The topic of boycotting Israel is very much alive. In the past few days we have seen an Israeli barred from participating in a National Health Service conference after pressure from members of the trade union Unison, and the UK's fifth largest supermarket chain, The Cooperative, announce it will boycott all Israeli companies that source their goods from over the Green Line. And then there is of course, the debate that still rages in relation to Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism, and his call for a ‘Zionist’ boycott of settlement products.
There are several responses a supporter of Israel may have to this continual talk of boycott. One is to put up the barricades, and to launch an aggressive fight back in the form of ‘hasbara plus,’ as some British pro-Israel organizations are advocating. Another option is to jump on board the boycott - in the eyes of some, it is a legitimate means of non-violent resistance in the face of a policy that they wish to challenge.
But what becomes of those supporters of Israel who are deeply concerned with the unfolding political trajectory to which neither of these options provides a suitable response?
These individuals, many of whom in the U.K. are supporters of the pro-Israel pro-peace movement Yachad, and with whom, as the organization’s director, I interact with on a daily basis, can be referred to as ‘concerned supporters’ of Israel. As supporters, they want to defend Israel from unfair criticism and, at the same time, be unafraid to be critical of policies they believe are damaging prospects for peace.
For them, the polarization of the boycott debate does not sit comfortably. Many in this camp believe that boycotts of Israel - regardless of where they are directed - are unhelpful and counter-productive. They result in isolation, they damage shared prosperity (which is the corner-stone of any peaceful resolution), and they imply that responsibility for achieving peace in the region lies solely with Israel. It is for these reasons that we do not support any form of boycott of Israel, even a ‘Zionist’ boycott directed over the green-line.
But too many communal leaders have been too quick to cast Beinart outside the tent, when there is in fact no doubt he fits into the camp of a concerned supporter. His conclusion that we should pursue a targeted boycott comes from a place of deep concern and love for the Jewish state.
It is the job of a concerned supporter, regardless of what they think about boycott as a tactic, to point out that there is a fundamental difference between advocating a boycott of goods over the Green Line, and boycotting an Israeli academic because of his nationality. The former action acknowledges the legality and rights of Israel inside the green-line and the latter renders anyone that is an Israeli citizen unworthy of interaction, and no citizen of any other country would be subject to this type of discrimination.
It is the responsibility of the concerned supporter to point out this difference not least because if they do not, they feed the hand of those in the most extreme part of the boycott movement (and the right wing of the pro-Israel camp) who delight in the blurring of both the Green Line and the division between a state and government policy. When a state and its government’s policy become inseparable, it is too easy to question the legitimacy of a nation’s right to exist.
For those of us in the camp of concerned supporters we must find ways to challenge policies such as boycotts that we believe are, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, outright discrimination.
However, we should not allow the debate around tactics to supplant the debate around substance. Questions that relate to what type of Jewish state we want, the values it represents, and under what conditions it can maintain its character as both Jewish and democratic should be at the heart of the community debate on Israel today.
Thousands of British Jews have already been galvanised to engage in this conversation. It is clear that they, and many more in our community, are finding their voice, rising above the inertia created by such a polarization of debate, in order to deal with substance and not solely tactics.