Monday 11 August 2014

Chomsky on Boycotting Israel

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.

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.
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.

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?


Mark Walmsley said...

Hard to believe divestment would actually make things worse.

Chris said...

I think Chomsky is correct in that the boycott seems to lack focus.

I think the boycott means different things to different people. For me the boycott is about making people feel ashamed and embarrassed to support Israel, like how South Africans became uncomfortable to show support for the apartheid regime (when in the West).

I think a boycott campaign, well waged, can raise awareness of the horrific nature of this racist and terrorist state. The BBC, Fox news etc attempt to equate, in peoples minds, Hamas with all that is bad in the world, I see the boycott as linking Israel with all that is bad. So people would think twice about carrying an Israeli flag in public. I see Israeli flags in football grounds and think, how can people be allowed to feel comfortable doing that.

But this is not about appealing to corrupt imperialist nations but is about widening the struggle among the masses in the West. It is a bottom up campaign.

Breaking the link between the working classes in the West and their imperialist masters isn't just the right thing to do but is fundamental for any semi serious leftist. It is a no brainer.

It isn't like we don't have the ammunition. This is a great opportunity to undermine imperialism. I mean could they have screwed up in the Middle East any more than they have already done so?

Jon Lansman said...

I think it's really helpful to publish the interview with Chomsky. His piece at the Nation was widely misinterpreted (including by me - I do think he wasn't very clear), and it is important to have that clarified because the mistaken interpretation has of course been widely used against the BDS movement.

Personally I agree that the Palestinian-based BDS movement is too unfocused being a generalised anti-Israel boycott ("BDS of Israel" as you put it)  rather than targeted precisely on what is most important to oppose, namely the occupation, illegal settlements and human rights abuses.

The BDS movement's aim is:

In 2005, Palestinian civil society issued a call for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights. A truly global movement against Israeli Apartheid is rapidly emerging in response to this call.

In practice, most specific boycotts do target such things as illegal settlements, but there is a reluctance to depart from the generalised aim since the call came from Palestinian civil society. I think the aim needs to more specific in the UK, Europe and North America where the pro-Israel lobby is so vicious and unscrupulous in the ways it counters BDS. But if it is, it is absolutely worth pursuing. It is in fact the only way to effectively counter the subjugation of the Palestinian people.

One further quibble - your reference to "the Tricycle Theatre debacle": I think you fallen prey to the hysterical counter-campaign, as have many others as a result of the initial misreporting by the Jewish Chronicle alleging that the festival had been banned. The Tricycle theatre never turned down the film festival; it only turned down the embassy funding (£1800) which it was happy to replace, as is clear in its statement. The Guardian, for example, has amended its story (though not the headline as it should have). However the witch-hunt is underway. Please don't give it credibility.

asquith said...

This is one of the worst ideas I've ever heard. Firstly, do these people honestly imagine Israel to be the worst country on earth? And do they think that every last one of THEM (you know, THEM) should be boycotted, as George Galloway and his mate David "the Jews" Ward suggest? By every measure I can think of, Pakistan is a worse place to live and has a worse government, yet I can't imagine that disgrace to humanity ever calling for a boycott there.

Secondly, what do they actually envisage the consequences will be? I'll tell them, more suffering amongst rank-and-file Israelis and even worse for Palestinians, as for those whose livelihoods were threatened by the Sodastream farrago.

Boycotting particular companies with objectionable business practices I could agree with- or individuals such as the sultan of Brunei- but a whole country, it IS singling out and terrified Brighton residents can tell you why.

Robert said...

Exactly the same argument was made against South African sanctions - there were plenty of black African states with worse human rights abuses than South Africa so why single out the apartheid state?

The logic of the whataboutery argument is that no action should be taken against any injustice anywhere until all injustices can be solved everywhere. So do nothing. Whataboutery is the constant bleat of a hypocrite called out on their hypocrisy and double standards.

The lesson of the Holocaust is we should oppose racism and war crimes, including when perpetrated by Israeli Jews.

howard fuller said...

There is a very long list of countries that have oppressive and murderous regimes. Socialist North Korea topping the list. Apartheid exists in most Muslim countries who oppress women and minorities.

Yet the so-called "anti-imperialist" movement decides that Israel is the one country they should boycott.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and since Hamas gained power (and then wiped out large sections of opposition with no new elections ever going to be held) has continued to fire thousands of rockets, mostly from civilian areas and wasted at least £1.2 on building tunnels for war rather than developing its nascent "state".

