On Boycotts, Activism and Moral Standards

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

James Brooks | Electronic Intifada | 16 June 2006

Gideon Levy of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz is an artist at the crafts of reportage and commentary. Prolific yet deeply thoughtful and fair, Levy delivers his subjects whole and unfiltered on the page, speaking from the heart in their own voices. His analysis is honest, insightful, and often devastating in its indictment of Israel’s occupation.
Yet even the most ardent fan will find cause to quibble from time to time. In a piece that cleverly exposes the hypocrisy in Israel’s complaint that boycott and divestment campaigns against it are “illegitimate” (With a little help from the outside, Ha’aretz, June 8, 2006), Levy also charges international activists with a “moral double standard” in expending their outrage against Israel when they should be tending the home fires. For instance, British and Canadian boycotters should shoulder their own responsibilities and work to end their countries’ occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whatever the origin of this critique, it deserves rebuttal because it puts political activism in a conceptual and moral straitjacket while denying the fundamentally international character of Israel’s occupation.
As a citizen of the United States, I have been an activist working to end US support for Israel’s occupation. Mr. Levy’s work has been part of my education in the human tragedies of this war.
With other anti-occupation activists, I demonstrated and wrote repeatedly against the Iraq war before it began. But once it was underway I had to make a difficult decision; would I continue as before, or focus on the long fight against our crimes in Iraq?
The thought of becoming yet another person to abandon the Palestinians was abhorrent. And it was obvious that Iraq would further divert American and world attention from Israel’s occupation, perhaps one of the war’s many intended results. So I stayed at my post. It remains a difficult decision today, but I do not regret it. Does it constitute a “moral double standard”?
When my friends and I work to “free Palestine”, our main goal is to end our government’s financial, military, and diplomatic support for the occupation. We feel compelled to support the Palestinians against a vicious onslaught partially financed by our own money.
We also see that our government’s long-running support for Israel’s war is connected to other pernicious trends in our foreign policy and political culture, including the destruction of Iraq and US belligerence toward Iran and Syria. In this secondary but far-reaching and sometimes fatal sense, Americans, too, are victimized by Israel’s occupation.
Indeed, the more I understand the forces and history driving this conflict and my country’s hand in it, the more I appreciate the force of the truism that we are all connected, that what happens to anyone affects everyone else in some way. War is an ignorant denial of this human fact.
Boycott and divestment campaigns are grass roots efforts to publicize the extreme plight of the Palestinians and protest western nations’ support for Israel’s demands. They can become the nucleus of a growing public awareness that could eventually produce political change. In a “free market” economy, there should be no question as to the right of consumers and organizations to make and promote joint decisions about their purchases and investments.
I assume the people behind the CUPE boycott and the now-expired NATFHE action have been working against the occupation for a long time. It takes years to develop that kind of “unpopular consensus” in any large organization. And success in any endeavor brings its own raft of moral considerations.
When the Canadian government foolishly took on occupation duties for the “Coalition”, should CUPE activists have thrown up years of progress in raising awareness about Palestine in order to refocus their energies on Afghanistan? Wouldn’t that have entailed its own faulty standards and moral anguish, if not outright abdication of responsibility?
We activists are certainly not immune to the easy attractions of double standards. But if we are working for justice and peace, are we to be faulted for the issue we address? Often the issue seems to choose the person, and we become enmeshed in personal and moral obligations we never expected to face. There is no single honest answer to these individual circumstances.
In closing, I’d like to propose a settlement to the frothy debate over the “legitimacy” of the growing international campaign to boycott Israel and its accomplices. It can be stated in two elementary observations.
First, I assume we agree that the international embargo against apartheid South Africa was a morally sound and effective tool to hasten justice in that colonized land.
Second, veteran South African freedom fighters from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to labor organizers and SA government officials have been saying for several years that the situation in occupied Palestine is worse than the oppression they suffered under white South Africa. (And that was before the current economic siege, the draconian new permit systems strangling the West Bank and forcing Palestinians out of the Jordan Valley, the rising new tide of deaths caused by the spreading paralysis of the Palestinian health care system, etc. etc.)
Who will argue with the people who defeated South African apartheid and have experienced Israel’s version of the same system?
The South African boycott and the campaign to free the “terrorist” Nelson Mandela were international actions of conscience against a racist colonizing power that refused to change its ways. We would be applying a double standard if we did not act on the same conscience today, to boycott and cut off funds to Israel and pressure it into ending its own regime of ethnic supremacy.
James Brooks serves as webmaster for Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. He can be contacted at jamiedb@wildblue.net