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March 14, 2014 12:19 pm

Black-and-White Boycotts Defy a Technicolor Middle East

avatar by Eli Verschleiser


A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

The world is never black and white, and it is this binary, zero-sum thinking that perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian impasse in the Middle East.

It’s been weeks since Scarlett Johansson’s controversial Super Bowl endorsement of SodaStream,. The fallout from the Hollywood star’s choice to support Israel and abandon Oxfam has exposed the all-out assault on Israel’s very existence. Most importantly, it should give pause on all sides about making facile judgments over right and wrong in a complex situation.

Scarlett chose to stick with a model of Jewish-Palestinian coexistence within the West Bank, rather than accept the dogma against conducting any business involving Israeli settlements over the 1949 Green Line. The reactions against her decision demonstrate that the sophisticated effort to condemn and boycott Israel’s West Bank settlements without demonizing pre-1967 Israel has largely failed.

What could have been a principled abstaining from the fruits of the West Bank is now a witch hunt, boycotting or intimidating anyone who sees the world differently – or without the same black/white filter. I vehemently disagree with those choosing to deny Israel their patronage for items produced in the West Bank until the entire dispute is resolved, but I can also understand their moral premise. As the SodaStream controversy has highlighted, however, many BDS activists see Jewish independence anywhere in Israel as illegitimate and offensive.

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BDS now seamlessly conflates a boycott against Jewish settlements over the Green Line with boycotting all Israeli people and products.

Make no mistake: Plenty of BDS activists would attack Scarlett for representing SodaStream even if it were based in the heart of Tel Aviv. An official BDS website, representing two dozen groups identified as Palestinian, celebrated the fact that Scarlett Johansson stepped down as an Oxfam Ambassador, “following public outcry,” and hopes Oxfam will implement its opposition to illegal Israeli settlements in a clearer way in the future.” Despite this passing focus on the West Bank, the site also justifies the BDS campaign as a pathway for “the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.” If Israel ceded the entire West Bank tomorrow, the core BDS struggle would not be abandoned.

The Arab boycott of Israeli products, and of companies that do business with Israeli companies or use Israeli products, goes back decades. It gathered steam after the 1973 surprise attack against Israel by Egypt and Syria, when the Arab Gulf states imposed an oil embargo against countries dealing with Israel.

It’s not just Palestinians or Arabs who recognize no Green Line. For Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, Israel is illegitimate and unjust on either side of the Green Line. In an open letter on Facebook, he lectures Johansson about Israeli human rights violations against non-Jews inside the Green Line and champions the return of Palestinian refugees, not to the West Bank but to Israel proper.

He also objectifies people like Scarlett, having once pegged her as “anti-neo-con” and now labeling her a turncoat, all because of personal choices she has made. When the world, and the people in it, disappoint our neatly tailored expectations, that’s not necessarily a crime against humanity.

Beyond Waters, hundreds of intellectuals and artists have also been promoting a “cultural boycott of Israel” for years. While only comprising a slender minority of the Western cultural elite, led by such notables as Booker Prize winner John Berger, this movement (also titled “The Electronic Intifada”) promotes the isolation of Israel – not as an extension of the West Bank-related campaign, but as a continuation of the timeworn boycott of Israel.

One humane West Bank factory does not undo all the grievances of Palestinians, but nor does it make the company (or its spokesperson) a villain for coloring outside the lines imposed by one ideology or the other. Ironically, SodaStream is a rare example of how Jewish-Palestinian coexistence could actually succeed. Including this company among Israel’s crimes against Palestinians undermines the already dubious case for a single bi-national state as advocated by Waters and so many other would-be do-gooders. And yes, there are many.

The American Jewish Congress has made it a high priority on its current agenda to challenge the BDS movement’s efforts to delegitimize and isolate Israel. One lesson we might all take from this latest ripple is that, even if SodaStream and BDS remain problematic, most Jews and Palestinians on the ground are increasingly seeing their grievances and aspirations in full color, not as a black-and-white distinction. Anyone who claims to want peace in that part of the world should not be allowed to think any less broadly than they do.

The author is the Treasurer for the American Jewish Congress.

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