This will be the first entry into what I shall call “Israel/Palestine: An Encyclopedia,” a list of terms that provoke constant bickering as to their meaning, purpose, et cetera. I hope in writing this that I am able to clear some up rather nebulous concepts. Nota bene: Although I hope to clarify these things, do understand that this is only my own, limited take, guaranteed to please few and anger many. If your interest is peaked, I suggest you continue researching this topic on your own and come to your own conclusions.
Israel vs. the Israeli government/military/judiciary/und so weiter: it is important to keep nomenclature sound to avoid disputes. In all of my writing about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I cleave to the following rule: “Israel” refers to the geographical and national entity contained east of Suez, west of Jordan and Syria, and south of Lebanon, but not including the occupied West Bank region nor the Gaza Strip. It may also refer to the people that live in the land of Israel, viz. Israelis. The “Israeli government” refers to the current governing coalition that wields political power over the land of Israel. Why does this matter? When a man says “Israel” and begins to criticize it, he is immediately putting into the minds of his opponents the notion that he is personally attacking the integrity of the nation and its people. “Israel does X and it’s bad!” may be true in some sense, but it threatens charges of anti-Semitism which obscures the message our interlocutor is likely trying to convey. By saying “the Israeli government does X and it’s bad!” our interlocutor is on much firmer footing: he is criticizing a discrete body of people and their actions, rather than an entire nation of 7+ million people; he cannot be charged with anti-Semitism, because his attack is leveled at a certain political echelon as opposed to all of am Yisrael; he cannot be misconstrued as anti-Israel, and thus a deligitimizer and again an anti-Semite, because he is not attacking Israel itself but the policies of its leaders.
Note: one can still attack the Zionist premises that Israel was founded on and not be an anti-Semite, for Zionism is not equivalent with Jews as people or as a religion. However, criticizing Israel as a nation-state is treading far different ground, and one must be careful to maintain legitimacy in an argument.
Occupation: What is the occupation, and what is it about? The occupation is the military and settler presence in the West Bank, and the military blockade of the Gaza Strip. From Jewish Voice for Peace: “The rest of the West Bank has been under a military occupation ever since . This means that the Israeli army has complete control over these areas. Palestinians in these regions have no guarantee of civil rights. They have no government of their own other than what Israel will allow. Israel can impose total curfews on any part or all of the territory. This prevents people from traveling to work, to market or to see family members. It can prevent medical care from reaching people, and people from reaching hospitals.” (source)
What is it about? Some might say “security,” some might say “religion,” and while these factors certainly are very important in creating an idea of what the occupation is, the most pressing factor is certainly land. One may see this when certain supporters of the Israeli government line say that the West Bank can’t ever, really, be given up because that would leave Israel far too slim at the waist; Mother Israel needs that extra buffer zone so in the inevitable next invasion from the Jordanians, Israel will have more time to respond. Indeed, this is security playing the lie so that a blatant land grab might be legitimized.
Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS): BDS stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, a rather self-explanatory acronym. The movement seeks to boycott Israeli companies, seek out foreign companies that invest in Israel and persuade them to divest, and international sanctions on the Israeli state. All of this is to peacefully persuade the Israeli government and society to disengage from the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip. What is controversial is exactly what these broad policy goals entail.
To offer an insight into what the anti-BDS movement believes BDS is, I will quote from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last year to AIPAC (source). In said speech, he said of the BDS movement that it should be “vigorously opposed… because [it is] bad for peace and because BDS is just plain wrong.” Netanyahu concludes this is so for the following reasons:
- The BDS movement does not seek a two-state solution, because they “openly admit that they seek the dissolution of the only state for the Jewish people.”
- BDS “sets back peace because it hardens Palestinian positions and it makes mutual compromise less likely.”
- BDS is “morally wrong… it is about making Israel illegitimate.” Why? According to Mr. Netanyahu, only in Israel can Middle Eastern academics openly speak their minds, Christians openly practice their religion, journalists can write, gays can be gay, women can have equality. Not only that, it is an anti-Semitic movement: “today the singling out of the Jewish people has turned into the singling out of the Jewish state… the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism.”
- Finally, BDS movements really should be targeting worse offenders, such as Syria or Iran, and not the “only democracy in the Middle East.”
I am unsure where Netanyahu gets the idea that the BDS movement is about the dissolution of Israel as a state. Perhaps he believes that justice for the Palestinian people constitutes the dissolution of Israel as a state? Perhaps he is referring to the right of return, or of the proposed return to 1967 borders? I have no idea, but the stated purpose of members of the BDS movement, and their actions, seem far more constrained in their scope. From the website for Jewish Voice for Peace: “we support divestment from and boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This includes companies operating in or from occupied Palestinian territory, exploiting Palestinian labor and scarce environmental resources, providing materials or labor for settlements, or producing military or other equipment or materials used to violate human rights or to profit from the Occupation” (source). Nowhere does this imply support for the dissolution of the Israeli state, but rather non-violent civil disobedience and non-violent divestment from companies that profit off of the occupation.
From the mission statement of the Free Gaza Movement: “We want to break the siege of Gaza. We want to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation. We want to uphold Palestine’s right to welcome internationals as visitors, human rights observers, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, or otherwise. We have not and will not ask for Israel’s permission. It is our intent to overcome this brutal siege through civil resistance and non-violent direct action, and establish a permanent sea lane between Gaza and the rest of the world” (source). Again, non-violence and awareness (NB: I am unsure whether the widely-publicized violence, involving the injury of several and the death of one of the protestors, on one of the Gaza Flotilla boats, originated from the Israeli commandos or the activists themselves – perhaps it is moot, perhaps we will never know?)
