Editor’s Note: Justin is taking a breather today, having just resumed his keytruda treatment. We are taking this opportunity to rerun this classic and oh-so-timely column from December 17, 2013. Plus ça change… the more things change, the more they stay the same!
My regular readers may recall one of my more controversial columns, wherein I made the case against boycotting Israel: my argument was essentially that a boycott in this case would be unjust, since many Israelis disagree with the state-enforced racist policies of the current government and it would be unfair to make them suffer for the actions of a state gone rogue.
The basis of my argument was that boycotts of this nature are essentially inimical to libertarianism, which places the individual, and not collective entities like states, at the center of its worldview. Furthermore, this view was bolstered by my stance in favor of Israeli statehood: the Israeli people, I argued, have a right to national self-determination, just like all other peoples. Why single them out, I averred, in a world where states routinely violate rights?
Yet what happens when a state singles itself out by engaging in behavior so egregiously oppressive, so repulsive to the civilized world, that dealing with it in any shape, form, or manner is morally problematic? Israel has reached that point – a tipping point, as Chemi Shalev puts it – as increasing numbers of people the world over reach that conclusion
I changed my mind about the BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement aimed at Israel when I read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, a book that tears the veil of hasbara off the Jewish state and reveals the crude racism that energizes its policies, both foreign and domestic. The idea that state funds are being used to build "Jews only" housing, roads, and entire communities – and that this is accepted as normal, even beneficial, by Israel’s ostensible "liberals" – is an international outrage. That it is being done with US taxpayer dollars and diplomatic support is unspeakable.
So why not just call for ending US government "aid"? After all, if these exclusivist policies were being pursued with private funding, libertarians – who uphold the right of individuals to associate with whom they please – could have no principled objection to it. Right?
Wrong. Libertarianism is not an ethical stance: it doesn’t tell us how to live, only that we should be free to live without coercion. So, yes, in a libertarian society, setting up racially or religiously-segregated communities would be legal – but would it be moral? Libertarianism has no answer to that question: I, however, have my own personal answer, and it is an emphatic no. In a libertarian world, furthermore, the only recourse I would have in protesting these practices would be an economic boycott. So clearly boycotts are not un-libertarian per se.
Yes, all nations have the right to self-determination, and Israel should be no exception. There are, however, grave problems in the case of the Jewish state, one of which was raised by the great Zionist scholar and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who said it isn’t at all clear anymore who or what are "the Jewish people." Indeed, this trenchant moralist and one of the seminal intellectual figures among the founding generation predicted the conundrum facing the Jewish state after the 1967 war, when Israel took the occupied territories and placed itself in charge of the destiny of millions of Palestinians. The authorities, he said, would be forced to set up a police state, and, furthermore, would have to enforce an ethno-religious caste system that would become increasingly unsustainable. His prescient observation is now encoded in Israeli law, in a thousand regulations that accord Arab citizens of Israel second class status. When it comes to the question of Jewish nationality versus Israeli citizenship, the legal dilemma of Zionist jurisprudence was underscored in a recent court case in which the judges were very specific on this sensitive subject.
The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled there is no such thing as "Israeli" nationality, and that to even recognize such a concept would involve invalidating Israel’s status as the Jewish state. The court averred:
"[A] person cannot belong to two nations. If Israeli nationality is recognized, members of the Jewish nation in Israel will have to choose between the two. Are they Israelis? Then they will not be Jews. Or are they Jews? Then they cannot be Israelis. This also applies to the minority populations."
The judges’ decision, against allowing the word "Israeli" in the slot reserved for "nationality" on official ID cards, in effect institutionalized the distinction between citizenship and nationality, and ratified the privileging of the latter over the former.
This is crazy, not to mention headache-producing. If there are no Israelis, then what legitimacy does the Israeli state possess?
The fanatics in charge of the current government legitimize their policies in the name of preserving the integrity of the Zionist project, which specifically calls for building a Jewish state, not just any old state, on the land we call Israel. This was less problematic before 1967: today, as professor Leibowitz foretold with his characteristically magisterial truculence, the moral and political degeneration of the post-’67 Zionist project has ushered in what he called "Judeo-Nazism." Leibowitz feared the advent of an era in which the authorities, following the logic of their exclusivist and expansionist policies, would be forced to construct "concentration camps" to contain the Arab insurgency – in which case, he said, "Israel would not deserve to exist, and it will not be worthwhile to preserve it."
What Leibowitz’s critique of the Jewish state implies is that the right of national self-determination is not unlimited, because it is not primary: it is derived from the rights of all individuals to choose their own form of government. If that fundamental right is violated – as is being done in the case of the Palestinians – then one cannot rationalize that violation by invoking a subsidiary right.
Yes, Israel has the right to exist – but that right is dependent on the behavior of the self-proclaimed Jewish state.
Israel’s defenders argue that Gaza is a deadly threat to the nation’s security and the Israelis have every right to periodically pulverize that isolated slum, killing women and children as well as Hamas fighters, "in self-defense." Yet the government’s perpetual war against the indigenous Arab population has inevitably extended to Israeli citizens of Arab descent, who look so much like their oppressors that huge walls have been constructed around "minority" communities to keep the population contained. Israeli law has encoded – and the Supreme Court has all too often upheld – discriminatory practices by the state against its own citizens based on nothing but ethnicity.
