Tuesday, February 10, 2009

To boycott or not, and if not, then what?

Contents of this Jewish Peace News post:

1) Responses to the call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, by JPN editors Lincoln Shlensky, Judith Norman, Racheli Gai, and Rela Mazali

2) JPN reader Dr. Naftali Kaminski's response to the call for a US academic and cultural boycott of Israel

3) JPN reader Dr. Aharon Eviatar's response to Adrienne Rich's letter on the boycott (with a response by JPN editor Racheli Gai)


1) Commentary on responses to the academic and cultural boycott of Israel

What follows (below the JPN editors' comments on the issue of boycott) is an argument by Dr. Naftali Kaminski against the academic/cultural boycott of Israel that has been the subject of a number of JPN posts in recent days. Some of JPN's editors have also added their comments, which precede Naftali's statement. I will begin by writing a few words about Naftali's argument and then presenting some of my own views.

Naftali Kaminski, who wrote the following in response to discussions of the boycott in JPN and elsewhere, is an Israeli who was involved with the grassroots organization Jewish Voice for Peace in the San Francisco area in its early days, returned to Israel for some years, and now resides in the US again and is active with the Middle East Peace Forum of Pittsburgh. He is a physician/scientist renowned for his recent pioneering work in the field of medical genomics. He is also a friend and medical colleague of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian psychiatrist whose three young daughters were killed by an Israeli shell during the recent Gaza invasion.

Naftali writes against the US cultural and academic boycott of Israel that has been the subject of a number of JPN posts in the past few days. His objections to the boycott are primarily pragmatic, but they are also more than that. He believes, notably, that it would be inconsistent to boycott Israeli academic institutions without also boycotting the American academicians and universities that "provide some of the intellectual and economic justification as well as generate the military knowledge that allows Israel to continue its policies." He also believes that there are far better targets for political action than the Israeli academy and cultural institutions, including companies that profit from the occupation (of which he gives examples of some of those whose goods continue to be sold in American stores) and that are therefore vulnerable to direct action campaigns. He argues that "finding ways to do away with legal impunity of Israeli military and political leaders" and engaging with the Obama administration are also more likely to produce effective political results.

My own view is partly influenced by the outcome of the British academics' and teachers' boycott of Israeli academic institutions that began to gain momentum in 2002, was passed by the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) in 2005, was renewed by the British National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) in 2006, and was still actively being argued over as late as last year. These efforts seem to have been a spectacular failure. Not only did they fail to achieve any change on the ground, they energized the reactionary "pro-Israel" right and gave them what appears to have been a powerful weapon in the arsenal of European and American public opinion warfare: that supporters of the boycott were hostile to freedom of expression. In the end, the claim that the boycott supporters' anti-Zionism was a veiled form of anti-Semitism did more to harm academic (and leftist) credibility on this topic in the UK than to help the Palestinians. Fallout from the boycott precipitated a media circus that greatly distracted from the real issues. It's hard for me to get behind the idea that this is a tactic which has not been tried. That it has not been tried successfully is the truth of the matter, although there is certainly room for debate about why it hasn't been successful.

I also think the conditions are different in this case than in that of Apartheid South Africa, where an academic boycott played a debatably effective role. South African whites in the 1980s had virtually no supporters in the rest of the world, while blacks had tremendous popular support almost everywhere. This is simply not the case with Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. There may be a preponderance of international support for dispossessed and oppressed Palestinians, but it is by no means universal for a variety of historical reasons, including Europe's lingering guilt over the Holocaust, the powerful romantic appeal of Christian "Zionism," and demogogically whipped-up European fears of Muslim immigrants' impact on "European" (i.e., "Christian") values, reinforced by a coterie of reactionary critics like the Canadian Mark Steyn, who claims that Europe is committing "cultural suicide" as its Muslim populations become increasingly culturally dominant. Moreover, Jewish constituencies and institutions in the US and Europe have created a powerful but manifestly false linkage between the real existential threats Israel faces in the region and the consequences, if not the legitimacy, of Palestinian territorial claims; the political left has seen through such falsehoods, but it has done little to acknowledge or address Israeli and Jewish existential concerns. For these reasons, I believe that a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions would not have sufficient support at present, and would fail to offer the crucial signals that the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the granting of territorial integrity to a Palestinian state is anything but a threatening zero-sum game for Israeli Jews.

