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The Real Purpose of Boycotts

Palestinian demonstrators

Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90

Is the purpose of the calls for boycotts against Israel and its citizens a concern for the human rights or welfare of Palestinians, or actually a call ultimately to eliminate the state of Israel? If there were a real concern for the human rights of Palestinians, why are there not calls for a free Palestinian press, or for the release of journalists from Palestinian prisons, or for an end to the corruption in the Palestinian leadership?

Instead, these calls for boycott look suspiciously like a racist response to the existence of a Jewish state — as if most of its citizens were wearing a yellow Star-of-David in Nazi-like fashion, and deserved to be punished or eliminated. Even Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, well-known critics of Israel and pro-Palestinian activists, have characterized the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel as “hypocritical,” and run by individuals who falsely claim to represent the Palestinian people.

Whether the calls for boycott are the product of leftist anti-nationalist posturing, antisemitism, or simple ignorance, is a matter of judgment. In their disingenuous nature they are simplistic responses to complex, unresolved problems that ignore the distinctions between diverse kinds of activities and issues, such as the different territories and populations, or how “appropriately” to defend oneself in the face of continued aggression. If the advocates for boycott do wish for peace, what they are proposing is actually counterproductive: they create an atmosphere in which calls for boycott have been, and are, an obstacle to the start of negotiations between the parties, and in which adversarial positions only become hardened even further as threats are seen to increase. There seems to be a cognitive dissonance, an inability among the boycotters, to distinguish between facts and the spun perception of them; or perhaps there is an indifference to facts, or perhaps there is a reluctance to place any facts at all in the context of the real, ongoing relationship between the disputing parties.

Boycotts of Jews and Jewish interests by Arab groups go back almost a hundred years, and have become more prominent with the declaration in December, 1945, of the newly formed Arab League Council of 23 countries. The declaration stated that, “Jewish products and manufactured goods shall be considered undesirable to the Arab countries.” Hypocrisy was present from the start. The Arab states were less interested in helping Palestinian Arabs than in preventing Jewish products from entering their own countries and competing with them.

This boycott, administered by the Central Boycott Office in Damascus, attempted to isolate Israel economically as well as diplomatically, and did administer some temporary harm to the economy of Israel after the state was established in 1948. In addition to the Arab states, some non-Arab businesses, among them Pepsi, McDonald’s and most Japanese car companies, abided by the boycott, but it was more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Since the 1980s a number of Arab states, starting with Egypt, and with the exception of Syria, have abandoned the boycott, wholly or in part, unable to ignore the new world of globalization, international trade, and binding international trade agreements, particularly that of the World Trade Organization. As a result, Arab countries, both through legal channels and clandestinely through third parties, have been trading with Israeli companies in a considerable fashion, including in irrigation, security systems, and high-tech components, and have accepted Israeli investment.

The boycott is still technically in force by Arab countries, though often bypassed, ineffective and negligible. Its intended impact is now less in economic affairs than in becoming a major polemical weapon in the hands of those non-Arabs who are critical of, or want to condemn, Israel — purportedly because of their opposition of Israeli settlements and their unwillingness to believe that, to the adversaries of Israel, it is regarded as one big settlement.

People can understand the politically motivated logic of Arabs, inside Israel as well as outside, calling for a ban on products made in Israeli settlements, including Ahava Dead Sea health products, Beigel and Beigel pretzels, Super Drink soft drinks, Oppenheimer chocolates, fruits, vegetables, computers, and many other products. It is an illustration of democracy in Israel — and revealing about those who do not wish Israel well — that a major advocate of the boycott is Ahmad Tibi, the Arab-Israeli deputy speaker of the Knesset.

About the Author: Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A sovereign nation under assault by the international community.


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