Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Signal and the Noise in the "Zionist" Boycott Case

Steven Levitsky and E. Glen Weyl have a much-talked about piece wherein they explain why they, self-described progressive Zionist Jews, are boycotting Israel. Like Michael Koplow, who already wrote a very thoughtful critique at the Israel Policy Forum, I have no interests in ad hominem. I will take their premises -- that they are proud Jews, that they are Zionists, that they are doing this because they love Israel, that they oppose the broader BDS movement (the feeling is apparently mutual, a fact which they trumpet) -- as given. These are not the problem here. The argument fails on its own terms, and fails in rather dramatic fashion.

Basically, Levitsky and Weyl's case runs as follows:
(1) The status quo of Israel occupying the West Bank is morally untenable. Only a solution -- one-state or two-state -- where Jewish and Palestinian self-determination rights are respected is morally acceptable.

(2) Israel, at least under Netanyahu, is not credibly committed to changing this status quo.

(3) The only feasible way to change Israel's mind and cause it to (try to?) change the status quo is through a full-scale economic boycott and the removal of all governmental aid to Israel. A boycott solely of settlement products would be insufficiently coercive so as to force Israel to change its positions.

(4) Therefore, they support "refusing to travel to Israel, boycotting products produced there and calling on our universities to divest and our elected representatives to withdraw aid to Israel [u]ntil Israel seriously engages with a peace process that either establishes a sovereign Palestinian state or grants full democratic citizenship to Palestinians living in a single state."
There are also two elements of their argument which might be thought of as riders:
(5) They concede that the boycott does impose a double-standard on Israel vis-a-vis other nations with worse human rights records, but contend that this discrimination is reasonable in their case because they care more about Israel's future than that of other countries.

(6) They concede that many other boycott proponents do not care about Israel and in fact may actively wish it and/or Jews generally harm; they do not join or endorse those people.

The first part of the argument I accept. The second is contestable but certainly plausible (I have no significant faith in Bibi's commitments here, though I'm not wildly optimistic about Abbas either). I'll mainly focus on the third and fourth elements and the riders. And, since providing personal biographical disclaimers is apparently a prerequisite to these sorts of posts, I'll say that I too am a progressive Zionist Jew who deplores Bibi, finds the occupation morally intolerable, thinks Israel should withdraw from settlements immediately (indeed, supports a general unilateral withdrawal), and whose views on Israel are most closely approximated by Ameinu's Third Narrative project.

To begin, Levitsky and Weyl are clearly making a consequentialist argument for the boycott -- supporting it because they believe it will lead to a more just state of the world. This is in contrast to another reason one might support a boycott of a state: that it is proportionate and just punishment for particular wrongs. Levitsky and Weyl implicitly disclaim this when rejecting a "mere" settlement boycott; their rationale is purely of the "will it work" sort (#3). Such considerations also come into play in their response to the "double-standard" objection (#5), they concede the critique but argue that it is acceptable in their case because their motivation is to make Israel specifically a better place (as opposed to reasoning from some general conception of "justice" and "punishment" across all states). So basically, we can appraise their argument based on whether they're right that the likely impact of a boycott movement is to create a better state of the world -- a situation wherein both Jewish and Palestinian rights are respected. The likely consequences of a boycott is an issue I discussed a half-dozen years ago in my "boycott outcomes" post, and I won't rehash those points here. I am curious, however, as to the extent to which they did seriously consider other options for improving the state of progressive politics in Israel and Palestine (e.g., supporting OneVoice or other like grassroots initiatives). I can't speak to the authors personally, but in my experience the people who say they see no alternative but boycotts have rarely invested significant time thinking about alternatives.

Before moving forward, I want to pause and note the oddity latent in their "double-standard" discussion: if the reason the double-standard is okay is because they (Levitsky and Weyl) "love Israel", the implication is that persons who don't love Israel can't boycott (as for them it really would be nothing but raw discrimination). That's a perplexing conclusion, and one I doubt that the authors really are willing to adhere to. Koplow does a good job exploring this problem, so I'll just say here that it emphasizes one of the key arguments I'm going to make below: that irrespective of whether they have shared motives or not, Levitsky and Weyl's argument relies on making common cause with persons whose desires are not to create a better state of the world (as understood by the two of them) and who are in all likelihood far better positioned to actually dictate the expressive meaning of a boycott effort.

