Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: Take a stand against boycotts this holiday season

Ethan Felson

NEW YORK (JTA) — What’s old is new, and unfortunately this holiday season, wrapped in a bow, is a boycott of things Israeli and Jewish. The relics of the past boycotts — from Nuremberg to Damascus — are back.

Uninterested in reconciliation, the extremist and myopic fervor that undergirds the campaign to boycott Israel should be a wake-up call for those who have hit the snooze button too many times.

Issuing the latest appeal for boycotts is the North American affiliate of the Sabeel Center, a group that wraps its disdain for the Jewish state in a cloak of Christian concern. Sabeel’s leader has said that Israel operates a “crucifixion machine” and that “security is a pagan god that Israel worships.” It wields the word “apartheid” like a cudgel.

The center’s holiday boycott call targets more than a dozen companies because they operate in Israel or their owners are guilty of the sin of being Israeli, Jewish or affiliated with either. They manufacture goods in Israel, in the West Bank and in America. Their products include cosmetics, clothing, cell phones and prepared foods. Most cannot be tied in any rational way to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That gets to the heart of it. The so-called BDS movement (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) isn’t here to help Palestinians; it’s a pernicious call to harm Israel and world Jewry. Its proponents seek to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into every sphere of American life. Boycott supporters don’t seem to care who gets caught their snare, including tens of thousands of American workers employed by these companies. In so many ways it is a boycott of  American values.

Estee Lauder’s sin is being owned by the volunteer leader of the Jewish National Fund. Sara Lee and L’Oreal are guilty of having been praised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another company is guilty of being owned by a friend of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Also in Sabeel’s crosshairs is a California-based business building green transportation infrastructure — electric car charging stations in Denmark, Australia, Hawaii — and Israel. It’s owner was named to Time magazine’s list of Environmental Heroes. But he is Israeli, so his company makes the list.

What can we do? Here are some suggestions:

Build bridges. Most Americans understand that such campaigns will not change governmental or corporate policies. Reach out to the boycotters — in their churches, civic groups, where you work and in your neighborhood. The people calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions are at the margins of public debate. Their goal is to poison the well at home. Don’t let them.

Make the case. Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people. It seeks to live in peace and security. BDS is a tactic aimed to delegitimize Israel. None of the groups backing BDS support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Promote peace. Call on churches and others being roped into the BDS drama to seek something better. Israelis and Palestinians deserve peace: Two peoples, two states, living side by side. Their peace will come when the parties are confident.

Foster reconciliation. Many organizations are working tirelessly to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, and Jews, Christians and Muslims. They deserve our support. Balanced travel missions demonstrate the complexity of the conflict and the need for peacemakers, not bomb throwers, rhetorical or otherwise.

Stay civil. Avoid shouting and name calling. As tempting as it may be to call for a boycott of companies owned by Sabeel’s supporters, we need to reject ineffective and partisan virtual warfare. We are not the parties to the conflict. A zero-sum, scorched earth approach that thrives on division helps no one.

Buycott instead of boycott. A few mudmasks and an extra container of hummus can’t hurt.

Get involved. Thankfully, the alarm has gone off and friends of Israeli-Palestinian peace are pushing back. The Israel Action Network, a partnership of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, will mobilize Jewish federations, agencies and JCRCs across North America to respond effectively to the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. Get up. Get trained. And go to work.

(Ethan Felson is the vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.)