Yes to cooperation. No to boycotts

I once called for divestment from Israel. Here's why I've changed my mind.

By SHAMAI LEIBOWITZ
June 19, 2006 21:31
3 minute read.
Yes to cooperation. No to boycotts

IDF bulldozer, road 298. (photo credit: AP)

Even the most ardent fans of acronyms will not recognize this one - BDS. That is, unless they are involved with peace movements concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. BDS means Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions. It has recently become a popular acronym in many organizations sincerely concerned about ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is urgently needed to bring peace, these movements argue, is BDS. Against Israel, of course, until it ends the occupation of Palestinian territories. While at one time I thought there was some efficacy in BDS as a means of nudging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the processing of peace, I now see that BDS is not the magic bullet people hoped it would be. There are a number of reasons why I have altered my views. When dealing with this issue it must be conceded at the outset that the organizations adopting BDS strategies honestly believe that imposing economic pressure on Israel, or on industrial corporations whose sale of weapons and equipment to Israel supports the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, is a productive step toward ending the bloody conflict. TAKE, FOR example, the Presbyterians' divestment initiative, which is being discussed this week in the Presbyterians' 217th General Assembly Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. The Presbyterian Church leaders will deliberate on whether to implement some form of selective divestment - i.e. the removal of their investments - from "corporations whose practices support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories or facilitate Israelis or Palestinians with violent acts against innocent civilians." Nothing in the language of the resolution suggests they are attacking Israel per se, or singling out Israeli human rights abuses. Indeed, the resolution condemns in no uncertain terms acts of violence against civilians, whether committed by Palestinians or the Israeli army. Thus, many of the accusations hurled at BDS organizations - such as "anti-Semitic" or "anti-Israel" - are baseless and unfounded. BUT AS a Jew committed to peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians, I believe that BDS strategy is a grave mistake. • First, as Israelis, we can be proud of our country's many accomplishments. Many institutions in Israel are devoted to freedom, prosperity and peace. Large-scale disinvesting from Israel could undermine what we have achieved in spheres such as universities, hospitals and industries. • Second, while there is much to improve and correct in Israeli society, the idea of economic punishment of a whole society because of actions of members of that society is neither justified philosophically nor feasible practically. Having discussed these issues with policy-makers in Washington DC, it is clear to me that Israel's strong and vibrant economy will never be seriously affected by boycotts of civil-society groups. Regardless of how many interest groups join this campaign, it will not affect political change because the US government will continue to provide Israel with $2.5 billion in annual aid. Rather than affect political change, it is more likely the BDS campaign will alienate world Jewry, triggering a closing of the ranks and preventing any significant change. • Perhaps the most challenging stumbling block to peace in Israel/Palestine is the prevailing mentality in Israel that Palestinians belong to a violent and primitive culture. The effects of this mentality - which permeate the educational system and media establishment - are paralyzing because it prevents mutual trust and confidence-building between Israelis and Palestinians. INSTEAD OF boycotting and sanctioning Israel, peace-oriented groups should invest in creative ways to build bridges of confidence and trust that will eventually mature into legally-binding agreements. BDS organizations and their members would do well to focus their energies on increasing awareness of Palestinian and Israeli non-violent, civilian-led efforts to build a base for peace in the Middle East. There are dozens of such joint confidence-building groups, such as the inspiring example of the recently-formed Combatants for Peace organization (combatantsforpeace.org), a group of Israeli and Palestinian former fighters who are now cooperating and committing themselves to ending all forms of violence and terminating the occupation. The struggle for peace will be won through education and cooperation, not via boycotts and sanctions. Rather than implement the failed BDS strategy, fair-minded Americans could affect positive and lasting change by investing in opportunities for Israeli and Palestinian civilians at all levels of society to cooperate with each other in business, social and educational initiatives, in schools, universities, businesses, synagogues, mosques - thereby breaking the isolation of the two societies and laying the groundwork for a network for peace. BDS can actually be a wonderful idea, provided the BDS of Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions changes to the BDS of Bilateral Doubling of Support for joint peace-oriented groups. The writer is an attorney who holds a Master of Laws in International Human Rights Law from American University. He has represented drivers, foreign workers, asylum-seekers and Palestinians before the Supreme Court.


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