Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Is anything to be done about Israel?

(this is the original English text of an email interview on Israel and especially the Boycott/Divest-ment/Sanctions movment.  An Italian translation appeared 21 July 2014 in Il Secolo XIX

Do you agree with Mr. Chomsky when he says that parallels drawn between campaigns against Israel and apartheid-era South Africa are misleading?
Which are in your opinion the differences between this two cases?

-- Chomsky is correct when he says that Cuban intervention in Angola played a significant role in ending Apartheid.  So did the township violence.  The effect of BDS in South Africa has been exaggerated.  But so what?  The situation of the Palestinians and of black South Africans under apartheid have practically nothing in common except that they are cases of oppression.   Internally and externally, Israel is in a much, much stronger position that the Boers ever were.   Moreover there was never any shortage of land or resources in South Africa; there was always enough for all.

Beyond that I am like others, a bit unclear just what Chomsky's objections are.   There is a lot of worrying about the right of return, which in any case isn't always part of BDS demands.  (I wonder if Chomsky is even arguing in good faith when he brings this up.)  But the demands and therefore the right of return don't matter in the least.  What matters is to make Israel uncomfortable or, ideally, to actually harm its economy.  This isn't a little game about small matters; it's about Palestinian survival.   It's time to stop fussing about what sort of impression BDS might make on Jews, or Israel, or Western governments.  None of these parties are going to make some momentous decision that offers up a solution in a blaze of moral grandeur.  This is about putting pressure on Israel, period.  Israel complains bitterly about BDS.  That's all the justification the movement needs.   As for Chomsky's apparent but obscure concern about how BDS might affect the Palestinians, well, the Palestinians are completely screwed if Israel doesn't get pressured.  It's hard to see how some concern about BDS could outweigh that simple fact.

Members of the BDS say that the movement is merely 9-years-old, while the BDS in South Africa was already 30 years old when it started to have success in the 80s. Do you think it can only be a matter of time?

---  In a way.  I'm surprised at the speed with which BDS has grown.  But as in South Africa, BDS can at most contribute to any real solution - and to an unknown extent - not provide one.  So it's not a matter of when BDS will, say, end the occupation.  It certainly won't on its own.  To repeat, its role is to pressure Israel, because only pressuring Israel can produce results.  Since BDS is already exerting pressure on Israel, it has already had some success.  That's more than can be said for many other pro-Palestinian initiatives, and more than enough to justify the movement.

The whole discussion of BDS proceeds, as is so often the case, as if the Israel-Palestine conflict was something to be settled between Westerners and Israel, with the Palestinians as an audience of victims and the rest of the Middle East completely out of the picture.  This is annoyingly antiquated.  The West is now too weak, too terminally timid, and too irresolute to do anything much about Israel.  If there is any solution it will come from within the Middle East.  That means Turkey and, if there is drastic change, Egypt, Syria, and perhaps Jordan.  Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States can play a role if any of these nearby powers become active.  When Israel believes that the wishes of its neighbours are worth considering, things will change, and not before.

Change doesn't require any of these nations become much stronger but it does require Israel to believe that might well happen.  Frankly the new element most likely to push things along is if some Middle Eastern power stated its intention to develop nuclear weapons.   In any case efforts to change Israel should look far more at the Middle East itself and not at feckless Western governments or the paralytic United Nations.  BDS is a positive development because it at least aims to pressure Israel itself, rather than to 'demand' that Western powers take actions they are never going to take.

You are one of the few critical voice of Israel, what do you think of this initiative that call Jewish academics to condemn the actions of Israel in Gaza? http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/handful-israeli-academics-responds-call-condemn-gaza-slaughter

--  It's hard to say.  I tend to think it's not utterly useless because Israelis seem very sensitive to criticism, so the initiative might have an effect on their morale.  But it has nothing to do with initiating any useful dialogue within Israel.  If we know anything we know Israel's commitment to settlement expansion increases with the passage of time, and that dissident voices within Israel are mere voices, without influence.  So if the call is useful, it is in its potential to cause discomfort, not any potential to change minds.  In addition I'm a bit uncomfortable with the antiquated suggestion that Jews in particular speak with special moral authority about Israel.

Finally I don't think you can still say there are 'few critical voices'.   On the contrary criticism of Israel, even revulsion against its cruelties, is more widespread than ever before.  Only in certain limited North American environments does it even seem otherwise.  What a pity that Israel has lost the battle of public opinion only when it is too strong to care about public opinion any more.

By chance do you know and you have any opinion about the newest spokesperson of Hamas, Azmi Bishara?

--  I'm sorry, I know nothing about him and wouldn't venture an opinion if I did.  I don't feel in any position to evaluate the Palestinian leadership or even Palestinian strategies and I'm surprised by others' confidence.  The Palestinians presumably have a much more fine-grained understanding of Israeli strategies and intentions, as well of course of the Palestinians' own needs and tolerances.   I'm not sure why someone outside Palestine would suppose they know better.  We outsiders are much better situated to understand the West and we can have a good knowledge of Israel's stature in the world.  That seems a more profitable point of departure than any attempt to second-guess Palestinian political developments.


  1. Salut Michael, À moins que cela ne m'ait échappé, il n'y a aucune mention de qui est interviewé et par qui. J'espère que vous allez bien! Antoine

  2. Antoine, à Montréal? Si oui, écris-moi s'il te plait, Julian te donnera les coordonnés!