In this week’s Forward, venerable columnist Leonard Fein imagines he will elicit gasps of shock from his readers when he suggests that they should boycott the city of Ariel. He writes that he can do so in good conscience because there is nothing inherently immoral about boycotts and because shunning Ariel, its people, institutions, and commerce is a blow struck for justice and the cause of peace. He’s right that boycotts can sometimes be appropriate if not a moral imperative. But he’s dead wrong about giving a small city filled with ordinary law-abiding Jews, synagogues, schools, and businesses the same treatment previous generations gave Nazi Germany or segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Doing so is not only morally obtuse, it also has not the slightest thing to do with peace.
Fein is pushing on an open door when he suggests there’s something controversial about boycotts. Boycotts that are rooted in moral indignation against a specific policy whether it is Nazi racism, American segregation, Soviet refusal to allow Jews to emigrate, or apartheid were all defensible boycotts since they were aimed at highlighting injustice that could be corrected. But boycotts that are themselves the product of a spirit of discrimination are less defensible. For example, the Arab boycott of Israel and the efforts of the BDS campaign—which aims at isolating it via boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions, is rooted in a desire to eradicate the Jewish state, not to reform it.
Those who oppose the building of Jewish communities in the West Bank feel they constitute an obstacle to peace. That is an argument that is undermined by the fact that the Palestinians make few distinctions between the Jews who live in their midst and those in the settlements that were built on the other side of the 1949 cease-fire lines. But if there is to be a two-state solution to the conflict, do Fein and those who agree with him really think peace will be bought by dismantling Ariel? Is he prepared to take the same position about those Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are also on the other side of the old “green line?” Seen in that light, it’s hard to see his attitude toward Ariel as anything but an expression of political venom directed against Israelis whose politics he doesn’t like. Whatever the merits of his arguments about settlements, such a boycott has nothing to do with justice or peace.
It should be understood that even those who are most ardent in advocating for the peace process understand that it will not be achieved by insisting that Israel retreat to the old “green line” border. Though the Palestinian Authority is making noises directed at liberal Jews and the Western media that it is ready to end the conflict for all time, there is good reason to doubt they will accept terms they have repeatedly refused in the recent past. But if they do, they know it will involve their having to accept that Israel will retain the large settlement blocs in exchange for some territory inside pre-1967 Israel.
Among those blocs that aren’t changing hands is the city of Ariel. So exactly what point is served by a boycott of a place whose existence as a Jewish community wouldn’t prevent a peace settlement? Ariel’s continued existence inside Israel is not really in question. Does Fein believe that every Jew must be removed from all of the areas that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 in order to create justice and peace for the Palestinian Arabs? If so, is he advocating for a similar boycott of the various Jerusalem neighborhoods and towns and villages that would also be kept by Israel in the event the “agreement whose terms everybody already knows” that fellow leftists keep talking about is signed?
I think not.
Just as calls for the eviction of Arabs from Israel are repugnant, if peace is ever to be achieved, it will have to be on the basis of mutual respect and coexistence, not on eradicating the Jewish presence in parts of the country. But even if some settlements were to be removed, as happened in Gaza, in the event of a peace settlement, why would Fein focus on one that is not in that category except to vent spleen against the settlement movement that is more about Israeli politics than the future of peace?
I understand the arguments of those who believe preserving Israel’s Jewish majority will require the separation of two peoples. Doing so may involve giving up some settlements. But the movement to boycott settlements does more to appeal to the Palestinian belief that all Jews should be evicted from the country than it does to the cause of two states for two peoples. Palestinians may think Ariel’s existence is an injustice and intolerable insult to their sensibilities. But so is every other Jewish village, town, and city inside Israel. In this case, it is the boycott that is the injustice, not the existence of Ariel.