Supporters of the law argue that boycotting Israel is antisemitic. But boycotting Israel in order to get it to lift its boot from the necks of Palestinians is no more antisemitic than boycotting South Africa or Montgomery busses were anti-white. Israel’s abuses against Palestinians have been well-documented by respected human rights organizations and there is no reason that Israeli wrongdoing should be given a pass.
Sadly, many progressives who have done admirable work on other issues have been silent or worse when it comes to the oppression of Palestinians by Israel. For example, State Sen.Loretta Weinberg was a leading sponsor of the anti-boycott bill, epitomizing the Progressive Except for Palestine position. And the support of these PEPs for this law comes despite the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union of NJ opposed it as a basic infringement on First Amendment rights and other opinion leaders likened it to McCarthyism.
Since its passage the New Jersey anti-boycott law was used in only a few minor instances. But this past July Ben & Jerry’s announced that because of their commitment to social justice, they would no longer sell ice cream in the Israeli settlements — settlements that are illegal under international law.
The response was ferocious. The Israeli foreign ministry declared that Ben & Jerry’s move was a “shameful capitulation to antisemitism, BDS, and everything bad in the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse” and proceeded to contact individual state governments calling on them to invoke their anti-boycott legislation to punish Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever. Leaders of U.S. Zionist organizations, including Christians United for Israel, which believes that at the end times all must convert to Christianity or be consigned to hell, sent letters to state governors and, with no little irony, called on their members to boycott Unilever. New Jersey declared that it was preparing to withdraw $182 million in state funds from Unilever.
Ben & Jerry’s action, while most welcome, was actually extremely limited. The company did not stop doing business in Israel, but only in the Israeli-occupied territories, which New Jersey’s law shamelessly considers part of Israel. Many would argue, however, that if Israel is committing illegal and immoral actions, then the Israeli government as a whole is responsible, and broader economic pressure should be exerted, for example, by refusing to do business in Israel proper as well as in the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Boycotting Israel more generally is also justified because it’s not just in the occupied territories that Israel oppresses Palestinians. For example, as Middle-East analyst Nathan Thrall has noted, within Israel “tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens live in villages that Israel refuses to recognize or connect to water and electricity” and “hundreds of Jewish-only towns have admission committees that are permitted by law to reject Palestinians on the pretext of ‘social suitability,’ thereby excluding applicants who haven’t served in the Israeli army, aren’t Zionist or don’t plan to send their children to Hebrew-language schools.”
Despite the modest nature of Ben & Jerry’s action, the stakes are quite high. Will we in New Jersey allow our state government to punish a company for taking a small step towards justice for Palestinians? New Jersey’s anti-boycott law was always a violation of basic constitutional rights at home and of international human rights abroad. It must be repealed.
Stephen R. Shalom and Jon Moscow are members of Jewish Voice for Peace of Northern New Jersey.