Saturday, August 19, 2006

Call for Boycotts

Via 3quarksdaily, I see that there is now a renewed call to boycott Israeli cultural institutions to protest the occupation of Palestine:
We call upon the International community to join us in the boycott of Israeli film festivals, Israeli public venues, and Israeli institutions supported by the government, and to end all cooperation with these cultural and artistic institutions that to date have refused to take a stand against the Occupation, the root cause for this colonial conflict.

I was going to dissent from this. But perhaps I should embrace it instead. Yes! Israel is doing evil things -- so let's boycott Israeli writers and artists!

But why stop there?

The U.S., of course, is brutally occupying Iraq. Are Iraqi lives worth less than Palestinian ones? Clearly not. So we have to boycott the U.S., too. This might be difficult for those of us who live in the U.S. -- we could go to no cultural events at all -- but morality is morality.

But, of course, Britain is occupying Iraq too. So add it to the list.

Then there's China. China has been brutally occupying Tibet for longer than Israel has been occupying Palestine. So obviously Chinese artists and writers are out. And many people say that India has no right to occupy Kashmir. Better to be on the safe side; so India's out, too.

But why stop at occupying states? Surely states which do other evil or criminal things should be subject to boycott, too. For instance, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran brutally oppress women and gays, killing the former for crimes such as getting raped, and the latter for crimes such as existing at all. Those countries will have to be boycotted.

For that matter, I just saw the other day that Iran's fatwa against Salman Rushdie is still in effect. Calling for the murder of writers -- can't have that. But oh, wait -- Rushdie is British. Or does he live in America now? Or should we consider him Indian? Doesn't matter: one way or another, we won't be reading The Satanic Verses any time soon. Fortunately, Iran's already on the list, so no worries there.

It's getting to be a long list. People may worry that there will be no writers or artists left at all. But do not fear! There is an out! If institutions, or specific writers and artists, speak out against the occupation, they're exempt. (At least according to most versions of this idea.) So all we need to do is make sure that writers and artists speak out against the various atrocities in their countries -- but wait, isn't the whole idea here human solidarity? Better make that speak out against all the various atrocities. In fact, what if they miss one, or speak out in insufficiently outraged terms? To be on the safe side, we should prepare a statement for every artist and writer to sign. Hell, to read outloud: let them give their literal voices to the cause.

In fact, isn't it wrong to speak of anything else while such cruelties go on? Perhaps artists and writers should be allowed to read only our prepared statement until the cruelties of the world are ended.

The question of whether artists and writers are allowed to use personalized expressions in their readings, to highlight certain passages, is still in committee. Stay tuned.

I know this sounds extreme. But oppression is oppression, after all. If we let artists and writers speak on whatever they choose, despite whatever evils they may be associated with, how can we ever be free?

(Update: For more serious discussion, a commentator and I exchange views in the comment section.)


Leila Abu-Saba said...

Sorry I'm slow to comment on this one. I agree with you, and I like the satire -the extending of the idea to absurdity. You're more erudite than I, isn't there a Latin term for this? It's not Reducto ad absurdium, because you aren't reducing - you're expanding. Anyway. It's a favorite rhetorical flourish of mine, even if I can't think of the name for the argument.

This post reminds me that I don't like asking bloggers "why haven't you commented on X?" Bloggers aren't necessarily artists...but it seems really stupid to require a blogger to post on anything. Blogging is supposed to be free. If I think a blogger is irrelevant then I don't have to read her. If I think a blogger should comment on X because he covers X, I can stop reading him. There are plenty other bloggers who will cover X.

Turning to artists - to demand that artists produce statements in response to events, just to prove that they are acceptable politically, is to require them to produce propaganda.

And I've always thought that boycotting the cultural products of your enemy is a remarkably stupid strategy, even if you just want to hate your enemy and vanquish him. How can you vanquish your enemy without understanding him? And you must consume his cultural products to understand him.

But I'll bet that people who do boycott those products are afraid that their enemy's culture might open their hearts and render them unable to obliterate their opponents with glee.

