Jacob Weisberg of Slate explains why cultural boycotts of Israel are wrong: it’s about “consistency and proportionality– and history.” I was hoping it would be the satisfying knock-out punch the boycott movement deserves, but he doesn’t quite connect. He makes two strong points, however. The first:
Supporters of boycotting Israel seldom focus on China, or Syria, or Zimbabwe, or other genuinely illegitimate regimes that violate human rights not in deviation from their own principles but systematically. This underscores their bad faith.
This may not apply to the pro-Palestinian leaders of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, any more than the Free Tibet movement has an obligation to also back autonomy for Quebec or the Basques. But certainly when followers like Elvis Costello and Meg Ryan jump on board, as well as various leftist groups and individuals, I’d like to know if they are planning to boycott countries like the ones named by Weisberg. Otherwise, their boycott actions are more a fashion statement than a consistent political stand.
His second strong point:
Boycotters are not trying to send a specific message, such as “We object to your settlement policy in the West Bank” or “We think you need to be willing to give up more for peace.” What they’re saying instead is: “We consider your country so intrinsically reprehensible that we are gong to treat all of your citizens as pariahs.” Instead of warning that Israel risks becoming an apartheid society if it fails to make peace, boycotters have concluded that Israel already is an irredeemable apartheid society. Like the older Arab economic boycott of Israel, which dates back to the 1940s, the cultural boycott is a weapon designed not to bring peace but to undermine the country.
This argument presumes that boycotters don’t have a coherent or specific policy goal. And truth be told, you can spend a long time on BDSMovement.net without finding a goal more specific than this:
[BDS supports a boycott] until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law.
Not very specific, that. “Self-determination” defined how? Mutually recognized statehood, secure borders? And whose definition of “self-determination”? The P.A.’s? Hamas’? The UN’s?
Here’s how Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Global BDS Movement, describes the “self-determination” the boycotters are seeking:
The only way that we can exercise our right to self-determination [emphasis added], without imposing unnecessary injustice on our oppressors, is to have a secular, democratic state where nobody is thrown into the sea, nobody is sent back to Poland, and nobody is left in refugee camps.
In other words, one state, Jewish and Palestinian, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. Does Meg Ryan singer Devendra Banhart of the Gorillaz support the dissolution of Israel and a single bi-national state?
As for international law, what specific UN Security Council resolutions will Israel have to comply with before Costello agrees to play Tel Aviv? Stated another way, what would Israel have to do before the BDS people called off the boycott? They rarely say, which is intentional: When your ultimate fantasy is that your opponent disappears, it is hard to settle for anything less.
Weisberg is much less effective when he argues against the boycott from the perspective of “history,” which follows from his argument that the goal of the boycott is to “undermine the country”:
Because Israel is a refuge for persecuted Jews, this kind of existential challenge is hard to disassociate from anti-Semitism—even if people like Meg Ryan and Elvis Costello intend nothing of the kind. It is for this reason that unlike in South Africa, where the internal opposition supported sanctions, none but the most extreme voices in Israel are likely to come around to the idea that their country deserves to be boycotted, divested from, or punished with sanctions. When people are trying to murder you because of your religion, it is difficult to credit the bona fides of those who merely want to shun you because of your nationality.
I’m not sure why an effort to undermine a country is any more morally wrong or shameful because its citizens include persecuted Jews. This is an argument that folks like Norman Finkelstein relish: That Israelis use the Holocaust and anti-Semitism as an excuse to justify their illegal existence and persecution of the Palestinians. Israel may have been a haven for persecuted Jews, but its legitimacy shouldn’t have to depend on that.
Ultimately, Weisberg comes down on the side of specific actions to protest specific Israeli policies:
For instance, the high court of the European Union ruled earlier this year that goods manufactured in the West Bank don’t qualify for preferential treatment given to Israeli exports. In a similar vein, the New York Times recently delineated the way in which American supporters of the settlements claim hundreds of millions of dollars in tax deductions. When Elvis Costello takes on that scam, I’ll be right behind him.
Are there better arguments againt the boycotts? I go with the following, which boil down to efficacy: In the guise of helping the Palestinains, the boycotters are only prolonging the misery on both sides of the conflict. To wit:
1/ By singling out Israel for condemnation, a boycott emboldens its critics and enemies, many of whom have an animus towards Israel that has nothing to do with the fate of the Palestinians.
2/It encourages Palestinians and their supporters in the belief that time and world opinion, as opposed to meaningful actions on their part, will bring them closer to their goal of “self-determination.”
3/ Israel boycotts grossly oversimplify a tragic conflict, suggesting a dualist struggle between good guys and bad guys.
4/ Boycotts strengthen Israeli extremists, whose stars rise when Israelis are feeling most isolated and vulnerable.
5/ Finally, cultural boycotts insult and disempower the many, many Israelis who have been working for peace and reconciliation, and will ultimately undermine the internal Israeli dynamic that might bring about peace.
UPDATE: Rob Eshman of the L.A. Jewish Journal did the footwork and got a blanket denial from Meg Ryan’s publicist that she ever accepted an invitation to appear at the Jerusalem Film Festival. “No news outlet has corrected the Ryan assertion or, it seems, even bothered to verify it,” writes Rob.