During a plenary session at last week’s third annual J Street conference, Raleb Majadele, a Palestinian Israeli member of the Knesset from the Labor party, may have broken an Israeli law.
Responding to a question about whether he supports boycotts against Israeli settlements, Majadele said first that he was “against all boycotts in principle.” This prompted a round of applause from a minority of the more than 2,000 people in the audience. But a few sentences later, Majadele switched course and described settlement-only boycott in a positive light, describing it as “a pin-pointed boycott against the obstacle for peace.” A much larger portion of the audience then erupted in applause. (It remains to be seen whether Majadele will be prosecuted for this statement, as a new Israeli law makes it illegal for Israeli citizens to promote boycott against Israel or Israeli settlements.)
The notion of boycotting Israeli settlements was raised frequently throughout the plenary sessions and workshops of the three-day conference—and often to hearty applause. Peter Beinart, author of a recent New York Times op-ed that coined the phrase “Zionist boycott” (i.e., a pro-Israel boycott aimed at saving “democratic Israel” from its “undemocratic,” peace-destroying settlements) was a featured speaker and launched his book, The Crisis of Zionism, at the conference. Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA) gave away hundreds of flyers calling for a targeted boycott of the settlements. More than a dozen speakers at plenary sessions and workshops specifically referenced their supports of settlement boycotts.
While Ambassador Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at Israel’s embassy, framed settlement boycott as a vicious threat (and spent most of his speech lambasting J Street for supposedly enabling left-wing, anti-Israel activists), many other conference speakers who oppose settlement boycotts nevertheless acknowledged the well-meaning motivations behind these efforts. For example, Avishay Braverman, a Jewish Israeli member of the Knesset from the Labor Party, said in a plenary session: “The minute you start a boycott of settlements, there will be a boycott of Israel….This type of approach is ineffective and will harm the State of Israel. So, with all its good intention, I oppose it.”
I came into the J Street conference believing that settlement boycotts would never gain traction among this group of “pro-Israel, pro-peace” liberals, which tends to be centrist and supportive of Israeli leaders who many leftists would regard as war hawks. I came away convinced of the enormous potential for a center-left coalition in support of a targeted boycott campaign. The key, I think, is to convince skeptics like Braverman that targeted boycotts could play a key role in saving Israel from its own right-wing fundamentalists in order to make possible a two-state solution.
To be clear, J Street itself does not support any form of BDS. When I asked Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, whether there could ever be a future situation in which J Street would support a settlement boycott, he gave me a decisive, one-word answer: “No.”
Yet I think many J Street supporters are less decisive on this issue. I sensed this ongoing process of deep questioning within the J Street movement during a panel discussion I chaired about a one-state versus two state solution. (Click here to see the full video of the session.) The audience of about 300 people seemed to take to heart the eloquent message of Mustafa Barghouti, a widely-known advocate of a broader BDS campaign who is often vilified by right-wing Zionists. Barghouti frequently referenced his warm friendships with many Jews and Israelis, his deep respect for Jewish values of pluralism and democracy (which, he said, are defiled by Israel’s current status as the “last colonial settler system in modern history”), and his conviction that he is helping to forge a non-violent struggle for the future of both Palestinians and Israelis.
In one instance, Barghouti used a humorous analogy to illustrate his position that Palestinians made a grave mistake in not demanding a complete halt of settlement construction as condition of the failed Oslo Peace Accords. It’s as if, he said, Israelis and Palestinians are sitting at a table and negotiating over a slice of cheese—yet Palestinians are negotiating from behind bars while Israelis are eating the cheese (i.e., continuing to build settlements). Barghouti said that “in the end, there will be nothing left to negotiate about” and a one-state solution will become the only remaining option.
I left the session with the feeling that Barghouti had managed to sway many skeptics. I realize, of course, that this claim is subjective and unverifiable since I did not manage to poll audience members. But the listeners’ facial expressions, questions, and body language shifted throughout the session, leading me to feel that the room as a whole had moved from a more skeptical, closed stance to a more open and engaged one. Watching J Street members’ reception of Barghouti made me realize how many more liberal and centrist Jews could be swayed toward support of BDS if he and other prominent BDS supporters agreed to focus their campaigns on a settlements-only boycott.
There is a diversity of views on this issue in the greater Tikkun community. While Tikkun supports settlement boycotts (which Tikkun’s editor, Rabbi Michael Lerner, discusses in his 2012 book, Embracing Israel/Palestine), Rabbi Lerner says that a center-left settlement boycott alliance “raises in [his] mind and in the minds of many others who wish Israel to remain secure and to feel secure a fear that what the BDS is really about is not delegitimizing the settlements but delegitimizing the creation of the State of Israel itself.”
However, a center-left settlement boycott alliance is not without precedent. It’s already happened in Belgium.
