Naomi Klein On BDS

I’ve taken a long time to write about this because I wanted to make sure I had my thoughts on it sorted out. This article by Naomi Klein finally brought me around to the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) campaign against Israel. (Note: as you can probably tell, I’m very new to BDS, so this post is directed at other people who are new to it, too. I realize that many readers have been working on this for a long time.) This passage was what turned the lightbulb on for me:

Why single out Israel when the United States, Britain and other Western countries do the same things in Iraq and Afghanistan? Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the BDS strategy should be tried against Israel is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work. (Emphasis hers.)

The problem, up until I read the article, was that most of the calls for boycotts I read were the dogmatic kind. Boycott Israeli academics! Boycott Israeli artists! Boycott non-Israeli Jewish business owners! Why? Because we hate them, that’s why! Because Zionism is racism! Even the ones that didn’t come off as dogmatic – or that made passing references to tactics – failed to address Jews’ concerns about anti-Semitism, and that turned me off to them. Was that irrational of me? Yeah, sometimes. But Jews have good reason to be wary.

I know, of course, that BDS will continue to attract anti-Semites, and I still fear that anti-Semitism will drown out pragmatism. I don’t know how to solve that problem – but we can address it by emphasizing, as Klein does, that it’s a tactic, not a dogma. We’re doing it because it works. We’re doing it out of love (for Israelis, too!). And, as Klein says, we’re targeting “the Israeli economy but not Israelis.” Strategy, not punishment.

Do check out the whole article – she responded very effectively to almost every concern that I had.

The Global BDS Movement’s website is here.

Thoughts? (When you comment, please remember that this is a very sensitive and complicated subject. Rude or hostile comments will be deleted.)

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

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6 Responses

  1. But the site does seem to offer the option to boycott Israeli academics or are they just referring to the universities?

  2. I think, unfortunately, that Ms. Klein’s proposal dovetails extensively with the argument I put out in my Why Israel post. Basically, my thesis there was that progressives focus their fire on Israel not (necessarily) because they’re anti-Semitic per se, but because Israel represents low-hanging fruit. It is small, vulnerable, not particularly critical to the international order, and there is a pre-built constituency already committed to trying to undermine and/or destroy it. Compared to, say, China, it’s easy pickings. And that seems to be Klein’s view as well — a bds campaign targeted at Israel will “work” in a way that one targeted at the big kids won’t, because Israel is “small” and “trade-dependent”.

    The problem with that approach, though, is twofold. First, Israel is easy pickings because it’s vulnerable, and it’s vulnerable in part because there are still substantial anti-Semitic players in the region and the world that wish to see it destroyed and either actively promote or are indifferent to the resulting harm to Jews. Klein assumes that a weakened Israel will become an Israel that makes peace with its neighbors. It is at least as likely that a weakened Israel is one that is devoured by its neighbors. It’s not just that Klein’s endgame is optimistic speculation (and it’s bad enough that she feels privileged to play dice with the lives of others), it’s that her own rationale for the bds move (Israel’s vulnerability) is actually dependent on the very factors which point towards a grimmer outcome — and thus it seems likely that they’ll strengthen those reactionary elements.

    The second problem is that Klein is at least mildly disingenuous about why bds should be targeted at Israel instead of, say, China or the US. All major global powers are trade-dependent — an actual boycott aimed at China or the US would be devastating to those economies and probably “work” just as well. The difference isn’t prospective efficacy at all, it’s that such a boycott would exact a tremendous toll on the boycotters as well — it’s pretty tough to get by without Chinese or American goods. It’s not “trade-dependent” but “small” that is doing virtually all of the work here.

    If, as Shulamit Volkov put it, Anti-Semitism is a “convenient way of attacking the existing order without demanding its total overthrow and without having to offer a comprehensive alternative,” then boycotting Israel is a convenient way to flash progressive bona fides while not actually threatening the privileges one enjoys through one’s position in the global marketplace. That’s “pragmatic”, but only in the sense that it’s less risky to pick on a first grader than a high school linebacker. This, I argue, is why many progressives devote so much energy towards building up this Jewish/Zionist hyperpower myth — it helps dissipate the cognitive dissonance that inevitably forms when your political program is explicitly based upon exploiting Jewish vulnerability.

    At the end of the day, Klein’s rationale for supporting bds is that it’s easier (and less exacting) to prey on the weak than the strong. That’s really it. And that really doesn’t impress me.

  3. Another problem with BDS of all Israeli companies – it reduces the impact of targeted boycotts. I know lots of other organisations support targeted boycotts of any company which directly profits from the occupation. Problem is, if you boycott all Israeli companies, an Israeli company might as well do something that could increase its revenue by directly making money out of the occupation, since it’s going to get boycotted anyway.

  4. Hmmm, I still remember back in the early ‘noughts how leftists of all stripes were united in their opposition to the sanctions regime against Iraq – although recent events clearly show that there are much worse alternatives. The evidence that sanctions/divestment strategy had a decisive effect on dismantling the apartheid regime is, at best, dubious.

    That Klein focuses only on the ‘Boycott’ and not the ‘Divest’ or ‘Sanction’ part is telling. This campaign is like MAD – it only works as a threat. If it were successful and effectively isolated Israel, it would cause economic havoc and humanitarian (and possibly military) disaster. I feel like you shouldn’t support BDS unless you’re willing to own the consequences of its success.

  5. In fairness, most ordinary people can’t divest or sanction. I don’t have the authority to pass sanctions ( although I could petition the government to do so, this would only work if and when there was enough of a groundswell of collective support for them.) I don’t have any money invested in anything – not even a savings account.

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