The Embarrassment of the Wretched

Israeli bulldozers demolish a Palestinian house in the village of Issawiya, on the edge of Jerusalem, 25 December 2006. (MaanImages/Moamar Awad)

A recent call for a cultural boycott against Israel by John Berger and others has elicited one of its more wretched responses in the Guardian (Dec. 22), signed by Anthony Julius and Simon Schama. I confess I haven’t heard of Anthony Julius before - I am told he is a lawyer, and lawyers sometimes bend truth for their clients. But Simon Schama is a prominent academic, professor of history at Columbia, a man of science. He should know better.

Who’s Singling Out?

A recurrent theme in anti-Palestinian propaganda (usually misnamed “pro-Israel”) is “Don’t Single Out.” The idea is that evil should be addressed everywhere; the greater the evil, the greater the protest against it should be; and since there are worse cases of evil than Israel’s, Israel should not be criticized. Not now, at least: perhaps after all other evils have been eradicated.

The article by Julius and Schama is no exception: you’ll find this cliche as argument number three:

“[T]hough the call [to boycott Israel] 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).”
Let’s apply the Don’t-Single-Out argument to the writers themselves. If, as they claim, evils should be addressed top-to-bottom, then Schama and Julius must either consider the proposed boycott the greatest evil on earth, or else they have already done their best to address all greater evils.

Is the proposed boycott really the greatest evil on earth? Well, I haven’t heard of a single human injured, killed, or even suffering because of it. But while Julius and Schama were busy writing their article, Gaza had been under Israeli siege for months on end. Numbers of dead reached historic levels; a million and a half human beings have been locked in the tiny Strip, deprived of proper medical care and on the verge of starvation. Schama and Julius don’t even mention this evil.

Bombing city centers, then, is quite fine - the only problem is that it’s not all too helpful

At the same time, the U.S. government has been using Julius’ and Schama’s tax money to train and arm one party of the feared Palestinian civil war - coincidentally, the party that lost the recent democratic elections. Schama and Julius don’t mention this evil, either. But they did find the time to single out the call for boycott and to write against it. And they do have the nerve to blame the initiators of the boycott of “singling out,” i.e., of hypocrisy.
But - you may argue - perhaps the writers have already addressed all the greater evils on the globe, so that they can legitimately find time to address the boycott? Well, I tried to trace Schama’s peace activism. Googling “Schama and Israel” yields just one relevant result: during the last Lebanon war, when Israel was flattening entire neighborhoods in Beirut, killing at least 1,140 civilians, 30 percent of them children under 12, Prof. Schama went out of his way to express this devastating criticism of Israel’s atrocities: “what Israel’s doing - bombing city centers - is ultimately not going to help its own attempt to get rid of a mini-army like Hezbollah,” he told BBC. Bombing city centers, then, is quite fine - the only problem is that it’s not all too helpful. A brave criticism indeed. And so moral, too.

I then Googled “Schama and Darfur”: nothing of relevance. “Schama and Chechnya”: nothing at all. (By the way, how about U.S.-controlled Iraq? Or Afghanistan? Everything fine over there?) But now I have to be careful: perhaps Simon Schama has been an unrelenting and indefatigable activist for peace and justice in Palestine, in Darfur, in Chechnya, and in “many other places,” as he puts it. But as far as I can see, his relentless activism hasn’t left any trace on the World Wide Web (where his name yields more than 450,000 results). Perhaps the public activity of Schama - honored “Commander of the British Empire” - was done entirely in private.

Occupation Whitewashed

To dismiss the analogy drawn between Israel and South African apartheid, Julius and Schama claim that “Palestinian, Druze, and other minorities in Israel are guaranteed equal rights under the basic laws. … There are no legal restrictions on movement, employment, or marital relations.”

This claim is correct, at least on a layman’s level: an informed historian and a serious law expert should have known that marital relations between partners of different religions/ethnicities are not possible under Israeli law; but let’s not expect too much. What turns their words into pure demagoguery is that neither John Berger, nor the boycott initiative, not even the Palestinian call for boycott mention the status of minorities within Israel as their motivation for the boycott, or for comparing Israel to South African apartheid.

Julius and Schama know very well why Israel is likened to apartheid South Africa: not because of minorities within it (discriminated as they are), but because of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. With this, of course, they cannot cope. So first they dismiss a claim not claimed, and then move on to distract from the occupation with a single, counterfeit sentence:

“[T]he relations between Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank are not governed by Israeli law, but by international law.”
That’s indeed one of the greatest pearls I have ever read in this context. I challenge the legal expert and the honorable historian to supply one piece of evidence for a single aspect of “the relations between Israel and the Palestinians” - i.e., of the occupation (a term the writers carefully avoid) - which is actually “governed” by international law.

Does international law allow creating settlements and moving the occupier’s population to occupied land?

Does international law allow creating settlements and moving the occupier’s population to occupied land? Does international law allow deporting occupied persons, individually or en masse? Does international law allow constructing the apartheid wall? Does international law allow setting hundreds of checkpoints and a permit system that makes Palestinian economic and even family life utterly impossible? Does it allow confiscation of land and property, as Israel’s occupation forces constantly practice? International law does not allow any of these. Israel does not respect a single paragraph of international law, which, according to Schama and Julius, “governs” its relations with the Palestinians.

If a history student claimed, say, that in the 17th-century Dutch Republic certain relations were “governed” by some legal principle, not bothering to mention that that legal principle was not accepted by the concerned party, was not implied, and had no impact on reality whatsoever, I am sure Prof. Schama would finish him off, rightly dismissing his statement as pure charlatanism. But when Israel’s occupation is at stake, Schama himself readily resorts to this kind of demagoguery.

Historical Analogies

One doesn’t have to be a professor of history at Columbia to know that historical analogies are always controversial, simply because history never really repeats itself. The apartheid analogy has been under fire, too: e.g., because unlike the blacks in South Africa, the Palestinian liberation movement struggles for a nation-state and not for a single multi-ethnic one. I myself agree with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who recently said that what Israel is doing in the occupied territories is worse than apartheid; “apartheid” has by now turned into a euphemism. Dismissing an historical analogy, as Schama and Julius are doing, is always easy.

However, Julius and Schama insist on introducing their own historical analogy: in an article criticizing the boycott as “banal,” they themselves use the most banal analogy of all, namely that of Hitler’s Germany. There’s no need to address this analogy, nor would it have been worth mentioning at all, were it not for the extremely manipulative manner in which Julius and Schama introduce it. The nexus between the present boycott initiative to “April 1933” Germany is fabricated by a single sentence, standing suspiciously alone as an independent paragraph. It reads:

“This is not the first boycott call directed at Jews.”
What a manipulation. Berger’s is indeed not the first boycott directed against Jews: it’s not a boycott directed against Jews at all. It is directed against Israel, not against Jews. Some of its supporters are Jews, but this doesn’t really matter. To discredit the boycott, Julius and Schama lie about its target, portraying a political boycott as a racist one. By this manipulation, the writers in fact reaffirm the defamation that “all the Jews” are culpable and thus responsible for the Israeli occupation. This is precisely the criminal logic behind indiscriminate terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians and Jews worldwide.

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and his PhD is in Jewish Studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen’s work has been published widely in Israel. “Letter from Israel” appears occasionally at This article, which first appeared on, is republished with the author’s permission

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