The Context of Boycotts

‘Liberal Delusion’ wrote this comment ‘below the line’ in an earlier thread. We thought it worth reproducing.

The BDS movement places the boycott in the context of SA (and so have to inflate Israeli human rights contraventions as ‘apartheid’). However, the vast majority of Jews place the idea of a boycott against Jews in a very different history; a history in which Jews have been singled out for allegedly unique crimes and unique wrongs despite the fact that they were no worse than many, if not all others and/or were total fabrications, and, as a consequence of these claims suffered ‘boycott’ – see e.g. the 1904 Limerick boycott where Jews were accused of price manipulation.

The problem is that when Jews raise these concerns, especially through the question – why Israel? – no sensible answer is given – the ASA’s comment, that ‘we have to start somewhere’ begs the question. (Despite the above response, the BDS movement is not supported by the PA or Hamas, and was, far from emanating from Palestine, devised by two members of the SWP here in London – and even if it did emanate from Palestinian civil society, that does not involve an immediate and unmediated response – what is right in Palestine, may not appear so right in a different context, and for very good reasons).
Rather than recognising this history and this sensitivity in its critical dealings with Israel, many BDSers simply claim that Jews are abusing this history of antisemitism (and anti-Jewish boycotts), of using ‘real’ antisemitism (and the Shoah) as a magic talisman to ward off ‘criticism’ (which is conflated by the BDS movement with exclusion) and of acting in bad faith.

In so doing, the BDS movement show that along with their support for Palestinians is an attempt to antagonise and confront non-Israeli Jews who, for those who disagree with their boycotting (what Claire Potter confused with scrutiny) are transformed into ‘supporters of Israel’ and for whom no quarter must be given.

If those in the US and Europe were serious about antisemitism and its history as well as being serious about Palestinian solidarity, they would actually realise what boycotts mean to Jews (and progressive forces in general). They would need to think of a new strategy, one that is not hostile to Jews, but which at the same time allows them (and many Jews) to move forward to achieving a just and equitable peace in the Middle East; a move forward that does not rely, replicate and bring into the present the antisemtism of the (not so distant) past.

“Echoes of the Past into the Present”: Arguments in support of the ASA Boycott.

This is a guest post by Saul:

Reading through the arguments of those proposing and supporting the ASA’s boycott of Israel, one can only be struck by the correspondence of the structure of argumentation with those of what some today like to call ‘real’ antisemitism as well as racism and Islamophobia in general These correspondences appear in the following way.

First, they begin with a list of the litany of Israel’s crimes. Many of the crimes of which Israel is accused they are indeed culpable. However, in the context of boycott two points come to the fore. The first point turns on the widely debated question of ‘Why Israel’? As many have shown and many more acknowledged, none of the crimes committed by the Israeli state are either unique nor their most terrible expression. As many of those opposing the boycott have argued, this is no excuse not to bring them to light. Yet, many of these same people are uncomfortable with the fact that of all states who commit these and worse crimes, only Israel is singled out for boycott. The response to this concern is that it is being used to ‘deflect attention’ from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and constitutes the diversionary tactic of ‘whataboutery’.

As with so many other areas of the boycott discussions, the battleground of ‘whataboutery’ is neither new nor novel. It has been a component part of debates about Jews for a very, very long time. The lines of this debate have more or less remained the same. On the one hand, there are those that say that there is something ‘innate’ about Jews, Judaism and Jewishness and, more recently Israel, that sets it apart from the rest of the world and, as a consequence, deserves special or, if that word is now too emotive, unique treatment. More often than not, such allegations of uniqueness are presented as the reason or cause that, with the best will in the world, Jews or Israel should be denied the rights of those granted to non-Jews or states that are not ‘Jewish’. On the other hand, there are those that say that the differences that distinguish Jews from other religions and peoples and Israel from other states, are no reason, no excuse, to deny such rights, rights freely available to everyone else.

