My friend Julie (c/p Alas) says that this Naomi Klein article finally brought her around to the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel. She says Klein "responded very effectively to almost every concern that I had."
Hmmm. Maybe we just have different concerns, but to my ears Klein's responses were almost laughably weak. Yet I'm not laughing, because the construction of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict she is trying to impress upon the rest of us is, I believe, lethal towards efforts which will actually bring an end to the conflict and instead promise more antagonism, more anger, more hostility, and more extremism.
I devoted a rather long comment explaining why the linchpin of Klein's argument for Why Israel is basically that "Israel is small and weak, and doesn't require any substantial sacrifices out of the boycotters," so I won't rehash that. I'll also briefly point out that Klein is pretty clearly resting her justification for treating Israel in this fashion on utilitarian, not retributive grounds -- that is, because she thinks this sort of punitive action will lead to positive results, not because Israel necessarily "deserves" it more than the countries she is ignoring. I wrote about the differences between utilitarian and retributive models here; suffice to say, there are advantages and pitfalls to both, and it is way beyond the scope of this post to argue in favor of one or the other. But if one has particularly strong retributivist (or utilitarian) inclinations, it is something to keep in mind.
From that light, the biggest implication to draw from Klein's position is that if it could be shown that, say, Operation Cast Lead was a critical step towards peace, Klein would be obliged to support that to, regardless of whether Palestinians "deserved" it. Utilitarians aren't about achieving cosmic justice. It is all about the bottom line. To be slightly less confrontational, it means that Klein's argument has to be defended purely on its instrumental value -- concerns about the relative goodness or badness of Israelis or Palestinians is off the table. One can't say, in other words, that you have to support the boycott because it is the only way to effectively punish Israel for its misdeeds, and we have an obligation to pursue justice. And Klein would have to respond to alternative, constructive endeavors not by saying that they aren't sufficiently attuned to Palestinian suffering, but solely on the question of whether they will work better or worse than her program.
But anyway. I want to focus on Klein's other two points, which are, to be as kind as possible, inane. But I want to take them in reverse order, because I think the first one is the most important.
Klein's latter point is in response to the claim that "Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less." She responds "with a personal story," which is another way of saying "my response is pathetic but maybe if I flail my arms you won't notice." She talks about how when she published her book in Israel, she selected an anti-occupation press and directed that all the profits go to them. First, I'm not sure how donating your proceeds to an Israeli company rather than keeping them (i.e., putting more money into the Israeli economy) adheres either to the letter or spirit of a boycott. Second, it is at best ambivalently cross-applicable to other economic interactions -- she uses this "personal story" because she knows there is no way to replicate it across a broader spectrum. Third, given that the her BDS campaign apparently also targets Israeli academics and artists, it is difficult to take seriously the claim that it boycotts the economy but not the people. And in general, I think that if someone said "You are so vile that I refuse to buy any of your products. Dialogue about it?", the most likely response is a hearty "Fuck off!" Here, incidentally, I want to raise the question about whether a BDS campaign that is targeted as broadly as Klein seems to want might violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (forbidding "discrimination on the ground of ... national origin"). I know, for example, that the British proponents of an academic boycott of Israel were informed that such an act could violate parallel provisions of British law.
In any event, Klein is essentially dismissive about the dialogic project, saying that "We are drowning in ways to rant at one another across national boundaries. No boycott can stop us." Well, as much as a I love a good rant, perhaps some of us don't consider "rant" and "dialogue" to be the same thing. By using the language of "rant", Klein indicates quite strongly that she doesn't think dialogue will go anywhere -- it will inevitably result in people simply screaming at each other. Buy into that model if you want, but be explicit about it. Elsewhere, she implies that the dialogic problems aren't real because a boycott will spark conversation amongst the boycotters. I didn't realize they weren't on speaking terms with each other to begin with; but regardless, sparking conversation between folks who already agree isn't really the point of using discourse to solve problems.
This goes to Klein's other point, which tries to convince us that niceties like moral suasion and diplomatic engagement are futile. This comes in response to the claim that BDS would alienate Israelis. She concedes it, but says that "The world has tried what used to be called 'constructive engagement.' It has failed utterly." I read this, and my first thought was "who was doing constructive engagement in the last eight years"? The Bush administration's policy towards Israel was self-consciously hands off -- it publicly cast itself against the Clinton program of actively intervening in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to try and push a solution. Trade alone is not "constructive engagement". Constructive engagement is showing through word and deed that we are your friend, and then using that position to try and impress the need to make necessary changes. Step two is pretty important in that maneuver.