What I particularly appreciate about Naftali's commentary is that he offers alternatives to an academic boycott that he views as more pragmatic and strategic means to the goal of ending the occupation and oppression of Palestinians. Although I was moved by Adrienne Rich's commentary about her own change of heart on the question of an academic and cultural boycott (see the previous JPN post with her letter, or the JPN blog), I am still not convinced that an academic and cultural boycott is a useful tactic. I don't think a boycott will help to promote the kind of debate or dialogue that is likely to bring about change for Palestinians. The US and Europe must come around to seeing it as in the best interests of all to achieve a fair resolution to this conflict. Only broad popular activism is likely to move the Obama administration to exert pressure on Israel, but I believe that such popular activism needs to be focused on very specific injustices, not on abstract ideals or even more abstract means of achieving them.

Moreover, I really do want to hear what Israeli academics have to say, and I would probably not have that opportunity were an academic and cultural boycott of Israel successful.

--Lincoln Shlensky

For me, the question of boycott is largely a question of effectiveness. I definitely agree that Israel's actions merit a boycott, and have done for some time now. And I am convinced by Naomi Klein's argument that it is not hypocritical to boycott Israel while failing to boycott the US for our occupation of Iraq -- as she says, boycott is a tool, not a dogma, and you use it where it will work and don't use it where it won't. My big worry is just that it won't work in the US - that there is too much pro-Israel propaganda for the boycott to catch on enough to be effective, or even for it to be an intelligible tactic for most people. Specifically, I am worried that a boycott might be actively counterproductive, that it would directly reinforce Israel's chief ideological defense strategy, that of pretending to be the beleaguered victim of international discrimination / anti-Semitism.

This is a huge and perhaps decisive point of disanalogy with the South African situation, where there was no big popular groundswell of support for the apartheid regime. It might be the case, as Chomsky says, that we need to do more of the educational groundwork before a boycott will be effective in this case. But this does not deprive us of a project for resisting Israel's occupation; in fact, it gives us all the very urgent project of keeping up the work of getting the right information out.

--Judith Norman

For me, it's very important that a long list of Palestinian civil organizations are asking the rest of us to engage in boycott, divestment, and sanctions. No, they don't know for sure that it'll work any more than we do. But if they are ready to take that risk (and any failure is likely to affect them more seriously and severely than it will affect us) - then I see it as our role to support them.

--Racheli Gai

For years now, Israel and Israelis have been imposing a horrific military occupation with full international impunity. Many of those working from inside Israel to change these policies and practices, some after long decades of active dissent, see no chance for such change as long as 'the world'—i.e. the U.S. and Europe—affords one Israeli government after another uncritical support, exacting no price at all for violent Israeli enforcement of its continuing occupation; Indeed, as long as it ('the world') keeps up Israel's hyper-armament, feeding its militarization and encouraging its actions in the perceived interests of the U.S. and Europe.

Inside Israel, distinct economic and human prices are being paid continually for Israel's policies and practices. These, however, are largely invisible, diffuse, and camouflaged from the mainstream public. While they are teased out of detailed data by writers such as Shlomo Swirsky, Shir Chever, etc, Israeli society doesn't usually attribute them to continuing militarization, extended occupation or recurring Israeli aggression. On the contrary, the aggression, read as 'self-defense', repeatedly and successfully hides the true causes, eliding these social prices from public consciousness. Boycott, on the other hand, or even intensified international discussion of the very possibility of boycott, does reach mainstream public consciousness, is perceived as a price being exacted from Israel.

Personally, I have been supporting and calling for boycott for some years now (for instance, in a talk at an international conference of Women in Black in August 2005: <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/mazali230805.html>). I'm not referring only to academic and cultural boycott but to a full boycott of Israel, not limited to goods produced in the Jewish settlements, etc. but covering all Israeli products, services, etc. Boycott against Israel has not yet been tried in a sustained, concentrated way. In addition, it has not previously stood the kind of chance of catching on that Israel's recent attack on Gaza may have created. It has not even been seriously considered or discussed on the scale that now seems to be evolving. What do we stand to lose if it does materialize? Making things worse? How?

