Scarlett Johansson, BDS, and Collective Punishment

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.


Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

13 thoughts on “Scarlett Johansson, BDS, and Collective Punishment”

  1. The problem with this conflict, as with many others, is that each side justifies its collective punishment of the other by citing their previous and ongoing collective punishments. Israeli military incursions are justified by Palestinian rocket attacks, which are justified by Israeli economic blockades, which are justified by Palestinian terrorist bombings, which are justified by Israeli land seizures, and so on.

    I don't care any more. I don't think either side has any claim to moral high ground and so neither of them is justified in their actions. The collective punishments each engages in is morally reprehensible, full stop. I grade each side only upon its willingness and efficacy in putting an end to the violence and in this regard both are morally degenerate. It has become obvious that a critical mass on both sides are more interested in gaining vengeance than they are in gaining peace.

    Millions of Israelis may want peace desperately, but so what? The government that Israelis elect collectively repeatedly takes actions that indicate that its desire for peace is something less than desperate.

    One particularly galling argument used by both sides to justify their own violence is that it is only by punishing the other side for its intransigence that an acceptable peace can be obtained. This idiocy flies in the face of the entire history of human behavior. People engaged in an existential struggle, which both sides here believe they are, don't ever get bombed to the peace table. They just dig in more deeply.

    1. Re "It has become obvious that a critical mass on both sides are more interested in gaining vengeance than they are in gaining peace. "

      But, that isn't an actual majority, right? Or, no one knows for sure? Interestingly, Zasloff has posted before about somebody's referendum proposal for Isreal/Palestine. (I forget the name of it.) Sounds like a good idea to me, and I don't care how many times they have to hold the election to get a win.

      This kind of thing fascinates me. The moderate majorities held back by the committed nutbars. Since it happens here too! Someone needs to create an app for that.

      1. I don't know whether it is a majority, though both sides have freely elected the extremists. If you do that, you don't get to claim that there is a majority that is desperate for peace, only desperate for peace on their specific terms.

  2. "Spokesbabe?"

    A little sexist, no?

    Hmm…wrong on substance and obnoxious disregard for etiquette. Why am I not surprised?

  3. Watch the spot, and then tell me whether Jonathan's comment is more or less sexist than the item it refers to.

    1. In the immortal words of the great Max Bialystock: "That's it, baby! When you got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!" Nothing lasts forever, why shouldn't she get as much as she can, while she can and however she can?

    2. Well, she is a spokesbabe; this position was probably not open to anybody who's not really good looking (with the exception, of course, for a really funny so-so looking guy).

  4. Employees and employers don't have the same interests. A boycott that punishes an employer doesn't necessarily punish its employees to the same degree or in the same way. That is why a boycott aimed at reducing abuses of workers, e.g. the Nike boycott, is usually not described as punishing the workers, but rather the company.

    1. I’d also add something (which was written on this site? can’t recall), to the effect that collective punishment should be thought of as analogous to war. In some cases, it’s justifiable, in others it’s not, and very few people are always for or against it - aside from neocons, of course 🙂

      One should examine jus ad collective ppunishment and jus in collective punishment, for a given situation.

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