In any event, the sequence of events Levitsky and Weyl hope to see happen is that a bunch of people boycott Israel in order to exert pressure that will change the status quo vis-a-vis the Palestinians; Israeli policymakers feel the pinch and adopt policies desired by Levitsky and Weyl; and then the conflict is resolved and the boycott dissolved. That middle step has a big problem, which is that the authors fail to explain why Israeli policymakers will be responsive to the expressed desires of Levitsky and Weyl specifically as against other boycotters who -- by their own admission -- are seeking to send a very different message and have very different objectives. One of the central consequentialist arguments against the boycott movement is the contention that it will make Israel more reactionary -- more distrustful of outsiders, more prone to viewing itself as under siege, more convinced that the wider world is intent on its destruction and that it can only rely on itself and its own instincts. The response to a boycott depends on the message a boycott expresses, and Israel's reaction will no doubt be very different if the message it hears is not "we want the best for you, but we'll boycott until you negotiate in good faith to create a Palestinian state" but "we'll boycott in order to weaken Israel and ultimately eliminate Israel," much less "we'll boycott as a first step in eventually sending the Jews back to Auschwitz where they belong." It is amazing that the authors seem to take as a given that it is their preferred message that will come through, when they admit that other boycotters are saying very different things that would provoke a very different reaction.

And this is where the claims that the authors are not signing up for the BDS movement fall apart -- not because they secretly share the same motivations, but because their entire program depends on leveraging the BDS movement proper to make their own boycott sufficiently expansive so as to compel an Israeli response. The whole reason why Levitsky and Weyl don't see themselves as two cranks yelling at clouds, but actually engaged in a potentially consequential political project, is that it is not just them but all these other people boycotting Israel too. But it is "all these other people", not Levitsky and Weyl, who will dictate the message sent by the boycott campaign. The only function of Levitsky and Weyl will be to boost the signal of the BDS movement as a whole; their idiosyncratic expressive desires won't come across and won't dictate Israel's response. Robert Farley's remarks on the precarious nature of "sending a message" in foreign policy (a critique he's thoughtfully applied to Israeli military action) apply here too: signals aren't always unambiguous, signals aren't always interpreted as they are meant to be, the meaning and impact of signals are dependent on many factors other than the raw intention of individual signalers -- and all of this is exacerbated when one is but one faction (and a relatively small faction at that) of a larger social movement.

And on the ambiguity of signals, consider a very important one: what Israel must do in order to end the boycott. The language is very fuzzy as to whether Israel must simply "seriously engages with a peace process" that is geared toward ending of Palestinian disenfranchisement (in either one- or two-state form) or that the boycott shall persist until an actual agreement is reached and implemented. The latter, of course, is not entirely in Israel's hands -- it creates a serious moral hazard problem for Palestinian leaderships who themselves would be given an incentive to negotiate in bad faith (or not at all) in order to further weaken Israel's international standings and extract more and more extreme concessions. This is particularly problematic if one thinks (as I do) that one of the most frustrating aspects of this conflict is how Israelis and Palestinians seem to alternate negotiating in bad faith -- when one party is willing to come to the table, the other dances around; then a few years later they switch roles. Certainly, one Israeli complaint I think has resonance is that Palestinian actors don't really want a negotiated settlement because they think time is one their side. Levitsky and Weyl purport to agree -- they think that demographic and political trends are steadily weakening Israel's position -- but their solution seems to exacerbate the problem.