Things are worse already. Much worse. Over the decades of my own activist involvement, the levels of Israeli violence and oppression have spiraled enormously. In addition, no turning point, generated by changes in internal Israeli consciousness and politics, seems to be in sight. Recent pre-elections polls, for instance, indicate as much, as does the rise of legitimized racism in Israel reflected in the phenomenon of Yvette Lieberman. While there are, I believe, discernible, slow social processes changing Israeli society in contradictory directions, some of them hopeful, Palestinian people continue to be murdered by the day, by the hour.

Will boycott stem this? Will it work? I don't know. I don't think we can ever really predict what kind of activist, oppositionist, dissenting measures will work; when or why they will join other processes and developments and together effect a 'breaking' or 'turning point'. That usually becomes clear (if ever) only in hindsight, after the facts. The anti-occupation, anti-militarist movement inside and outside Israel has worked and continues to work in many ways against Israeli militarization, colonization, dispossession, oppression. We haven't yet employed a boycott. My feeling is that we need to try every possible channel we can to stop the killing and the violence, every way we can imagine and organize for that is democratic, humane, and consistent with our beliefs.

--Rela Mazali


2) JPN reader Dr. Naftali Kaminski's response to the call for a US academic and cultural boycott of Israel

I have been following the re-emergence of the campaign for an academic and cultural boycott on Israel with great interest. As many others who have been opposed to Israeli government policies of occupation, oppression and dispossession of Palestinians, I am familiar with similar discussions in previous iterations of this campaign. Most recently in Pittsburgh, a proposal to boycott the Israeli dance company Bat-Sheba was promoted. I saw no point in this, especially considering that Ohad Naharin, the choreographer of the group, came under significant criticism when he called Israeli military actions two years ago "war crimes" and, in a Pittsburgh Post Gazette interview, said when informed that pro-Palestinian groups intended to protest his ballet, "I assume the protests will be against the abuse of power by the Israeli army in the last war, and I assume the protest might be against the occupation, and I agree with [the Palestinian groups] on both of those things."

I must admit that I see very little merit to the campaign as it is presented. When one considers boycott as a political action, one should look at several aspects: Is the target of the boycott relevant, does the boycott have a chance to succeed, what are the chances to make progress towards the goal if the boycott is successful, and what are the unexpected consequences of the action? In much of the writing about such a boycott I find significant flaws and very little honest discussion about each of these aspects. While I do not intend to provide a detailed discussion of every aspect, I will touch on them in my examples.

Frankly, I am not sure why the Israeli academy is the target of the boycott, other than the fact that people who are involved in the boycott are involved in academia and thus feel that it is attainable. Israeli academicians are not very different from academicians in other countries; you will find a range of opinions from liberal and progressive to neo-conservative and right wing. Thus to call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions without boycotting some American institutions which employ academicians who provide some of the intellectual and economic justification, as well as generate the military knowledge, that allows Israel to continue its policies is at least intellectually dishonest. This targeting is even more glaring when it is obvious that we have better targets for action -- for instance, people who have been directly involved with illegal actions in Israel or companies and organizations that directly benefit or support the occupation.

Some of the boycott supporters suggest that it should be done because it is likely to succeed. While in other cases (in larger countries, non-democratic societies, or in countries with less developed academic institutions) it would not likely have an effect, in Israel it would have an impact because of the relative importance of intellectual and academic elites. The truth is, as anybody who has lived in Israel in the last 20 years knows, this "magical effect" of Israeli academia on public opinion is nothing but wishful thinking, a self-aggrandizing illusion that most Israeli intellectuals no longer subscribe to. Israeli policies will not change even if every professor in the Hebrew University stands up and denounces those policies. In fact, at certain periods in Israel's history, government policies did continue despite an opposing media and academia consensus, and no change was seen. This was called in Israeli politics "the dogs bark and the convoy goes on". So clearly, intellectuals, while being easy targets are probably the wrong targets.

