by Daniel Hoffman
Many European and American students are familiar with academic boycotts of Israel, campaigns which emerged in the United Kingdom in the midst of the second Intifada and resurface from time to time on campuses when an “Israeli topic” is debated. These are occasions for pro-Palestinian activists to demonstrate and ask for relations with Israeli universities to be banned.
Recently, two events in France have reinvigorated these old and passionate debates. The first episode was the cancellation of French pop singer Vanessa Paradis’ concert in Tel Aviv, probably a result of political pressures (though her agent claimed it was for professional reasons). Similar cases have happened in the past with other Western artists, such as Elvis Costello and Gorillaz.
The second event took place in one of France’s most prestigious universities, the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS). Bestselling author Stéphane Hessel, a vociferous detractor of Israeli policy, was supposed to speak in a “Solidarity with Palestine” conference, which was supported by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign calling for an economic boycott of Israel. The event was ultimately canceled, the ENS reminding those involved that the boycott of Israel is forbidden under French law. The controversy became virulent when several pro-Palestinian organizations accused the university of having given in to the requests of pro-Israeli committees.
Gatherings celebrating Israeli culture are also opportunities for boycott
supporters to spark polemics. During the 2008 book fair in Paris, where
Israel was the guest of honor, a national debate was raised after Muslim countries refused to take part in the event. Boycott actions are most likely to be launched when fighting erupts in the Middle East. After the Gaza flotilla raid, in June 2010, a French cinema chain decided to cancel the screenings of an Israeli movie, though the movie was completely unrelated to the conflict.
What is wrong with these campaigns? Is the the fact that they are anti-Semitic? Certainly not: boycott supporters are obviously not all anti-Semites. Is it the fact that they are unfair? That can’t be. Unfairness is too subjective a notion and can hardly be demonstrated.
No, there is something else. The main problem with these campaigns is that they are first and foremost hypocritical.
Their first hypocrisy lies in the very definition of the word “boycott.” The term is so vague and nebulous that it cannot correspond to a single reality. What is the boycott about: food products, academic exchanges, people themselves or any Israel-related object? Which geographical area is concerned: the settlements only or all of Israel? Should the boycott be launched without debate or should it be preceded by a discussion on its appropriateness? Most supporters don’t answer such questions.
A historical reference often invoked when trying to justify the boycott is South Africa. This is a fallacious analogy. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has
absolutely nothing to do with apartheid. You might think Israel is wrong. You might even think it maintains some discriminatory policies. But it is untrue to pretend that there is any political similarity between today’s Israel and 1980s South Africa. Apartheid was a system that legally segregated inhabitants of the same country on a racial basis. Israelis and Palestinians are two different peoples. The comparison with South African blacks is a mistake, and perhaps even an insult to Palestinians. It casts doubts on their ability to self-determinate. For any sincere friend of the Palestinians, the apartheid argument is not tenable.
Neither is the moral argument. Here again, the reasoning deserves to be pushed to its end. Israel can be targeted for a boycott–but so could any number of other countries. Should China be boycotted for the repression of Tibetans, Uyghurs and so many other ethnic groups? Should India be condemned for its intolerable castes? And what about Russia, not really beyond reproach with the Chechens? What about Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Sudan, or even the United States? Should we boycott them all?
Shouldn’t we take a moment to wonder if this boycott is useful for Israelis and Palestinians, if it favors dialogue or if, instead, it exacerbates the region’s tensions? Arguing that the boycott is counterproductive must not elude the issue of criticizing Israeli policy—it makes the criticism even more necessary. But it also asks for more efficient ways to move forward.
5 thoughts on “The Hypocrisy of Boycotting”
Very well written, I enjoyed this article!
Yes, sad indeed! Hypocisy without any doubt… Baneful all of this childish fighting can become and ugly wars created over nothing(s)!
Rich A. N.
PS Hope to see more of your articles, argumentative/persuasive (very well versed you are friend)? All best and most success your way my friend. Again: “Frieden/Peace Mein Gut Freund” (My German is lousy, however I attempted to state to you in my best Deutsch/German: “Peace My Good Friend,”and again all best your way Daniel Hoffman
Thank you for the very astute and truthful depiction of BDS movement. Sure BDS is a hypocrisy. And sure boycott supporters are not all anti-Semites. But I would not exonerate them from this quality. It’s not fashionable to exhibit anti Semitic feeling publicly in the enlightened Europe. But for many of these people hate for Israel is permeated by latent hate for Jews.
Agreed… Much success to you friend… I’m still working on my end, though I truly believe all are indeed equal or should be; well those up to good or at least trying to right wrongs I suppose right? Sorry to comment late.
Too bad the world is not more giving, or allowing in nature, nurture perhaps? Take care and much success to you, any advice if you see my site would be highly respected! Yet understand your busy career and time you obviously put into your work… Meaning if it takes while to return my comment friend.
You claim that boycotts are “hypocritical”. Yet nothing in your article remotely supports that claim. Instead, you claim that boycotts may be counterproductive, and that often the term covers many instances — both of these may be true, but what does that have to do with hypocritical? You also say that the apartheid analogy is flawed, but again, what does that have to do with hypocrisy?
The only thing that may be vaguely related to the hypocrisy charge is your argument that if Israel is deserving of boycott, then so are other places. In fact, that was precisely the response of the South African whites to the boycott of the apartheid regime: They said, “At a time when there is ethnic slaughter elsewhere around the globe, why do you single us out?” They were wrong, don’t you agree? If we apply that standard, for example, we could not place sanctions on Iran, because there are much worse places than Iran.
Now, the hypocrisy argument is bad for two main reasons. First of all, even if there are other places where there are worse atrocities, it is not at all clear that boycotts are appropriate or effective in such cases; sometimes state sanctions may be better, and even these are not always applied fairly. Secondly, even if they would be effective, it is not hypocritical to focus on one area where you think you have a chance for success. To argue otherwise is about as mature as saying to a traffic cop, “Why did you stop me? There are others you could have stopped that are going faster?”
The question to be considered is not whether BDS is hypocritical; but rather how effective is it? And judging from Israel’s sensitivity to its image, it seems to be an effective tactic.
You obviously have not studied much about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Go to their website. This is a Palestinian initiative to force Israel, by way of non-violent means — to think hard about the price of the occupation. If, for example, nobody buys settler products, Israel won’t invest in companies that profit from the occupation. And indeed, already, the boycott has had its effect — some Israeli companies (and foreign companies) have pulled out of the West Bank because of the boycott and divestment campaigns. Soda Stream is one; Begal Begal pretzles is another. Pretty soon, Ahava beauty products will do the same.
Now you may say that this is not a good way to get Israel to the bargaining table. So what? Israel has a government that is interested in stretching out the peace process as long as it can, so it can expropriate more lands and settle more settlements. If you believe — as I do — that such a view is tantamount to suicide by drug overdose, then the BDS movement’s cold turkey alternative is probably Israel’s last chance of survival. Divestment hurt South Africa, and it really hurt South African blacks, where companies were forces to close. But they were willing to undergo that deprivation in hopes of a better future — which they have received,
And, finally, the Blacks in South Africa were better off than the Palestinians living under occupation. While they did not have a vote, like the Palestinians, they were not herded in ghettoes behind “security fences” while their lands were taken away. The Blacks were considered South African, and nobody wanted to get rid of them, or limit their natural growth, of encourage them to immigrate. What Israel does in its system of hafrada is much worse than apartheid.