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The Real Purpose of Boycotts

Palestinian demonstrators

Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90

Unmentioned is that the boycott called for by the Palestinian Authority is a violation of the April 29, 1994 Paris Agreement between Israel and the PLO which expresses respect of “each other’s economic interests,” and recognizes “the need to create a better economic environment for their people’s and individuals.” A further fallacy in the Palestinian logic is not only that the boycott is a violation of signed agreements, but also that, in a country the size of Vancouver Island or New Jersey, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the economy of the settlements from that of Israel as a whole.

What is surprising is the acceptance of this hostile strategy by non-Arabs, particularly citizens of Britain and other European countries. The campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) began in July 2005 by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), arguing that they support the Palestinian cause because Israel was not complying with international law and universal principles of human rights — regardless, of course, of whether they themselves were or not.

The campaign has led to various kinds of actions: in the academic area, in the economy, in mainstream Churches, in the media, in cultural activity, and by non-governmental organizations. In the full irony of the camel never seeing his hump, and contrary to self-proclaimed liberal ideas of free speech and opposition to censorship, academic and cultural groups have expressed their support. The annual Israeli Apartheid Week in the United States and Europe has led to demonstrations on university campuses in which anti-Israeli advocates have prevented the expression of dissent, and has also stimulated antisemitic demonstrations.

A few examples of boycott actions suffice to illustrate the anti-Israeli malice. The British Association of University Teachers (AUT) Council voted in April 2005 for different reasons to boycott two Israeli universities, Haifa and Bar-Ilan; under pressure from members supporting academic freedom, the boycott was cancelled. However, the British National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) in 2006 called for a boycott of Israeli academics and universities; and in 2009, a new group, the British academic union (UCU), passed a resolution to the same effect.

Moty Cristal, a well-known Israel expert on negotiation theory and mediation was disinvited from the conference on conflict resolution held in Britain in 2012 and arranged by the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust because of the objection by the Unison trade union, a constant and open critic of Israel. Further, two Israeli scholars were dismissed from editorial boards of scientific journals published in Manchester by the Arab editor.

Businesses have also entered the picture. In April 2012 the British Co-operative Group, the fifth largest supermarket group in Britain, said it would no longer do business with any supplier of produce from Israeli settlements. It is probably the first major supermarket group in Europe to implement such a boycott. Its customers will miss the Arava export growers, Mehadrin, Agrexco, and Adafresh collective exports of fruits and vegetables. Paradoxically, these companies have employed Arab workers in the fields and packing-houses. Moreover, Histadrut, the Israel trade union, has had good relations with PGFTU, the Palestinian counterpart for Palestinian workers.

Most surprising has been the activity of mainstream Churches, and by individuals in the cultural and entertainment sections of society. The latter are hardly likely to be sophisticated analysts of Middle Eastern affairs, yet well known musicians, Elvis Costello, The Pixies, Cassandra Wilson, Gil Scott Heron, performers including Emma Thompson and Mark Rylands, and filmmakers Ken Loach and Jean-Luc Godard have expressed support for a boycott, or refused to visit Israel. This attitude is more likely to result from fear, intimidation, misplaced self-righteousness or from a desire to be seen as politically correct among their peers, than from any political or moral conviction. A group of anti-Israeli activists in 2009 tried to stop the Toronto Film Festival from featuring Israeli films, and the films of Steven Spielberg have been banned in 14 Arab countries because he had made a $1 million donation to Israel in 2006.

Recent studies by psychologists and neuroscientists studying the causes of the unwillingness of individuals to accept reality or to question either the situation at which they are looking or their own behavior, suggest that advocates of boycotts against Israel seem to be prevented by their pre-existing beliefs — whether anti-Israeli or antisemitic attitudes — from appreciating the the context in which facts can be understood. If they truly wanted to help the Palestinians, their time and energy would be better spent in encouraging Arab states and Palestinians to demand better governance from their leaders, and possibly even to enter into negotiations to normalize political and trade relations with Israel. The argument that the boycott should remain in place until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved is the exact opposite of the path to either a settlement or to peace.

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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