I have been observing the increasingly brutal actions of the Israeli military and government in the last 10 years (first from within Israel and then from Pittsburgh) with sadness, frustration and most importantly, deep concern. Observers who look at Israel's policies as "more of the same" tend to miss the accelerated increase in military means, brutality and shamelessness; similarly they tend to miss or disregard internal shifts in Israeli society that dramatically affect the increasingly aggressive means it is using. These shifts again, have very little to do with the views or actions of Israeli academia.

This leads us to the question of what would be the effect of a boycott if successfully implemented. Unfortunately, having grown up in Israel (as well as knowing its history), I think I know the answer. The impact of a successful boycott would be to enhance the siege mentality of Israeli society, to enhance the feeling that the "World is against us," and probably to accelerate the already emerging fascist tendencies in Israeli society. I am aware that some advocates of the boycott do not necessarily shy away from such an impact, resorting to a dialectical view that the situation needs to get much worse before it can get better. The problem is that the actual people who are supposed to benefit from the boycott, Palestinians and Israeli civilians, will pay the price of the situation getting "much worse," but many will never live to see the predicted "much better" situation. Thus I think that it is critical to find ways to stop the deterioration now. A boycott of academia will never achieve this goal and will only have the effect of wasting the energy and potential shift in public opinion that was created by the response to recent crisis in Gaza.

While this is more of a rant that a detailed discussion, I do think that the major positive aspect of the boycott campaign is that it encourages discussion of the potential modes of action that are most likely to lead to a positive and tangible change. Making sure that alternative information is disseminated widely and quickly is one such mode. One thing that JPN has done amazingly well in recent years is to make sure that the information gets out very quickly; JPN has become a crucial source for alternative information on Israel-Palestine and in part it is more effective because of the relatively non-partisan pluralistic nature of the discussion it promotes.

Another approach would be to launch a series of well-defined boycott campaigns that expose the ties to of institutions or companies to the occupation. An example of this is that you can find Israeli pretzels in Trader Joe's and some other supermarkets and as far as I know at least one of the companies (Beigel & Beigel) is located in a settlement (see the Who Profits? website: <http://www.whoprofits.org/index.php>). While not necessarily dramatically effective, such successful campaigns usually draw attention, change public opinion, and serve to energize activists.

A third approach is to participate in the post-election local Obama grassroots groups as a means of influencing the policy of the current administration. While we do not know yet how these groups will have an impact, considering their important role in the elections especially in states like Pennsylvania, there is a chance that their voices will be heard. Another approach is finding ways to do away with legal impunity of military and political leaders. I recently listened to Jules Lobels, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who just returned from Israel/Palestine, and I am convinced that legal action is possible.

Lastly, in direct interaction with Israelis, I would advise the opposite of boycott: to engage, challenge and present a bold alternative view. Be it in private discussions, personal interactions or professional events, I have seen it to be the case so often that when you create a dent in the armor, the rationalizations crumble like a rusted edifice.

Naftali Kaminski


3) JPN reader Dr. Aharon Eviatar's response to Adrienne Rich's letter on the boycott

As an Israeli academic, peace activist, past chair of the local section of Amnesty International and active participant in the struggle against the Occupation and the rise of fascism in Israel, I would like to ask for your permission publicly to take issue with Ms Adrienne Rich on the boycott issue. While I appreciate her expressed solidarity with Israeli dissidents, this is not the help that we need.

First, with all due respect, I fault her for disinformation. The Israel Supreme Court threw out the ban on Arab parties in the election before the ink was dry on it and it was obvious to those who played the dirty game of the ban (Barak, Livni, Natanyahu) that this would happen. Ms Rich should have known better than to flaunt this canard. The Arab parties are running their candidates with no interference and their supporters are voting for them today with no interference.

