Who's afraid of the boycott

In Europe, a marked reticence among diplomats, lawmakers and bureaucrats has been recorded whenever this particular bill is mentioned. But Israel’s boycott law may for the first time enable an open and honest discussion of the possibility of nonviolent civil disobedience, boycott and disinvestment - measures that have been taboo for too long.

Tuesday, 19 July, 2011 - 12:18
London, UK

An interesting fact about the Israeli boycott ban has been the fact that the storm of opposition to the bill only came into being at the very last minute or even after the passing of the bill into law on July 11. 

Indicative of this phenomenon is the heartfelt elegy to democracy written by Israel's Knesset speaker MK Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin against the law in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, after it was passed. One of the Likud party's old guard, a staunch disciple of revisionist Zionist Zeev Zabotinsky, Rivlin cannot be suspected of holding dovish views. But he has expressed shock at the ignorance of the younger members of the Knesset of any concept of democracy or even of the basic principles professed, if not respected, by Zabotinsky - who maintained that freedom of expression was sacrosanct.

Brave words. But at the vote itself Rivlin abstained, as did other self-styled supporters of human rights and individual liberties within the Likud.

It was not only the right wing that could not bring itself to defend freedom of expression in the face of the boycott campaign. In fact, all those members of Israel's opposition in the Knesset and even outside it who now loudly protest against the law had gone to no great lengths to strike the bill off the Knesset's table before it was too late. Theirs was not so much an outright refusal to do so, as a decision to choose other, less divisive issues as priorities.

In Europe, too, a marked reticence among diplomats, lawmakers and bureaucrats was recorded whenever this particular bill was mentioned. When other anti-democratic bills were proposed, such as a bill to limit EU or other foreign funding to Israeli human rights groups, the EU spoke out quite clearly; and indeed the version of the funding bill that ultimately passed into law was far less restrictive than the original text. There is no doubt that public attention and censure during the discussion of a bill can play a crucial role in the Knesset's perceptions of how damaging the law can become in terms of public support as well as international support. In such a situation, silence is acquiescence.


Jerusalem, Knesset.










Jerusalem, Knesset. Wikicommons.


Once the law was passed, however, a clear shift occurred. Two days after the law was passed, the EU's foreign policy chief Catherin Ashton cautiously responded to it, telling press that she was 'concerned about the effect that this legislation may have on the freedom of Israeli citizens and organizations to express non-violent political opinions'. However, even now, she took care to preface this with the somewhat defensive statement that 'the EU does not advocate boycotts'. And unlike most statements by Ashton, this one was not published on the EU's website but relayed directly to media.

In Israel, responses were much less apologetic. Haaretz editor Dov Alfon made the reasons for this explicit:

The law 'suddenly puts this side issue right on the top of the agenda… I, for example, was against an organised boycott of the settlements, but of course now I'll have to reconsider my opinion, since the other option is apparently to lose free speech'.

This awakening is common to many who now blast the legitimacy of the law. Some opponents cite freedom of expression and democracy; others relate to the political repercussions of the legal protection the law affords to the illegal settlement project in the West Bank. Almost all, however, were previously reluctant to act on the subject or to be seen to support boycotters in any way. The explosive connotations of the boycott seem to have deterred all those who had the power to avert this law within Israel and outside it from being proactive on the matter in time. They seem to have hoped the problem would just fade away of its own accord.

So what are the connotations of boycott, and what has made them so negative in this case that so many feared to be 'infected' merely by association?

In Europe, boycott resonates darkly in modern history. The first active measure against Jews in Hitler's Germany was a boycott of Jewish businesses, called by the government on 1 April 1933. Many remember it as a clear transition point from the level of propaganda to the level of active state persecution.

In South Africa, on the other hand, and in western countries whose civil society opposed apartheid, boycott denotes something quite different: a positive measure initiated first by citizens, and later taken up by governments, against an unjust and oppressive regime. The importance of this connotation lies in its sense of empowerment. In it, the power relations are inverted – the people force the hand of the state.

For Palestinian left-wing activists who met in Bilbao in July 2005, the South African connotation played a central role in the decision to initiate a global call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. In their declaration, they said:

…Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression;

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era…. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law…

There is another connotation to boycott, propagated by Israeli think-tank Reut and other Israeli organs of propaganda. Their argument runs more or less as follows: There is a phenomenon among some but not all opponents of Israeli policies, called 'delegitimisation'. Unlike other forms of legitimate criticism, delegitimisation seeks to undermine the very existence of the State of Israel and it is sometimes antisemitic. The BDS movement is a 'delegitimising' organisation. For this reason, participating in boycott of any kind – whether of Israel or of the settlements – ultimately serves the goal of delegitimising Israel.

The close connection forged between 'delegimisation' and antisemitism in discourse about Israel means that there are many who see the boycott in its European, rather than its South African, connotation. Certainly, many Jews do.  So do many Europeans. I was recently told by a German politician of the Christian Democratic Union, that the labelling of settlement products (in order to distinguish them from legal Israeli export products) was 'something like a Yellow Star [of David]'.

This connotation in people's minds, encouraged by Israeli government propaganda, is one reason why the argument around boycott is simply not broached. Long before Israeli law prohibited promotion of boycotts, there was censorship and self-censorship at play.

Open discussion is essential

But arguing honestly about boycott is essential. There are many important questions to be asked: whether it is right for dialogue to end, leaving only silent exclusion; how to make sure that possibilities for dialogue are kept open even if boycott is employed; whether boycott should be linked only to the settlements or also to the involvement of Israeli institutions and businesses in human rights violations; and how to protect the boycott from becoming one driven only by identity and not by positions or actions.

As the boycott campaign gathers speed these questions become cardinal; not all boycotters in Europe are aware, for example, of the guidelines issued by Palestinians, according to which Israeli academic institutions may be targets of boycotts, but not private individuals as such. As the boycott enters the mainstream, it could potentially leave the arena of politically-aware and progressive discourse behind, and fall into the trap of identity politics or even racism. Only open discussion and argument can address this danger. Silencing these will do the exact opposite.  

The new law might change the game. This week Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which has no reason to hold a specific position on boycott, called clearly for civil disobedience, in defiance of the law – without hedging their demands or explaining apologetically that they don't support boycotts. Israeli human rights organisations, which previously played as far from the fire of boycott as possible, are now obliged to challenge the law in Israel's High Court of Justice, and to protect the right of activist groups like the Coalition of Women for Peace – whose positions they have traditionally distanced themselves from – to boycott.

To some, the boycott law has the potential of effecting a new division, not between left-dovish views on the one hand, and right-hawkish views on the other, but rather between those who support the basic tenets of a liberal democracy and those who would sacrifice these for extreme nationalism and authoritarianism, or even fascism.

To others, the boycott law for the first time enables an open and honest discussion of the possibility of nonviolent civil disobedience, boycott and disinvestment - measures that have been taboo for too long. 

Miri Weingarten is an Israeli human rights activist and Director of JNews – Alternative Jewish Perspectives on Israel-Palestine.This piece is cross-posted on openDemocracy.

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