Further it holds a genocidal view of Jews and seeks to impose an intolerant Islamist regime on the Palestinians who it uses as tools.

The real slogan should be Hamas out of Gaza.

It wouldn't suit the anti-imperialist brigade though, they are simply obssesed with one country. Besides its not as if Socialism has had a good track record.

Pol Pots last supporters have finally faced justice. Lenin, Stalin Mao and the rest never will.

Anti-imperialism supports only reactionary movements these days. Their silence over Syria has been deafening.

I also await the anti Boko Harem and anti-ISIS protests rather like Godot.

Chris said...

"There is a very long list of countries that have oppressive and murderous regimes."

Israel being one of them of course. Israel is one of the very few that has cheerleaders egging it on, and is one of the few where its victims are judged to be blamed for their own plight! While Israel carries out massacres in Gaza Fuller and his like tell people not cause a stir as there are other bad nations in the world and actually the Palestinians are to blame for their own deaths! Israel truly is very very special!

It also manages to avoid any legal constraints, sanctions and other such punishments, it has carte blanche to do what it likes and when it likes. This is another thing that marks it out as special.

If Fuller logic were applied we may possibly still have apartheid! In fact Fuller logic says we shouldn't attack ISIS as North Korea are bad and we are not stop them! Except Fuller logic says we should bomb the people of Iraq again. I can't work out fuller logic, except it always seems to cheerlead imperialism. That much I can work out!

Fuller can lecture on morals while supporting a terrorist and racist state doing what it was born to do. Fuller will cheerlead until every last Palestinian is wiped from the region.

Israeli leaders also are above the laws others are judged by. In Iraq, which Fuller wants bombed yet again, we were told Saddam was truly evil because he killed his own people, now the likes of Fuller want the USA to kill the people of Iraq yet again, not long after they exterminated close to a million of them. Fuller calls anti imperialists reactionary when it is Fuller who created carnage and hell in Iraq. He can’t blame anti imperialists for this, but he doesn’t have the character to take responsibility for his own actions. He is a character incapable of reason, whatever the results of his beliefs he is always right. He presses the reset button to year dot, erases history and takes it from there.

How many bombing runs will it take I wonder. Fuller makes Saddam look like a pussycat!

But we won’t stop the BDS campaign until the likes of Fuller feel s the same about Israel as racists feel about being openly racist.

Dave said...


The Fuller Logic seems to propose that the anti-imperialist selectivists do not in reality have a firm grip on what support for human rights actually entails. It must be a perquisite of human rights rights campaigning to concentrate on reducing oppression both legally and politically for ALL those suffering human rights abuses. Therefore North Korean victims of human rights abuses should be equally important as those victims in the current Gaza conflict. There are socialists in this world who outright reject this selectivist approach, purely on the basis of equality of analysis to all people who fall victim to their governments human rights abuses, or indeed victimised by a non state actor

As with the current Gaza conflict Hamas are the wannabe totalitarians who fired rockets in Israel with the specific intent to maximise civilian casualties. Israel responded and has further found a labyrinth of tunnels which enter on to Israel sovereign territory. On this basis it is nonsense to suggest the Palestinians are being blamed it is HAMAS that is being blamed, a theocratic gangster regime that has no interest in following the core principles of jus ad bellum or jus ad bello when engaging in military conflict with Israel. I do note your usage of words like massacre etc. but this happens in all military conflicts, civilians have died do die and will die. Hamas wants conflict by the nature of its founding Charter.

The military advantage of Israel has created asymmetrical casualty figures but again that is the fault of Hamas for fighting a better equipped army that they know full well they could never win against. Essentially Hamas rely on victimology, religious fruitcakery and oppressive grip on Gazans which oddly enough seems to garner sympathy from the selectivists like yourself.

You see there are some old fashioned socialist out there who take the rational approach that all human rights abuses should be treated equally, war crimes should be tried evidentially and legally, not using such terms politically for propaganda purposes. This avoids the trap that many anti imperial selectivists fall into of using legal terminology for political propaganda and turning a bling eye to other victims of human rights abuses just because it doesn't fit the conspiratorial narrative that the US or UK is behind everything which in my mind is just ethically wrong.

A part of the left has cooked up an unpalatable brew of Maoism, third world romanticism, Occidentalism and post-modernism etc. to produce narratives short of critical evidential reasoning which in reality leads to an indifference to those who are victims of human rights abuses, but fall outside the anti- western agenda