Where is Israel’s Pressure Point?: The Ethics and Morality of Boycotting Israel

On March 5, 2010, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia appeared on Democracy Now! with Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti at U.C. Berkeley to discuss the whether the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” campaign against Israel is the most effective way to bring justice and peace to Israel, Palestine, and the neighboring Arab countries.

It’s a fantastic discussion between two passionate, nonviolent grassroots activists, who are both pro-Palestinian, and who state clearly their different points of view.

Rabbi Waskow also discussed these issues in Sojourners back in 2005 in an article titled A Question of Tactics where he said, “My own assessment is that the way in which much of the divestment campaign has been conducted bespeaks an exercise in quasi-private purity rather than a serious effort to change public policy.”

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript:

OMAR BARGHOUTI: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign is a call by Palestinian civil society. It’s supported by almost the entire Palestinian civil society, political forces, NGOs, women’s organizations, unions, and so on.

It’s calling upon people of conscience around the world to boycott Israel and institutions that are complicit with Israel, including companies and so on, because of its three-tiered system of oppression against the Palestinian people: its occupation, 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and that includes East Jerusalem; as well as its system of racial discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens, the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the third and foremost is its denial of the right of return for the refugees, Palestinian refugees, in accordance with UN Resolution 194. So these three forms of injustices are exactly what we’re targeting. We’re targeting Israel because we want to end its impunity, and we want to end complicity of the world in this system of injustice.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rabbi Arthur Waskow, could you explain to us why you think this is a wrong approach to the problem?

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: So, first let me say shalom and salaam and peace to you, Amy and Juan, and to Mr. Barghouti, and to say, to begin with, that in a sense I think the question, yes or no on BDS, is the wrong question. The right question is, how do we bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the blockade of Gaza, and of East Jerusalem? And it seems to me that when you put the question that way, BDS really becomes an ineffective and, in some ways, unethical way of going about it, that the major change that needs to happen is a profound change in the actions of the United States government, and that there were hints of that, more than hints, in the rhetoric of President Obama, but a total failure to carry through in policy on the rhetoric of the Cairo speech and some work since then.

The real question is, can the United States—will the United States—it can, for sure—will the United States use its enormous influence and power to end the occupation, to end the state of war between Israel and the entire Arab world except for Egypt and Jordan? Can the United States bring about a full-fledged peace treaty between a new state of Palestine, the state of Israel, and the Arab states. The Arab states have, in fact, proposed this. The Israeli government and the last US government, the Bush administration, totally ignored the proposal. There are hints that that’s what the Obama administration wants to bring about.

But it won’t happen unless there is a public movement in American society to demand that. It won’t happen otherwise. And when I ask the question, so what’s the most effective way of bringing that about, it seems to me an alliance of the three groups of people in America who care passionately about the peoples of the Middle East—Muslims, serious Christians and serious Jews—an alliance of those in those three camps who are committed to peace is now possible. In the Jewish community, there are now organizations and commitments and human beings ready to act on this, even though the classic, formal, institutional structure of the established Jewish institutional system doesn’t. But the Jews do, and among Muslims and among most Protestant and Catholic Christians—not some of the right-wing fundamentalist Christians, but the rest of the Christian community. But they have not come together in any way to make this happen. And that’s what needs to happen.

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