If a large part of the West Bank occupation is due to economic reasons (I have read as much, at least), then making it economically unfeasible for settlements to exist there seems like a good strategy – this of course doesn’t take into account religious reasons.
The anti-Semitic one is pretty easy to refute: boycotts and divestment don’t target Jews but companies that profit from occupation. A recent divestment bill that passed at my alma mater, University of California Santa Cruz, had the following text for its resolution:
“Let it be resolved, that SUA [Student Union Assembly] should further examine UC assets for funds being invested in companies that directly profit from or support a) military support for, or weaponry to, support the Israeli occupation; b) the building or maintenance of the illegal Separation Wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes, farms, or orchards; or c) the building, maintenance, or economic development of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; … if it is found that UCSC or UC funds are being invested in any of the above-mentioned companies we call upon or University… to divest their holdings from these aforementioned companies.” (source)
As anti-Semitism is an attack on a person’s being (or perceived being, perhaps, if you take Sartre’s analysis in Anti-Semite and Jew to heart), while the above is an attack on illegal actions taken by the Israeli government, it seems hard to argue that the BDS movement is inherently against the Jewish people.
However, it becomes all too easy when a man like Netanyahu conflates the Israeli state with all of am Yisrael. Because of this, in his mind any attack on the legitimacy of the actions of the Israeli government, or the territorial incursions of the Israeli state, is ipso facto an attack on the Jewish people themselves. This is problematic for multiple reasons: one, it essentializes all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, their nationality, or their political positions, into de facto citizens of the state of Israel, so that any attack on Israel is also an attack on them; two, it marginalizes Israel’s substantial Arab, small Druze, and smaller minority populations, effectively telling them that the country they are citizens of and which they call home is not really theirs; three, it shows as barren Netanyahu’s claim that “that Israel, like all states, is not beyond criticism,” because by equating the Israeli state with the Jewish people, any criticism of Israel can be construed rightly or wrongly as anti-Semitic; fourth, it has the odd outcome that criticism of the Jewish people is also criticism of the Israeli state – does the anti-circumcision movement in Europe equate to being anti-Israel, because it has elements of anti-Semitism? Perhaps, but not necessarily; fifth, if BDS is about the dissolution of the Israeli state as Netanyahu suggests, then it is necessarily also about the dissolution of the Jewish people, which on its face makes his claim even more absurd. Regardless, the charge of being anti-Israel rings hollow anyway: no boycott or divestment bill I have seen wants anyone to divest or boycott Israel itself, only companies that profit off illegal Israeli activity. Netanyahu’s conflation is unjustified and duplicitous.
Finally, Netanyahu’s last objection is just a tu quoque fallacy – other nations, such as Iran and the Sudan, are targeted by sanctions. Israel is also not equivalent with other nations policy-wise: Israel receives more military aid than any other nation, and our “special relationship” with the Israeli state merits equally special scrutiny. Big ticket offenders like China are left alone for various geopolitical and economic reasons, so mentioning them is more of a red herring – we have to focus on what is feasible to solve.
Pinkwashing: a term coined by academics to denounce Israeli efforts, and the apologetics of their supporters, to point to purportedly positive and/or progressive policies held by the Israeli government, or attitudes held by the Israeli people, as merely a red herring distracting from their human rights abuses of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. While it is true that Israeli actions in one area do not impinge on Israeli actions in another – the liberal policy towards the LGBT community in Israel, though arguably the most open in the Middle East, has little to do with the draconian policy on Palestinian movement of people, for example – it is precisely because of this that the charge of “pinkwashing” carries no weight. If it is true that certain Israelis and their supporters attempt to distract from a poor human rights record in one place by holding up their stellar human rights record in another, it is equally true that their detractors do the exact opposite: detract from their stellar human rights record in one place, by holding up their appalling human rights record in another. It is a red herring in any event, and each policy should be examined on its merits before we take an account of the whole Israeli political apparatus. We ought not to proceed from a negative assessment of the system and then judge its parts, but begin with its parts, and from there form an image of the whole.
To be clear, pinkwashing can refer to any sort of apologetics for Israel that follows these lines: “We have a great policy on X, don’t you agree? So why do you keep hammering us on policy Y?” Such an example can be found in the above-quoted speech Mr. Netanyahu gave to the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). I quote: “I visited an Israeli army field hospital in the Golan Heights. Now, that field hospital wasn’t set up for Israelis. It was set up for Syrians. Israelis treated nearly a thousand wounded Syrians — men, women and a lot of children. They come to our border fence bleeding and desperate. Often they’re near death. And on my visit I met two such Syrians, a shellshocked father and his badly wounded 5-year-old boy. A few days earlier the man’s wife and baby daughter were blown to bits by Iranian bombs dropped by Assad’s air force. Now the grieving father was holding his little boy in his arms, and Israeli doctors were struggling to save the boy’s life.”
It seems clear that such lines are expressly designed to deflect charges that Israel terror bombs civilians in Gaza – which it most certainly does. Be that as it may, charging this as pinkwashing ignores the fact that, even if it does have rather nefarious intentions, nonetheless it has a good result.