Why ‘Single Out’ Israel? Here’s Why

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.

3. The United States singles out Israel. Fischer claims that Israel doesn’t, in fact, hold a special position within the American political system and culture. Other nations, after all, receive lots of aid, and the United States doesn’t do everything Israel wants it to do. “Were [the clout of Israel] so great,” he writes, “the United States would long ago have bombed Iran, never have sold advanced fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, not repeatedly pressed Israel to retreat from conquered territory, and so on.” It takes chutzpah to claim that U.S. policy toward the occupation is a sign of Israel’s political weakness. Successive U.S. administrations, while offering token objections, have enabled land-grabs. And it’s true, yes, that the United States hasn’t (yet) started a catastrophic war with Iran at Israel’s behest, but that’s a sign not that Israel has little clout but that it doesn’t actually control the U.S. government. You have to be willfully blind not to notice Israel’s place of privilege, manifest in its huge (if slightly decreasing) influence in Congress and the United States’ lonely defense of Israel at the U.N. And imagine a mayor of a major American city saying that “part of his job description is to be a defender” of a country other than Israel. And as of today, in response to the ASA’s endorsement of BDS, members of Congress from both parties are pushing a blatantly unconstitutional bill to curry favor with the Israel lobby.

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.

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3 comments on “Why ‘Single Out’ Israel? Here’s Why
  1. J.J. Surbeck says:

    Interesting arguments, but all wrong.

    “1. Palestinians called for it”: so have countless peoples oppressed far more than the Palestinians (starting with the Syrians and ending with the Tibetans, with many more in-between), but none of them is of interest to your ilk: you are so pathologically obsessed by the Palestinians that you can’t see the considerably more dramatic suffering of anyone else.

    “2. A boycott of Israel can work, and it is.” Sure. I call it the boycott of the cowards: I don’t hear you defend as vigorously (not at all in fact) a boycott of China, or Cyprus, or Morocco, all three of which still occupy illegally land that doesn’t belong to them. Why? Because a boycott of these countries is guaranteed to fail, so you cowards go for the only country that you know damn well will not retaliate.

    “3. The United States singles out Israel.” That’s such an old saw. Have you forgotten the billions of dollars the US poured into Afghanistan and Iraq, and still pours into Pakistan, Egypt and scores of others? Check your figures. Your hate-filled myopia prevents you by definition from seeing the big picture.

    “4. Israel is an extension of the U.S. empire.” Sure, why not? Better to have a Russian or Muslim Empire, I take it? Get real.

    “5. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians = world-class brutality.” How pathetic: in over a century of constant attacks by Arabs on Jews in British Palestine and then Israel, not more than 50,000 of today’s Palestinians have lost their lives. Next door in Syria, in the last 3/5 years the tally is already at 136,000 and counting. But the world-class brutality is in Israel? This is not myopia. This is stupidity-induced blindness.

  2. DaMizner says:

    I already prebutted all your arguments.

    • J.J. Surbeck says:

      No you didn’t. You just ran away because you could’t rebut my arguments, which precisely already demolished your worthless article. I rest my case.

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