Boycotts and sanctions against human rights violators is a common tactic to bring about change. Refusing to purchase abusers’ products seems like a simple, practical way even an individual can make a difference. Economic sanctions are also usually one of the most attractive means countries have of pressuring other nations. Sanctions seem far better than starting a war, and sanctions or war often look like the only two options.
Suffering in Venezuela
But even though economic sanctions don’t consist of dropping bombs and firing bullets, the effect of sanctions can be just as devastating. Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a moving column in the New York Times about a recent visit to Venezuela. (You can read it here, note that the NY times requires a subscription after a certain number of free articles per month.)
Kristof describes the devastating slide in Venezuela’s economy, which has resulted in malnutrition, lack of basic medical care, and the outbreak of disease. This is of course attributable to the policies of Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro. But Kristof argues that U.S. sanctions have also made things worse.
Kristoff describes meeting on his visit a mother who was turned away from three hospitals that lacked even basic supplies as her daughter died of malnutrition. Hospital emergency rooms that lack electricity and running water. Whole families living in slums lacking even the basic necessities of life.
A cruel fact about sanctions is that the poor and the least powerful are the ones who are almost always most affected. Maduro sees that the military and his supporters are taken care of, and those who have money get what they want. It’s the rest that are left to suffer.
The sanctions may be a way for the United States to register its outrage at the Maduro regime, but unfortunately they have not (at least so far) done much damage to his regime. Instead, the sanctions have increased the misery of the very people Maduro oppresses, those same people the sanctions are ostensibly designed to help.
Boycotts Against Israel
Boycotts are a frequent tool of those protesting Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. In addition to the Arab boycott of Israel, today there’s also the boycott, divest, and sanctions movement (BDS) as well.
I was intrigued to read recently about a group of Arab thinkers from across the Middle East who are pushing to engage with Israel rather than boycott (See coverage from The Jewish Journal here). They in no way see themselves as giving up on the Palestinian cause, but they believe that engagement is a more effective tactic than boycott for ending the occupation. They note that boycotting Israel has cost Arab nations billions in lost trade opportunities and doesn’t seem to have affected Israel’s policies at all.
Of course, boycott proponents say that without the military means to confront Israel, that is the only meaningful way to fight the occupation. Ending the boycott would be giving up on Palestine, telling the Israelis that they can continue the occupation indefinitely without consequences at all.
But I think this new group has a valid point, and that those boycotting Israel may in fact be mistaken. Let’s ask a simple question: Why have so many decades of boycott failed to produce results?
Many Israelis believe that their enemies are out to destroy them. They think a Palestinian state is not an end goal, and a theoretical Palestinian state would not seek to live in peace with Israel at all. Instead, the Palestinian state would simply be used as a new and improved launching ground for terrorist attacks and perhaps someday even a conventional military invasion as well. So Israel adamantly opposes all Palestinian demands, no matter how reasonable, believing them to be merely politically acceptable cover for yet more ruinous demands that are set to follow.
The boycott often reinforces that narrative. When academics in Europe refuse to collaborate with colleagues at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, or an Arab country refuses to do business with a multinational company simply because that company has among its numerous offices around the world a branch in Tel Aviv, it sends a message that the boycotters are opposed to Israel per se. That leads to a hardening of attitudes, a sense that the entire world is against us no matter what we do, and any incentive for change or compromise disappears.
Just the Territories?
Of course, a targeted boycott against just the settlements might be different. But that can be problematic as well. Consider the recent case of Soda Stream, which was targeted by the BDS movement when selling in the U.S. and Europe carbonated beverages manufactured in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone over the Green Line.
Yes, the boycott seemed to hurt the company and may make other companies think twice about building facilities in the West Bank. But wasn’t having hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis work together each day also beneficial? This was finally a way for Palestinians and Israelis to get past the numerous security barriers that keep them separate and get to know each other in the safe, mundane context of work. When the Soda Stream factory in Mishor Adumim closed and manufacturing moved to the Negev, the Israeli workers were able to commute to there or get other jobs much easier than their Palestinian counterparts, many of whom wound up unemployed. Finally, Mishor Adumim is right outside Jerusalem in territory likely to remain with Israel under any final peace accord anyway. So didn’t the boycott just send the message that Israel’s opponents are just out to hurt the country no matter what?
Wisdom To Know When to boycott
There certainly is a time and place for consumer activism and boycotts. Refusing to purchase products produced with slave labor in favor of more expensive yet responsibly produced alternatives strikes me as a good example. But let’s remember that boycotts inflict real pain and cause tremendous suffering, and often this winds up being against those whom the boycott is trying to help, not those who are actually to blame.
Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 2:14 states, “The wise man’s eyes are in his head, while the fool walks through darkness.” The great 11th century French commentator Rashi explains this means that before a wise person takes action, he thinks through all the future consequences to evaluate whether what he is about to do is truly for the best. The fool is the opposite, doing whatever seems right at the moment without thinking through unintended consequences and long term effects. Boycotts are powerful, and we need true wisdom to use them right.