But at various points the authors suggest that it's the former they have in mind (Weyl observes that he didn't boycott Olmert, for instance, implying that if an Olmert-type came to power he'd end his boycott, and he agrees that a just solution is not entirely in Israel's hands). The problem there is that "good faith" is very subjective. Years ago (discussing proposed boycotts of Arizona), Amanda Marcotte identified one key element of a successful boycott as having specific rather than vague goals. "Ending the segregation of Montgomery buses" is a specific goal. "Negotiate in good faith" isn't. It strikes me as very implausible that there might be a circumstance where Israel tries to negotiate, it doesn't succeed, but Levitsky and Weyl (much less their cohorts) agree that they made a "good faith" effort and agree to end their boycott. For example, what of Bibi's settlement moratorium, which was not met with serious Palestinian efforts to hammer out a deal? At that historical moment, would Levitsky and Weyl flip sides and boycott Palestinian institutions as punishment for Abbas' bad faith? Or was that not enough of a step by Bibi (how on earth is this measured, and at what level granularity?). At the very least, though, they should be explicit about which position they're taking -- for accountability reasons if nothing else.

From a social movement perspective (which is what I study), Levitsky and Weyl's position rankles because it is really reminiscent of a type of political advocacy (probably found among all sorts but which I personally associate with conservative libertarians) wherein people join hands with a bad campaign but disclaim any responsibility for the consequences because they personally prefer an entirely marginal and politically-irrelevant third option. These are the people who draft paper after paper urging the abolition of the minimum wage and then when asked whether they care at all about the poor say they actually support a guaranteed minimum income. The latter being a complete non-starter, the effect of their advocacy is to foster a world with no minimum wage and no guaranteed minimum income -- which they must know (even if they are being entirely above-board in describing their personal policy preferences). Ditto those who fought tooth-and-nail against a right to gay marriage and then said "actually, I think the government should get out of marriage altogether". The effect of their advocacy is entirely to support the mainstream anti-gay marriage position and does nothing to move us closer to a "government-out-of-marriage" world. Again, one need not think they're lying; their personal motivations are irrelevant. And so here, the author's support of a "Zionist" boycott of Israel is so far removed from any politically-viable position that their claim of separation from the general BDS campaign rings hollow -- the only thing it conceivably could do is bolster the effectiveness of that movement, one which (as they acknowledge) has no kindly desires regarding the future of Israel or the self-determination rights of the Jewish people. It's a sort of arrogance that enables one to engage in social movement politics while ignoring the "social"; of course the Israeli government will interpret a massive, wide-spanning boycott as embodying the precise cluster of idiosyncratic meanings that we intend it to.

While not directly on point, Eugene Volokh's superb Harvard Law Review article "The Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope" is essential reading on the in-practice dynamics of social reform and how in many circumstances seemingly intermediate positions can glide forward into more extreme ones that the promoters of the initial reform would have found repugnant. In particularly, his discussion of attitude-altering slippery slopes (especially the extreme-aversion variety) provides important insight into understanding why promoting boycotts of this sort will likely have the primary effect of amplifying the nastier and more destructive iteration of the boycott campaign the authors claim to deplore. One thing that's become very clear about boycotts of Israel is that the train has no brakes: targeted boycotts of settlements leads to general boycotts of firms, to academic boycotts of universities, to personal boycotts against individual artists or scholars, to (as in South Africa) unadorned discrimination against Jews qua Jews. At every point some people no doubt would like to disembark -- but many others get onboard, having come to realize that such practices are now inside the bounds of ordinary political action.

That's the basic consequential case against Levitsky and Weyl's position: The message they want to send won't come across, the message that will come across won't have the impact they desire, and their signing on to the general idea of a boycott will provide aid and sustenance to a very bad movement while doing nothing to realistically promote the viability of their extraordinarily idiosyncratic "Zionist boycott" position. Yet there is a non-consequentialist observation that needs to be made as well. Levitsky and Weyl base their entire argument on the belief that a boycott will cause Israel to change its policies in ways that will create a new state of the world ideologically amenable to Levitsky and Weyl. As argued above, this is a tenuous assumption -- there's no reason to think their idiosyncratic preferences will be heard, much less dictate action, compared to the very different preferences expressed by the median boycotter. But let's think about this argument on its own terms. Levitsky and Weyl use soft language -- boycotts will "shape" Israeli strategy, they will "induce" it to think differently. But what they mean, or they hope to mean, is that it will force change. Theirs is a proposal of coercion -- as they put it, "The Israeli government could not sustain its foolish course without massive U.S. aid, investment, commerce, and moral and diplomatic support." And let's not mince words: the implied "or else" here is that "or else they'll collapse and their Jewish population will run a significant risk of being subordinated, expelled, or worse." It's that veiled threat that is will compel (or "shape" or "induce") the desired change, (On this score the authors engage in one of my favorite sleights of hand: dismissing Israel's security concerns by noting its significant military advantage while simultaneously urging that all military assistance be cut off and an arms embargo be imposed).