After that, I hearkened back to a comments conversation I had with Kevin Andre Elliot (it was how we "met", actually) on civility. Kevin argued that civility had proven itself not to work in terms of overcoming American racism. I retorted that "saying something 'hasn't worked' with regards to civil rights is redundant. If it had worked, we wouldn't be having the conversation." But that was equally true about "incivility" -- it's not like Louis Farrakhan shocked White America out of its apathy. One could indict basically anything we've "tried" over the past 100 years we've lived in a racial hierarchy -- from "civility" to "incivility" to "having a civil rights movement" to America itself, on the grounds that they have "failed utterly". It's a meaningless point -- superficially persuasive when isolated from context, but utterly without critical bite when examined with the slightest scrutiny.
In all truthfulness, any longstanding conflict will have had a cocktail of tactics and strategies tried, many of them contradictory to each other. Picking any one of them out of a hat and saying "this one has failed" is a pretty arbitrary endeavor. Israel has faced a BDS movement from its inception -- from the Arab states that to this day have no diplomatic relations with it, no trade with it, and often make it a criminal offense to even interact with it. Klein takes that history and says "we haven't boycotted hard enough!" But maybe that's the policy that's been an utter failure. A significant chunk of Israel's policies are justified based on the threat it feels from its hostile neighbors, combined with the belief that they will never recognize Israel or treat it as an equal no matter what actions it takes. What would be the result if that was immediately and unconditionally taken off the table? I don't know -- it might work, and it might not. Unlike Klein (and definitely unlike Ampersand, who devotes nearly all of his comments to the proposition that it is utterly inconceivable that anything bad could possibly happen to Israel), given the complex array of factors, interest, tactics, strategies, and events in play here, I don't pretend omniscience about the true causal links or clairvoyance about how any given shift will play out. But BDS is at least as plausible a target for "failed policies" as engagement is.
I think it is worth noting that Klein's history, which purportedly shows that BDS is the only way forward, is more than contrived, it is almost entirely at odds with the actual facts. None of the major Israeli steps towards peaceful coexistence -- Camp David, the peace accords with Jordan, Madrid, Oslo, Camp David II -- came in the wake of anything as antagonistic and hostile as a Western BDS movement. They all flowed from what Klein dismisses as "constructive engagement." Klein starts her timeline in 2006, which is convenient in that it ignores Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and Lebanon in 2000 (and covers only Bush years -- an administration which as noted above specifically declined to engage the conflict). There is simply no reason to believe Israel is non-responsive to anything but a movement like BDS, and Klein is disingenuous when she implies otherwise.
In the Alas comments, Amp justifies supporting BDS on the grounds that it is "the only prominent non-violent international civilian movement to oppose Israeli violence against Palestinians." Radicals love to create these false binaries, where any choice that's less confrontational doesn't count, and anyone who doesn't buy into the favored program is a collaborationist (at the moment, he tells me my position is "[in]compatible with a serious commitment to the idea that the lives and human rights of Palestinians have value."). But here, it is simply a lie, and I honestly don't know where Amp gets off trying to pretend that it isn't.
This really gets at the heart of the matter, which is Klein trying to take constructive engagement off the table. Because at the end of the day, we are faced with a choice: We can choose to support constructive and diplomatic efforts at ending the conflict, focused on building bridges, fostering connectedness and reminding Israelis and Palestinians that at the end of the day, "us and them" have to work together. Or we can choose hostile and antagonistic ones, which focus on re-entrenching divisions and promoting an attitude of "us versus them" and the glorious struggle. The simplest way I can describe the split here is that Klein wants to intensify the conflict (hoping that this extra push can end it once and for all), whereas I want to relieve the pressure -- trying to walk both sides off the precipice. I simply don't believe that the problem with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that the respective partisans have been too timid. Fundamentally, I think the last thing this conflict needs is the opening of yet another front.
There are constructive endeavors which don't reinscribe the language and mentality of conflict. OneVoice is a prominent example. TULIP -- Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine -- is another (it amazes me how much labor-oriented progressives seem hell-bent on torching links between Israeli and Palestinian unions). I doubt that a BDS campaign is compatible with support for OneVoice; I know that it is akin to throwing a Molotov cocktail at TULIP. You can align yourself with PACBI or TULIP, but not both. Don't pretend your hands are tied -- a don't pretend you can straddle the line. It's a choice.