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The Right to Boycott

The cultural and economic boycott against Israel is indeed unpleasant, but it succeeds where 20 years of encounter programs have failed, that is, in motivating more Israelis to end the occupation.

Noam Sheizaf is a Tel Aviv-based journalist. This text appeared on Time Out Tel Aviv on February 5, 2014.

As the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement in the United States continues to grow, one thing is conspicuously absent from the news coverage here – outside of the official pronouncements and statements from the Israeli government, we hear very few voices from ordinary Israeli citizens. In order to get some sense of how the issue of the boycott is being discussed there, we are happy to publish this English translation of an article first published in Israel. It provides a useful context within which to understand the role of the boycott there. The article focuses on the legitimacy of the boycott – among other forms of political activism. The author argues that the boycott is a lawful tool, and that there are other tools that may be used as well. He notes the ways in which many in Israel regard the boycott as seeming to impinge upon their lives in unfair ways and considers that among various possible ways of protesting the occupation, boycotts seem to be preferable to many other forms. It is important to note that Time Out Tel Aviv is an entertainment magazine. Thus we can understand better not only the references to entertainment in Sheizaf’s piece, but also appreciate how this issue has permeated everyday life in Israel-Palestine. I am grateful to the author for allowing us to reprint it here – he has approved some slight changes for a US readership.

The cultural and economic boycott against Israel is indeed unpleasant, but it succeeds where 20 years of encounter programs have failed – that is, in motivating more Israelis to end the occupation.

The Boycott campaign against Israel started towards the end of the second intifada as an alternative to the violent struggle against the occupation. It began in 2005 with a call issued by 171 Palestinian organizations urging the international community to take various forms of boycotting Israel until it ends its military rule over the territories, stops the building of settlements, grants full equality to Israeli-Arab citizens and respects theright of return. Since then, complementary or alternative versions of boycott emerged, from boycotting goods produced in the settlements to anti-normalization – an approach that opposes almost any joint Israeli-Palestinian activity in the context of the current reality.

Despite the very broad goals the organizers of the boycott campaign have set for it, the driving force behind it was, and still remains, the occupation and the settlements. The boycott initiatives did not seem to catch on as long as there were negotiations between the Olmert government and the Palestinian Authority. But in recent years, with no meaningful negotiations between Netanyahu’s government and the Palestinians taking place, as the settlements are expanded and with a strong sense that many Israelis have chosen the status quo as a permanent solution, the idea of the boycott now seems to many to be a legitimate action for pressuring the Israeli government.

On the diplomatic level, Israel is still nowhere near facing the type of sanctions imposed on rogue states like Iran, Belarus or Sudan, or even the campaign against Russia. The boycott is felt to some extent within cultural and academic institutions, but its economic impact is marginal. And still, the general direction is quite clear – the boycott efforts will continue and perhaps intensify.

It also seems that the question of the boycott’s effectiveness was settled this year – the boycott annoys and intimidates the Israeli public, but it also has brought the occupation back onto the agenda and is gradually affecting the mainstream. In fact, for most Israelis, the boycott and the prospect of more such measures are now cited as the main reasons to end the occupation; its impact on public opinion far exceeds what has been achieved in 20 years of coexistence meetings between Jews and Arabs.

Nevertheless, even among those Israelis who perceive themselves as opposing the occupation, and even among devoted leftists, there is significant opposition to the boycott. Some of these opponents could be directly harmed by the boycott, whether they are club owners or theatrical agents whose livelihood is affected, scholars whose academic status in the world is deteriorating, or even just Tel Aviv residents who get upset at the thought that they might miss a concert or an exhibition due to their government’s policies, that they, personally, do not support. These are serious arguments, but they should be understood in their right proportions. The Palestinians have a right to resist the occupation, and the boycott is a civil, non-violent tactic. What exactly is the alternative that Israel is offering them? Attacks? Rockets? For many Israelis and their elected officials, each Palestinian attempt to be freed from the collective jail we imposed on them is viewed as an act of terror and an existential threat. And yet among the many bad options on the table, the boycott actually does not seem so bad.

Very few Israelis support the boycott, and that is perfectly natural. There are right-wing campaigns against the boycotters and a law against them as well. It is also particularly difficult to expect people to go against their own interests. But for moderate Israelis to automatically align against the boycott and for them to cheer any artist who decides to break it is not a solution either. The way to fight the boycott is not to exchange insults on Facebook with pro-boycott groups or with artists who decide to forgo a visit to Tel Aviv. The way to stop the boycott is simply to end the occupation.

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