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opinion

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University

In what can be considered a landmark move testing the limits of free speech in the context of BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement), Israel's High Court has upheld the 2011 anti-boycott law which enables civil penalties to those who call for a boycott of Israeli products.

While activist NGOs had hoped to quash the bill, the court retained it, though with the added provision that litigants who wish to bring a suit to bear against a boycotter must establish financial losses. (Previous versions of the bill were more draconian in that respect, and also called for criminal proceedings.) Israeli NGOs who encourage boycott now also face the risk of having their tax-exempt status revoked. While it's not clear just how effective the BDS movement against Israel has been since it began a decade ago, this law signals just how much the Israeli government is feeling the international chill.

Many analysts believe that some pressure on Israel – which holds the bulk of the power in the Israeli-Palestinian nexus – is good. The question is, how much is too much?

The main trouble with BDS is that no one can agree on what its precise political target is, and therefore what its endgames are. The crux of the tension lies in one of the movement's three central demands, namely the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Now numbering around 4.7 million, a huge influx of Palestinians would challenge Israel's demographic balance, such that Israel might no longer remain a Jewish state, the core of its raison d'être. And despite a few voices who contest this, such a sizeable population shift would also likely challenge the two-state international consensus, and instead give rise to what's known as the "one-state solution," meaning one binational state spanning the entirety of Israel and the West Bank (and possibly Gaza).

Neither is BDS the only game in town when it comes to exerting pressure on Israel to end the occupation and seriously pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Among those exerting pressure are an array of Zionist organizations, in fact. In Israel, there is Peace Now and political parties like Meretz and the left wing of Labour. In Canada, there is Canadian Friends of Peace Now and the fledgling J Space. And in the U.S., there are American Friends for Peace Now, Ameinu (disclosure: on whose board I sit), and J Street, the self-styled "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby.

These groups differ on what kind of pressure they deem acceptable, but some members favour everything from urging the U.S. to withhold its Security Council veto on resolutions critical of Israel, to recognizing a Palestinian state, to publicly criticizing the settlement enterprise, and to even calling for a boycott of settlement products, a mostly symbolic move intended to underscore the integrity of Israel proper within its pre-1967 borders. Indeed, the current attempt by 16 European foreign ministers to label goods made in Israeli settlements underscores this impulse.

Where these groups draw the line though, is into actual BDS.

While one could argue that any form of non-violent political and economic pressure is a legitimate tool in the arena of advocacy (I draw the line at academic boycotts which I believe to be anathema to the intrinsic values of the academy) – and are certainly a welcome change from the heyday of Palestinian terrorism, the BDS movement has not sufficiently taken into account the needs and identity of both Palestinians and Israelis. BDS advocates counter this claim by focusing on Palestinians and Israelis as individuals, but the modern era has shown just how important national collectives in sovereign form are to both identity and material security. BDS, with its wide brush and maximalist demands, falls short of this.

BDS advocates would insist that it is precisely the bluntness of the BDS instrument which makes it more effective than the more anodyne tactics that liberal Zionists favour. But we must not ignore the psychological risk inherent in BDS. On one hand, experiencing some international pressure is useful. Israel has long sought to be a "light unto the nations," and reminders that its occupation is eroding its own self-professed liberal and democratic values are important. On the other hand, too much pressure can intensify Israel's longstanding "siege mentality" which can serve to harden attitudes, making Israelis less inclined to make the tough concessions necessary for peace. More limited pressure tactics that seek much more directly to underscore the need for both national peoples to be able to express their sovereign longings free of violence, occupation and dehumanization, might therefore better echo both the pragmatic and humanitarian ideals to which we, as Canadians, aspire.