Debunking pro-Israeli arguments against boycott

27 October 2010

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International solidarity activists have adopted the unified Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against apartheid Israel. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)


While the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against apartheid Israel continues to grow, its opponents continue to resort to the same old canards in trying to defend Israel. In a Jerusalem Post article published on 17 October 2010, columnist Hannah Brown gives us a good example of some of the Israeli talking points (“British director Mike Leigh cancels Israel visit”. In her concluding paragraph she writes:

“[The] irony is that Israel is virtually the only country in the world that is being boycotted by the filmmaking community. Iranian filmmakers are lauded the world over and no one accuses them of having any complicity with a government that shoots pro-democracy protesters. Nor do directors who disagree with the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan see a need to skip the New York Film Festival, for example.”

With regards to Iran, the author is misinformed because there already is a boycott of Iran that has been in place by some countries for decades, and has been further upgraded this year. Iran, Brown can be reassured, is already boycotted by much of the world community.

However, for the sake of argument, even had there not been a boycott on Iran there would still be a need to address any grievances we may have with that country through different means. This is primarily because Iran is not being singled out by the world superpower for multi-billion dollar aid packages and other special treatment, nor do its artistic and filmmaking institutions benefit from such treatment and joint international programs.

Still, if an international filmmaker, such as Mike Leigh, feels deep down that his conscience cannot allow him to teach at Iranian institutions that are supporting Iran’s government then he could choose not to teach there. However, I doubt that he will find a unified Iranian position at the popular level advocating for a cultural boycott as a strategy to rid them of Ahmadinejad, as one finds among Palestinians in support of BDS against Israel. This argument is a diversionary tactic by the pro-Israeli boycott opponents to silence criticism of Israel, and we might want to ignore it until we hear of Iranians (not Israelis) calling for a cultural boycott of Iran.

As for the issue of equating the US with Israel, there is much truth, except that the author uses this as a rhetorical ploy because she never intends on boycotting the US or supporting such an act. The author seems to be saying that if there was a boycott of the US then a boycott of Israel would, only then, somehow be ethical. Is Brown then admitting that Israel is in violation of the human rights of Palestinians and is to be boycotted, except that we cannot do so until that time in which we also boycott the US? If people of the world waited for a boycott of the US, South Africa might still be an apartheid state! The crucial point is that Brown’s argument gives credence to a boycott of Israel; it is simply that boycott activists have not gone far enough.

Joined to this is the argument which boycott activists used to hear, and which is now almost forgotten, that Israel is too powerful to boycott, or if you want to boycott Israel then you have to boycott almost all products, for example Intel microchips made in Israel and common in computers all over the world. Those same people now argue that boycott activists should target the US. Rather than focus on more manageable targets and be more pragmatic, as the BDS movement has done, these critics make a pathetic attempt to sidetrack the debate by asking activists to boycott the world’s superpower.

There have been noble attempts by civil society groups, in and outside the US, to boycott the US. However, such boycotts have never truly been consolidated nor have their positions been coherently articulated. More important, the power of the US, the nature of its political system and internal social fabric, and its control of the world through numerous military bases that, on a map, look like a science fiction alien takeover of Earth, demands other strategic and pragmatic considerations. To think of strategies for ending Israeli apartheid and occupation in the same way as US occupation and imperialism is to have a naive understanding of the dynamics of power in both contexts.

Nevertheless, because of the special relationship between Israel and the US, one can think of the boycott of Israel as a way to boycott a US satellite in the Middle East. By changing the nature of the regime in Israel, ending the occupation and recognizing and promoting the Palestinian right of return, this could begin to reverse US policy elsewhere in the world by exposing the failed policies of the US government. In other words, the special US-Israeli relationship means that the boycott of Israel has the potential to significantly impact US policy elsewhere and shift the balance of power in the region.

It is time for people opposing the boycott to find newer talking points. Better yet, they might do well to simply let go of their morally bankrupt politics. The BDS movement has been, from the beginning, founded on principles of international human rights, freedom and equality. Trying to distract from the main issues of Israeli oppression and occupation by drawing flawed comparisons with other places in the world will hardly convince anyone who has a sense of moral responsibility to the world around them. As in South Africa, Israeli apartheid will end.

Sami Hermez is a PhD candidate of Anthropology at Princeton University. He can be reached at shermez A T Princeton D O T edu.