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February 05, 2014 12:04 PM Scarlett Johansson, BDS, and Collective Punishment

By Jonathan Zasloff

No serious Zionist should defend Scarlett Johansson’s decision to remain as Sodastream’s official Spokesbabe, a decision that led her to sever her ties with Oxfam. Yet the controversy surrounding her endorsement contains a central irony: the very methods that Johansson’s detractors advocate undermine their case against Israeli self-defense.

As to the first point, boycotting products from the territories (and not from Israel proper) sends a clear and vital message to the Israeli government, viz.: you will not profit from the settlements policy. It is necessary for those like me who want Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state. Let’s say this again: uprooting settlements may be good for the Palestinians, but it is definitely good for the Jews. Recall just how difficult and traumatizing it was for Ariel Sharon to remove settlements from Gaza. It will be ten times worse with the West Bank. The paramount goal of saving Israeli democracy must be to stop settlements now and then start ripping them out. This is also why it is so outrageous that the Israeli government offers special tax breaks to firms like Sodastream that operate in the territories.

Whatever internal policies Sodastream might use, its very presence in the occupied territories dwarfs whether Israeli and Palestinian workers use the same lunch room. Israel is not (yet) an apartheid state (although in part of the territories it may well be), but one can see an analogy from the old Sullivan Principles during apartheid-era South Africa. Rev. Leon Sullivan endorsed the principles as a way of doing precisely what Sodastream says it is doing: encouraging equality between Blacks and Whites. But after a number of years, Sullivan abandoned the effort because he saw that the problem turned on putting sufficient pressure on the regime to change.

Or here is another analogy: suppose that there was a firm in Iran that hired Jews and treated them equally to Muslims. Or better yet, a Jewish-owned firm. There must be such things. No one who advocated for sanctions against Iran who take seriously someone who said we should trade with that firm. (Bernard Avishai has the goods over at TPM Cafe regarding Sodastream’s economic impact. As Avishai mentions, Sodastream’s plant in Maale Adunim is hardly the stuff of which a robust future Palestinian economy is made.).

As to the second, and ironic, point: if BDS advocates are happy about the breakup between Johansson and Oxfam, they have another thing coming, because their entire position on Sodastream undermines their position on Israeli responses to Palestinian terrorism.

Whenever Israel uses any military measures against Palestinian terrorists (and let’s make no mistake: firing rockets into Sderot or the Galilee is that, by whatever definition), the counter-argument is that military responses will kill civilians, and thus such actions amount to “collective punishment.” The principle seems unimpeachable: how in the world can you justify punishing someone who did not violate the law?

The problem is that boycotts, divestment, and sanctions are all about collective punishment. Forcing Sodastream to abandon its factory in Maale Adunim punishes innocent Palestinian workers. Indeed, given the West Bank’s dependence upon Israel economically, any sanctions on Israel amounts to collective punishment. Millions of Israelis voted against the government and the right-wing parties, and vehemently want a peace deal. Anti-Israel sanctions are thus collective punishment. Blockades are collective punishment. Lots of things are collective punishment. Indeed, the argument against collective punishment is precisely that which opponents of divestment made in the 1980′s. Pulling out of South Africa, they argued, would only hurt Black workers.

Some collective punishment is good and some collective punishment is bad. In order to tell the difference, we need to consider things like: 1) is this the least restrictive means available? 2) is there military necessity; and most importantly: 3) how do we assess the relative ends of the parties in question? And the answers to these questions will by their very nature bleed into each other and not have clear answers.

For example, it is not clear to me that one can assess “military necessity” without assessing the relative merits of the political goals that any military conflict involves. This is one stark failing of international humanitarian law: it seeks to regulate means without assessing the ends to which those means are directed. Essentially, it tries to take politics out of war. That is fantasy.

Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict engage in collective punishment in order to achieve their political goals. That’s why it is a war. That is why it is terrible. But to condemn means without assessing ends simply obscures the more fundamental issues.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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