Op-Ed: Stop the excuses, boycott the settlements

Peter Beinart's recent New York Times article advocating a settlement boycott has sparked a spectacular public display of Jewish angst. Apparently for many who view themselves as the judges, advocates and juries of what is "kosher" progressive Jewish activism, his suggestion is beyond the pale.

They agree that settlements are a problem, even a shonda, but boycott fellow Jews? Heaven forbid. And even if it weren't Jewishly distasteful, it wouldn't work anyway, so don't go there.
Shame on them. Shame on all those who wring their hands about settlements and the fate of the two-state solution, but then claim some sort of Jewish moral high ground to avoid taking meaningful action.

For decades Peace Now in Israel and Americans for Peace Now in the U.S. have been trying to get people to recognize the danger posed to Israel by settlements. For years American Jewry has responded with a shrug of the shoulders signifying we don't want to know, don't ask us to do anything. All the while American Jews have contributed millions of dollars in donations that directly and indirectly support settlements.

Where were these progressive American Jews who now oppose a settlement boycott back in the 1990s, when President George H.W. Bush, fed up with Israel greeting every U.S. official visit with a new settlement, decided to link $10 billion in U.S.-backed loan guarantees to Israel's settlement activities? APN testified on Capitol Hill in support of Bush's policy; the bulk of the American Jewish community declared war on Bush. Some hold that this fight -- not over being tough on Israel but being a little tough on settlements -- cost Bush a second term in office.

President Obama took on settlements right out of the gate. The people wringing their hands today over the idea of boycotting settlements, where were they when Obama needed support on the issue? Obama was and still is vilified in our community as untrustworthy and an enemy of Israel not because he cut aid to Israel, or refused to give Israel weapons, or failed to back Israel at the United Nations, or because he asked Israel to remove a single settlement (he didn't).

He is attacked because the same president who has done more to support Israel than any president in history had the temerity to pressure Israel to freeze settlements, consistent with Israel's long-ignored and freely taken commitments (most recently under the "road map").

Our community machers have ruled that pressure from an American president over settlements is unacceptable. They have decreed U.N. action on the issue impermissible. And now they are opposing American Jews adopting a policy of affirmatively buying products made in Israel while actively boycotting products made in settlements that jeopardize Israel's future. According to this logic, is there any "kosher" way to oppose settlements?

Dayenu. Enough with the handwringing and self-righteous declarations that boycotting fellow Jews is wrong. If the Jewish community is looking for a kosher stamp on a settlement boycott, it should look directly at Israel and follow the lead of engaged, unapologetically patriotic Israelis who are taking a stand by boycotting settlements, including prominent academics and artists and Peace Now, which last year launched its campaign: So sue me, I'm boycotting settlement products.

These Israelis know that settlements are an existential threat to Israel. They're fed up waiting for Israeli leaders to come to their senses and end this suicidal policy. They've given up hoping that the international community will pressure Israel on this issue. They're voting with their feet -- and their pocketbooks -- against settlements.

For those who argue that boycotting settlements won't make any difference politically or economically, the Israeli right's reaction to boycott efforts says otherwise. Indeed, the pro-settler lobby and its Knesset partisans are terrified of settlement boycotts -- so much so that they passed an openly undemocratic law criminalizing them. As a result, in Israel today it's legal to boycott everything but settlements.

The settlers and their supporters know that boycotting settlements is a big deal. They've spent decades trying to erase the Green Line. They want you to enjoy your wine and your homemade orange soda courtesy of that nifty gizmo that lets you carbonate water in your own kitchen. Pay no attention to the fact that in doing so, you're supporting an ideologically rooted political enterprise with an explicit goal to block a two-state solution. Drink up, and for the love of Greater Israel, don't worry about where it came from.

It's time for American Jews to stop making excuses. The window is closing on the two-state solution. If American Jews want to save Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy, they need to act. And that means, for a start, showing at least as much courage as Israelis by differentiating between Israel and the territories. Publicly declaring an intention to "buy Israel but boycott settlements" sends a powerful message to Israelis living in both. Demanding that American Jews not do so only leaves the field open for those who call for a general boycott of everything Israeli.

If American Jews refuse to differentiate between Israel and the settlements in our activism, we can't complain when others insist on doing the same.

(By Lara Friedman, originally published by JTA, March 25, 2012)