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The Case for Boycotting Israel

Boycott Now!

by VIRGINIA TILLEY

Johannesburg, South Africa.

It is finally time. After years of internal arguments, confusion, and dithering, the time has come for a full-fledged international boycott of Israel. Good cause for a boycott has, of course, been in place for decades, as a raft of initiatives already attests. But Israel’s war crimes are now so shocking, its extremism so clear, the suffering so great, the UN so helpless, and the international community’s need to contain Israel’s behavior so urgent and compelling, that the time for global action has matured. A coordinated movement of divestment, sanctions, and boycotts against Israel must convene to contain not only Israel’s aggressive acts and crimes against humanitarian law but also, as in South Africa, its founding racist logics that inspired and still drive the entire Palestinian problem.

That second goal of the boycott campaign is indeed the primary one. Calls for a boycott have long cited specific crimes: Israel’s continual attacks on Palestinian civilians; its casual disdain for the Palestinian civilian lives "accidentally" destroyed in its assassinations and bombings; its deliberate ruin of the Palestinians’ economic and social conditions; its continuing annexation and dismemberment of Palestinian land; its torture of prisoners; its contempt for UN resolutions and international law; and especially, its refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. But the boycott cannot target these practices alone. It must target their ideological source.

The true offence to the international community is the racist motivation for these practices, which violates fundamental values and norms of the post-World War II order. That racial ideology isn’t subtle or obscure. Mr. Olmert himself has repeatedly thumped the public podium about the "demographic threat" facing Israel: the "threat" that too many non-Jews will – the horror – someday become citizens of Israel. It is the "demographic threat" that, in Israeli doctrine, justifies sealing off the West Bank and Gaza Strip as open-air prisons for millions of people whose only real crime is that they are not Jewish. It is the "demographic threat," not security (Mr. Olmert has clarified), that requires the dreadful Wall to separate Arab and Jewish communities, now juxtaposed in a fragmented landscape, who might otherwise mingle.

"Demographic threat" is the most disgustingly racist phrase still openly deployed in international parlance. It has been mysteriously tolerated by a perplexed international community. But it can be tolerated no longer. Zionist fear of the demographic threat launched the expulsion of the indigenous Arab population in 1948 and 1967, created and perpetuates Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, inspires its terrible human rights abuses against Palestinians, spins into regional unrest like the 1982 attack on Lebanon (that gave rise to Hezbollah), and continues to drive Israeli militarism and aggression.

This open official racism and its attendant violence casts Israel into the ranks of pariah states, of which South Africa was the former banner emblem. In both countries, racist nationalist logic tormented and humiliated the native people. It also regularly spilled over to destabilize their surrounding regions (choc-a-block with "demographic threats"), leading both regimes to cruel and reckless attacks. Driven by a sense of perennial victimhood, they assumed the moral authority to crush the native hordes that threatened to dilute the organic Afrikaner/Jewish nations and the white/western civilization they believed they so nobly represented.

A humiliated white society in South Africa finally gave that myth up. Israel still clings to it. It has now brought Israel to pulverize Lebanon, trying to eliminate Hezbollah and, perhaps, to clear the way for an attack on Iran. Peace offers from the entire Arab world are cast aside like so much garbage. Yet again, the Middle East is plunged into chaos and turmoil, because a normal existence — peace, full democracy — is anathema to a regime that must see and treat its neighbors as an existential threat in order to justify the rejectionism that preserves its ethnic/racial character and enables its continuing annexations of land.

Why has this outrageously racist doctrine survived so long, rewarded by billions of dollars in US aid every year? We know the reasons. For too many Westerners, Israel’s Jewish character conflates with the Holocaust legacy to make intuitive sense of Israel’s claim to be under continual assault. Deep-seated Judeo-Christian bias against Islam demonizes Israel’s mostly Muslim victims. European racist prejudice against Arabs (brown-skinned natives) casts their material dispossession as less humanly significant. Naïve Christian visions of the "Holy Land" naturalize Jewish governance in biblical landscapes. Idiot Christian evangelistic notions of the Rapture and the End Times posit Jewish governance as essential to the return of the Messiah and the final Millennium (even though, in that repellent narrative, Jews will roast afterwards).

All those notions and prejudices, long confounding international action, must now be set aside. The raw logic of Israel’s distorted self-image and racist doctrines is expressed beyond confusion by the now-stark reality: the moonscape rubble of once-lovely Lebanese villages; a million desperate people trying to survive Israeli aerial attacks as they carry children and wheel disabled grandparents down cratered roads; the limp bodies of children pulled from the dusty basements of crushed buildings. This is the reality of Israel’s national doctrine, the direct outcome of its racist worldview. It is endangering everyone, and it must stop.

