Russell Brand is the latest to muscle in on the Israel-Palestine conflict, calling for big businesses to pull funding from the country. But the issue of boycotts is a fraught one. For many Jews, the word “boycott” immediately carries with it the haunting spectre of recent history; reviving the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops and businesses in Germany during the 1930s.
That does not mean that Jews automatically oppose boycotts. Indeed, many Jews unofficially boycotted German products after the Holocaust, refusing to visit Germany or to buy a Volkswagen car for example. Many other Jews participated in the boycott of South African products during apartheid. And, when the Tricycle theatre in north London recently asked the UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF) to forgo its grant from the Israeli Embassy and the UKJFF refused, many Jews seemingly called for a boycott of the theatre. (In this instance, one has to say that calls to boycott a boycotter become somewhat absurd and Kafkaesque.)
But the problem with the current calls to boycott Israel is that they send out the wrong signals to the very people who are most receptive to dialogue. This is because Israel is not the only state currently engaged in questionable behaviour, but it appears to be the only one singled out for a boycott on the scale proposed. Many ask where the similar boycotts of Syria, China, Russia and the many other states whose human rights records are questionable are.
They perceive a double standard here and begin to ask why the world’s only self-identified Jewish nation is the target of a boycott when other equally, if not more deserving nations, are not. They then come to one conclusion: that calls for a boycott are motivated by the same thing that motivated the Nazis – and that one thing is anti-Semitism.
This is precisely the situation Tricycle finds itself in. Having asked the UKJFF to cut its ties with the Israeli Embassy, the theatre is now surely duty bound to ask each and every organisation with which it deals to cut its ties to any governmental agency engaged in conflict. To do otherwise would confirm the accusations of anti-Semitism by making it look like the UKJFF has been singled out for special treatment.
Calls for a boycott therefore take on the appearance of anti-Semitism if not always the intent. To justify their stance, boycotters throw around terms like “genocide”, “apartheid”, “ghetto” and “Nazis” while ignoring their historical specificity and how they came about. In order to allay charges of anti-Semitism, boycotters need to pay far more attention to the words they use.
Of course, this may be unfair. It’s true that those who seek to defend Israel against any criticism often use the stick of anti-Semitism as a blunt weapon. But it is also true that a blanket ban of Israel has the same effect. It brings under its umbrella those who oppose Israeli actions, including Arabs living, working and studying in Israel. One can read far more trenchant criticism of Israel in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz than one would read in either The Guardian or on the BBC but under the terms of a boycott, Ha’aretz would be banned. The boycott then becomes counterproductive, silencing the very voices who can make a change to Israeli policy from within.
Cultural boycotts have particular impact as they focus on universities, arts, culture, theatres, cinemas, and so on. These are often the very places where Israelis are most critical of the Israeli government’s policies. What’s more, by boycotting universities, cultural and arts institutions, the boycotters play into the hands of those Jews who constantly warn us about anti-Semitism. The effect is that boycotts of all kinds strengthen and play into the hands of the right wing while weakening those who may be oppositional.
It needs to be asked why Israel alone is being targeted on this level. Perhaps it’s because Israel is perceived as a Western “civilised” nation and is therefore susceptible to change, open to reason where other countries or groups, such as Hamas or IS, are not. Or perhaps we’re displacing Western guilt about our own history of colonialism by accusing another nation of colonialism.
The West must not discharge its own responsibility for the state of affairs in the Middle East. Britain had a mandate over Palestine and helped to draw national borders. Or maybe it’s just that many people are ignorant of modern history, including that of their own country’s foreign relations.