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To boycott or not to boycott?

Targeted campaigns such as Peter Beinart’s proposed 'Zionist B.D.S.' have had a long and successful history in the US

For the past few years, my wife and I, always preferring to buy Israeli made-goods whether we are in Israel or the USA, have been carefully scrutinizing labels on Israeli products to see where they were made. Living half of each year in Tel Aviv, it seemed almost normative to not purchase goods made in the West Bank. We have many friends who made aliya decades ago, passionate Zionists all, who have have been boycotting goods from Judea and Samaria for a long time. They are anguished over what the occupation has done to Israeli democracy and the rule of law, and they are frightened for the future.

Imagine, then, our surprise over the controversy stirred up by Peter Beinart’s op-ed column in Sunday’s New York Times calling for a targeted boycott of West Bank products in order to save Israel. In America, this type of targeted boycott has had a long and successful history, stretching from Cesar Chavez’s grape boycott in the 1960s, which improved the lives of California farm workers, to the more recent boycott of some American supermarket and restaurant chains to help workers in the tomato fields of Florida. Not buying products made in West Bank settlements is meant to apply the same type of economic and political pressure. Here are a few excerpts to convey Beinart’s rationale (although it is worth reading the entire piece):

…the Israeli government is erasing the “green line” that separates Israel proper from the West Bank. In 1980, roughly 12,000 Jews lived in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). Today, government subsidies have helped swell that number to more than 300,000. Indeed, many Israeli maps and textbooks no longer show the green line at all…. Through its pro-settler policies, Israel is forging one political entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea….


In response, many Palestinians and their supporters have initiated a global campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.), which calls not only for boycotting all Israeli products and ending the occupation of the West Bank but also demands the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes — an agenda that, if fulfilled, could dismantle Israel as a Jewish state.


The Israeli government and the B.D.S. movement are promoting radically different one-state visions, but together, they are sweeping the two-state solution into history’s dustbin.


It’s time for a counteroffensive — a campaign to fortify the boundary that keeps alive the hope of a Jewish democratic state alongside a Palestinian one.

Beinart goes on to describe two Israels, one a normal but imperfect democracy (no democracy is perfect) within the old green line border, and the second an “ethnically-based non-democracy” in the West Bank. To oppose this latter, non-democratic structure, he calls for a narrowly defined “Zionist B.D.S.” movement that would boycott products from the West Bank while encouraging the purchase of products manufactured within the green line.

The column stresses that Zionism and democracy are inseparable, as Israel’s declaration of independence calls for a Jewish state that “ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Beinart concludes:

If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself.


We are closer to that day than many American Jews want to admit. Sticking to the old comfortable ways endangers Israel’s democratic future. If we want to effectively oppose the forces that threaten Israel from without, we must also oppose the forces that threaten it from within.

A one-two punch against the occupation

Parts of Beinart’s column mirror Gershom Gorenberg’s recent book “The Unmaking of Israel.” Gorenberg, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Jerusalem, is the preeminent historian of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. His engrossing and readable book details for the general public how the occupation has destroyed the rule of law and how the supremacy of redeeming the Land of Israel has corrupted the ethical and humanistic foundations of Judaism. Even worse, he shows how the ideology of the occupation is infiltrating into Israel proper and affecting the relationship of Israel’s Arab citizens with the government and their Jewish neighbors. Reading Gorenberg’s book along with Beinart’s column delivers a one-two punch that warns both centrist Israelis and worldwide Jewry that they had better wake up soon or the democratic Israel they so passionately believe in may shortly become a thing of the past.

A targeted B.D.S. campaign. Peter Beinart (photo credit: Blake Newman)
A targeted B.D.S. campaign. Peter Beinart (photo credit: Blake Newman)

The reaction to Beinart’s piece was fast and furious, burning up the virtual ether. He was attacked from both the left and the right. The left accused him of splitting hairs, that democracy was already dead even within the green line. Even worse, Beinart exempts East Jerusalem from his targeted Zionist B.D.S. because it was annexed by Israel in 1967, and, as he states, Palestinians there have the option to become Israeli citizens by signing a loyalty pledge (which few do since they view themselves as Palestinians; not Israelis). In essence, the left accuses Beinart of ignoring the discrimination, violence, and impoverishment that the Palestinians in East Jerusalem have endured these past 45 years.

From the right, Beinart was excoriated as a self-hating Jew. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, slammed Beinart’s narrowly defined Zionist B.D.S. proposal, implying he was part of “a marginal and highly radical fringe.” David Frum at the Daily Beast stated that the United States, Europe and “most people of discernment recognize that the anti-Israel boycott movement is only the latest iteration of the decades-old clamor for the destruction of the Jewish state.”

In Twitter exchanges with Beinart, moderate Jews such as columnist and author Jeffrey Goldberg, who opposes the settlements, shied away from the idea of even a partial boycott, writing that boycotting other Jews is a “painful, unnatural act.” Journalist Sarah Wildman stated: “I must admit the word ‘boycott’ makes me twitch. And yet we must acknowledge the settlements undermine Israel.”

Meanwhile, in the West Bank…

What Beinart does not detail in his column, but perhaps will in his soon-to-be-released book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” is the level of oppression and economic deprivation that Palestinians have endured for over four decades. Many Israelis, traumatized by war and terror, do not want to own up to the Palestinian plight even though it is happening just a few kilometers from their homes. This despite the fact that the occupation is affecting their lives in a very direct way, given the huge sums of money that have been spent in the West Bank to build, subsidize and secure the settlements. Most American Jews are unaware of any of this, retaining an image of Israel more appropriate to 1967 than 2012.

We can expect the virtual universe to remain atwitter over Beinart’s Zionist B.D.S. idea for a couple more days, at least until the next threat from Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu, or the next rocket attack from Gaza.  In the meantime, the frenzied pace of settlement construction will go on, the most extreme Jewish settlers will attack more Palestinians or uproot a few thousand more of their olive trees, demolitions of Palestinian homes will continue unabated, and the risk of another intifada in the West Bank will rise as Palestinians feel ever more hopeless and strangled. And my friends and I will continue to read labels here in Tel Aviv as we fret and worry over what is happening to this country that we love.


What do you think about Peter Beinart’s call for Zionist BDS? Join the debate.

About the Author
Allen Katzoff directed large Jewish educational programs in Massachusetts for the last 15 years of his professional career. Currently he splits his time evenly between Tel Aviv and the Boston area. He is passionate about Israel, especially loves Tel Aviv, but is concerned about the influence of extreme right-wing ideologies on the country and what that will mean for the future.