What's a Responsible, Progressive Position on an Israeli Settlements Boycott?

AP Images/SodaStream

The recent contretemps over actress Scarlett Johansson’s work for an Israeli company, partly based in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, highlights the growing international movement to pressure Israel economically to end its occupation. But it also highlights the need for American progressives to speak more clearly and explicitly about the policy outcome they’d like to see.

Two weeks ago, when Al Jazeera America initially covered the increasing criticism over Johansson’s agreeing to become “brand ambassador” for the Israeli company SodaStream, which has a factory in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim near Jerusalem, it was mocked as a “puny controversy.” Johansson “is apparently a huge fan of SodaStream’s product and will star in the company’s upcoming Super Bowl ad,” the Daily Beast’s Nina Strochlic wrote, “no matter what those four people on Twitter say.”

Within two weeks, however, the issue had grown, according to a Reuters headline, into a “Super Bowl-sized controversy,” with Johansson resigning from her role as Global Ambassador for international anti-poverty NGO, Oxfam, which said that her work with them was “incompatible” with her work for SodaStream. “Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements, further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support,” said the group in a statement.*

It’s not saying much to suggest that this story turned out to be more interesting than the actual Super Bowl, but the story highlights a few important things. First is the growing international campaign, known collectively as BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), to economically pressure Israel to end its occupation and reach an agreed outcome with the Palestinians. While the movement remains officially agnostic on what that outcome should be—one state or two—prominent BDS advocates such as Ali Abunimah and Omar Barghouti have made clear that they support the creation of a single state on all the land Israel currently occupies.

Second, it revealed an interesting confluence of arguments between some BDS advocates and hardline pro-Israel supporters. Both groups have seemed intent on making Israel’s legitimacy, not its policies of occupation and settlement, the issue. In its statement concerning the end of its relationship with Johansson, Oxfam made clear that its concerns were with the settlements’ illegality, not with Israel’s legitimacy. Yet many BDS advocates and hardline pro-Israel supporters have responded as if the latter is what is really at issue.

Speaking on a conference call organized by the conservative Israel Project, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum rejected that explanation, saying, “Oxfam has joined the BDS in this movement,” and claimed, without evidence, that Oxfam has contributed financially to BDS organizations—a charge Oxfam denied. The Israel Project also launched a “Thank Scarlett” campaign on Twitter, with a photo-shopped picture featuring Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas sharing a soda with Johansson. (The fact that Abbas himself supports settlement boycotts was, understandably, left unmentioned.)

One wonders how Johansson herself might react to having inadvertently become “the new poster girl for Israel,” as Israeli journalist Mairav Zonszein noted. “Or more accurately, for those who blindly cheer Israel and have no criticism of the myriad of human rights violations that come with occupation.” For Zonszein’s colleague at Israel’s 972 Magazine, Noam Sheizaf, the controversy clarified “the difference between opposing the settlements and ‘opposing’ the settlements”—between those who genuinely believe that the settlements represent a problem, and those who say they do but oppose any meaningful steps to stop them.

I think the controversy, and by the broader debate about BDS, highlights something else: The opportunity and necessity for progressives to state clearly where they stand with regard to Israel’s legitimacy, Palestinian rights, and the two-state solution.

I recognize that those who identify as progressive will have a range of views on U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. If there’s one thing that progressives should be able to agree on, however, it’s that ending the occupation, now nearing its 48th year, is a moral imperative. While I recognize the value in focusing, as the BDS movement does, on a rights-based discourse (as a young Palestinian activist memorably put it to me several years ago, “I’m tired of arguing about land. I want my rights”—regardless of what country’s name was on the passport.) I don’t think those who advocate particular policies can justify being agnostic about the goal we’re trying to reach.

It seems to me that there’s a sort of symmetry between the arguments of many BDS advocates and hardline pro-Israel supporters, with the former advocating pressure tactics without endorsing any particular outcome and the latter insisting that they favor a particular outcome (a two-state solution) while opposing all pressure to reach it. But I think for those who want a particular policy to succeed, we need to be specific about what that policy goal is.

I’m not trying to draw a moral equivalence here. There’s no moral equivalence between those trying to end the occupation and those seeking to justify it. But I think people should put their cards on the table. Here are mine: I think the two-state solution, while considerably difficult to achieve at this point, is the least-worst option available right now. Even if we grant that a single secular, democratic bi-national state is a more just outcome (Harry Truman believed it was, as The New Republic’s John Judis shows in his new book) the possibility of achieving such an outcome is almost nil. And I cannot get behind a policy that would almost certainly consign both peoples, Jews and Palestinians, to an interim of violence in the hope that we’ll come out at the other end with a new single state.

To this end, I think it’s entirely defensible and necessary to support efforts to create economic pressure against the occupation and the settlements enterprise that it facilitates. The U.S. government itself regularly declares the settlements “illegitimate,” so I see no problem with affirming that through collective, non-violent action. As Israeli journalist Bernie Avishai recently wrote, “Boycotting companies operating in the settlements is not the same as boycotting ‘Israel.’” This is a distinction that cannot be made enough.

Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Israeli leaders repeatedly about the rising tide of economic isolation that could come if this round of peace talks fails, and Israel continues to be seen as frustrating Palestinian aspirations. With Denmark’s biggest bank, Danske Bank, announcing earlier this week that it would no longer do business with Israel’s biggest bank, Bank Hapoalim, over the latter’s financing of settlements, those warnings are already coming to pass. Like the European Union’s announcement last summer of new guidelines prohibiting funding of Israeli organizations located in the occupied territories, these represent long-overdue steps to exact costs for an occupation that has continued for far too long. The aggressiveness of the debate—which is pretty pitched even on its best days—will only increase as the pressure increases. I think a responsible progressive position—which balances values with what is practically achievable—is one that marshals those pressures toward an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state in its place, alongside Israel.


Addendum: *Several days later, SodaStream produced evidence that Oxfam has supported the Israel-based Coalition of Women for Peace, which supports BDS toward the goal of a two-state solution. Oxfam responded : “Oxfam funds Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations on projects to reduce poverty and address injustice. We value the independence of our partners and we do not expect our grantees to agree with us on all policy issues. We do not provide our partners with funding for promotion of the BDS movement, or activities that call for the boycott of Israel.”

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