Perhaps the most famous instance of this contestation is Karl Marx’s polemic against Bruno Bauer around the question of Jewish emancipation in the 1840’s. As is well known, Bauer argued against Jewish emancipation. He argued that as long as Jews remained Jews they were to barred from being granted the same rights as those among whom they lived. There was, he declaimed, something unique, something special about Jews and Judaism that prevented them from the benefit of emancipation into the emerging nation-states of his time.

Bauer has posed the question of Jewish emancipation in a new form, after giving a critical analysis of the previous formulations and solutions of the question. What, he asks, is the nature of the Jew who is to be emancipated and of the Christian state that is to emancipate him? He replies by a critique of the Jewish religion, he analyzes the religious opposition between Judaism and Christianity, he elucidates the essence of the Christian state……..

Marx’s devastating response to this exclusive and reactionary focus on the alleged nature of Jews and Judaism and only Jews and Judaism is perhaps the most succinct and positive use of what is now excoriated as pure whataboutery,

Man, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community. This conflict reduces itself to the secular division between the political state and civil society. For man as a bourgeois [i.e., as a member of civil society, “bourgeois society” in German], “life in the state” is “only a semblance or a temporary exception to the essential and the rule.” Of course, the bourgeois, like the Jew, remains only sophistically in the sphere of political life, just as the citoyen [‘citizen’ in French, i.e., the participant in political life] only sophistically remains a Jew or a bourgeois. But, this sophistry is not personal. It is the sophistry of the political state itself. The difference between the merchant and the citizen [Staatsbürger], between the day-laborer and the citizen, between the landowner and the citizen, between the merchant and the citizen, between the living individual and the citizen. The contradiction in which the religious man finds himself with the political man is the same contradiction in which the bourgeois finds himself with the citoyen, and the member of civil society with his political lion’s skin.

As with Bauer’s antisemitism, one of the consequences of demanding sole focus on Jews and only Jews, and, correspondingly today, Israel and only Israel, is exclusion, from the state and, today, from the community of states. As in the past, the call for boycott opens up an abyss between, on the one side ‘Israel’ and on the other side, the rest of the world. In contemporary terms, by placing the call for boycott of the need for international solidarity as a means of resisting Israeli criminality, the radical antisemitic vision of the division between Jews and humanity is re-articulated in the divide between Israel/Jewish Israelis and the rest of the world. Like Jews of the past, Israel is now recast as the ‘other’ of ‘humanity’.

The second main structural element of arguments made in support of the ASA boycott and one visible particularly in Claire Potter’s account of her Damascan moment, is the old tale of Jewish privilege. Of all the states in the world who receive US funding and financial assistance, Israel, it is said, is the most ‘privileged’. Israel receives more than any country in US military aid. Israel receives more support in the UN and security council than any other of its allies, etc.. These facts are, of course, true. But they are presented not as a consequence of past and present political considerations (for example, that US funding and support for Israel began, originally from the prior recognition of Israel by the then Soviet Union (the first country to recognise the Sate of Israel in 1948), the divisions of the Cold War, the rise of Arab pan-nationalism, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Islamicism and anti-Americanism, the obsessive focus of Israel in some of the UN instiutions, and so on). Instead, they are presented as instances of a specifically Israeli privilege (often, but not always, an argument connected to the alleged omnipotence of the ‘Israel’ or ‘Jewish Lobby’). Needless to say, this idea of Jewish privilege by the state is not new in the annals of both the history of antisemitism or of racism in general. For example, it was common currency in the debates surrounding and following Jewish emancipation. It also forms a core component of contemporary Islamophobia; that somehow the British state ‘prvileges’ the concerns of British Muslims.

This notion of Jewish/Israeli privilege connects with the third point; that one cannot say a bad word about Israel without being labelled an ‘antisemite’, See also Clare Short’s letter in support of Rev Stephen Sizer in the Jewish Chronicle, 20th December, 2013.

