J.J. Goldberg

The Boycott and Its Discontents, or How Not To Defend Israel

By J.J. Goldberg

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Every now and then, somebody you thought you knew does or says something so completely out of character that it catches you off-guard and forces you to look at things in new and surprising ways.

Take, for example, the recent statement by the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, calling on “international academic and labor groups” to drop their “boycott campaigns against Israel.”

Whoa. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I guess that ought to clear things right up.

Seriously, though, it’s hard to imagine whom the Wiesenthal Center thinks it’s going to convince. Its argument is essentially that the latest Nobel prize to an Israeli scientist shows that Israeli academia is doing a pretty good job and everyone should lay off. But the boycott crowd isn’t objecting to the quality of Israel’s academic or cultural opus. They’re trying to get Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians, and they’ve identified these boycotts as an accessible pressure point.

Common sense dictates, therefore, that to dissuade them, you need to explain why these boycotts won’t help the Palestinians. And to do that with any credibility – to your target audience, that is – you ought to come to the table with some sort of track record of sympathy for the Palestinians. The Wiesenthal Center doesn’t quite fit the bill. Its most recent statement on the Palestinians was an August 19 press release dealing with “Palestinian self-delusion.”

A powerful example of a smart, effective argument against Israel boycotts was published recently in the New York Review of Books. It came in a letter from Vanessa Redgrave and two fellow culturati, Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman.

No, that’s not a misprint. Vanessa Redgrave defending Israel. Here’s how:

According to an October 7 news report in Haaretz, headlined “Israel critic Vanessa Redgrave slams Toronto Film Fest boycott,” the actress and her allies were speaking out on the brouhaha surrounding the Toronto International Film Festival, which featured Tel Aviv as the focus of its first-ever City to City program, a kind of film festival within a film festival that will spotlight a different world city every year.

Here’s the core of the Redgrave argument, as quoted in Haaretz:

Thousands of Palestinians have died through the years because the Israeli government, military, and part of the population fervently believes that the Arab states and, indeed, much of the world, do not want Israel to exist. How then are we halting this never-ending cycle of violence by promoting the very fears that cause it?

Redgrave and company went so far as to defend the Israeli government against defamation:

We oppose the current Israeli government, but it is a government, freely elected. Not a regime. Words matter.

Haaretz wrapped up by stating that the “Artists who called for a boycott included John Grayson, Danny Glover, David Byrne and Jane Fonda – though Fonda later retracted her decision.”

Since words do matter, it’s worth pointing out that boycott is never once mentioned, nor even hinted at, in the protest declaration by Glover, Byrne et al. Too many friends of Israel have been calling the Toronto protest a boycott. It makes it sound more dramatic, but it’s wrong.

What the declaration does say is that the festival’s newly created City to City program should not have picked Tel Aviv. Indeed, it’s quite explicit on what it does and doesn’t advocate:

We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival]. However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of … an apartheid regime.

Yes, it’s unfair. It’s inflammatory. It utterly misstates the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it demonizes Israel. But it doesn’t call for a boycott of Israeli artists or anyone else. Words matter.


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Comments
Arieh Lebowitz Fri. Oct 16, 2009

Thanks, J.J., for an interesting grappling with these matters.

You - and others - might want to know more about TULIP, that is, Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine, online at http://www.tuliponline.org/

Let me excerpt from the website, which has links embedded in what is just text below:

Trade union leaders from three continents have announced the launch of a new global movement “to challenge the apologists for Hamas and Hizbollah in the labour movement” and to fight for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The movement is called TULIP – Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine.

The leaders are Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (USA), and Michael J. Leahy, OBE, General Secretary of Community (United Kingdom).

A major article published today in The Australian sets out the case for the launch of TULIP. Read it in full here.

They have issued a founding statement and invite those who agree with it to join TULIP online.

source for above: http://www.tuliponline.org/?p=95

Susanne Sat. Oct 17, 2009

Well, also Hitler was elected, and so was George W. Bush. Whether a country that invades and occupies other countries has an elected government or not is not important from the viewpoint of the occupied. It only increases the responsibility of citizens of the invading country.

Leeky Mon. Oct 19, 2009

Suzanne -- Israelis, by and large, don't want to occupy the West Bank. The problem is who to give it to and what does Israel get in return? Does Israel give it Abbas and the P.A., who would not be able to control it? Even they readily admit that they are not ready to assume control. Do they give it to Hamas? Hardly. And should Israel give it away without any security guarantees? If Israel pulls out unilaterally, Lod Airport would be within easy reach of Hamas rockets. If you really think this through, it isn't that simple. Incidentally, Israel didn't "invade" the West Bank. In fact, it was taken from Jordan (which previously occupied it) only after Jordan attacked Israel!! Israel urged Jordan not to join in with the Arab states in the '67 war. Unfortunately, Jordan didn't listen. If the Arab armies hadn't blocked the Straights of Hormuz and declared war on Israel, there would have been no occupied territories period. I'm probably wasting my time with you, but perhaps someone else will listen.

Grif Fri. Oct 23, 2009

Leeky - Israel most certainly does wish to occupy the West Bank. It's not commonly referred to as Judea and Samaria for nothing, nor has Israel been cramming the area with settlements merely for show. The WB was ancient Israel. There are important water resources and the Jordan Valley. Israel has had plenty of opportunities to hand over the WB and Gaza and end the occupation of both, but Israel has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Palestinian human rights are not dependent on Israel's qualms, either real or imagined, nor more than Israeli human rights should be dependent on Palestinian fears. Israel will always be in range of someone's rockets, as are many other nations. The only way path to security is through accepting the Arab League offer and ending the occupation. Your account of the '67 war is equally a fantasy. Israel struck first when the Arabs were appealing to LBJ to calm the area down. The IDF certainly invaded the WB, there is no other word for it. Nor was Jordan "occupying" the WB. After the 48 war the Palestinian leadership, with no army to protect them from Israel, asked to be incorporated into Jordan. In 1988 Jordan returned all claims of sovereignty to the Palestinians. The much vaunted blockade of Hormuz was merely an Israeli excuse for war. Israel had almost no shipping at all through that area, as it all came through her ports on the Med. The entire was could easily have been avoided, but Israel was intent on war and more than doubled her land mass. Only most reluctantly did she finally return the Sinai. No doubt, I'm wasting my time with you as well, but perhaps someone else will listen.

Robert Gasner Sun. Nov 22, 2009

Grif,

The 60's called and they want their LSD back.

Claiming that Israel started the 6 day war is rediculous. The Egyptians are still happy to play you the recordings of Nasser for months before June 67 promising to push the Jews into the sea.It was their stated goal and they don't shirk from taking responsibility for it.

Don't insult them by pretending to make them pacifistic. Their goal was the annihilation of Israel as it was on the sneak attack on Yom Kipppur

you are just another case of placing your wishy washy western values on a culture who need no lessons from you.

Your naive assumption that this can all be avoided only makes sense if the billion or so Muslims are made to stop screaming "Kill the Jews".

Isnt it ironic that hundreds of millions of them have never ever met a Jew or an Israeli?




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