On January 4, the American Historical Association voted not to consider two resolutions critical of Israel’s interference with Palestinian academic freedom. Though boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) were not on the table at AHA, their specter loomed over the debate. I want to offer here the perspective of a scholar of social movements. I see BDS as a strategy for applying global pressure, especially economic pressure, in the hopes of changing Israeli policy, a strategy that I respect. Although BDS’s call for academic boycott is not the strategy I would choose, BDS as a whole has already had a positive impact. In fact, it is virtually the only nonviolent strategy that has had an impact thus far. Here are two arguments for supporting it—but also for making exceptions and trying something else as well, something that may be more productive for those of us in the United States.
To explain, I have to out myself. I can’t participate in a total cultural or educational boycott of Israel because of the “Hand in Hand” schools (Yad b’Yad in Hebrew). They are my brother’s life work. But my main attachment to them is not because he’s my brother, but because of what they are and what they do. Begun by Lee Gordon and Amin Khalaf in 1997, Hand in Hand consists of five bicultural, bilingual schools for Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israeli kids, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Some 1,200 kids and over 3,000 adults are involved—parents, teachers, community activists. Every class is taught half in Hebrew, half in Arabic, and every child emerges fluent in both languages and, more important, dedicated to a future of co-existence with freedom and justice for both groups.
Through the Second Intifada and the ghastly Israeli assault on Gaza, these children and their parents have stood fast in their commitment to the Hand in Hand community and to mutual respect. True, Hand in Hand creates only small islands in an angry sea. As we used to say in the New Left, a new world must appear visible within the old or it can never happen. If you cannot imagine it, you cannot create it.
But I don’t feel in the least apologetic or hypocritical in my selective support for BDS. BDS supporters have produced many versions of what the boycott should and shouldn’t include, and many supporters believe that constructive relationships and projects should continue and even be initiated.
It is perfectly possible, as always in social movements, for individuals to contribute in ways that suit their situations. (“From each according to their ability” has long been a winning social-movement organizing principle.) What should be challenged, however, is attacking the BDS strategy as if it were insisting on some version of Stalinist party discipline, or treating the most outrageous pro-BDS statement as if it spoke for the whole. BDS is, after all, a global, decentralized social movement.
BDS is working because it does two things well.
The first is educational. BDS creates newsworthy events that force the media to cover growing criticism of Israeli occupation of Palestine. BDS argues implicitly, and its spokespeople explicitly, that the occupation is not just one aspect of the Israeli nation but has become fundamental to most of its policies, including those within Israel.
BDS has led to discussions among scholars, of great breadth and intensity. Though only a few scholarly organizations have voted to support BDS, academics are becoming more educated and concerned about injustice to Palestinians. Students and faculty members are pressuring colleges to divest from companies that provide military equipment to Israel. In response to the activity on campuses, some defenders of Israeli policy have attempted to suppress student freedom of speech and pressure faculty members; these conflicts bring ever more members of college communities to defend freedom of expression and, more important, to recognize that the greatest suppression of the free exchange of opinion is coming from supporters of Aipac (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), not from BDS. Equally important, precisely because BDS offers a left-wing, participatory, direct-action strategy, it creates the political space in which those more hesitant to criticize Israeli policy can express their concerns (here I am thinking of the advocacy group J Street).
The second reason BDS is working, or beginning to work, is economic. It is unlikely to force the Israeli government to reverse its occupation policy quickly. But it is being felt. According to the Israeli newspaper Maariv, the international boycott of products from the Israeli settlements in the West Bank has already caused losses to Israel’s economy amounting to about 100 million shekels ($30-million). SodaStream has been forced to close its West Bank factory, and settlement exports to Europe, about $90-million, are now threatened. PGGM, the Netherlands’ largest pension-fund management company, has withdrawn all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks because they have branches in the West Bank or finance construction in the settlements. Similar withdrawals are likely across Europe. Yossi Mekelberg, of the British Royal Institute of International Affairs, points out that even Germany, usually cautious in such matters, “made it clear to Israel that grants for Israeli high-tech companies and the renewal of a scientific cooperation agreement depends on the exclusion of Israeli entities based in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
In June of last year, the EU-Israeli scientific-cooperation agreement contained the same strictures. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation withdrew investments from G4S, the security company that helps run Israeli prisons. A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) resolution to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard for similar reasons passed by a slim margin. A recent Israeli Finance Ministry study cited the boycotts as the largest threat to Israel’s economy, anticipating a possible 20-percent drop in exports, more inflation, and thousands of job layoffs should Europe commit to boycott Israeli companies. Finance Minister Yair Lapid said that “Israel’s economy today is much more vulnerable than its national security.” Concerned, many Israeli businesses are demanding government supports.
These costs descend on Israelis already bearing the costs of Israel’s own policies.
The huge military expenditures and the outlays for the settlements contribute to a considerable decline in the Israeli standard of living, some economists say. (Meanwhile Israeli soldiers bear even heavier costs to their lives, their health, and their spirits, suffering the demoralization, brutalization, and shame that inevitably comes to an occupying power.) The Israeli government has recently announced a budget cut for the ministries of health, education, transportation, and other agencies so as to finance an increased budget for the Ministry of Defense. The war on Gaza has led the Netanyahu government to demand even more military aid from the United States.
This leads to another argument about BDS: For people outside the United States, it may be the best strategy, but it need not be the most important within the United States. As an American Jew, I think our primary responsibility should be changing our own government support for Israel’s repressive policies.
The amount that America gives Israel is typically underestimated because it has many components. American taxpayers spent $3.1-billion in 2013, even more in 2014, in direct military aid, amounting to nearly a quarter of the Israeli military budget. But note that this $3.1-billion is just the beginning. It does not include “joint defense projects” for which the U.S. spent, cumulatively, $8.5-billion from 1949 through the 2011 fiscal year. It does not include another $504-million for Israel’s “Iron Dome,” “David’s Sling,” and “Arrow” II and III armaments. For the 2015 fiscal year, military spending on Israel will grow. In addition, Israel held $3.8-billion in U.S. loan guarantees as of 2013, and our tax expenditures—losses of revenue—due to American tax-exempt contributions to the West Bank settlements amount to untold tens of millions of dollars. Then there is an emergency stockpile of U.S. military equipment maintained in and for Israel, valued at $1.2-billion. The United States contributes “refugee and migration assistance” to help new settlers in Israel, including in the settlements. And there is—no kidding—the $2.7-billion that Israel has earned in interest on previous U.S. aid. Israel, with .001 of the world’s population, receives one-third of our total foreign-aid budget.
During the Gaza assault, Israeli leaders were taken aback when President Obama disallowed a shipment of antitank missiles to the Israeli army. These were, of course, not intended for use against Hamas tanks, because they have no tanks; instead they are often used against residential buildings and bunkers. Obama’s hesitation suggests that doubts are emerging. Americans need to do what we can to enlarge these doubts, to point out how this blank check to Israel violates our own national interests—not to mention hopes for global peace and for a democratic Israel.
BDS arguments do not in themselves educate Americans about the U.S. responsibility for the enormous suffering and injustice Israeli policy is creating. We need, in short, a specifically American form of protest—one which would both strengthen and be strengthened by the international BDS movement.
Linda Gordon is a professor of history and the humanities at New York University.