by Daniel Hoffman
Many European and American students are familiar with academic boycotts of Israel, campaigns which emerged in the United Kingdom in the midst of the second Intifada and resurface from time to time on campuses when an “Israeli topic” is debated. These are occasions for pro-Palestinian activists to demonstrate and ask for relations with Israeli universities to be banned.
Recently, two events in France have reinvigorated these old and passionate debates. The first episode was the cancellation of French pop singer Vanessa Paradis’ concert in Tel Aviv, probably a result of political pressures (though her agent claimed it was for professional reasons). Similar cases have happened in the past with other Western artists, such as Elvis Costello and Gorillaz.
The second event took place in one of France’s most prestigious universities, the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS). Bestselling author Stéphane Hessel, a vociferous detractor of Israeli policy, was supposed to speak in a “Solidarity with Palestine” conference, which was supported by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign calling for an economic boycott of Israel. The event was ultimately canceled, the ENS reminding those involved that the boycott of Israel is forbidden under French law. The controversy became virulent when several pro-Palestinian organizations accused the university of having given in to the requests of pro-Israeli committees.
Gatherings celebrating Israeli culture are also opportunities for boycott
supporters to spark polemics. During the 2008 book fair in Paris, where
Israel was the guest of honor, a national debate was raised after Muslim countries refused to take part in the event. Boycott actions are most likely to be launched when fighting erupts in the Middle East. After the Gaza flotilla raid, in June 2010, a French cinema chain decided to cancel the screenings of an Israeli movie, though the movie was completely unrelated to the conflict.
What is wrong with these campaigns? Is the the fact that they are anti-Semitic? Certainly not: boycott supporters are obviously not all anti-Semites. Is it the fact that they are unfair? That can’t be. Unfairness is too subjective a notion and can hardly be demonstrated.
No, there is something else. The main problem with these campaigns is that they are first and foremost hypocritical.
Their first hypocrisy lies in the very definition of the word “boycott.” The term is so vague and nebulous that it cannot correspond to a single reality. What is the boycott about: food products, academic exchanges, people themselves or any Israel-related object? Which geographical area is concerned: the settlements only or all of Israel? Should the boycott be launched without debate or should it be preceded by a discussion on its appropriateness? Most supporters don’t answer such questions.
A historical reference often invoked when trying to justify the boycott is South Africa. This is a fallacious analogy. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has
absolutely nothing to do with apartheid. You might think Israel is wrong. You might even think it maintains some discriminatory policies. But it is untrue to pretend that there is any political similarity between today’s Israel and 1980s South Africa. Apartheid was a system that legally segregated inhabitants of the same country on a racial basis. Israelis and Palestinians are two different peoples. The comparison with South African blacks is a mistake, and perhaps even an insult to Palestinians. It casts doubts on their ability to self-determinate. For any sincere friend of the Palestinians, the apartheid argument is not tenable.
Neither is the moral argument. Here again, the reasoning deserves to be pushed to its end. Israel can be targeted for a boycott–but so could any number of other countries. Should China be boycotted for the repression of Tibetans, Uyghurs and so many other ethnic groups? Should India be condemned for its intolerable castes? And what about Russia, not really beyond reproach with the Chechens? What about Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Sudan, or even the United States? Should we boycott them all?
Shouldn’t we take a moment to wonder if this boycott is useful for Israelis and Palestinians, if it favors dialogue or if, instead, it exacerbates the region’s tensions? Arguing that the boycott is counterproductive must not elude the issue of criticizing Israeli policy—it makes the criticism even more necessary. But it also asks for more efficient ways to move forward.