Other formulations in which this arguments is presented is the idea of the Shoah as a magic talisman warding off any and all negative comments about Israel. This theme is presented in its most crystalline form by Alex Lubin in this article in The Nation. He writes there that, ‘Israel’s creation in the violent crucible of the European Holocaust allows it always (!) to appear vulnerable, regardless of its oppressive actions’`1. Here, we can but note the sheer nastiness of the claim that Israel and those labeled its ‘supporters’ are guilty of cynically manipulating the most terrible event in the history of Jews and inverting it into nothing more than a ‘strategic advantage’. This belief in Jewish cynicism is again, an updated variant of the accusation leveled against Jews from the time of their emancipation onward that they exploited their past discrimination to wheedle those ‘privileges’ noted above from the State at the expense of all others. Even more relevant in the present context, however, is that this idea replicates almost exactly the antisemite Willhelm Marr’s claim in the late 19th century that ‘one cannot today criticise Jews [i.e. by which he meant his and others antisemitic assertions] without being called an antisemite’.2

The BDS movement constantly respond to accusations that its call to boycott Israel and only Israel taps in to antisemitic ways of thinking by claiming that, first, one must distinguish between ‘real’ antisemitism and ‘criticism of Israel’, and secondly, that they are free from the seductions offered by antisemitism in forwarding their own aims. As the structure of their arguments show (both in form and content) neither claim is sustainable.

1. The reference to the term ‘European Holocaust’ is interesting in the specific context of ASA. Not only does the term ‘European Holocaust’ imply denial of the uniqueness of the ‘Holocaust’ or Shoah – as opposed to the concept if genocide – but chimes in with a rather nasty debate a little while ago when US academics claimed that the studying and recognition of the genocides and brutalities suffered by the First Nations in what was to become the United States were being hindered by the mal fide of scholars of the Holocaust. (See Dan Stone; ‘Histories of the Holocaust, OUP, (2010) p. 210

2. See on this point, Moishe Zimmerman’s ‘Wilhelm Marr: The Patriach of Antisemitism,OUP, (1986)

Zionism is a lightning rod for antisemitism – Jonathan Lowenstein

Jonathan Lowenstein, an Anglo-Israel historian and political scientist, considers historical boycotts against Jews, asks a lot of good questions, and worries:

“Am I an Israeli academic?  I have dual nationality and dual degrees. Do boycotts apply to Israeli Arabs or just to Jews?  Where do you draw the lines? At present it seems like these boycotts are more expressions of emotion then policies but they cause us to assume that we face discrimination.  Unoffical apartheid.”

Read it all.

An Irish union’s boycott fallacy – Raphael Cohen-Almagor

The Jewish Chronicle has a trenchant piece by Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Director of the Middle East Study Group, University of Hull, responding to the unhinged and futile decision of the Teachers Union of Ireland to boycott Israeli academics:

Dr Ilan Saban is a lecturer at the University of Haifa who devotes much of his time defending and promoting the rights of Palestinians. But if he were to post one of his articles on the subject to a journal in Ireland, his envelope might not be opened, simply because it had come from Israel. This is the result of the Teachers Union of Ireland’s recent unjust, unfair, and counterproductive decision to boycott all academic collaboration with Israel.

The decision is unjust because any sweeping decision, by its nature, cannot do justice. It is one thing to offer a rationale to boycott a certain institution or individual. It is quite another thing simply to boycott everyone.

Read it all.

HT Yishay

Perspectives

I wasn’t taking notice of much in 1987 when Paul Simon, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and others brought the Graceland Tour to London’s Royal Albert Hall. Joel Berlinger’s new documentary ‘Paul Simon – Under African Skies’ and the revival of Graceland in Hyde Park this month has been an occasion to revisit the cultural boycott of South Africa which intensified towards the end of the apartheid era.

