From an interview with Amy Goodman published on the Democracy Now website. This segment of the interview focuses specifically on boycott, divestment and sanctions. There's a brief comment that follows:
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, I wanted to ask you about your recent piece for The Nation on Israel-Palestine and BDS. You were critical of the effectiveness of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. One of the many responses came from Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. He wrote, quote, "Chomsky’s criticism of BDS seems to be that it hasn’t changed the power dynamic yet, and thus that it can’t. There is no doubt the road ahead is a long one for BDS, but there is also no doubt the movement is growing ... All other paths toward change, including diplomacy and armed struggle, have so far proved ineffective, and some have imposed significant costs on Palestinian life and livelihood." Could you respond?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, actually, I did respond. You can find it on The Nation website. But in brief, far from being critical of BDS, I was strongly supportive of it. One of the oddities of what’s called the BDS movement is that they can’t — many of the activists just can’t see support as support unless it becomes something like almost worship: repeat the catechism. If you take a look at that article, it very strongly supported these tactics. In fact, I was involved in them and supporting them before the BDS movement even existed. They’re the right tactics.
But it should be second nature to activists—and it usually is—that you have to ask yourself, when you conduct some tactic, when you pursue it, what the effect is going to be on the victims. You don’t pursue a tactic because it makes you feel good. You pursue it because it’s going—you estimate that it’ll help the victims. And you have to make choices. This goes way back. You know, say, back during the Vietnam War, there were debates about whether you should resort to violent tactics, say Weathermen-style tactics. You could understand the motivation—people were desperate—but the Vietnamese were strongly opposed. And many of us, me included, were also opposed, not because the horrors don’t justify some strong action, but because the consequences would be harm to the victims. The tactics would increase support for the violence, which in fact is what happened. Those questions arise all the time.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian solidarity movements have been unusual in their unwillingness to think these things through. That was pointed out recently again by Raja Shehadeh, the leading figure in—lives in Ramallah, a longtime supporter, the founder of Al-Haq, the legal organization, a very significant and powerful figure. He pointed out that the Palestinian leadership has tended to focus on what he called absolutes, absolute justice—this is the absolute justice that we want—and not to pay attention to pragmatic policies. That’s been very obvious for decades. It used to drive people like Eqbal Ahmad, the really committed and knowledgeable militant—used to drive him crazy. They just couldn’t listen to pragmatic questions, which are what matter for success in a popular movement, a nationalist movement. And the ones who understand that can succeed; the ones who don’t understand it can’t. If you talk about—
AMY GOODMAN: What choices do you feel that the BDS movement, that activists should make?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, they’re very simple, very clear. In fact, I discussed them in the article. Those actions that have been directed against the occupation have been quite successful, very successful. Most of them don’t have anything to do with the BDS movement. So take, say, one of the most extreme and most successful is the European Union decision, directive, to block any connection to any institution, governmental or private, that has anything to do with the Occupied Territories. That’s a pretty strong move. That’s the kind of move that was taken with regard to South Africa. Just a couple of months ago, the Presbyterian Church here called for divestment from any multinational corporation that’s involved in any way in the occupation. And there’s been case after case like that. That makes perfect sense.I am in two minds about a BDS of Israel. Certainly, turning arms exports to Israel into a live political issue is entirely fruitful. Our government's weak criticisms of Israel's indiscriminate bombing of Gaza while letting armaments flow uninterrupted from Britain's munitions factories means some responsibility falls to them, and will continue to do so should the present three-day truce collapse into a resumption of butchery. This should, I think, be the most fruitful focus of the various Palestinian solidarity campaigns in the West. As we gear up to the general election, the Tories and LibDems are vulnerable on this. An arms embargo is a limited but entirely achievable aim under the present circumstances.
There are also—so far, there haven’t been any sanctions, so BDS is a little misleading. It’s BD, really. But there could be sanctions. And there’s an obvious way to proceed. There has been for years, and has plenty of support. In fact, Amnesty International called for it during the Cast Lead operations. That’s an arms embargo. For the U.S. to impose an arms embargo, or even to discuss it, would be a major issue, major contribution. That’s the most important of the possible sanctions.
And there’s a basis for it. U.S. arms to Israel are in violation of U.S. law, direct violation of U.S. law. You look at U.S. foreign assistance law, it bars any military assistance to any one country, unit, whatever, engaged in consistent human rights violations. Well, you know, Israel’s violation of human rights violations is so extreme and consistent that you hardly have to argue about it. That means that U.S. aid to Israel is in—military aid, is in direct violation of U.S. law. And as Pillay pointed out before, the U.S. is a high-contracting party to the Geneva Conventions, so it’s violating its own extremely serious international commitments by not imposing—working to impose the Geneva Conventions. That’s an obligation for the high-contracting parties, like the U.S. And that means to impose—to prevent a violation of international humanitarian law, and certainly not to abet it. So the U.S. is both in violation of its commitments to international humanitarian law and also in violation of U.S. domestic law. And there’s some understanding of that.
The problem with a boycott campaign more generally is it lacks focus. Rather than a single objective activists are running round establishing what digits on barcodes indicate their origin in Israel, and hunting through the web of company ownership to find what share holders own what, how much, and so on. And the problem is a boycott can run into absurdity too. How much energy was expended on the Tricycle Theatre debacle, for example? And, of course, with Israel and its supporters always happy to denounce its opponents as anti-semitic, how can a boycott campaign be stopped from growing over into a general boycott of non-Israeli Jewish businesses? With anti-semitic incidents on the rise, a broader boycott has to tread very carefully.
Lastly, while Chomsky is relatively positive about the efficacy of boycotts and divestment, I'm not so sure. Yes, a blacking of Israeli goods would certainly damage Israel. To see their economy fall through the floor as a direct consequence of their government's barbarism might prove heartening for some. But just what is a boycott trying to achieve? There's a question with a seemingly obvious answer - to force Israel to negotiate meaningfully with its neighbours, to lift the Gaza blockade, to stop bombing and threatening defenceless Arab populations. Would that be the outcome? I doubt it. The poisonous character of Israeli politics is fed partly by a perceived existential crisis, of a state hemmed in by hostile powers. Of course, it is absurd. 2014 is not 1948, 1967 or 1973. The homemade rockets of Hamas are but a flimsy pretext for Israel to continue using Gaza as a punch bag. However, absolutely crucial for a settlement and lasting peace - be it two states, or some kind of South African-style solution, is a political sea change in Israel itself. Would securing such a change, as remote it seems now, be aided by a boycott, or would it increase the popular sense of siege?