There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.
Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself.
Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.
Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.
Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.
Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.