Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has won two huge victories in recent days. Anyone who has an opinion that is anything other than the tired notion that somehow Israel deserves some special immunity from economic actions is going to see these victories as vindication for their view.
So, this is how I see it as vindicating mine.
Let me start with just what that view is, since judging from comments on this site and others where my articles appear, a lot of people have rather inaccurate understandings of them.
I have long been of the belief that pressure from outside is the only hope for getting Israel to change its policies. It is not going to happen internally, nor are the Palestinians ever going to be able to win serious concessions from Israel by themselves against not only the regional superpower but the global superpower that is Israel’s patron and protector.
That pressure, though, is stymied by supporters of Israel in the United States and elsewhere. Those so-called supporters are, in fact, dooming Israel to perpetual conflict and eventual destruction, while critics who care about Israel are trying to save it. But be that as it may, the fact is that the one entity that clearly has the ability to change Israeli policies will, instead, bow to domestic pressure and continue to encourage the worst Israeli behavior.
I therefore have always supported two tracks: economic pressure through grassroots activism and political activism to counter the Israel Lobby. These, to my mind, are not short term activities, but they represent the only hope for changing things in Israel-Palestine before some cataclysmic event changes them for us, quite likely to the detriment of almost everyone on both sides.
Yet I do not support the BDS movement. I stress here “do not support” instead of “oppose.” The Palestinian civil society call on which that movement is based is a perfectly sensible one for the Palestinians to pursue, but it neither speaks to me nor does it strike me as tactically sound, due to its insistence on the full right of return. I have explained this elsewhere, so I won’t go too far into it now. But the bottom line is, I see nothing ethically wrong with the BDS movement, but it doesn’t fit me and I don’t think the movement as a whole is tactically sound.
On the other hand, when I was with Jewish Voice for Peace, I helped craft a strategy of “selective divestment,” which targeted the Israeli occupation, but strove to avoid targeting Israel itself. The point of this framing was ideological and rhetorical. It was meant to target Israeli policies and its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem (JVP always recognized that the Golan Heights was illegitimately held by Israel, but we, I think rightly, saw it as a separate issue because the people of the Golan were not living under military occupation), but not Israel itself.
Naturally, we knew this was not really possible. Israel had intentionally woven the West Bank into the state itself in every way imaginable. It isn’t possible to only target the settlements and the military order in the West Bank. But the strategy aimed to clarify a goal–to get the world to understand that corporations and foreign governments were complicit in maintaining the oppression of Palestinians, who have now lived for 45 years under Israeli occupation and do not have the basic civil and human rights that most of us in the Western world take for granted.
The two recent victories for BDS were both won on campaigns that JVP took a powerful leadership role in. Both centered around Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza. Both spoke to Israeli policies and actions beyond the Green Line.
The first victory was the pension investment firm TIAA-CREF divesting from the caterpillar corporation. The CAT campaign was JVP’s first major effort on divestment, and they have worked on it for over eight years. TIAA-CREF was targeted a couple of years back, so this represented a major victory on two JVP campaigns.
That victory was even more significant because the TIAA-CREF decision was based in large measure on Morgan Stanley’s reduction of CAT’s social responsibility index, which, in turn, was based in large measure on CAT’s sale of equipment to Israel which is used to help destroy Palestinian homes and do other work to sustain and expand Israel’s control of the West Bank.
That’s a huge statement, made by major global entities. It’s a great victory, and it would not have come about were it not for the awareness of these issues raised by JVP’s campaigns, and the works of like-minded groups, and here I would also make special note of the US Campaign to End the Occupation.
The latest victory was the vote by the Presbyterian Church’s (USA) Committee 15 to divest from CAT, HP and Motorola due to the profits they make from Israel’s occupation. That victory is not complete until the PCUSA plenary also approves it, but it is a great step in that direction.
JVP has been working with the PCUSA for a long time as well. There has long been support for divestment, but consternation over appearing anti-Israel or anti=-Semitic, particularly since the Presbyterian Church has an old history of anti-Semitism of which its current membership is keenly aware, although the issues were all deep in the past.
Of course, both of these measures will be seen by some as anti-Israel, and by some of those folks as anti-Semitic. It takes courage to stand up to those accusations. I do not believe for a minute that either of these victories would have come about if the entities making these decisions, who are not exactly pro-Palestinian or major human rights activists, could not feel comfortable that they were attacking Israeli policies and not the state itself.
I don’t ignore the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel, nor the issue of the rising fascism within Israel, as regular readers are well aware. But I think the millions of Palestinians living either under tight military control in the West Bank or under siege in Gaza, and the thousands who are being forced out of the area altogether, or are losing their homes to settlers or the Israeli government are the first order of business.
Now, there is another important question here: the idea of differentiating between Israel and the West Bank has largely lost its meaning these days. Israel has successfully slaughtered the two-state solution and is expanding its hold over the West Bank. So, shouldn’t we treat it all as Israel and drop the whole pretense of ending the occupation?
It’s a good point. But that requires a much greater awareness among people who are not involved in this issue on a daily basis of where things stand on the ground and politically. And by the time we can get them there, things will have changed, surely for the worse. It’s a never-ending battle.
So, instead, we raise awareness of the realities on the ground. In the end, these decisions by the PCUSA and by TIAA-CREF were not based on politics but on Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. Keeping the focus on that will allow for more progress like we have seen in recent days.
I hope JVP sticks to the strategy that has proven so successful and continues to resist both the hate-mongers from the right and the more hardcore BDSers from the left. Because the strategy works. And, in the end, it is not JVP or any other non-Palestinian group that will free the Palestinians (and, not incidentally, allow Israel to finally embark on the path toward being a country like any other), but the Palestinians themselves. I have always seen outside actors’ role as getting our own people, chiefly the USA, out of the way.
We don’t have to defeat Israel’s policy of dispossession. We only have to stop our countries and corporations from supporting those policies. The Palestinians can take care of the rest themselves. And the PCUSA and TIAA-CREF victories are precisely how we do that.