This what that otherwise baffling Supreme Court decision over "nationality" versus "citizenship" is really all about. In order to exclude Arabs and privilege Jews, the Supreme Court was forced to deny the very existence of an Israeli nationality – in order to defend the ideological foundations of systematic state-enforced segregation and the creation of an ethnic caste system.
Imagine if some government had an official policy of descending on Jewish communities with bulldozers after seizing Jewish-owned property and forcing the occupants out. We’d never hear the end of it, would we? And rightfully so. There wouldn’t be any argument about whether or not to rebuke the government and isolate the country involved. Why, when the positions are reversed, and it is the government of Israel – the self-proclaimed "Jewish state" – committing these crimes, is a boycott suddenly controversial?
But all of this was perfectly true before I changed my position on BDS, so what’s different now? Yes, I’m reading the minds of some of my regular readers, which I try to do in my efforts to both enlighten and entertain them, and so I’m forced to admit that, yes, this is true. I plead ignorance, however, of conditions on the ground, which Blumenthal’s very readable and informative book filled me in on. The extent to which hatred of Arabs pervades every level of Israeli society and dominates even the most "enlightened" circles is shocking.
Since I’m one of those libertarianism-in-one-country guys who pretty much confine themselves to arguing against US intervention abroad in terms of how it damages American interests and undermines our own system of theoretically limited government, I frankly don’t pay much attention to the internal arrangements of foreign countries. In writing about the relations between countries, I’ve found that their behavior on the world stage – aggressive, pacific, mercantile or militarist – has little if anything to do with the political character of the state: a liberal democracy is just as likely to get in the business of empire as a totalitarian regime.
In addition to the Blumenthal book, what really changed my mind on the BDS question were some of the arguments against it. In a jeremiad directed at the American Studies Association, which recently joined a growing number of academic groups worldwide in endorsing the boycott, Jeffrey Goldberg writes:
"Is it a coincidence that these academics are singling out the world’s only Jewish-majority country for boycott? Only to those who know nothing of the history of anti-Semitic scapegoating. This is not to say that [American Studies Association President] Professor Marez and his colleagues are personally anti-Semitic. Larry Summers, a past president of Harvard University, told Charlie Rose that he considers boycotts of Israel ‘anti-Semitic in their effect if not necessarily in their intent.’"
Aside from the presumed relevance of Larry Summers’ reiteration of the Stalinist argument against Trotsky – that he was "objectively" counterrevolutionary, and therefore Stalin was quite justified in having that ice pick implanted in his forehead – one has to ask whether Israel has singled itself out.
In what other country on earth is housing allocated on a purely ethnic basis? Tell me where else certain roads are reserved for those who can prove their adherence to the "right" religious affiliation on a state-issued identification card? Where else do full-fledged citizens of a country suffer de facto internment in ghettoes on account of their official ‘nationality"? And, pray tell, what other supreme judicial authority in which country denies that citizenship confers nationality – and even goes so far as to deny its own national identity in an effort to preserve the purity of the state’s ethnic character?
Israel may be the only country in the world with a Jewish majority population, as Goldberg observes, but this is likely to be a transient phenomenon unless the Israeli government’s policy of ethnic cleansing and de facto population transfer undergoes a dramatic escalation. Indeed, the demographic time-bomb incubating in the very heart of the Jewish state has long been recognized by Israeli policymakers as the principal threat to the Zionist enterprise: the result has been, as Leibowitz predicted, the arrival on the scene of that oxymoronic figure, the "Judeo-Nazi."
When I first heard this expression, my reaction was that it was a bit of an overstatement. After all, the Israelis aren’t herding Arabs into gas chambers. Yet that doesn’t mean there is no such creature. Blumenthal documents their existence – and growing power – in his book, with some shocking interviews with far-right politicians and the more "mainstream" ones who are being pressured into echoing the growing extremism that has infected the Israeli body politic.
I support the BDS concept, although I’ll refrain from endorsing any particular organization or campaign, precisely because I don’t believe Israel is a hopeless cause. Professor Leibowitz has departed this world, and so I can’t ask him, I can only extrapolate from his Casssandra-like warnings of what Israel could and would become if it didn’t divide the land and give Palestinians their own state. I think there is a good chance a successful BDS campaign could make the Israelis change their behavior, and that in itself makes it worthwhile.
Just so there’s no confusion: I understand there’s a campaign to boycott only products made in the occupied territories, and that some activists, such as the writer Peter Beinart, support this limited boycott. Aside from its limited effectiveness, this makes no sense. What is needed is a complete and total embargo – privately enforced, mind you – on Israeli goods and services, including a boycott on travel to Israel. Most importantly, activists should target US aid to Israel, linking it to a prohibition on discriminatory legislation and policies.
The international do-gooder crowd is perpetually calling for US intervention, military or diplomatic, on behalf of supposedly oppressed peoples from Syria to Tibet, but this time – for once! – instead of calling on us to bomb a country they’re just asking us to boycott it. This is a refreshing change of pace and I want to do everything I can to encourage it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.