Opinion: Coercive economic actions are ineffective in Israel/Palestine conflict

Mar 28, 2016 by

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I share the longing of many others in the Mennonite church for an end to the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and I grieve the suffering of Palestinian people. But I have reservations about the boycott-and-sanctions movement against Israelis because it is likely to be counterproductive. Christians, who have deep roots in the traditions and sacred texts of Judaism, should build reconciling relationships rather than coerce or make threats.

People of the United States carry particular responsibility for wrongs in the West Bank because of the enormous military aid our country provides to Israel ($3 billion per year, more than to any other country). What can people of conscience in the U.S. do about injustice in the West Bank? We must not remain silent.

If Israeli occupation of the West Bank were driven primarily by economic interests, boycotts and sanctions might have effect. But the settler movement is largely ideological and theological, unlikely to respond to economic pressure. Boycotts or sanctions that communicate we are going to hurt you may have unintended consequences.

I have learned from the extraordinary 2013 book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by progressive Jewish author Ari Shavit. The first line reads, “For as long as I can remember I remember fear.” It may be difficult for us to see modern Israel, with its wealth and military power, as living in fear. But in fact many Jews today feel vulnerable, for valid reasons. They cannot forget the incomprehensible slaughter of Jewish people in Western Europe in the 20th century and the fact that nations surrounding Israel have tried on several occasions to destroy the modern state.

Countless Jews in Israel tell of parents and grandparents who died in gas chambers. Today some Jews in Europe are asking whether antisemitism there has again reached a point that Jews should leave the continent. The danger is existential, and at least one nation in the Middle East has repeatedly expressed desire to annihilate Israel. None of this justifies the actions of settlers in the West Bank, but it puts them in context.

Most people who promote boycotts or sanctions do not hate Israel or the Jews. But that is the way many Jews read such actions. Threats and coercion may simply increase the sense of victimhood and vulnerability for a people in post-traumatic stress. Boycotts and sanctions may induce Jewish Israelis who live in fear to seize every bit of turf possible, motivated by a belief that Jews have to look out for themselves because nobody else will.

I do not have a formula for what will bring justice to Israel/Palestine, aside from the power of the gospel to change hearts and minds. But my understanding of conflict transformation makes me want to build relationships on both sides of this grievous conflict.

Perhaps instead of promoting boycotts or sanctions, we could:

  • Buy stock in companies involved with Israel, then go to shareholder meetings and speak up for justice.
  • Appeal to American politicians and lawmakers to stop writing checks for more weapons for Israel.
  • Support moderate voices and the beleaguered peace movements among Israelis and Palestinians.
  • Educate ourselves biblically and theologically so we do not fall for millennial ideology that makes Christians give uncritical support to Israel. (See the new book by Walter Brueggemann, Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.)
  • Unite in fervent prayer for healing in the West Bank and let the world know Mennonites are doing that.

Before we imagine that we can make an impact on the behavior of Israeli Jews in the West Bank, we will have to build enough relationship with them for them to trust our motives and friendship. My impression is that Mennonites in North American are not even close to that level of trust-building. Our support for sanctions or boycotts might only add to a dangerous polarization and sever ties we need for the hard work of reconciliation.

J. Nelson Kraybill, Mennonite pastor and president of Mennonite World Conference, leads Bible study tours to Israel/Palestine.


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