I haven’t seen the film yet but Women Are From Mars, Raymond Soltysek, and Erik Lundegaard have written well about the ethical dilemmas. The joy, release and political impact of the music comes through strongly.

~~~

On the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 17th July 2012, 08:53, which UK residents can listen to for the coming week) Ekow Eshun and Diran Adebayo discuss the term ‘choc ice’. Ekow Eshun takes the view that the term dates from a time when black people who made it to prominent positions or broadened their interests were often regarded with suspicion by others. He argues that to give ‘choc ice’ any currency – either as insult or as a social category – can only normalise the old narrow views of black people. He appeals for political responsibility.

This reminded me of the debates between those Israel supporters who conspicuously identify as Zionists in response to Israel eliminationists, and those others who feel that Zionism should be thought of as a historical movement whose purpose ended with the establishment of Israel, and that to give ‘Zionism’ any currency can only normalise Israel eliminationism. So, language matters. The difference is that Israel eliminationists have a big stake in getting the term ‘Zionist’ into common parlance whereas I think ‘choc ice’ is (as Diran Adebayo observed before being interrupted and misunderstood by Sarah Montague) a word bandied around by people who feel they’ve been denied their entitlement to ethnic or race loyalty – more like when ‘self-hating Jew’ is used as an insult.

 

We welcome Israel’s national theatre

Some letters responding to the ‘dismay‘ of Richard Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Mark Rylance and other boycotters who hope to wipe Israel off the stage of The Globe Theatre, where Israeli company Habima have been scheduled to perform the Merchant of Venice in Hebrew.

One letter, We welcome Israel’s national theatre,

We are delighted to see the Globe theatre welcoming Israel‘s national theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in London (Letters, 4 April). Founded in the early 20th century in Moscow, Habima is one of the first Hebrew language theatres, and is a symbol not just of the cultural success of the state of Israel, but also of the resilience of a people who have united to overcome continued persecution throughout their history. Habima itself encountered persecution under the Soviet government as well after the Russian revolution. Now, as then, there are those who wish to oppose their work, seeking to delegitimise the state of Israel and its success, the Jewish people, and even the Hebrew language itself.

Habima’s productions have always explored the challenges faced by the Jewish people, and its presentation of The Merchant of Venice on the London stage continues that important mission. Those who wish to hijack the artistic and cultural work of Habima for their own narrow political aims simply remind us of the vital importance of such work. No artists should attempt to silence the expression of other artists simply because they are Israeli. By trying to suppress the cultural exchange of ideas they demonstrate the continued persecution of Jews and Israelis even occurring in 21st-century Britain. We condemn the acts of cultural terrorism that some may try to carry out during Habima’s performances. We welcome Israel’s national theatre to London as another fine example of the UK and Israel’s many shared values.

Arnold Wesker, Ronald Harwood, Maureen Lipman, Simon Callow, Louise Mensch MP, Steven Berkoff

And another – For artists … it is an act of self-harm

If there is one justification for art – for its creation and its performance – it is that art proceeds from and addresses our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind already made up, on any subject, misses what art is for. So to censor it in the name of a political or religious conviction, no matter how sincerely held, is to tear out its very heart.

For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable; it is an act of self-harm. One could almost laugh about it, so Kafkaesque is the reasoning: The Merchant of Venice, acted in Hebrew, a troubling work of great moral complexity (and therefore one that we should welcome every new interpretation of), to be banned not by virtue of itself, but because of where the theatre company performing it had also performed.

But the laughter dies in our throats. With last week’s letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain. You could hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut. And now we might all be guilty by association: of being in the wrong place or talking to the wrong people or reading the wrong book. Thus does an idée fixe make dangerous fools of the best of us.

Howard Jacobson

