To Boycott Israel…or Not?

When concerts are canceled in Tel Aviv, when tourists don’t come to Israel, then, I believe, many Israelis will start putting pressure on their political leaders to finally negotiate a lasting peace. So I don’t buy the argument that they’ll just feel isolated and become more right wing. The threat of isolation can be a very powerful tool for progressive change in a country like Israel.

AW:Naomi, Helen Suzman, a white South African who was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement, who died this past January, argued that economic sanctions against South Africa during apartheid had hurt the entire population, particularly the poor. Would not the same thing happen in the occupied territories?

NK: It is true that in South Africa it did hurt the entire population. And the call for sanctions was consciously made despite that fact. And that is why it is so extraordinary, that there has been such a widespread call from Palestinians despite the fact that they will also suffer under BDS.

But we can’t compare the kind of suffering Gazans are facing under the Israeli blockade and embargo to what Israelis would suffer if a BDS campaign were to get off the ground. We’re talking about people in Gaza lacking life-saving medicine, cooking oil and food, versus Israel losing some foreign investment, and not having concerts and some academic conferences. These are not in the same league.

AW: Naomi, you said you see them as complementary strategies, but in the real world, people have to decide what to put their energies into. Do we think that if the Presbyterian church is trying to put its energies into boycotts this time, not just of Caterpillar but of all Israeli society, that that’s going to be workable alongside of, and at the same time as, mobilizing Israeli and Palestinian voices simultaneously in those churches, and then those churches lobbying Congress on these solutions? I don’t believe it.

NK: That is what happened with South Africa. The BDS strategy personalizes the dispute. You follow the money at your own school, your own shopping habits, your own government, and extraordinarily lively debates ensue that are not just about the boycott strategy but are about why the boycott is happening. That’s happening right now at Hampshire College.

The boycott starts the debate, it brings teeth to it so you’re not just signing yet another statement that can be ignored. Or bringing together like-minded people to listen to another speaker or dialogue.

And that’s the dynamic that BDS promises. Just as in South Africa, where you had a lot of industry saying to the apartheid regime, “We can’t live with this any longer,” we would have that dynamic within Israel.

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