In November of 2008, a center-left campaign was launched against Dexia, a major French-Belgium bank. Until recently, Dexia’s branch in Israel had provided millions in loans to West Bank settlements. Many of these loans went to West Bank regional councils. The bank also facilitated the funding of construction of community centers and other facilities in the West Bank settlements and in pre-1967 Israel through the Israel national lottery (Mifal Hapayis).
This past summer, I spoke with Mario Franssen, a leader and spokesperson of this boycott campaign. While Franssen, like Barghouti, supports a broader boycott campaign against all of Israel, he and his colleagues came to the conclusion that this would be an unwise strategy. “Focusing on Israel would limit very much our ability to rally many groups around the campaign,” he said. “That’s why we decided to focus on the Occupation.”
Activists consequently demanded that Dexia break all ties to the settlements, but not to Israel itself. Their campaign ultimately brought in eighty-three different organizations and included a variety of creative tactics including: coordinated demonstrations outside Dexia branches across Belgium, more than 10,000 protest postcards sent by Dexia account holders threatening to switch banks, and an organized effort to inundate the Dexia complaint line with forty to fifty calls per day, five days per week. “In the end, there was a nice relationship with the people answering the complaint line,” Franseen said. “They were also very positive [about the campaign].”
Activists also sought to appeal to the humanitarian commitments of the Dexia leadership. They drew attention to the UN global compact the company had signed promising not to violate human rights within their sphere of influence. Forty-five activists became shareholders in Dexia so as to be able to participate in Dexia’s annual meeting—in 2011, one and half hours of the three-hour meeting was consumed by discussion of Dexia’s support for the Occupation. Dexia’s chairman admitted that the loans went against Dexia’s ethical code, and the bank’s leadership decided to cease support of settlement construction and also to sell its Israel branch, which activists had not demanded. (Click here to see a video about the Dexia case and click here to read the latest updates.)
The Dexia case was probably not a “success” in material terms; Dexia Israel is still part of Dexia Holding and some loans continue. When necessary, settlers have surely gone elsewhere for loans, and the campaign against Dexia likely did not stall or prevent settlement construction in the short term. While some settlement leaders spoke out after Dexia’s president announced that the bank would not give any new loans (which it did anyway), many ordinary settlers are not even aware of these developments. This past summer, I visited five Israeli settlements and asked more than three dozen settlers about the boycott campaign against Dexia. With one exception, the settlers had no idea what I was talking about.
However, if centrist as well as left-wing Jews supported the budding BDS campaign in the United States and Israel, then settlers—and Israeli politicians— would certainly take notice. It might awaken them to the reality that the Occupation is unsustainable and that the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing. This realization could inspire a renewed push for peace.
Many J Street conference attendees came away with a new openness to settlement boycotts and other non-violent grassroots strategies to influence the peace process. Henry Anreder, a Hamilton College student who interned for J Street two years ago, said this of his experience:
Hearing the different panels, the biggest thing I got from the conference was the shift away from talking about political solutions and the talk about what actual people can do. That’s where I think the appeal of a settlement boycott has grown….I left [the conference] more open to the idea of a boycott of the settlements, at least in theory. I’d be more open to supporting it in a few years if there continues to be a right-wing Israeli government supporting settlements in a stalled peace process and if I saw more Israelis doing it too.
And some Israelis are already doing it too (although questions remain about which companies should be the focus of the campaign and how to coordinate the labeling of settlement-supporting products). Zehava Galon, a member of the Knesset and the chairwoman of the progressive Meretz party, said in a plenary session at the J Street conference that she boycotts the settlements in her own purchases. She also expressed her hope that settlement boycott campaigns could play a role in getting Israelis themselves to consider the economic cost of the Occupation. “There is a welfare state—it’s in the settlements,” she said. “Putting the question of boycotting settlements on the table is important in order to talk about the price we are paying for having the settlements for more than forty years.”
Many other speakers expressed their hope that the same outrage about unaffordable housing and living costs that brought hundreds of thousands of economic justice protesters to Israel’s streets last summer would eventually cause Israelis to question the financial toll of the Occupation, of generous government subsidies for housing in settlements, and of millions spent on military defense of settlements.
All of this reinforces my sense that the time is ripe for a center-left coalition. This coalition—and the boost to the peace process that it would represent—could be realized if more leftist members made two strategic changes to attract J Street supporters in the United States, Israel, and around the world. First, the left could forgo its focus on a broader boycott against Israel and employ more unifying strategies like those used in the Dexia case. Second, since what many Israelis fear most is the possibility of a one-state solution (which some BDS supporters favor), members of the left could help forge a much broader movement by explicitly affirming their support for a two-state solution and the continued existence of the State of Israel—so long as Israel moves quickly to end its repressive, colonialist enterprise, uphold its commitments to human rights, and make the hard compromises necessary for peace.