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Derfner: The boycott isn’t economic warfare, it’s psychological


I never imagined becoming a Larry Derfner groupie, but just a couple of weeks after a terrific column he published at 972 Magazine – on settler violence – inspired me to do a post about it here, he’s gone and done it again. This time, it’s an insightful – and hopeful – response to nay-sayers from across the political spectrum who claim that the BDS movement (he calls it “the boycott”) doesn’t amount to much because it hasn’t yet done any serious economic damage to Israel, and even if it grows, it’s not likely ever to bring Israel’s economy to its knees.

Here’s the gist of his argument:

It’s true that the Israeli economy as a whole is hardly feeling the boycott (though a fast-growing number of companies are), and it’s unimaginable that the economic and political isolation of Israel will ever approach that of apartheid-era South Africa (for lots of reasons, including Israel’s exalted standing in the U.S.). But it doesn’t have to approach what happened in South Africa. The boycott doesn’t have to bring the Israeli economy to its knees, or anything close, for the Israeli body politic – the public, the opinion-makers and the decision-makers – to decide to end the occupation. All the boycott has to do is keep growing, drop by drop – yes, like Chinese water torture – for it to succeed. Because finally, the boycott is not an economic war against Israel, it’s a psychological war, and even the skeptics would agree that it’s already had a deep, damaging effect on this country’s will to continue fighting for the West Bank and Gaza.

The experience of the last nine months, starting with Stephen Hawking’s no-show in Jerusalem for the Presidential Conference – which brought the boycott movement into the mainstream, a process that has been escalating ever since – has begun to work a profound change for the worse in Israelis’ view of the country’s future.

The nature of that change?

 This is the idea that the rise of the boycott has planted in the national consciousness: that for Israel as the oppressor of the Palestinians, there’s nowhere to go but down. There’s nothing to look forward to but more rejection, further isolation. And that’s something Israelis can’t live with. That’s a future they will not tolerate.

So as long as the boycott goes forward, even in fits and starts, Israeli anxiety over what the occupation is doing to their future will deepen. Because what do the nationalist powers-that-be have to stop its momentum? Better hasbara? What future do they have to offer Israelis? More settlements? Bombing Iran? Eternal vigilance against Islamofascism? Except for the right-wing true believers, who are a minority here, that’s not what Israelis want. That’s what Bibi wants, not the public. The public wants to look up at the sky and not see black clouds, which are just what the boycott has become.

Sooner or later, Derfner suggests, the Palestinians in the West Bank are sure to find new ways to challenge the occupation on the ground and in the international arena, and these moves, whatever they are, will work synergistically with the BDS movement to increase the pressure on Israel

And the effects on the Israeli public, he argues, will be both profound and positive:

So lots of things could happen to Israel the Occupier – all of them bad. That’s the realization coming over people in this country. They’re not worried about the threat of poverty, or war – they’re worried about the threat of the light going out in the distance. They’re worried that Israel is about to enter its decline.

Because of this, I believe the nationalists’ control of this country is becoming vulnerable, and so is the occupation, their pet project. I’m not saying a radical transformation of Israel is inevitable, but it’s possible – thanks to the boycott. Before Hawking put the movement into gear, there was nothing out there to challenge the status quo, and there’s nothing else out there to challenge it now. Only the boycott. If it keeps growing, there may be a future.

The problem here, to my mind, that he almost makes it sound easy. In reality, even if the dynamic he foresees begins to work (or already has) among some Israelis, it won’t be the only reaction to BDS: as we’ve already seen, the development of the movement is likely to drive much of the Israeli public – including much of its political and military elite – to new heights of racism, paranoia, and violence. And even if, as he predicts, a majority eventually comes to grip with reality and opts for rationality, the most extreme elements are clearly able and willing to wreak havoc before they go down. We can only guess at the forms that will take, but the prospect isn’t pretty.

Still, even if you can’t quite buy Derfner’s optimistic scenario, I think he’s on to something: the real power of BDS can’t be measured in dollars, cents, euros, or shekels, but in its psychological and political impact. In fact, I’d argue that’s really what happened in South Africa too: though the movement by the late 1980s had generated serious economic pressures on the apartheid regime there – far, far beyond anything today’s BDS movement has been able to do to the Israelis – those pressures alone didn’t do the trick; it was fear of the future – the prospect of accelerating isolation and decline, together with mounting turmoil at home – that finally forced the Afrikaner elite to cry uncle.

Obviously today’s BDS movement is far from having that kind of impact, but the  events of the last year and especially the last month bear out the core truth of Derfner’s argument: a little bit of boycott goes a long way politically.

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