Why Is One Boycott Good and Another Not

Gershom Gorenberg

Responding to my post on the Boycott Act, philosophy prof Sam Fleischacker has succinctly explained the difference between boycotting Israel and boycotting the settlements:

…a nice way to draw the distinction between boycotts of Israel and boycotts of the settlements is that the former attacks the Israeli constitution (the general structure of the state) while the latter just attacks an Israeli policy. So the former implies that Israel has no adequate mechanisms to correct its own bad policies – that the structure of its government and/or society is thoroughly corrupt – while the latter implies precisely that Israel can correct its own problems. Implicitly, a boycott of the settlements affirms the fundamental decency, or potential for decency, of Israeli society, while a boycott of Israel as a whole denies that.

Put differently, a targeted boycott of settlements is an act of support for the State of Israel.

Thanks, Sam.

8 thoughts on “Why Is One Boycott Good and Another Not”

  1. Your friend Sam is wrong. It’s true that the BDS people generally do oppose the constitution – the state form – of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, but that’s just a contingent historical fact. It’s not categorically true of any boycott of the State of Israel per se.

    It’s logical and reasonable to boycott an entity in order to get it to change its behavior rather than its form or constitution. If you say, “We’re boycotting all of your products until you end your post-1967 occupation,” that’s a logical position to take. Israelis are smart enough to understand that a boycott of Israel doesn’t necessarily mean a demand to end Israel’s existence as a Jewish nation-state, any more than a boycott of Iran – all of Iran – would mean a demand that it end its existence as an Islamic state.

    There are lots of plausible reasons for boycotting all of Israel other than the one Sam gives as a supposed logical consequence. For just one example, you might want Israelis inside the Green Line to put pressure on the government to end the post-1967 occupation, because you might think that Israelis in general would be more easily pressured than ideological settlers.

    Sam’s taking a contingent fact about boycotters and trying to turn it into some categorical truth about any boycott of Israel as a whole.

  2. I think you are right, Aaron. One could boycott the State of Israel over specific policy without wanting the dissolution of Israel. But there is the (real) issue of surviving in Israel while boycotting the settlements. Coalitions are forming.

  3. a) here’s one comment sent to me:
    What do the organizers of the boycott say? Do they differentiate between goods made in areas “everyone knows” will be part of Israel as part of a final settlement and those that aren’t?
    Will they similarly boycott the Palestinian Authority as long as it continues to sponsor antisemitic programming in order to support an eventual Palestinian state?

    b) and one from me:

    first, so philosophically-speaking, which boycott is better?

    second, since most of those boycotting Israel do so since they reject Zionism and its claim to primacy over Arab claims to territories of the Land of Israel redefined by the League of Nations in an act of international law as the Jewish National Home, actually, the issue of the Jewish communities returns us all to that pre-state period as to the value and justness of Jewish presence on the land leading us to ask, philosophically, is the takeover by kibbutzim of Arab villagers “better” than my home in Shiloh which did not take over any Arab private property?

    third, inter-related to that, do you really think any “allies” you may have for the “settlement boycott” will stop at the Green Line (from the east)? Isn’t “South Jerusalem” seen as “occupied territory”?

    fourth, why are the boycott callers so upset? I was taught that being involved in direct action non-violent struggle also committed one to being arrested and facing punishment, all for the cause. So why get upset at being told that if you cause someone financial damage, you have to own up?

    P.S. Here’s another philosopher for you:


  4. From a reader of mine:

    The anti-Israel and anti-Yesha boycotts aren’t remotely like the boycott of cottage cheese to bring down prices, either in purpose or effect. The former are meant to utterly delegitimize people – the latter is not. The former are sweeping attacks on institutional, cultural and academic bodies on a world-wide basis, meant to end only upon the utter sanction and destruction of their targets; the latter is a local consumer boycott only, highly limited in scope. The former are conducted by people unconcerned by the disproportionality or lack of connection between their actions to any harm they or anyone else has conceivably suffered by the actions of their targets; the latter is a proportionate, focused act of economic self-defense in response to an economic wrong. In Israel, groups of people (some locally based, others not) have orchestrated the international smearing of whole Israeli communities, specifically targeted legitimate businesses located within them as “obstacles to peace” and demonized them with reckless abandon. We are told by the boycotters that those buying mushrooms from farmers in the “West Bank” is are striking at Peace. The atmosphere is absolutely poisonous – and those who poison it have found their tactics, until now, to be utterly costless to themselves. As a result of the current legislation it is possible that those employing such such demagoguery might proceed with more caution, or be required to compensate those who suffer at their hands.

  5. I can’t imagine life in modern America without the results of the civil rights movement. But if the city of Montgomery could have sued the church and civil rights movement leaders who called for the boycott of city transportation – wow! how things might have been different. We might still be riding on segregated buses in some parts of the country.

    This Israeli law is just plain bad – under the law it would seem Israeli internet companies are entitled to sue the rabbis who call for a boycott of the internet. ( http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/01/26/ap/middleeast/main6141568.shtml for my boycott call reference).

    It’s clear, however, that the law is intended to suppress dissent and criticism of the settlements – not a very democratic impulse for a “Jewish and Democratic state”.

    In my opinion, no boycott has ever been successful without a good cause. If the settlements are “good”, the boycott will fail. It’s unfortunate the State would rather suppress discourse than have an open vote on the matter with people’s pocketbooks. Apparently leaders are not entirely sure most Israeli’s agree with their policies. But hey, why bother building consensus when you can just sue ’em!

  6. Boycott of settlements is an act of support for Israel? Gotta be kidding. Orwellian triplespeak. The settlements (itself a doublespeak word that’s been given delegitimizing implications) _are_ Israel.

  7. Hi Tom –

    And those who disagree with “The settlements … _are_Israel” should be silenced by civil tort law??

    Perhaps we need rev 2.0 of the loyalty oath — “a Jewish and democratic-for-those-who-agree-with-it State”.

  8. I agree with Aaron.

    I disagree with this from Gershom’s piece in the American Prospect:

    Boycotts and sanctions aimed at Israel as a whole convey a message that the country’s very existence is the problem. Aimed at military suppliers, they imply that Israel has no legitimate need to defend itself. Politically, those methods create a siege mood that encourages Israelis to put aside their own criticisms of their government.

    It has been the Israeli governments, reflecting upon all Israelis, that has continued this settlement policy for years and years ongoing to today. And those who have lived inside of Israel and others from abroad have moved to the settlements, been coaxed and protected by these same governments with the tacit approval of the people- or the majority. A boycott against all Israeli products is therefore morally legitimate in my opinion. I agree it should not be against academics or in fact any business that has been outspoken against the occupation.

    And this does not mean that the person boycotting or such boycotts delegitimize Israel. Nor does it mean that Israel has no right to defend itself if one boycotts military suppliers. Let’s cultivate some nuance here. It does not mean that at all necessarily. If anything, Israel puts itself at risk.. including it’s defense, it’s security. The boycott is and should be against the government of Israel AND it’s supporters– including those who live in Israel “proper”. It should be applauded for it’s non-violent approach. Non of this would be necessary if it was felt that Israel was sincerely interested in a just and fair resolution to this conflict.

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