A writer at the Boston Review is the latest to bemoan the American left’s “selective focus” on Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. The American Studies Association’s endorsement of BDS has produced many such laments. Unlike Larry Summers and his ilk, Claude Fischer doesn’t attribute it to anti-Semitism — or does he? Boycott supporters, he says, are “not classic, racist anti-Semites.” (but modern, enlightened ones?) “Many, perhaps most, boycotters,” Fischer writes, “can say without irony that some of their best friends are Jews.” (In fact, Claude, more than a few boycotters are Jews.)
The claim that there’s something irrational or untoward about the focus on this issue is strange. As Corey Robin points out, activism is inherently selective. You focus on this and not that. One need not defend her opposition to injustice, whether it’s genocide or the mistreatment of a cat.
That said, there are reasons why a boycott of Israel makes sense. Fischer ignores a few of them and attempts to refute a few others, which he says are “strained, post hoc rationalizations.”
Why a boycott of Israel? Here’s why.
1. Palestinians called for it. Fischer doesn’t mention, probably because he doesn’t know, that it was a large segment of Palestinian civil society that called for the boycott. While this fact doesn’t necessarily make the boycott wise or moral (if Palestinian civil society told you to jump out the window…), it gives it a rational rationale and puts the lie to the claim that the involvement of Americans reflects an obsession with Israel. It’s an act of solidarity in response to a specific plea from credible representatives of the Palestinian cause. Indeed, BDS isn’t really about Israel (you’re so vain, I bet you think…); it’s about Palestinians. For obvious reasons, opponents of the boycott often pretend the boycott is a radical-chic, boutique cause of Western leftists. “There’s a certain arrogance in promoting a boycott from the safety and security of America…,” writes Jane Eisner of the Forward, promoting occupation “from the safety and security of America” while conveniently ignoring the boycott’s indigenousness.
2. A boycott of Israel can work, and it is. Fischer overlooks the practical reason to boycott Israel as opposed to, say, China. “Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic,” says Naomi Klein. “The reason the BDS strategy should be tried against Israel is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work.” Klein wrote that in 2009. Five years later, signs of BDS’s success abound.
4. Israel is an extension of the U.S. empire. If you’re hoping to understand the participation of the ASA and other American institutions in BDS, the position of Israel within the United States may be less important that its position in the American empire. Israel carries out its brutal expansionist policies with American arms and blessing, and in the (perceived) interests of the United States. More than any other country, Israel is an American satellite state. So the boycott isn’t just about Palestinians; it’s also about the United States. “[W]hen anti-BDS people demand that the ASA should boycott the USA…” writes Aaron Bady, “they are actually making a good argument in favor of the boycott: to detach from Israel would be to boycott a central pillar in the American imperial system.”
5. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians = world-class brutality. As I said, one need not defend his opposition to injustice of any kind. Still, it’s fair to argue that it should meet a certain threshold to warrant a boycott. Does Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians meet that threshold? Of course. Critics of the boycott never fail to point out that there are regimes worse than Israel’s, and supporters of Israel’s tend to cede the point, which, they say, is beside the point. Lost in the exchange is the depth and range of horror that the occupation inflicts on human beings. Indiscriminate killing. Collective punishment. Torture. Torture of children. Ethnic cleansing. Mass imprisonment without charge. Systematic denial of rights and dignity. Humiliation. To the occupied Palestinians, Israel is a repressive regime.