Collective punishment is always wrong
The recent decision by renowned physicist Stephen Hawking to boycott the fifth Israeli Presidential Conference, co-sponsored by Shimon Peres and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, is being touted by the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement as a great victory. Yet the bitter irony of this “victory” was underscored by Greg Scoblete, who points to this reaction from Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Shurat Hadin Israel Law Center::
“Hawking’s decision to join the boycott of Israel is quite hypocritical for an individual who prides himself on his own intellectual accomplishment. His whole computer based communication system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team. I suggest that if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet,” she said. He calls [the boycott] an independent decision based on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts here. I propose he first seek the advice of Intel engineers working here. He seems to have no understanding of this world.”
Hawking is a paraplegic who must communicate via a sophisticated computer device, a key component of which was designed and manufactured in Israel. He can’t boycott Israel – unless he wishes to plunge into a world of darkness. Darshan-Leitner says this reflects hypocrisy on Hawking’s part, but it is actually worse than that: Hawking’s decision highlights the absurdity of such a boycott, and of the idea of collective punishment in general.
We live in an interconnected world: to actually boycott all Israeli products, or those with significant Israeli components, is well nigh impossible – not to mention unjust. A blanket boycott of all things Israeli fails to make an elementary and crucial distinction between the Israeli government – which is pursuing policies decent people must condemn – and Israelis as individuals, who may or may not agree with the policies of their government.
The same argument against slapping sanctions on Iran also applies to Israel: sanctions only hurt the innocent. The political class – the people responsible for making policy – suffers not at all, nor do sanctions give the Iranian rulers any incentive to change their behavior in the direction we would like to see. Indeed, punitive measures only serve to reinforce a bunker mentality that strengthens the regime’s hold on the populace, providing hard-liners with a convenient rationale for their policies: they tell their people “The whole world’s against us.”
The narrative of global persecution is essential to the ultra-Zionist mindset that now dominates Israeli politics, and indeed was the original justification for the Zionist movement in the first place. All over the world, the Zionist leaders told their Jewish audience, Jews face persecution: only in Israel will they be able to find safety. If an international campaign that boils down to “let’s boycott the Jews” doesn’t reinforce that siege mentality, then I don’t know what does. It’s hard to believe the BDS’ers are unaware of the dark history of such calls.
There are several arguments made by the BDS’ers in support of their campaign, the most frequent being: Israel must know there is a price to pay for the occupation. Yet who is paying that price? Surely not the present Israeli government, which thrives on a bunker mentality and the ultra-nationalism it conjures among ordinary Israelis.
That BDS activists don’t care about this is crystal clear from Ben White’s comments in the Huffington Post in defense of the BDS movement:
“A boycott of Israel is required because, in the words of a former Israeli Air Force captain and now activist, ‘it is no longer enough to try and change Israel from within.’ Sadly, there is no ‘peace camp’ in Israel, if, by peace camp one means a sizeable body of Israelis who support equality for Palestinians and the realization of all their rights. In fact, Palestinians need less of the so-called ‘peace camp,’ and more of an ‘anti-apartheid camp.’ To different extents, Jewish Israelis benefit from the status quo – as the privileged group in an ethnocracy – and thus pressure from the outside is about making that status quo unsustainable and undesirable – along with Palestinian resistance of course.”
The peace camp isn’t “sizeable” enough for the BDS’ers, so it’s okay to write it off. In short, there are no innocent Israelis, they’re all somehow beneficiaries of an oppressive system – and, therefore, they must be punished, every single last one of them. That is the de facto BDS view, and it couldn’t be more wrong.
The Israelis do not benefit from the occupation: quite the opposite. The occupied territories are a millstone hung around their necks, and their possession will soon make it impossible for Israel to continue as a state which is both Jewish and democratic. Demography and time, not boycotts, are the ultra-Zionists’ worst enemies. The BDS movement has written off an entire people, and in doing so closed the door to the only possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: changing the tribalist politics that dominate both camps.
Short of a threat by the US government to cut off all aid, outside pressure of the sort generated by BDS will accomplish exactly nothing: indeed, it will achieve the exact opposite of its ostensible purpose. Instead of making the Israelis bow before the judgment of Brooklyn hipsters, it will simply reinforce the average Israeli’s contempt for such people, who know nothing of his or her predicament or views.
If the boycott campaign won’t succeed in changing Israeli behavior, then what purpose does it serve – and why do the BDS’ers persist in such a non-winning strategy? Like most such efforts, it’s all about the satisfaction of engaging in an act of “moral” self-assertion. Like the old right-wing campaign during the cold war era to boycott Polish hams – yes, there actually was such a movement – and the South African boycott (which the BDS’ers are consciously imitating), the boycott Israel movement is all about flattering the moral pretensions of its supporters. It makes the BDS’ers feel good about themselves, while inflicting opprobrium on those they regard as their enemies.
There is also, I think, a subtext to this campaign, sometimes but not always expressed by its adherents, which is meant to delegitimize Israel’s very existence. According to this view, it isn’t just the occupied territories but the whole state of Israel which represents an illegal and unjust occupation. Israel, after all, is a settler colony, imposed on the indigenous inhabitants by Western imperialists, starting with Britain and the Balfour Declaration. Within this framework, a two-state solution is not only inadequate, it perpetrates an injustice that started the day Israel was founded.
What this superficially “radical” stance overlooks is the reality that there are no “legitimate” states: all are founded in violence and dispossession, including whatever Palestinian state is established in the future. Leave it to middle class liberal-lefties not to understand this.
You know what else they fail to grasp? Israel isn’t going to go away any time soon. Yes, the Israelis are sitting atop a demographic time-bomb, but that is all the more reason to engage with them rather than boycott them – because they aren’t going anywhere. Israel is a nuclear-armed state, one that has allies and supporters all around the world: the idea that, as President Ahmadinejad put it, the Jewish state will somehow “pass from the pages of history” is utter nonsense.
Oppressive regimes do their best to isolate their subjects from the rest of the world, and try to insulate them against liberalizing influences emanating from the West: the BDS movement, instead of seeking to open up Israeli society to these influences, seeks to close them off – which is precisely the opposite of what they ought to be doing.
In his letter explaining why he is not attending the conference, Hawking wrote: “Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.” That message, delivered there – in the center of Israeli power – would have struck a much more effective and dramatic blow against the apartheid state than all the boycotts in the world.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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- I Trolled My Congressman On Twitter – August 21st, 2014