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Ben S. Cohen

Ben S. Cohen

Posted: June 25, 2010 05:50 PM

Progressive? Then Don't Boycott Israel

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It was an expose in the best traditions of investigative journalism: Commerce Department documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that detailed how, between 1965 and 1977, more than one thousand American corporations colluded in the economic boycott of a small, embattled country, in a bid to please a group of powerful, oil-producing states. Though the boycott was prohibited under U.S. law, the government consciously looked the other way as these corporations went the extra mile in complying with the boycott. Like when they discriminated against employees deemed to have compromising ethnic ties to the targeted country.

The article in question appeared in 1981. The object of the boycott, organized by the League of Arab States, was Israel. And the magazine that published these revelations was The Nation.

How times have changed. Three decades after it named and shamed those American corporations who cozied up to some of the most repressive and reactionary countries on earth, The Nation has become the house journal of the American branch of the movement to subject Israel -- and only Israel -- to a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS for short.)

A recent issue of the magazine included a piece by Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss endorsing BDS with zealot-like enthusiasm. Rich in distortions and half-truths, the article was at its most preposterous in depicting BDS as a grassroots movement assembling Palestinians, anti-Zionist Jews, human rights advocates and labor unionists in a moral crusade against Zionism.

Scratch beneath this complacent self-image and you quickly understand that the origins of the BDS movement have more in common with a black shirt than a rainbow flag. Horowitz and Weiss point out that there is an established boycott tradition among the Palestinians, citing their embargo against the Jewish community in Palestine during the upheavals of 1936. What they don't mention is that the 1936 boycott was accompanied by a paroxysm of violence against Jews and their property. Nor do they mention that the Palestinian leadership, under Haj Amin al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, was unashamedly pro-Nazi. Indeed, the policy of simultaneously boycotting and beating the Jews had been introduced by Hitler when he assumed power three years earlier.

In 1945, al Husseini's Nazi-derived policy was formalized by the Arab League Council, which declared a boycott of "Jewish" and "Zionist" goods. In 1948, the Arab League launched a separate office to enforce an economic boycott of the State of Israel that functioned upon three levels, by targeting Israeli companies, foreign companies working in Israel, and foreign companies conducting business with other companies with an operational base in Israel.

Given these parameters, it was inevitable that the application of the boycott would blur the line between Israel as a state and Jews as a people. That point was cogently grasped by Mark Green and Steven Solow, the authors of the 1981 Nation piece. "There is nothing necessarily objectionable in economic boycotts of one country or community by another," they wrote. Yet, they added, "the Arab embargo of Israel can be distinguished from other boycotts by the way it discriminated not only against a country but against an entire religious group. Thus American Jews were sometimes penalized by their employers simply because they were Jews."

However much BDS advocates insist otherwise, that observation remains true today. Unlike, say, the African-American boycott of segregated buses, which aimed to change a racist policy and did not apply to whites in general, the boycott of Israel reaches much wider. Any Israeli who does not explicitly disavow his or her country is fair game -- and those who declare their solidarity with Israelis are, as a consequence, equally suspect.

Crucially, the "United Call for BDS," which Horowitz and Weiss approvingly link to, dates the Israeli occupation as beginning not in 1967, following the Six Day War, but in 1948, when Israel was created. This is no accident, for the aim of the BDS movement is not to effect a change in Israeli policy, but to dismantle the state which makes those policies.

Diehard anti-Zionists won't be bothered by that, of course. Still, there is a much larger group of people within the orbit of the BDS movement -- like the U.S. Presbyterian Church, which gathers in a few days time to discuss a report which includes a comparison of Israel with Nazi Germany -- who may wish to consider where the demonizing rhetoric and toxic origins of the boycott campaign might lead them.

In addition, as the Presbyterians deliberate on a resolution to divest from Caterpillar Inc., the bete noire of BDS advocates, they might ponder the following. In their Nation article from 1981, Caterpillar was named by Green and Solow as one of those corporations complying with the Arab boycott. They quoted a Caterpillar spokesman confirming that the company would cooperate with Arab requests for information about such vital operational matters as whether there were any Jews on the payroll ("If somebody wanted to do business with us and wanted to confirm a fact, we did it," the spokesman said.)

Isn't it ironic? Caterpillar abandoned those racist practices. Now, the BDS movement wants Caterpillar to readopt them -- and is telling the public to scorn the company until it does so. No doubt, the Mufti of Jerusalem would approve.

 

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