You know - read Arabic poetry, listen to Arabic music, hang around in Arab-style houses on divans eating spiced chicken, and you'll turn into an Arab lover. Or - hang around the Lower East Side, eat borscht, read I.B. Singer and listen to Mendelsohn, and you'll turn into a Jew lover. (That happened to me!) Art is criminal, induces lily-livered feelings of humanity, and must be banned in order to win the war on terror/imperialism/

(That was sarcasm, folks, sarcasm)

janinsanfran said...

I think I'll take you on about this one, friend.

How is the world's majority supposed to curb rogue states like Israel and the United States, neither of which show any scruples about using their military superiority to tear up whole societies that might oppose them?

I'm serious. I worked at anti-apartheid newspapers in South Africa in 1990 and I can tell you that anti-apartheid measure which had the most impact on white society there was the international sports boycott. Countries change when their citizens are forced to understand that their behavior is making them pariahs.

Israel and the United States need help to change. They can't forever get their way by bullying all comers. A boycott, especially a cultural one, seems an admirably non-violent way for the rest of the world to get the point through to ordinary people in these societies.

Stephen said...

Janinsanfran quoted her comment above on her own blog, and added a few additional words. I left a comment there, but I thought I would leave it here to. It follows (I've edited out a few minor corrections to things she said over there; otherwise it is verbatim). I wrote:


Thanks for stopping by. I am not so sure of my position -- despite my tone, which was angrier than I usually do -- that your piece did not give me pause. So I did think about the issue again. But I still think I'm right. (Though I hate to alienate any of my few readers!)

First off, I am far from sure that the U.S. and Israel are uniquely bad on the world stage these days. As I pointed out in my post, things are bad all over -- China in Tibet, Russia in Chechnya, India in Kashmir, etc, to say nothing of the theocracy in Saudi Arabia, etc. Perhaps if I believed Israel and/or the U.S. to be uniquely bad I would feel differently. But I don't. Many states and groups are involved in terrible things. How are citizens of the world supposed to respond to those things? I don't pretend to know. But (leading into point two...)

Secondly, while I can't speak to Israel, but I feel fairly sure that a boycott of the United States would backfire enormously. I think it would increase the U.S.'s sense of the evil of the world, of self-righteousness, its tendency to distrust global institutions, etc. Remember 2004, when a number of citizens of the UK undertook to write to Ohio citizens to promote Kerry? Really didn't help. So no, not a good idea.

Thirdly, I would note in passing that a boycott of a particular practice -- such as grapes grown by mistreated workers -- seems very different than boycotting a whole country, which seems to me far closer -- perilously closer -- to demonizing a people.

Fourthly, of course, there is the unwholesome stench of enforced ideology about the whole affair, which was a main part of my point. I am a great believer in discourse and dialog: this boycott attempts to shut such dialog down. And, just as I am not so sure of my own position that your piece did not give me pause, I am not so sure of my position on Israel that I do not wish to hear what Israelis have to say as well. Not to mention that freedom of speech -- and, make no mistake about it, this boycott, if instituted, would limit that -- is a good in and of itself.

So I think, in the end, I would go with Leila of Dove's Eye View's comment to the same post, right above yours: "You know - read Arabic poetry, listen to Arabic music, hang around in Arab-style houses on divans eating spiced chicken, and you'll turn into an Arab lover. Or - hang around the Lower East Side, eat borscht, read I.B. Singer and listen to Mendelsohn, and you'll turn into a Jew lover. (That happened to me!)" I think that creating that fellow-feeling would do far more for peace and justice than any boycott -- certainly it is a far more productive way to use the arts. (This is not to say Leila would endorse what I'm saying here; I have no idea. Just to endorse her words, not vice-versa.)

So maybe that leads me to my positive suggestion to replace the notion of boycotting Israel. There are, at the moment, travel bans in place so that no one who has been in Israel can go into Lebanon, Syria and other countries (I'm not sure which ones) -- my sister-in-law carries two passports so she can travel in both worlds. I would presume, therefore, that the same applies to Israelis themselves. I would suggest lifting those bans, and instituting cultural exchanges. Bring Israelis of all stripes to Lebanon, to Syria, to the West Bank -- and show them culture. Don't indoctrinate them; don't talk politics. If you can show them movies that deal with love affairs and not politics, so much the better. But over time, this will do far more for peace -- and for justice in Palestine -- than a boycott.