On the issue of boycott, I regard it as a very blunt instrument that clubs the innocent and bounces off the guilty. We complain of Israel's military for indiscriminate attacks--we should hold ourselves to the same standard. The government and army could not care less about an academic boycott, but many of the victims of the proposed measure would be peace activists. For example, I am a member of the Plasma Spectroscopy team of the Cassini spacecraft and vary my scientific work with the inhalation of tear gas at Bil'in demonstrations on the odd Friday. I am listed both on the famous S.H.I.T. list and the membership lists of the American Geophysical Union and the American Astronomical Society. If Ms Rich wants NASA to kick me off the Saturn orbiter team and the scientific societies to expel me, I am not sure that she would be willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with me opposite the Border Police. Would she ban the books of Amos Oz and David Grossman and bar Prof. Yossi Yonah from participating in philosophy conferences, to name just a few of her possible victims?

If Ms Rich and other well-meaning activists want to influence effectively the actions of the military caste who really run Israel, then their avenue of action should be pressure on both the executive and legislative branches of their own government. An arms embargo by Obama or the Congress would indeed concentrate the minds of the military establishment Similarly a hold on technology transfer would have a real effect. They also should do something about the knee-jerk support that any misguided or evil action of the army and government here receives from the mainstream Jewish community, including, to my shame (as a Reform Jew), the head of the Reform Movement in the United States. This is hard slogging work in the trenches for which I admire and support JVP and is much more important than posturing about academic and cultural boycotts, the only benefit of which might be that someone would "feel good." That is not the aim of our struggle.


Aharon Eviatar
Professor Emeritus
Tel Aviv University

JPN editor Racheli Gai responds:

Eviatar "faults her (Rich) for disinformation". This comes across as assigning bad intent. How about the possibility that she made a mistake, because she didn't know yet that the supreme court struck down the ban? - It sometimes takes a little while to find out what's happening in Israel/Palestine. I'm bringing this point up not only because of my deep respect for Rich, but also because I think that it's important - always, but *especially when we dialog with people we disagree with*, to argue in good faith.

I also happen to think that while Rich made a factual mistake, her larger point is valid:

Eviatar write: "The Arab parties are running their candidates with no interference, and their supporters are voting for them today with no interference". Really?? -- It seems that one form of interference got taken care of (for now), but where is Azmi Bishara; and how about
extreme right-wingers "supervising" the elections in Palestinian towns; or about the looming threat of "loyalty oath"? - These are just 3 immediate examples of the appalling treatment of Palestinians citizens of Israel, and many more could be cited.

2- My understanding of the boycott is that it's not a blanket one: Not all academics, artists etc. are to be boycotted, just those who support oppression of Palestinians - either actively, or by being silent. So, to take our two guest commentators as an example - as peace activists, they shouldn't be subjected to a personal boycott.

3- I too am happy to see suggestions for other things we should work on. I doubt that anyone who supports a boycott thinks this is the only thing we should do. The struggle needs to keep taking place on many fronts: To say that we should boycott is simply to suggest an additional tool.


Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News archive and blog: http://jewishpeacenews.blogspot.com
Jewish Peace News sends its news clippings only to subscribers. To subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription, go to http://www.jewishpeacenews.net

1 comment:

berd said...

To Boycott: As far as charges of anti-Semitism go, I believe the tactic of boycott is not only important to protect Palestinians from oppression by Israelis and the State of Israel, but also to protect Israelis against the tyranny and degenerative aspects of their state.

Fact is, Israeli occupation of Palestine is hurting not only Palestinians, but Israelis too. The humanity of not only the oppressed, but the humanity of the opressor too, is degraded by dehumanizing and oppressive activities.

The bigger tyrant in all of this is the US Government, which has often times used the status of Israel as an "ally" to excuse its own politics of militarism and conquest.

Boycott of Israel, to me, is about opposing violence, tyranny, and oppression. It doesn't matter that Israel is a (the) Jewish State. Although it does complicate things.

The point is that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is unacceptable, and intolerable. It doesn't matter that Israel is the Jewish State - in fact, because of the fact that Israel is a Jewish State, and supposedly being guided by religious values and morality, makes the occupation and oppression all that much worse.

I am not a rabbi, but Israel's militarism and aggression degrades not only peoples' humanity, it is actually an affront against the Jewish Religion.

In fact, I think a winning argument can be made that the real anti-Semitism is on the part of those who support Israel's racist, cruel and degrading policies of occupation and apartheid.

End the Apartheid.!