The failed ethics of the ‘ethical boycott’ against Israel

Banks have been portrayed as the disruptors of “social justice” by far-right ideologues as well as the Occupy movements.

Bank Hapoalim 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Bank Hapoalim 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, has blacklisted Israel’s Bank Hapoalim on “legal and ethical grounds” for funding settlement construction. This announcement appeals to our sense of morality by implying that there is a group of oppressed people requiring justice, and a group of powerful men – directors and CEOs – following their conscience; what good people do in a situation like this is stand together to outcast those who are responsible for the injustices.
But when we move beyond this touching image and dissect the bank’s announcement, we uncover motives and consequences that shed quite a different light on its action.
Examining the validity of the argument, we first find that there has never been a binding court order to rule that the settlements are illegal. This means that Danske Bank’s claim is based on an arbitrary interpretation of the legal situation surrounding the settlements, and not on a legal ruling per se. It is a subjective decision for the Danish bank to join the boycotts rather than a conclusion based on legally binding orders. Of course, every company has the right to cut off business with whomever it wants, but let’s be clear about what kind of “legal grounds,” or lack thereof, Danske Bank is referring to.
If the boycott is not a legally sound point of view, perhaps at least the other claim made by Danske Bank about the “ethical grounds” might be valid? Let’s suppose Danske Bank wants nothing to do with companies funding oppression. If this were its position, they would surely be quick to sanction Chinese or Russian banks for the crimes with which they are accusing the Israeli bank. But Danske Bank doesn’t even pretend to sanction the circumstance (e.g. oppression), rather, it is blacklisting Bank Hapoalim as the symbol for what is wrong in the world as far as oppression goes.
It is casting an Israeli bank in the role of the villain, using it as an embodiment of a perceived crime against human rights. As we know, this role of the metaphorical evil, in which Jews have found themselves throughout history, is the classic recipe of anti-Semitism.
Then again, couldn’t a boycotter just boycott whomever it wants? As another BDS’er said recently: “We have to start somewhere,” so why not start with an Israeli bank? However, there must be a reason as to why start with an Israeli bank, and a boycotter who claims to be fighting against injustice is expected to be able to answer that question. Is Israel the worst offender of human rights, is that what makes it such an outstanding target for boycotts? Obviously this is not the case, as all of us, boycotters included, well know.
We have yet to hear a reasonable answer from the BDS movement about its preference for Israel, but every reply that evades a discussion of the grave injustices in the world brings the debate closer to the conclusion that the direct aim of the boycott is the singling out of the Jewish state.
We can then surmise that the fury against Israel is a political disposition, and that to become a target of such animosity, all that needs to happen is to be perceived by enough people as a good enough subject for the role of the villain, in a narrative about justice.
And make no mistake, “justice,” as it is generally used, is an ambiguous, undefined catchphrase and not a legal or ethical conclusion based on objective considerations.
Danske Bank’s participation in this dramatization is all the more stunning because banks themselves have been cast in the role of evil repeatedly. Sometimes with anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes without, but always in exactly the same narrative that Danske Bank is now using against its Israeli partner.
Banks have been portrayed as the disruptors of “social justice” by far-right ideologues as well as the Occupy movements, their function in complex financial systems distorted and simplified to the extent when they are fit to be pinpointed as greedy agents of human suffering.
Danske Bank should be aware what sort of a narrative it is enforcing, and how this can subliminally strengthen the same type of perception, but with banks being the enemies of justice, in their own clients’ minds.
Apart from the principal considerations about “justice,” the decision made by Danske Bank aims at stifling economic development beyond the Green Line, and is therefore contrary to the social responsibilities and activities of banks. No matter what legal considerations one shares about the disputed territories, its residents cannot be deprived of job creation, investments, construction or development. Not to mention that the results of these investments could just as well remain, after a peace agreement, in the hands of the locals, as it happened in the Egyptian holiday resorts in the Sinai – or be smashed and destroyed with rage as in Gaza after the Israeli evacuation.
In any case, the fundamental ethos of banks is to invest and to help economic growth, thereby contributing to a more autonomous and successful society.
Boycotting economic development leads to the opposite: it creates a stagnant society, corrupted by financial aid and with no prospects for growth. Danske Bank is acting against the interest of the people it claims to fight for, and at the same time it supports a distorting, politically motivated narrative that has also regularly targeted the institutions that the Danish bank is a member of. The fact that Danske Bank does this in the name of “ethical reasons” makes its actions all the more confused and hypocritical.
The author is a philologist, political and legal communications advisor and businessman.