I've written before about how I suspect much of the antipathy non-Jews have towards Israel relates to its status as Jewish institution which -- sometimes -- does not have to listen to non-Jewish demands. Throughout most of history, when non-Jews had an objection to Jewish behavior, Jews pretty much had to assent immediately. Israel, being an extraordinarily anomalous instantiation of Jewish sovereignty, doesn't have to, and this is infuriating to persons who view power over Jews as part of their cultural patrimony. Interaction between moral equals generally implies that disagreement will be overcome by reason or suasion, not diktat; if I don't like how you're behaving, I try to persuade you to act differently. But then, Jews were never seen as a moral equals in this sense. The boycott movement is a particularly brute effort to reestablish the historical status quo wherein Jewish behavior wasn't a matter of Jewish choice, but of Jewish subordination. If they won't alter their behavior voluntarily, well, since when did Jews ever have a right to volition?

Now here Levitsky and Weyl certainly will object that by talking about non-Jews exercising coercive authority over a Jewish institution in the context of critiquing their column, I'm acting as if they are not Jewish (that they're the non-Jews seeking dominion over Jewish lives). But that misses the point. Levitsky and Weyl are absolutely Jewish -- but once again, they're not the ones who will be holding the leverage in the event their boycott movement succeeds. It will be a non-Jewish institution that is in a position to make demands, whether that be the United States, or the EU, or the UN, or Israel's Arab neighbors, or the PA, or PACBI, or someone else. It may be the case that a boycott will successfully force Israel to listen, but there is no plausible universe where a boycott will force Israel to listen to progressive Jews. The best progressive Jews could hope for is that whatever non-Jewish third party which ends up holding the cards will exhibit policy preferences mirroring those of progressive Jews. History suggests that this is a dim hope.

Levitsky and Weyl have indicated that they've had many persons lob personal attacks that often challenge their honesty or even their authenticity as Jews. So I want to stress again that none of the arguments I make in any way deny the sincerity of the position Levitsky and Weyl promote, much less their standing as Jews. Indeed, a key argument in my scholarly work is that there must be space "to interrogate potential injustices lurking within positions honestly taken and passionately felt." I think their position is fundamentally unjust towards Jews, but that doesn't deny that they are Jewish-- any more than Charles Jacobs ceases to be Jewish when he makes unjust comments about how the liberal character of the vast majority of Jews proves that we suffer from a "cognitive infirmity". And so the problem with Levitsky and Weyl's case has nothing to do with hidden motives or Jewish identity or anything like that. The problem isn't one of bad moral character, it's one of bad moral reasoning and bad social prognosticating. Their view doesn't take seriously Jewish subordination, doesn't take seriously the realities of expressive social action, doesn't take seriously the signaling effect of a boycott of Israel, and in practice reinscribes the historical norm of anti-Semitic domination. Those are failings enough on their own.


Dan said...

I give you full credit for taking Levitsky's and Weyl's motives at face value, and arguing with them as though they really were sincere-but-confused Zionists acting out of genuine love for Israel. indeed, your ability to play along with their pose long enough to think through and compose this rebuttal is nothing short of heroic.

Roy said...

I agree with Dan. Very strong piece. Your ability to reason, accurately recognize and tackle the precise weakest link in an argument reminds me that of Norman Geras.

David Schraub said...

That is exceptionally high praise, Roy, which I am sure I do not deserve (but thanks).

Roy said...

I may have overreached, but this particular article is on par with his writings... Shabat Shalom