Designing the Campaign

Much debate has circulated about a boycott campaign, but hitherto it has not moved beyond some ardent but isolated groups. Efforts have stalled on the usual difficult questions: e.g., whether a boycott is morally compulsory to reject Israel’s rampant human rights violations or would impede vital engagement with Israeli forums, or whether principled defense of international law must be tempered by (bogus) calls for "balance". Especially, recent debate has foundered on calls for an academic boycott. Concerns here are reasonable, if rather narrow. Universities offer vital connections and arenas for collaboration, debate, and new thinking. Without such forums and their intellectual exchange, some argue, work toward a different future is arguably impeded.

But this argument has exploded along with the southern Lebanese villages, as Israeli university faculties roundly endorse the present war. As Ilan Pappé has repeatedly argued, Israel’s universities are not forums for enlightened thought. They are crucibles of reproduction for racist Zionist logics and practice, monitoring and filtering admissible ideas. They produce the lawyers who defend the occupation regime and run its kangaroo "courts"; the civil planners and engineers who design and build the settlements on Palestinian land; the economists and financiers who design and implement the grants that subsidize those settlements; the geologists who facilitate seizure of Palestinian aquifers; the doctors who treat the tortured so that they can be tortured again; the historians and sociologists who make sense of a national society while preserving official lies about its own past; and the poets, playwrights, and novelists who compose the nationalist opus that glorifies and makes (internally, at least) moralistic sense of it all.

Those of us who have met with Jewish Israeli academics in Israeli universities find the vast majority of them, including well-meaning liberals, operating in a strange and unique bubble of enabling fictions. Most of them know nothing about Palestinian life, culture, or experience. They know strangely little about the occupation and its realities, which are crushing people just over the next hill. They have absorbed simplistic notions about rejectionist Arafat, terrorist Hamas, and urbane Abbas. In this special insulated world of illusions, they say nonsense things about unreal factors and fictionalized events. Trying to make sense of their assumptions is no more productive that conversing about the Middle East with the Bush administration’s neo-cons, who also live in a strange bubble of ignorance and fantasy. Aside from a few brave and beleaguered souls, this is the world of Israel’s universities. It will not change until it has to – when the conditions of its self-reproduction are impaired and its self-deceptions too glaring.

The Real Goal: Changing Minds

The universities represent and reproduce the bubble world of the Israeli Jewish population as a whole. And no people abandons its bubble willingly. In South Africa, Afrikaners clung to their own bubble – their self-exonerating myths about history, civilization, and race — until they were forced by external sanctions and the collapsing national economy to rethink those myths. Their resistance to doing so, while racist, was not purely vicious. Many kind and well-meaning Afrikaners simply didn’t believe they had to rethink ideas that manifested to them as givens and that shaped their reality. (One valued Afrikaner friend here recalls her life during apartheid South Africa as being like The Truman Show, a film in which a man unknowingly grows up in a television show, set in an artificial dome world designed to look like a small town.) When their reality fell apart, suddenly no one would admit to ever having believed or supported it.

The Zionist worldview is an even more complete system. All historical and geographic details are provided to create a total mythical world, in which Jews have rights to the land and Palestinians have none. It is a fully realized construction, like those Hebraized maps carefully drawn by the Zionist movement in the 1930s to erase the ancient Arabic landscape and substitute Hebrew biblical references. It is also very resilient. The "new historians" have exposed the cherished national historical narrative of 1948 and 1967 as a load of fictions, but the same fictions are still reproduced by state agencies to assure Israeli and diaspora Jews of their innocence and the righteousness of their cause. The vast majority of Israelis therefore remain comfortable in their Truman Show and even see any external pressure or criticism as substantiating it. We need no more graphic evidence of that campaign’s success than the overwhelming support among Israeli Jews for the present catastrophic assault on Lebanon, reflecting their sincere beliefs that nuclear-power Israel is actually under existential threat by a guerrilla group lobbing katyushas across the border. Staggering to observers, that belief is both sobering and instructive.

To force people steeped in such a worldview to rethink their notions, their historical myths, and their own best interests requires two efforts:

(1) Serious external pressure: here, a full boycott that undermines Israel’s capacity to sustain the economic standards its citizens and corporations expect, and which they associate with their own progressive self-image; and

(2) clear and unwavering commitment to the boycott’s goal, which – in Israel as in South Africa – must be full equality, dignity, safety, and welfare of everyone in the land, including Palestinians, whose ancestral culture arose there, and the Jewish population, which has built a national society there.

That combination is essential. Nothing else will work. Diplomacy, threats, pleading, the "peace process," mediation, all will be useless until external pressure brings Israel’s entire Jewish population to undertake the very difficult task of rethinking their world. This pressure requires the full range of boycotts, sanctions, and divestment that the world can employ. (South African intellectual Steven Friedman has observed wryly that the way to bring down any established settler-colonial regime is to make it choose between profits and identity. Profits, he says, will win every time.)