Boycotters of Israel’s artistic and cultural bodies fail in their stated aim on behalf of Palestinians. The boycott is badly conceived, discriminatory, badly targeted activism which abandons a sober look at how Israeli society and politics works and instead lashes out at Israel’s little guys – who are (and there may be a weird psychology at work here) often the ones in Israeli society most likely to share the boycotters’ view of Palestinians as subjected to grave injustice. Does anybody seriously believe it likely that those little guys will suddenly start refusing state money – taxpayers’ money, their livelihood – and hold their government responsible for their ill fortune rather than the boycotters who are most immediately responsible for harming them and the various genocidal entities dotted round their regional neighbourhood, who threaten to? Seriously? And if they do, where is the mechanism for Palestinian emancipation or a change of heart in the Israeli electorate? And it goes without saying that the boycotters don’t offer them any compensation or alternative support, which is the ultimate chutzpah. Refusal to join in with this weird boycotting game is the only dignified response. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which itself exists in a very unstable Middle East context, and a very oppressive world, obviously needs a different approach – creating reasons to cede ground and power.

And in the absence – over the decade-long lifetime of this particular incarnation – of any gains on behalf of Palestinians as far as I can see, boycotting Israel has counter-productive side effects. Paradoxically in the case of the cultural boycott the fabrications and authoritarian pieties of boycotters represent a new orthodoxy which brings out many people’s instinct for transgression. The trouble is, even if the boycotters of Habima aren’t themselves harbouring antisemitic beliefs (and maybe some of them are) their hostility, closed-minded bias and heroic self-image are midwife to a much more intentional antisemitism of a ruthlessness they can’t or won’t imagine, where the stakes for those who resist it will be far higher. So the renovated far right Harts, Atzmons, Eisens of this world gain ground, slipping onto programmes and campuses where they would never have been invited before boycotters started making out out that attacking Israel was the same as speaking truth to power.

The Globe Theatre deserves credit for refusing to participate in laying that ground.

The boycott campaign bears fruit in Israel’s new boycott prohibition law

Zizek: “antisemitism alive and kicking in Europe”

Mairav Zonszein:

“On Friday evening, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek gave a lecture in a bookstore in Central Tel Aviv teeming with familiar faces of leftwing activists. It was hosted by Udi Aloni, an Israeli-American artist and BDS activist, who just completed a book entitled What Does a Jew Want, which is edited by Zizek.

Many seem to have come with the expectation to hear Zizek rip into Israel and use his wry wit and charisma in such a bourgeoises Tel Aviv setting to endorse the BDS Movement. Indeed when Udi Aloni introduced Zizek, he identified himself as an activist on behalf of BDS and said he chose the bookstore as a venue in order to not cooperate with any formal Israeli institution.

However, Zizek did not officially endorse or even talk much about BDS – and when he did it was because he was prompted to during Q&A. His two clear statements about BDS were that a) he is not 100% behind it and b)he supports a movement that is initiated jointly by Palestinians and Israeli here in the region.

Rather, Zizek spent almost two hours with the crowd’s undivided attention talking about antisemitism, capitalism and the place of the Jew in the world. He warned that antisemitism is “alive and kicking” in Europe and America and asserted that the State of Israel should worry more about Christian right antisemitism  rather than wasting its energy on self-proclaimed Jewish anti-Zionists. He said that the Christian Zionists in America are inherently antisemitic and that Israel’s willingness to embrace their support is baffling.

After establishing the deep-rooted vitality of antisemitism, he mentioned that he has no patience for those who excuse Arab antisemitism; that even the most oppressed and poor Palestinian should not be tolerated for being antisemitic. He also spoke about his well-known argument regarding Zionist antisemitism, whereby Zionists use antisemitic language towards fellows Jews in accusing them of not being Zionist enough. This was his main critique of Israel – its witch hunt against those Jews it finds not “Zionist enough.”

Read the rest.

Raincoat Optimist comments:

“What to some might appear like Zizek withholding sympathy for Palestinians, is in actual fact highlighting the paternalism and snobbery of some pro-Palestinians, who believe those who are lesser off than them should be pitied, left to their own devices, and if they express antisemitic views, well, who can blame them, ‘eh, after all they don’t know any better do they, they’re poor – and as all people know poor people are stupid and don’t deserve to be told they’re wrong to blame the Jews for their plight.”

HT Shiraz Socialist

Joel and Ethan Coen don’t agree with boycott

See Norm on Serious Men.

Macy Gray’s consultation

Macy Gray asked her Facebook followers whether she should perform in Israel.

Ynet reports the backlash against her decision, which seems to have opened her eyes to the nature of the boycott campaign.

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