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Boycotts are bad — unless…
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Boycotts are bad — unless…

One thing you can say about Israel’s anti-boycott bill — it’s been a long time since American-Jewish groups could agree on something.

It’s not just the left-wing groups like Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund that consider the bill — which would expose Israelis to civil liability if they promote boycotts of Israeli goods or activities — as an assault on free speech. Middle-of-the-road groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the latter an umbrella group for organizations large and small — also think it’s a bad idea. “We’re disappointed that they passed the law,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, director of the JCPA, told JTA. “We don’t support boycotts,” he said; however, “The law does challenge democracy in a way, and hopefully the [Israeli] Supreme Court will respond.”

Mainstream American-Jewish groups hesitate to criticize Israel, and when they do it is out of a combination of what they consider their own self-interest and Israel’s. In this case, leaders fret that the law undermines one of the most effective cases to be made in Israel’s favor — that the ability of Israelis to protest their own government without repercussions is exactly the thing that distinguishes Israel from its neighbors. With the Arab Spring curdling, they argue, there could have been no worse time for Israel to call its own democratic values into question.

That isn’t to say Jewish groups don’t share Israel’s deep frustration with the BDS (boycott, sanctions, divestment) movement. A rogue’s gallery of far leftists, uncompromising Palestinian activists, and anti-Jewish opportunists, the BDS movement gauges success not in the number of Palestinian lives improved by its actions, but by the number of people who become convinced that Israel is an illegitimate state. Their boycott is not about Israel’s policies — it is about Israel’s existence.

If anything, the BDS movement gives boycotts a bad name. As much as we hate the boycotts directed at Israel, we have to admit that they can be a moral and effective tool when waged on behalf of civil rights, say, or economic justice.

The American-Jewish ambivalence about boycotts was captured in a recent news release from the Zionist Organization of America. In sum: The Zionist Organization of America hates boycotts — except when it doesn’t.

Unlike some other Jewish organizations, ZOA wanted to clarify that it is “sympathetic” to Israel’s new anti-boycott law. ZOA officials appeared satisfied once they saw that the law did not include criminal penalties for Israeli products or institutions. “The ZOA believes that Jewish organizations should be very careful about telling Israel how to protect its security and economic interests, especially when enemies of Israel and outright anti-Semites are using the words of Jewish organizations that criticize Israel to encourage and promote their own external boycott, delegitimization, and sanction efforts against Israel,” wrote ZOA president Morton Klein.

And yet even ZOA’s release is not a ringing endorsement of the law. The law is “not perfect,” writes Klein, because it could cause a “chilling effect on all boycotts.”

That last phrase — “chilling effect on all boycotts” — is key. ZOA is “firmly opposed to boycotting Israeli goods, services, cultural and sporting events anywhere in the world.” And yet it also recognizes the political and tactical usefulness of a boycott — after all, it has called for more than a few.

In 2010, for example, ZOA urged Israel supporters to stop making donations to the University of California, Irvine, and urged students not to apply there, because of a pattern of anti-Israel activity on campus.

In 2009, ZOA called on the public to boycott Coca-Cola products, over a dispute involving a Jewish family who fled Egypt and whose property, including a bottling plant, was seized by the Nasser government. A suit alleged that Coke knowingly purchased “nationalized and stolen assets.”

Again in 2009, ZOA urged a boycott of British goods, protesting a government move to label products from Jewish businesses operating in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. This last one was particularly rich — ZOA supported an Israeli lawmaker’s call for a boycott of British goods because labeling products from settlements “simply facilitates the agenda” of those who would boycott Israel.

I agree with ZOA that “[anti-Israel] boycott advocates are generally not simply against a specific Israeli policy but are waging a racist economic war against the entire state of Israel and against its very existence as a Jewish state.”

But boycotts in and of themselves are not immoral — and you’re toeing a very fine line when you urge limits on which targets you can legally boycott and which ones you can’t.

I also question the “what’s good for the goose…” argument — that is, BDS leaders will point to home-grown Israeli boycotts to justify their own “external boycott, delegitimization, and sanction efforts against Israel.”

By the same logic, a BDS activist can ask, “If a Jewish organization can boycott Great Britain or UC-Irvine, why can’t we boycott Israel?”

The way out of this trap is not to ban boycotts, but to expose the true motives and hypocritical agendas of the BDS movement — and defend the right of Israelis to express their distaste of their own government’s policies.

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