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The call for a cultural boycott of Israel is banal, gestural and morally compromised

By: Anthony Julius and Simon Schama, December 22, 2006
Source: Comment is free, at the Guardian Online

The recent call by John Berger and others to boycott Israel is banal, gestural, and morally compromised. For those properly passionate about promoting the interests of Palestinians, there is much scope for morally uncompromised action. Edward Said, who in retrospect seems one of Israel's better enemies, understood this clearly enough, and understood also how self-defeating boycotts can be. "What have years of refusing to deal with Israel done for us?" he asked. "Nothing at all, except to weaken us and weaken our perception of our opponent."

Advocates of the boycott of Israel repeatedly invoke the boycott of South Africa. The parallel they draw between Israel and apartheid South Africa is false.

The Palestinian, Druze and other minorities in Israel are guaranteed equal rights under the basic laws. All citizens of Israel vote in elections. There are no legal restrictions on movement, employment or sexual or marital relations. The universities are integrated. Opponents of Zionism have free speech and assembly and may form political organizations. By radical contrast, South African apartheid denied non-whites the right to vote, decreed where they could live and work, made sex and marriage across the racial divide illegal, forbad opponents of the regime to express their views, banned the liberation movements and maintained segregated universities.

In any event, the relations between Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank are not governed by Israeli law, but by international law. "Apartheid," as a set of discriminatory laws governing the nationals of one state, is simply not the appropriate model here.

Last, and very importantly, since the 1920s, a substantial component of the Palestinian war against the Jewish community has been terrorism, that is, the intentional harming of civilians. The second intifada consisted of nothing more than terrorism. By contrast, the South African ANC expressly repudiated attacks on civilians. As the authors of a recent study of the parallels and differences between Israel and South Africa point out, not one suicide attack was committed in the 30 year armed struggle against apartheid.

The boycott call has several unappealing characteristics.

First, it has no stated objectives, other than a vaguely expressed hope for a "just peace." This is a phrase without ascertainable content. Do the boycotters wish for a single state, in which Jews will be an embattled minority? If they do, let them frankly say so, and openly champion the cause of the anti-Semitic Hamas. (A PA minister recently told students at Gaza University, "the conflict with the Jews is a religious, existential struggle and is not a conflict over borders"). Or do the boycotters wish for a two-state solution? If they do, they endorse the views of a majority of Israelis and, according to most polling, Palestinians too - and the boycotters thereby expose the absurdity of their call for a boycott. One does not boycott the efforts of majorities in each community as they struggle for peace.

Second, it is one-eyed. It complains of violations of the Lebanon ceasefire by Israel but says nothing of the cause of that war nor the violations of the Gaza ceasefire by Palestinian terrorists, who continue to fire their rockets into Israel's villages, deliberately targeting civilians. It says nothing about the kidnapped soldiers. It ignores the Israeli children murdered by suicide bombers. It puts in quotation marks "Israel's legitimate right of self-defence," as if to deny that right. It is utterly ahistorical. It casts the Palestinians as pure victims, the Israelis as pure aggressors. The very language it uses when addressing Israeli casualties is obfuscatory. "Ten Palestinians are killed," they write, "for every Israeli death." And from what is it that these Israelis have died?

Third, though the call purports to affirm universal, human rights values, it is incapable of explaining why it seeks a boycott of Israel, alone among the nations of the world. It says nothing about the abuses and human rights breaches inflicted on Israel's citizens. It says nothing about the egregious human rights abuses committed elsewhere in the world (Darfur, Chechnya, and many other places). The boycotters are incapable of generalising the principles that govern their call. They cannot - they will not - universalise it. They will not, that is, apply it to every other nation that acts in a comparable manner to Israel - let alone, to those many nations that behave far worse than Israel. A boycott would thus punish disproportionately; it would make pariahs of the citizens of one state alone in the entire world.

Fourth, in its own trivial way, by putting up barriers between Israelis and Palestinians it weakens the prospects for peace. Paul Frosh, in a posting on the admirable Engage website, has listed many examples of co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian institutions. It is also worth recalling that Terje Larsen, a Norwegian social scientist, facilitated the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, signed following secret talks between Israeli academics and senior PLO officials. Larsen is just the kind of person exhorted by the boycotters to have no dealings with Israel.

Last, it has a creepy desire to demonstrate its pro-Jewish credentials - especially in support of its most defamatory allegations and implications. A Primo Levi quotation insinuates that most obscene of anti-Israel tropes, that relates Zionists to Nazis; a reference to "the Jewish Ronnie Kasrils" supports the apartheid analogy. What possible relevance, we ask, is Kasrils' religion of birth to his stance on Israel? Ethnicity is not a criterion of competence in moral judgment. In any event, history is full of examples of Jews who have made common cause with anti-semites.

This is not the first boycott call directed at Jews.

On April 1, 1933, a week after he came to power, Hitler ordered a boycott of Jewish shops, banks, offices and department stores. In 1945, barely 12 years later, the Arab League initiated a boycott of Jewish Palestinian businesses. One year later, the ban was extended to prohibit contact with "anything Jewish" (as the Palestine Post reported, quoting a League announcement). This economic warfare continues to the present day. Of course, while self-declared enemies of the Jews imposed the 1933 and 1945 boycotts, the 2006 boycotters are anxious to demonstrate that they have Jewish support.

But this does not free this latest boycott of the taint of anti-semitism. Indeed, the boycotters' language is drawn, as if irresistibly, toward anti-semitic formulations. As one supporter put it, "Let [Israel's] citizens feel the rejection from Europe." Well, Europe's "rejection" has been experienced once before - lethally - by many Israeli Jews, and many more of their immediate forebears. In the very week when the President of Iran hosted a conference promoting Holocaust denial and once again anticipated with pleasure the end of Israel (events which apparently escape the notice of our boycotters), we do not shrink from the conclusion that any boycott of Israel is reprehensibly deaf to those practices of stigmatization and exclusion that characterized anti-semitism's offence against Jews for two millennia.

The Palestinian cause, still less the cause of peace, is not served by promoting discrimination against Jews. It is indecent to call for the shunning of the Jewish state.

Author profile:
Dr. Anthony Julius is a prominent litigation lawyer and academic, well known for his actions on behalf of Diana, Princess of Wales and Deborah Lipstadt. He is a Visiting Professor in Law at Birkbeck College, London University, and autbhor of "TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form", "Transgressions: The Offences of Art" and "Dear Images - Art, Copyright and Culture".

Simon Michael Schama CBE is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He has also written and presented a number of documentaries for the BBC including the popular 15-part BBC documentary series A History of Britain. Simon Schama has been a regular contributor to The New Republic; The New York Review of Books; The Guardian, and since 1994, art and cultural critic for The New Yorker.

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