Posted on: September 17, 2015 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 3

The Icelandic capital city of Reykjavik has declared a boycott of all Israeli goods. The measure is clearly symbolic, as the

Björk Vilhelmsdóttir, the Reykjavik official who brought the boycott motion
Björk Vilhelmsdóttir, the Reykjavik official who brought the boycott motion

city itself can’t do enough trade with Israel, or any other country, for such an action to have any impact. The responses to the action, however, are worth examining.

A retiring official, Björk Vilhelmsdóttir, of the Social Democratic Alliance, a center-left party, brought the motion for the boycott. The motion compels the city to boycott all Israeli products “as long as the occupation of Palestinian territories continues.” The memo that explains the reasoning behind what it terms a “symbolic” decision states that the city condemns “the Israeli policy of apartheid” in the Occupied Territories. 

Einar Gautur Steingrímsson, a Supreme Court barrister in Reykjavik claims that the law is discriminatory and no different from “refusing to do business with red haired people.” This is a variation on the well-worn theme that any boycott or divestment from Israel in response to its occupation is, by definition, antisemitic.

This thought was echoed by Israel’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Emanuel Nachson, who said “A volcano of hate is currently exploding in Reykjavik’s city council building. There is no reason or justification for this move, besides hate itself, which is being heard in the form of calls for a boycott against Israel, the Jewish state.”

I do not support boycotts of Israel as a whole, though I am a strong supporter of economic actions that specifically target the settlements and the occupation. However, the debate over these actions always seems to start at a boiling point. Examining the statements of both Steingrimsson and Nachson illustrates this point.

It is not inherently discriminatory to boycott a country over its policies, and such a boycott is certainly not comparable to discrimination based on inherent characteristics. Accusations like that ignore the reality of the conflict: that Israel has been occupying the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem for 48 years. During that time, basic civil and human rights have been denied to Palestinians living under occupation.

Economic actions like boycott or divestment are one of the very few tools ordinary people have to take action against corporations or the policies of foreign governments. And, while Reykjavik is making the comparison in its statement, a country does not have to be exactly like Apartheid South Africa for such actions to be justified. The real question is whether the action is going to be effective.

Protesters in Iceland in 2009, against Operation Cast Lead
Protesters in Iceland in 2009, against Operation Cast Lead

Of course, many countries are deserving of boycotts, and more. Defenders of Israeli policies are quick to point out the atrocities committed by ISIS, or Bashar al-Asad. They point to the oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, or Iran, or Russia, or a host of other countries. In some of those cases, a mass call for boycott might have some effect, though in most it is unlikely. One reason it is effective with Israel, despite the lack of significant economic impact to date, is that world opinion matters to Israel.

The fact that there may be other, worse situations than in the Occupied Territories doesn’t change the reality in the West Bank and Gaza. This is an occupation that has gone on for almost half a century, all of it with tacit Western support. That is why people are trying to take whatever action they can, as it has become clear that absent some change in the status quo, the occupation is not going to end.

Nachson makes it even more explicit: he outright says the only motivation for this action is hatred of Jews. This, too, ignores the reality of Israel’s ongoing occupation. It also ignores the fact that moves to boycott settlements or even Israel itself gained little traction for years, until the Netanyahu government made it so abundantly clear that it was not interested in ending the occupation. That is what gives motions like the one in Reykjavik their energy, not antipathy to Jews or even to the Jewish state.

Hysterical cries that attempt to cast honest attempts to take action against the occupation as acts of antisemitism serve only to polarize an already badly polarized debate.

I believe the blanket boycott of all things Israeli is a misguided and poor strategy. There are obviously great needs for change on both sides. The Palestinian leadership has failed in many ways, and Israel has legitimate concerns regarding attacks against its citizens.

But when you hold millions of people without their rights for nearly five decades, protests, boycotts and international isolation are inevitable. A military occupation is, by definition, a permanent state of violence for the occupied. Daily human rights violations are inevitable, as are periodic flare-ups of devastating violence that kill thousands and destroy homes and infrastructure, whose effects last far beyond the actual violence. Those combine with Israel’s shift to the right and more explicit intransigence to energize and spur the expansion of movements and initiatives for all sorts of economic actions, whether aimed at the occupation or at Israel itself.

Fighting boycotts in response to such conditions by calling the boycotters bigots is a failed and dishonest strategy. The potentially successful one is to end the occupation. When an Israeli Prime Minister says there will be no Palestinian state on his watch that will bring boycott in response. An honest effort to roll back the settlements, to move toward an independent Palestinian state, brings global support. The choice for Israel should be clear. It should be even clearer for other countries, especially the United States and European Union.

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  1. There is a principled precedent for this Icelandish boycott.

    After WWI, there was a European boycott of Germany, at least of its universities and at least by the scientists working on relativity and quantum mechanics.

    The boycott arose from outrage at German scientists who had provided poison gas and aerial warfare for the German military in WWI. See Halpern, “Einstein’s Dice and Schrodinger’s Cat”, p. 82

    In 1922, the Danish scientist Neils Bohr broke the boycott when he visited Gottingen University. This helped bring German science back into Europe.

    This boycott was exactly the sort of thing thgat Reikjavik has done, a boycott begun in outrage at impermissible behavior by a state. It is also exactly NOT like the German boycott of Jewish businesses.

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