Since I’m old enough to remember the Peloponnesian Wars, I can certainly remember that it wasn’t Canadians refusing to buy South African wine that brought an end to Apartheid. It was that Apartheid was no longer sustainable on its own terms. I suspect the same is true today with the hope that the Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement will have any affect whatsoever on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Israeli Apartheid will self-destruct when either a) the ethnic cleansing of Palestine is complete, or b) the Resistance obtains enough suitably small nuclear weapons to render the racist Law of the Return no longer viable, or c) the Jews themselves can no longer stomach their own atrocities. But none of the above involves boycotts, divestment, or sanctions.
But that doesn’t settle the issue. What’s remaindered is whether we sully ourselves by our complicity with the occupier, even if that complicity is otherwise epiphenomenal. It’s the same question, I suppose, as whether we sully ourselves morally by continuing to drive to work rather than take the bus, notwithstanding our taking the bus, while everyone else drives, would affect global warming not one iota. Or more generally, it’s whether our Kantian intuitions, assuming we have them, should trump our utilitarian ones.
My own view, for what little it’s worth, is that Kant was a moral idiot. And yet that still doesn’t settle the issue. No one denies we have a right to boycott, divest, or sanction, since if we didn’t that would mean we have an obligation to buy, invest, and buddy up with people with whom we’d rather not. And though others might think we do, I don’t think we have an obligation to boycott or divest. Israeli wine is precisely as contaminated by the Naqba as is Canadian wheat by the displacement of our indigenous peoples. And the same reductio applies to investment.
But I do want to argue that we might have an obligation to sanction Jewish Israelis, by which I mean to shun them, by which I mean to refuse to have anything to do with them, professionally or socially, even with the 30% of Jewish Israelis who are as opposed to their government’s policies as we are.
My argument is simple. Right and wrong is not something we work out all on our own. It’s something we work out together. People need to be told what behavior is unacceptable. And they need to be told that, whereas that behavior may escape the sanction of the law, it will not escape the social sanction the rest of us are in a position to impose. And why would we impose that sanction on those who are not themselves party to that unacceptable behavior? Because we’re hoping they’ll pass this moral disapprobation on.
I grant that there’s something morally unpalatable about punishing the innocent for the malfeasance of the guilty. But isn’t that precisely what we do when we knowingly inflict collateral damage in times of war? Or when that damage is not collateral but intended, otherwise known as terrorism? So unless we’re prepared to get into high moral dudgeon over Dresden and Hiroshima, I can’t offhand see the problem with shunning these innocent Israelis along with those guilty ones.
The counter-argument – though it’s better characterized as a counter-consideration – is that in shunning Israeli academics, for example, we punish ourselves. I say this is a consideration rather than an argument because of course punishment often costs the punisher as much if not more than it costs the punishee. Think of what the taxpayer pays to incarcerate O Henry’s petty criminal, who wants nothing more than to spend the winter with a guaranteed warm bed and three square, and with his friends to boot.
Besides, to shun a person is not to boycott what he’s put on offer. It’s simply to deprive him of the pleasure of putting it on offer in person. It’s to inflict the pain of ostracization.
What would count as a counter-argument, however, is the worry about the slippery slope. If we’re to shun Israelis over their government’s treatment of Palestinians, why not Americans for their government’s separating children from their would-be immigrant parents? And then why not Canadians who happen to be pro-Life? So pretty soon we’re refusing to have anything to do with anyone who in any wise disagrees with us on a moral issue. And that means we’ve put an end to this aforementioned working out of our conceptions of right and wrong together.
Call this, if you will, the Shunner’s Dilemma.
Is there a principled way to navigate the Shunner’s Dilemma? None that I can think of. It’s a judgment call, and not always an easy one to make. My wife and I have had a Holocaust denier over for dinner. But dinner with a full-fledged anti-Semite might put our open-mindedness to the test.
But even here, moral disapprobation is a collective action problem. Our now-thankfully-retired previous Dean was complicit in the suspension of academic freedom at the university where I work. I refused to attend a talk he gave to our Department. So what?! But had he been shunned by the entire Department – or better yet disinvited – every member of the senior Administration, having been put on notice, would have taken notice. But especially among academics, shunning is widely associated with churlishness, and miscreants know how to take full advantage of that association.
Some people think we need to save the world from ecological disaster. I’m not so ambitious. I just want to discourage my next door neighbors from having the Eichmanns over for dinner.