 

What to Target

Fortunately, from the South African experience, we know how to go forward, and strategies are proliferating. The basic methods of an international boycott campaign are familiar. First, each person works in his or her own immediate orbit. People might urge divestment from companies investing in Israel by their colleges and universities, corporations, clubs, and churches. Boycott any sports event that hosts an Israeli team, and work with planners to exclude them. Participate in, and visit, no Israeli cultural events – films, plays, music, art exhibits. Avoid collaborating with Israeli professional colleagues, except on anti-racist activism. Don’t invite any Israeli academic or writer to contribute to any conference or research and don’t attend their panels or buy their books, unless their work is engaged directly in anti-racist activism. Don’t visit Israel except for purposes of anti-racist activism. Buy nothing made in Israel: start looking at labels on olive oil, oranges, and clothing. Tell people what you are doing and why. Set up discussion groups everywhere to explain why.

For ideas and allies, try Googling the "boycott Israel" and "sanctions against Israel" campaigns springing up around the world. Know those allies, like the major churches, and tell people about them. For more ideas, read about the history of the boycott of South Africa.

Second, don’t be confused by liberal Zionist alternatives that argue against a boycott in favor of "dialogue". If we can draw any conclusion from the last half-century, it is that, without the boycott, dialogue will go nowhere. And don’t be confused by liberal-Zionist arguments that Israel will allow Palestinians a state if they only do this or that. Israel is already the only sovereign power in Palestine: what fragments are left to Palestinians cannot make a state. The question now is not whether there is one state, but what kind of state it comprises. The present version is apartheid, and it must change. However difficult to achieve, and however frightening to Jewish Israelis, the only just and stable solution is full democracy.

Third, be prepared for the boycott’s opposition, which will be much louder, more vicious, and more dangerous than it was in the boycott of South Africa. Read and assemble solid documentable facts. Support each other loudly and publicly against the inevitable charges of anti-Semitism. And support your media against the same charges. Write to news media and explain just who the "Israel media teams" actually are. Most pro-Israeli activism draws directly from the Israeli government’s propaganda outreach programs. Spotlight this fact. Team up to counter their pressure on newspapers, radio stations, and television news forums. Don’t let them capture or intimidate public debate. By insisting loudly (and it must be sincere) that the goal is the full equality of dignity and rights of everyone in Israel-Palestine, including the millions of Jewish citizens of Israel, demolish their specious claims of anti-Semitism.

Finally, hold true to the principles that drive the boycott’s mission. Don’t tolerate the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism in your own group or movement. Anti-Jewish racists are certainly out there, and they are attracted to these campaigns like roaches. They will distract and absorb your energies, while undermining, degrading, and destroying the boycott movement. Some are Zionist plants, who will do so deliberately. If you can’t change their minds (and don’t spend much time trying, because they will use your efforts to drain your time and distract your energies), denounce them, expel them, ignore them, have no truck with them. They are the enemy of a peaceful future, not its allies – part of the problem, not the solution.

 

Boycott the Hegemon

This is the moment to turn international pressure on the complicit US, too. It’s impossible, today, to exert an effective boycott on the United States, as its products are far too ubiquitous in our lives. But it’s quick and easy to launch a boycott of emblematic US products, upsetting its major corporations. It’s especially easy to boycott the great global consumables, like Coca-Cola, MacDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC, whose leverage has brought anti-democratic pressures on governments the world over. (Through ugly monopoly practices, Coke is a nasty player in developing countries anyway: see, for example, http://www.killercoke.org.) Think you’ll miss these foods too much? Is consuming something else for a while too much of a sacrifice, given what is happening to people in Lebanon? And think of the local products you’ll be supporting! (And how healthy you will get).

In the US, the impact of these measures may be small. But in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Arab and Muslim worlds, boycotting these famous brands can gain national scope and the impact on corporate profits will be enormous. Never underestimate the power of US corporations to leverage US foreign policy. They are the one force that consistently does so.

But always, always, remember the goal and vision. Anger and hatred, arising from the Lebanon debacle, must be channelled not into retaliation and vengeance but into principled action. Armed struggle against occupation remains legitimate and, if properly handled (no killing of civilians), is a key tool. But the goal of all efforts, of every stamp, must be to secure security for everyone, toward building a new peaceful future. It’s very hard, in the midst of our moral outrage, to stay on the high road. That challenge is, however, well-known to human rights campaigns as it is to all three monotheistic faiths. It is what Islam knows as the "great jihad" – the struggle of the heart. It must remain the guiding torch of this effort, which we must defend together.

VIRGINIA TILLEY is a professor of political science, a US citizen working in South Africa, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock (University of Michigan Press and Manchester University Press, 2005). She can be reached at tilley@hws.edu.