation, and providing legal assistance to Palestinians. The left’s galaxy of idle chatter is also studded with groups of authors, intellectuals and academics who believe they have the power to come up with a magic formula that will convince hundreds of thousands of people to flock to the polls on Election Day with the correct ballot in their hands.

But the stubbornly consistent election polls reveal a reality whose end isn’t visible on the horizon. The current mix that characterizes the ruling parties – a combination of thuggishness, ignorance, corruption, religious extremism, misogyny, racism and simple opportunism – will continue to dominate, with or without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A tale of two Congress parties

If we adopt Ahad Ha’am’s insights, we will conclude that all this activity by all the aforementioned leftist players is being conducted out of a strong and sincere desire to achieve a worthy goal. Still, a big question remains about Ahad Ha’am’s other two assumptions. Are the actions being taken indeed a means for achieving this goal, and is the goal truly not beyond the power of those trying to achieve it?

We must state bravely that this search, which has been going on for years now, for something that would produce the big bang to divert Israel onto another course, is a wasted effort. The heroic actions of thousands of activists in peace groups and human rights organizations has managed, perhaps, to preserve tiny islands of sanity in Israeli life, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the reality.

It’s worth studying a few lessons from the battle against apartheid in South Africa. Few people remember that the boycott movement there actually began as a domestic effort by the African National Congress in 1952. Its model was the effort by India’s Congress Party in the ‘30s, which called for a consumer boycott that undermined Britain’s economic interests such as its monopoly on salt production. In other words, long before there was an external boycott, a boycott was organized within South Africa by opponents of the regime.

The Israeli parallel could be, say, a clear call by everyone who sees themselves as belonging to the “peace and democracy” camp to sever all ties with economic, academic, social and cultural activity taking place in the settlements or with groups that promote the occupation, racism and racist hatred. What’s needed is a clear and sweeping statement that such activity is a legitimate popular struggle to end the occupation, a first and necessary stage in a broader change.

Awareness of the situation in South Africa began filtering into the West, and especially the United States, after human rights activists realized there was a connection between, say, the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama – which was ignited by Rosa Parks in December 1955 – and the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa in March 1960 in which police killed 69 black demonstrators. But liberal groups worldwide haven’t yet made the connection between their war on xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism in their own countries and, for example, the war crime Israel committed when it slaughtered more than 120 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Gorgeous mosaic

The Israeli left’s great task is to create this necessary connection. This needs to be done cautiously, in the spirit of Ahad Ha’am’s instructions.

First, an “alliance of minorities” must be created in Israel, similar to the alliance Barack Obama created that brought him to victory in the presidential race. In the United States, this alliance included African-Americans, Hispanics, women and white liberals.

In Israel, its base must be Jewish liberals and leftists and Arabs. The Israeli left must understand that the only hope – albeit a small one – to change Israel’s direction lies in creating a full alliance with the Arab minority. After that, the left must also try to add other spurned groups to this coalition of minorities.

The organizations and parties that comprise Israel’s “peace and democracy” camp must forge connections with parallel groups in Europe and America. Through them, it must reach out to artists, sports teams, educational and cultural associations and academia and explain that they must start implementing a policy of “conditional boycott” on Israel.

For instance, you want a sporting event or rock concert in Jerusalem? Reserve tickets for residents of East Jerusalem and the territories. You want to be invited to an scientific conference abroad? Make it easier for researchers from Palestinian universities to obtain exit visas and let those universities exercise academic freedom, which is currently grossly violated by the army and the Shin Bet security service. You want Eurovision? Show that you’re taking steps to ease the Gaza blockade and give humanitarian aid to the people imprisoned in that terrible ghetto. Otherwise, we won’t come.

This isn’t an easy task; it requires a march down an unpaved road. On the one hand, we must avoid being identified with the BDS movement, since any such identification would close channels of communication with, for instance, Jewish organizations, which have trouble swallowing the idea of a sweeping boycott of Israel. On the other hand, we must persuade organizations worldwide that only a policy of “conditional boycott” can get Israeli society to understand the cost of the occupation and reach the requisite conclusions.

The cumulative effect of cancellations, like the soccer match with Argentina, will be felt immediately. Netanyahu understood this better than anyone; he immediately grasped the significance of the cancellation and the danger crouching at the door. His rapid retreat from the idea of holding Eurovision in Jerusalem exemplifies this understanding.

The Israeli left must find a hammer of persuasion so as not to miss the opportunity. It must act in the spirit of Ahad Ha’am’s hope: “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit, and then the day will come on which our hands, too, will create understanding.”

Prof. Daniel Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.