Update: Reykjavík Modifies Decision to Boycott Israeli Products

The city of Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, modified its position today on a boycott of Israel, deciding instead only to boycott products from the Occupied Territories.

Reykjavík

Reykjavík

That is a much more politically sensible decision and a smart one for Reykjavík. The initial boycott was going to complicate Iceland’s foreign policy, as it is not the national policy to boycott all of Israel. Indeed, Iceland has no specific policy about how to respond to the occupation, nor does it have one regarding economic actions against Israel.

The outcome, however, does have an unfortunate side effect: it will be perceived as a tacit acknowledgment that a boycott of Israel over the occupation is, indeed, an act of antisemitism. The hysterical reaction of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and the entirely inappropriate call by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (an institution which shames Wiesenthal’s name on a daily basis with their consistent practice of labelling any and all criticism of Israel as antisemitism) for Jews not to go to Reykjavík, will now appear to have been effective. Continue reading

Congressmen Try to Restrict Free Speech To Prevent Boycotts of Israel

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.

Earlier this week, a bill was hastily removed from the agenda of the New York State Assembly. The bill was designed as a response Freedom_of_Thought_Ben_Franklinto the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli educational institutions. But it was so poorly written that even opponents of the ASA boycott saw it as potentially damaging to academic freedom in general. The bill was removed from the fast track in New York so it could be re-written to be more acceptable to its potential supporters. A similar bill is currently working its way through the Maryland state legislature.

Now the US Congress is getting into the act, with a bill that has the same goal, but takes a different approach. The bills in New York and Maryland did not specifically mention Israel, although it was clear that the ASA action against Israeli academia is what prompted the bills. Instead, they tried to argue that academic freedom meant that the state must penalize institutions that choose to express themselves through the power of boycott if the target is a country that has extensive academic connections with the United States. Continue reading

Oppose Anti-Boycott Maryland Bill (SB 647): Impinging on Academic Freedom and Free Speech

Readers, I have started a petition to oppose this bill in the Maryland State Senate. It would be a severe governmental intrusion on academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The bill was put forth in response to the American Studies Association decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Whether or not you support the ASA decision, a law like this one must be opposed. It’s simply a bad idea. It would not only penalize any state-funded academic institution (as most are) from participating in ASA or any other association which passed a similar decision, it would even prevent individual academics from participating in conferences organized by such groups. The irony is that ASA went out of its way to make sure that individual academics would not be so constrained by their own decision.

Please sign the petition which is directed to the Maryland legislature and governor, especially if you live in Maryland. This attempt to promote governmental interference in academic freedom and free speech must be defeated.

Boston Globe Backs Stephen Hawking on Boycott of Israeli Conference

The story of Stephen Hawking’s decision to pull out of the Israeli President’s Conference just got more interesting. A major United States newspaper, the Boston Globe, published an editorial offering strong support for Hawking, and, while not supporting or opposing boycotting Israel as a tactic, took a firm stance in saying that the boycott tool is a legitimate, non-violent means to protest Israeli policies. It actually called the “overreaction” to Hawking’s decision an impediment to finding a resolution to this vexing conflict.

Perhaps the most important part of the Globe’s editorial was this: “The movement that Hawking has signed on to aims to place pressure on Israel through peaceful means. In the context of a Mideast conflict that has caused so much destruction and cost so many lives, nonviolence is something to be encouraged.”

This is a truly groundbreaking shift in the US discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict. Among many infuriating tricks the supporters of Israeli policies (be they supporters of hard-line Likud policies, or supporters of endless negotiations as pushed for by the previous Kadima governments) have employed over the years, one has recently become more prominent: casting support for Palestinian rights as a tactic designed to “destroy Israel,” thus blanketing even non-violent actions in language that defines the action as being violence by other means. The point is that once actual Palestinian violence diminished, it was crucial that Israel still be seen as somehow facing an “existential threat.”

For years, the mantra has been that the Palestinians are bent on destroying Israel, and their whole movement is nothing more than a cover for their raging hatred of Jews. This mode of thinking, in various forms, resurged, for understandable reasons, during the second intifada, which witnessed by far the most inter-communal violence since the 1948 war (however imbalanced that violence might have been).

So, in 2005, towards the end of that bloody uprising, 171 Palestinian civil-society groups issued their call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) directed against Israel. “These non-violent punitive measures,” the appeal asserted, “should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people‘s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.” The groups defined that compliance as ending the occupation, ending discrimination in form and practice against Palestinian citizens, and “Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

One may agree or disagree with those goals, and certainly anyone who disagrees is perfectly justified in opposing the BDS movement. But supporters of Israeli policy are not entitled, on one hand, to berate the Palestinians for using violence to end the occupation and address their dispossession while, on the other, to condem them for using non-violent means such as these proven methods to achieve their goals.

The Globe editorial appeared a day after my weekly column at Souciant.com did. There, I wrote the following: “Ultimately, one can support or oppose a boycott. But the BDS movement was conceived as a way to advance the Palestinian cause without physical violence. There are good reasons, not based in a lack of understanding of the conflict, much less in anti-Semitism, why people support the boycott. Do pundits really want to send the message that a non-violent method is unacceptable? What options does that leave for the Palestinians, now that they have irrefutable proof that the Israeli government is farther away than ever from a willingness to end the occupation and the United States is more feeble and feckless than ever? Oppose the boycott if you wish, but trying to make it illegitimate is self-defeating and inspires more violence.”

Israel’s supporters have constructed a paradigm that states that the only method that can be used to oppose the occupation and promote Palestinian rights is to ask Israel, very nicely, to grant these things. The Globe editorial is proof positive that this paradigm is crumbling.

Challenging the notion that Israel should only be persuaded (with carrots), and never pressured (with sticks or at least the withdrawal of carrots) to end its occupation and oppression of Palestinians has had some watershed moments in recent years. Most notably in the United States, perhaps, was the publication of John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s paper and book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Hawking’s action and the shift in discourse that the Globe’s implicit legitimization of the BDS movement may well mark the beginning of another.

The more such popular, cultural, economic, and political pressure on Israel to change course is seen as acceptable, the more possible it becomes for US Middle East to change, as well. And that, in turn, increases the possibility that the Israeli public and elite will reassess the country’s current trajectory and where it is taking them. That, to be sure, is still a very distant dream. But our policy has largely been formed by interest groups leading and the government following. As our discourse shifts more, even some of our most feckless politicians will eventually have to follow.

The Power and Weakness of Boycott

Recently, Norway announced that a major Israeli company and a subsidiary were to be excluded from its national wealth fund’s investment list. The reasons were past activity in building settlements in the West Bank and working on construction of the Separation Barrier.

Tel Aviv protest against the new cultural center built in Ariel settlement

Before I go into what this means for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), let me say I applaud this action. Continued development of industry in the settlements only entrenches their presence. It is crucial that foreign governments and corporations stop supporting that development and make it clear that settlement industries cannot expect “business as usual” and, most importantly, that those companies are not in Israel. That is a line that must be drawn clearly, in the boldest green. The message must be sent in no uncertain terms that the settlements are NOT ISRAEL!

Predictably, supporters of the BDS movement have been declaring how this incident proves their strategy is working, that their “movement” is making real progress. But that is really overstating the case.

This is, indeed, a victory for the BDS movement, but not nearly the one they will, understandably, purport. The two companies are part of the corporate group owned by billionaire Lev Leviev, who actively promotes settlement expansion. Leviev has been targeted by BDS activists spanning the spectrum from anti-occupation groups to anti-Israel ones for years. Continue reading