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Debate Continues to Rage Over ‘Zionist B.D.S.’

Which might be more a case of ‘Zionist B.S.’

Marc Tracy
March 22, 2012

Blind item: WHICH “American guest” was recently hosted by a “senior Israeli official” for a “late-night chat,” according to Haaretz’ Ari Shavit? … The official spelled out Israel’s genuine fears of an Iranian nuclear bomb and added that “Israel isn’t bluffing.” … The American guest departed “agitated and upset.”

I don’t know if you’d call something limited to 140 characters “intellectual skywriting,” as debates among public intellectuals back in the day were labeled, but since Monday, when Peter Beinart’s “Zionist B.D.S.” op-ed dropped and Jeff Goldberg reported that the Israeli leadership “isn’t bluffing” on threatening to strike Iran’s nuclear program, several contestants have conducted a debate over blog and Twitter that has gained attention even outside the cramped confines of the shtetlsphere.

To take the easier argument first: Andrew Sullivan’s notion that Goldberg lacks credibility because he wrote a story in 2010 reporting that Israeli officials wanted to bomb Iran then, and they didn’t, and because he pondered last week whether Israel might be bluffing, is a pretty infantile way of looking at journalism. Like any reporter—and, on this issue, perhaps more than just any reporter—Goldberg is as much serving as a conduit for sources (in this case, high-level Israeli sources) as piecing together his own analysis. You could argue that it is more useful to see Goldberg’s reporting as evidence that Israel’s leaders want us to think an attack is imminent than as evidence that an attack is actually imminent. But you cannot seriously argue that he is automatically to be disbelieved, or that some earlier article disproves a later article.

The broader debate is the one that has raged—primarily, actually, on Beinart’s own Zion Square blog—over the notion of “Zionist B.D.S.,” that is, a boycott of settlement-made goods. This debate has been conducted as much on Twitter, and if you’re interested, check out @Goldberg3000, @PeterBeinart, and @Ibishblog, for starters. We also got a new, eminent, and inadvertent entrant to the debate today, with Leon Wieseltier arguing, in Allison Hoffman’s profile of Beinart today in Tablet Magazine, “I have no problem with a boycott of the settlers—I’ve been conducting a personal boycott of their products for decades. But Peter’s not making any really inconvenient demands on anybody.” As it happens, I’ve tried to put it better myself, and haven’t been able to.

I agree with Goldberg’s position, broadly speaking: that calling for a settlement boycott is a bad thing. But if I were scoring this as a debate, I’d have to dock him points in various places. His strongest argument—along with J Street’s—is simply that such a boycott won’t work, and in fact will likely have the opposite of its intended effect. While I agree, I wouldn’t buttress my whole case on that: if the biggest problem with a partial boycott is that it won’t work, I’d ask, then why not a full boycott? Goldberg’s response would be that Jews boycotting Jews, given the historical resonances (I assume this is a reference to Nuremberg and what-not), is a nasty thing. Okay; but settlements are nasty things, too.

The problem I have with a partial boycott is it strikes me as the worst of both worlds: a rather shallow, largely symbolic statement—since it implies that in-Green-Line Israel has very little to do with the settlement enterprise—that at the same time moves down the slippery slope to an out-and-out boycott, which is the sort of thing that ought to be reserved for truly atrocious regimes (Iran, apartheid South Africa, etc.), which Israel’s is not. Even worse, both boycotts are aimed at ending the settlements, and though I would like to see this happen, those strategies ignore the fact that ending the settlements are only a means to an end, and that end requires the cooperation of the Palestinians, and that there is no evidence that such cooperation is forthcoming anytime soon. Thus, true B.D.S. (which is actually the worst of both worlds), and even to a lesser extent Zionist B.D.S., unfairly singles Israel out and removes the Palestinians from the equation. Given all of that, a partial boycott is morally vain, with the added problem of making something really bad more likely. Does Beinart not see how short the leap is to simply denying that liberal Zionism can exist?

I also think it’s one thing to make a personal decision and another to make it a political stance. “I stopped buying wine and books made in the West Bank a long time ago (this meant renouncing the pleasures of Ben Arza’s Jewish bookshop in the Arab Quarter of the Old City), because I think … well, everyone knows what I think about the settlements,” Wieseltier wrote in an email last night.

As for “Zionist B.D.S.,” I am not against all boycotts. We boycott people and stores and countries all the time. Economic power is an instrument of political expression. What matters to me is the merit of one’s argument. But I don’t expect “Zionist B.D.S.” (which looks awfully like “Zionist B.S.”) to have an effect on the problem itself, which remains a political one, and the shared responsibility of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. So yes, small potatoes, and primarily gestural.

As the Forward reports this morning, there’s not really all that much to boycott (except SodaStream). I suppose, personally, I would endeavor to avoid buying settlement-made goods (I actually don’t care for seltzer), but I would see it more as a personal political expression: I wouldn’t really judge anyone who did buy them, and I certainly wouldn’t make the boycott a cornerstone of a larger political programme. It is way too small for that. So I am left, again, believing that its attractiveness to Beinart lies mostly in its neat ability to let him have his Zionist cake and not eat it, too.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.