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Leftist Israelis, Beinart’s boycott and the limits of negative messaging

by Jonah Lowenfeld

April 6, 2012 | 12:57 pm

When Peter Beinart proposed of a boycott of goods coming from the occupied territories, the most widely read responses came from American Jews—among them Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, Gary Rosenblatt of the New York Jewish Week and Barry Shrage of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

I wrote about the response of the American Jewish establishment to Beinart, which has been a combination of, “Jews don’t boycott other Jews,” and “A boycott would only reinforce the settlers’ idea that they’re under attack, and therefore wouldn’t work.”

That last response came from J Street’s Founder and President Jeremy Ben-Ami, among others. But Israelis on the left have, for at least the last year, been promoting a boycott of goods from the areas beyond the pre-1967 borders of Israel without taking a hostile position vis-à-vis the settlers who live there, and even if American Jews can’t do the same, it’s instructive to see how they’ve managed to pull it off.

The Israeli left-leaning NGO Peace Now, which has been opposing Israel’s settlement of the West Bank since at least the 1980s, recently instituted its own boycott of settlement goods. When I asked Hagit Ofran, who has been tracking construction in the West Bank as director of the group’s Settlement Watch project since 2006, about their boycott, she pointed out that the group only started the campaign (which, like Beinart’s, doesn’t extend to the Golan Heights) in 2011, when the Knesset passed a law against such boycotts.

“If that’s the law,” Ofran said, recalling the group’s thinking at the time, “then we will dafka [specifically] call to boycott settlements.”

Even the slogan the group uses to promote their boycott—“Sue me, I boycott settlement products”—emphasizes the anti-boycott law’s role as an inspiration. The law, which would allow Israeli settlers to sue other Israelis who promote such boycotts, has not been invoked since its passage, Ofran said.

Beinart’s position—that the continued occupation of the West Bank threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state—is widely accepted among left-leaning Zionists in the United States and Israel. But it’s clear that despite holding this position, Israelis in the peace camp feel a connection to the settlers whose actions they so vehemently oppose.

“Ironically we have the same obsession about houses and construction,” Ofran said, talking about the settlers whose activities she tracks. “They and I think it’s crucial for the future of the state of Israel.”

But this position—simultaneously supporting an anti-settlement boycott while also expressing a kind of kinship and fellowship with the settlers—hasn’t been available to American Jews who support Beinart’s boycott.

Consider the JTA op-ed published in late March by Lara Friedman, the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, a US-based group that supports the activities of the Israeli NGO.

“If American Jews want to save Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy, they need to act. And that means, for a start, showing at least as much courage as Israelis by differentiating between Israel and the territories,” Friedman wrote. “Publicly declaring an intention to ‘buy Israel but boycott settlements’ sends a powerful message to Israelis living in both.”

While Ofran’s position about the occupied territories and the settlers is something akin to, “Don’t hate the players, hate the game,” Friedman’s full-throated endorsement of Beinart’s boycott sends a different, less nuanced message.

Ofran isn’t the only dovish Israeli to profess this kind of peculiar fellowship with the settlers.

Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Israeli Navy and its secret service Shin Bet, as well as a former member of Knesset for the Labor party, has long been an advocate of the Geneva Initiative, a peace plan drawn up in 2003 by former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators that would see two states created roughly following the pre-1967 borders of Israel.

And in an appearance with J-Street’s Ben-Ami in November 2011, Ayalon made clear that an essential ingredient of the plan is for Israel to bring those settlers living beyond the security fence erected by Israel in the last decade back into pre-1967 Israel. And in addition to the assistance and subsidies that such a policy will require, Ayalon said Israel needs to offer those Israelis official recognition that they settled where they did in the service of the country.

“We sent them,” Ayalon told the audience at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. “They are our pioneers. And suddenly they realize that they are fighting for nothing. That it [the areas of the West Bank beyond the fence] will not be the state of Israel, and they tell us, ‘Bring us back.’ And we owe them, morally.”

In his speech last year, Ayalon didn’t talk about boycotting settlement goods—it wasn’t part of the conversation at the time. And it’s entirely possible that Beinart’s support for a boycott signals a broader shift in the position of left-leaning Zionists in Israel and the United States vis-à-vis the settlers.

But it’s also possible that this dual message—a strong opposition to the occupation of the West Bank coupled with a policy of supporting the settlers when they return to the areas that would remain in Israeli hands under a Geneva-like two-state agreement—could be very useful for American Jews uncomfortable with the continued occupation of the West Bank.

Beinart, in defending his boycott, has repeatedly said that Jews boycott other Jews all the time. Perhaps he should have followed the lead of Israelis who haven’t focused on the boycott’s impact on people and instead have pointed to the support they are prepared to offer those very same settlers upon their return.

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