Boycott the Occupation, Not Israel

02/27/2012 02:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2012
  • MJ Rosenberg Worked on Capitol Hill for Democratic Senators and House members for 20 years

The movement to boycott Israeli products seems to be growing, albeit primarily on college campuses and food co-ops -- two venues where one might expect this tactic to pick up traction. After all, it is at universities and among progressives (do non-progressives even shop at food co-ops?) that sympathy for the Palestinians is most pronounced and where fury at the 45-year-old Israeli occupation is highest.

It is heartening that, at long last, progressives have come to see that indifference to the occupation, in all its forms, makes no sense for progressives and, in fact, for any human rights activists. Unless one is wearing ideological blinders, it is impossible to look at what the Israeli government is doing in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza (yes, Israel still controls the air, sea and land entry and exits to and from Gaza) and not react with outrage. The occupation must end, and the United States should do everything in its power to help end it rather than simply do whatever Prime Minister Netanyahu dictates.

As for the rest of us, I believe that we should convey to our elected officials that we will no longer give them a "pass" on Israel/Palestine. Today a Senator or representative feels free to be utterly reactionary on the Middle East and remain immune to challenge by progressive constituents if he is on the right side on other issues. If he or she is "good" on the economy, gay and women's rights, immigration, etc., they are free to support Israel's incursions into Gaza, the expropriation of Palestinian land, saber-rattling over Iran and, in fact, to simply do whatever AIPAC tells them to do. They count on their progressive constituents' silence and acquiescence. And they get it.

That has to stop. Being "good" on other issues does not absolve any government official from being terrible on Israel/Palestine or, for that matter, Iran. Certainly progressives in the '60s and '70s didn't give a pass to liberals who supported LBJ's Great Society programs but also supported the war in Vietnam. In fact, they even challenged them in primaries (and often won).

There were no free passes on Vietnam. There should be none on the Middle East (especially as the threat of war with Iran grows).

I have to say, however, that I do not believe that boycotting Israel, as we are seeing on some campuses and at those co-ops makes any sense at least for those of us who favor peace, the end of the occupation, and also the continued secure existence of Israel.

It is one thing to boycott companies which are directly involved in the occupation either by exploiting the natural resources of the occupied lands or by providing the Israeli government with equipment (civilian or military) that can be used to sustain the occupation. If one's target is the occupation, boycott the occupation.

But boycotting Israel, all Israel, only makes sense if one wants Israel itself to go away. After all, why else would one refuse to purchase goods grown on kibbutzim inside Israel proper or manufactured in Haifa and Tel Aviv, places that are indisputably Israel. Why, for example, would one oppose Israeli participation -- Israeli, not settler, participation -- in international academic conferences, unless one opposes the existence of the state itself? Why would Madonna and a host of other performers face demands that they not perform in Tel Aviv, unless those urging the boycott believe that all Israelis are beyond the pale?

Those who want to boycott, divest and sanction should limit their actions to the occupation or admit that their target is not just Israel beyond the '67 lines but inside them as well.

It is particularly maddening to see Americans join in those boycotts. Did they boycott themselves when we, the United States, illegally invaded Iraq and proceeded to destroy the country? How about when we overthrew Allende, supported fascist death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, and backed blood-drenched juntas in Argentina and throughout Latin America?

To be honest, I would have supported a boycott against my own country in those days if it was targeted against the people responsible for those atrocities. I would have welcomed it as a way to make those responsible for these atrocities pay a price. But I would not have supported a boycott that targeted all Americans. Not to put too fine a point on it, I would not have punished all those Americans who voted for McGovern in 1972 in order to stick it to Nixon's thugs. Why would you punish the good guys too?

The same applies to Israel, a country that is as diverse as this one, a country that includes secular left-wing Tel Aviv, a country with millions of people who oppose the occupation and hundreds who put their lives on the line to do so.

Who are we to boycott them? We should, instead, empower them by pressing our government to stand up to, Binyamin Netanyahu and the settlement movement.

Yes, boycott the occupation -- the settlers, the politicians who support them, and the businesses that sustain them. But not Israel itself, unless you think that it is a society beyond redemption. It isn't -- no more than we are.