#SorryNotSorry: Why Boycotting the Boycott Fails

Since last week, Students for Justice in Palestine Cornell has been the target of a minor smear-campaign, linking the group to an Israeli company.

A small number of students at Cornell University and other voices in the Twittersphere have been loudly noting the Israeli origins of WiX – the hosting company we use for one of our websites. The basic claim seems to be that any use of Israeli products hypocritically contradicts our support for the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) issued by Palestinian civil society. While we hope such convoluted reasoning is evident to thoughtful people, we do not wish to dismiss these claims out of hand. Since the international campaign in support of BDS is one of SJP Cornell’s main reference points, we welcome the opportunity to clarify our position.

The 2005 call invites support for Palestinian self-determination from people of conscience all over the world. Since Israeli settler-colonialism prevents Palestinian self-determination, such support means a struggle against exactly those colonial policies, including the ways in which American militarism and imperialism enable them.

The Palestinian cause is reminiscent of a movement for national liberation of the previous century – that of South Africans fighting apartheid. While the end of political apartheid in South Africa demonstrates the power of international solidarity movements to support the oppressed, Palestinian self-determination is even more difficult to achieve because Israel’s economic interests in continuing to carry out violence against Palestinian people are even more entwined with those of the U.S.

We participate in the global economic structure – whether we choose to or not. By paying taxes in the U.S. that are then funnelled to Israel to the tune of billions of dollars a year, mostly in military aid, and by purchasing goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements, often under conditions of racialized superexploitation, we grease the treads of the Israeli war machine and further hinder Palestinian self-determination.

Exactly for this reason, the Palestinian call for BDS has reverberated widely. When the option to end the U.S. military’s support for Israeli aggression is banished from mainstream U.S. politics, when further “peace talks” mean more illegal Israeli settlements and taller walls, one of the few remaining avenues for advocacy on behalf of Palestinian self-determination runs alongside the global economic flows that link Israeli occupation and apartheid to the everyday decisions of producers and consumers around the world.

By combining the power of many around the world, boycotts shine a harsh light on Israeli settler-colonialism. Whereas Israel wishes these networks to remain inconspicuous, the BDS campaign uses the power of an organized consumer boycott to expose them, forcing the recognition of our different forms of connection with oppression and the oppressed. When we participate in an organized boycott of Israeli consumer goods, such as Sabra and Tribe hummus (whose owners financially support Israeli institutions of occupation and dispossession)  or SodaStream kitchen appliances (made in illegal settlements under conditions of hyperexploitation), we choose to make visible the connections between Palestinians living directly under Israeli occupation and people living elsewhere. With these organized boycotts, this global economic structure, a largely hidden network of financial pipes and tunnels, acts as unwitting accomplice to members of Palestinian civil society in their call for self-determination. Boycotts therefore form a limited but necessary component of the BDS campaign. For supporters of the Palestinian call for BDS, boycotts serve as a tactic within a wider strategy to pressure Israel to change its policies and end its oppression.

BDS is a tactic, not a principle, let alone a call for abstention. The charge that any contact with Israeli products negates the logic of BDS can only be made by people who do not understand what BDS actually is, how it’s worked in the past, or why Palestinian civil society is calling for it now.

The idea that supporters of BDS must avoid contact with anything Israeli not only misconstrues the nature of BDS, but also contorts the idea of politics in general. Politics is about making change in the world, not shying from contamination to keep oneself pure. GWF Hegel explored—and put to rest—the idea of the political subject whose only options were abstention and total withdrawal from action. He called it the “beautiful soul” syndrome. We do not strive to be beautiful souls, and we resist a view of politics that demands total abstention. In the words of Built to Spill, “I don’t like this air / But that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop breathing it.”

Those who call us hypocritical for not adhering to a rigid logic of separation simplistically insinuate that if one believes in boycotting Israel one must do it absolutely and deprive oneself of all the innovative benefits of the “Start-up Nation”; since one is opposed to Israel, one must not be in contact with anything Israeli. This separation in turn supports the misguided idea of two clear “sides” to the conflict. It is a troubling binary: on the one side, Israel, a plucky, can-do Zionist spirit, innovation, technology, modernity; on the other, Palestine, poverty, backwardness, violence. We’ve seen such dichotomies before. The suggestion that Israel is creative and technologically-savvy and Palestine is not because of inborn differences of character is simply racist. We would prefer to focus attention on perhaps-relevant factors like decades of occupation, dispossession, and de-development, including industrial, agricultural, and cultural capital stolen during the traumatic ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948-1949 and the active prevention of Palestinian industries and education.

But the real problem with allegations like these—criticizing us for using WiX, or, why stop there, any other modern technologies—is not just that they miss the point. Rather, they advance a logic of total separation that paints supporters of BDS not just as naive and hypocritical but also as ultimately nefarious.

The emails to our group and the following comments on Twitter contort the nature of BDS. But they also insinuate a connection between boycott and antisemitism. One of the students who wrote to us claimed that we “crash Jewish cultural events for the sole purpose of bothering it’s participants.”  Let us be as clear as possible in expressing our utter confusion as to what the author means, if he intends his words to be taken literally. We have had exactly zero interaction with Jewish cultural events. The notion that we have disrupted them is a lie.

However, we have indeed done flyering during CIPAC and Hillel’s annual celebration of Israeli Independence Day. We fail to see the connection between such events and Jewish culture, nor do we know who appointed Cornell Hillel or CIPAC to speak for the Jews of Cornell let alone the wider world. Furthermore, is it frankly demented and indeed antisemitic to suggest that the Zionist-guided destruction of Palestine or the creation of a state whose foundational ideology demands the walling off of the Jews from the world’s people represent Jewish culture. We will not be party to such an accusation.

In any event, let us focus on substance and not distraction. Organized, targeted and international boycotts organized by the BDS campaign have already proven effective in building popular opposition to Israeli settler-colonialism. In this way, boycotts reveal our shared complicity with Israeli militarization. They also offer a glimpse into a future within which such global interdependencies could be arranged differently.

Let us be clear: BDS is not abstention, nor an absolute moral principle. It is not isolation or withdrawal, and it does not entail a rejection of everything Israeli. It is not anti-Semitic, and it has nothing to do with the merits of Israeli technology. BDS is not the attempt of beautiful souls to avoid contamination with oppression and keep their own hands clean: it is a tactic within a larger strategy, and it is beginning to work.

Recent years have seen a wave of successes of consumer boycotts and larger institutional divestments. Companies have pulled out of infrastructure projects in the occupied territories. Retailers across Europe have begun pulling settlement goods from their shelves. The European Union has instated new guidelines preventing EU funding from being awarded to Israeli projects and entities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. US pension giant TIAA-CREF has dropped SodaStream, Veolia, and Caterpillar from its social choice fund. Cultural figures, artists, and intellectuals are supporting the cultural boycott of Israel in increasing numbers, pulling out of concerts and engagements there.

BDS is working, and we think that’s why the tone of these accusations has become increasingly shrill. We view the emails to us and the comments on Twitter as a transparent and rear-guard attempt to counter the growing successes of and attention to BDS with a manufactured social media buzz. Let them buzz. It is increasingly clear that nobody who matters is actually listening.

— Cornell SJP

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One response to “#SorryNotSorry: Why Boycotting the Boycott Fails

  1. I mean, if you use IBM technology, then clearly you support the Holocaust too, right? Or if you have funds in JPMorgan? Hell, I’m pretty sure Cornell supported racism and other nasty international crimes, so if you go there… You see my point. Just ignore it. There are better arguments against BDS, but none of the tools you fight with have access to that level of intelligence.

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