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The Case for Selective Sanctions


A Jewish Voice for Peace position paper by Henri Picciotto

Some members of Jewish Voice for Peace raised the question of how to escalate our nonviolent activism, and the possibility of calling for sanctions against the Israeli government. Many of us are frustrated by the contrast between the horrors of the situation and our inability to effect immediate, sweeping change. Still, we have to keep reminding ourselves that frustration alone is not sufficient foundation for policy, as it provides no useful way to evaluate competing strategies. Nor can we make our decision based on whether we will be attacked: we will be attacked no matter how we choose to proceed.

Instead, our criterion has to be "does this strategy build or undermine the movement for justice and peace?" To evaluate this, we need to first acknowledge that we are not anywhere near being able to build an economic pressure movement that could actually force the hand of the Israeli government. The sanctions against South Africa were a tactic at the tail end of a decades-long movement, when the South African government was thoroughly isolated in the US population. As of now, the Israeli government has powerful support in the United States. Not only the US government, not only the military-industrial complex, not only both major parties, not only the Christian right, but also millions of ordinary citizens, some of them liberal and progressive. Not everyone by a long shot, but enough that it is a significant obstacle to any forward motion, and a guarantee that sufficient economic leverage against the Israeli occupation is not yet within our reach.

Our central task by far, and for the foreseeable future, is to educate the public so as to eventually be able to influence United States policy, and thus Israeli actions. Our strategic criterion needs to be whether a given campaign helps us educate people, or whether instead it helps our opponents’ disinformation machine. On this score, we face a more hostile environment than our European colleagues, and thus we cannot uncritically adopt the decisions of the European Social Forum. (They approved an economic sanctions platform, at the urging of Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti.)

A look at recent campaigns is instructive:

In other words, the situation in Palestine has indeed gotten much worse, but the political situation here in the US is mostly unchanged as far as Israel/Palestine. Choosing a strategy that plays into the hands of our opponents is just wrong: when they attack us, and they will, we want to come out of that confrontation having more supporters, not fewer. The problem is not at all that being attacked is rough going for us -- we can stand a little rough going. The problem is that an effective attack sets us back.

How we frame our campaigns has an enormous impact on the outcome of the struggle. At this point, generic anti-Israel campaigns only weaken our movement and in fact perpetuate the occupation by shifting the debate away from it and towards the phony issue of "Israel's right to exist" and the like. This is a debate we do not need.

Just saying that such sanctions are not aimed at Jews or the Israeli people does not solve the problem. We should instead keep the focus of our campaigns laser-like on the occupation itself (and other human rights violations.) A boycott of goods from settlements does precisely that, as do campaigns against companies that do business with the Israeli military, such as Caterpillar. We should focus on the crimes we seek to stop. Every attempt our opponents make to defend the settlements and the occupation further exposes the nature of these human rights violations.

Of course, even though we do not think generic sanctions campaigns are effective at this time, we continue to reject the absurd charge that they are inherently anti-Semitic. Yes, anti-Semites may call for sanctions against Israel, but most supporters of Palestinian rights are motivated by a humanistic solidarity impulse, and they are our allies in the struggle for justice and peace.

Opposing generic anti-Israel campaigns at this time does not mean we cannot build campaigns that have teeth—quite the opposite. The campaign against the Caterpillar sales of weaponized bulldozers to the Israeli military is one example. Human rights groups are pursuing this through shareholder resolutions and direct actions, and a divest-from-Cat campaign is definitely a possibility. Another example is the campaign led by the International Solidarity Movement last year, asking the City of Berkeley to support the call for an investigation of Rachel Corrie's death. They did excellent work lobbying the city council, mobilizing allies (including JVP), and actually showing up at the council meetings.

Of many such attempts, this was the first to succeed in Berkeley. All the experts were warning ISM to expect to lose, and yet they won. Because the campaign was focused on a specific human rights violation, rather than generically anti-Israel, it left the pro-occupation forces with nothing effective to do or say -- they raised generalities about anti-Semitism which were just not credible and clearly irrelevant, especially given the presence of a strong Jewish voice for peace at the council meetings. Even if the ISM proposal had not passed, the campaign would still have been a success, because the focus was on justice and human rights, not Zionism and terrorism -- and many people were educated in the process.

The selective divestment strategy is quickly gaining adherents. In Israel, the feminist and anti-militarist organization New Profile has endorsed selective divestment. Here in the US, the Presbyterian Church resolved to explore "selective divestment of church funds from those companies whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli". (Note that they wisely "did not approve a blanket divestment from companies that do business in Israel".) This was the first in what may soon be a torrent of church-based activism: the gigantic World Council of Churches has recently spoken in support of the Presbyterians. The genie is out of the bottle, and we may be entering an entirely new phase in the movement for justice and peace in Palestine/Israel.

Henri Picciotto is a math teacher, a Jew from Lebanon, and a member of the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Voice for Peace. An earlier version of this article was part of the discussion that led to JVP's statement on divestment.)

Drawing by Spain Rodriguez
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