Similarly, I think Americans should go abroad more. (Although, of course, at the moment they would probably not be welcome and well treated -- a theme of another recent post of mine, that the evils of one side to do not imply the good of another side. It still would be worth a try: even shouting is dialogue of a kind.)

So there: I guess I have an alternative proposal after all. More speech, more contact, more viewpoints, more art, rather than less.

Stephen Frug

Leila Abu-Saba said...

Re: boycotts - well, I don't buy Israeli feta cheese, because I just emotionally don't want to buy Israeli agricultural products. You can sneer or argue all you like, I just won't buy them if I have a choice. OTOH, I am not a purist and when my Israeli-American friend brought me Dead Sea clay in a cosmetic packet, I thanked her kindly for the gift.

Also I do buy this weird elderberry extract for my children that is reputed to be good for colds. It's an Israeli product developed by an Israeli scientist. It just doesn't have the same emotional overtones for me that Israeli melons, tomatoes or other produce do. I mean, I cannot turn an herbal extract into a symbol of "zionist imperialism." I am just not that doctrinaire.

I wouldn't buy any product made in settler factories in the occupied territories, natch.

But I read Haaretz, I go to the Jewish Film Festival some years and see Israeli films, I certainly break bread with any Israeli who wants to sit down and eat with me, and I think an academic boycott is a big mistake. I would definitely buy books by Israeli authors; and of course I asked for and accepted Palestinian embroidery as a souvenir of Jerusalem. Oh yes, and I own a CD by a mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli band called Bustan Abraham. And I've given money to Givat Haviva.

Here's Eric Alterman on cross-cultural film-watching:

"I saw a marvelous movie the other night at Synagogue called “The Syrian Bride.” It was an Israeli film, released in 2004, about a Druze family on the Golan who must say goodbye to their daughter forever because she is marrying a Syrian. Once she crosses the “security zone,” she can never come back. Everybody in the place identified with the shame and hardships inflicted on these brave and proud people by the occupation—even though there was never any violence in the film. And yet in the very same room, weeks earlier, I felt like I would have been run out of town had I mentioned that Israel was killing innocent civilians for no good purpose. This sort of thing drives me crazy. Anyway, see the film if you can. "

From Altercation, the blog. Not archived...

janinsanfran said...

Hi Stephen -- came back over here to answer you. :-) Please know that just because we disagree, mildly at that, you won't lose me as a reader!

I think I can come pretty close to conceding all four of your main points. I just think about them differently.

On your first point -- yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with a man who has spent his whole life in international human rights work. We asked him: "who is the worst abuser of human rights in the world?" He answered unequivocally: "China. They have the most people." He named India second, same grounds. This quantitative assessment makes sense to me but my pro-boycott thinking comes out of a different calculation. If I take U.S. democracy at all seriously, I am responsible for the misdeeds of my own country. And since my country seems also to enable everything that is worst about Israel, I feel responsibility there as well.

Point two -- I completely agree with you that the targets of a boycott will feel greatly misunderstood, abused and angry to be named as pariahs. They always do. The truth hurts. We like to think of our countries as moral actors. Ours certainly isn't and we make it safe (and provide the weapons) for Israel to act immorally. But healing cannot happen if we forever avoid seeing ourselves as others see us.

Third -- yes, there are huge differences between a consumer boycott of a non-essential product and a cultural/academic/sports boycott of a country. But whether such a thing could be done well seems to me an open possibility. I do know that the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa was extremely effective because it communicated (without shooting anyone!) to ordinary white citizens that their country was condemned for specific practices by the whole world. This clarity of message is a product of good boycott design. Something similar could be done in relation to the US and certainly in relation to Israel by strategically and tactically smart organizers. You don't have to boycott a whole country -- you have to create cultural pressure that gets your adversary's attention in a way that is internally morally disturbing.

Fourth -- certainly, all of us who are genuinely liberal and who strive to be peacemakers usually want to enhance dialogue as well as being temperamentally inclined to make nice. "The stench of enforced ideology" (great phrase) does hang around a cultural boycott. But aren't there times we also have to simply say NO? You are right that a boycott would entail loss; I like the idea because it would entail less loss than any other way of creating effective pressure on abusers of international standards.

A cultural boycott in any of its manifestations would fall most heavily on those members of the boycotted society who were most oriented toward the outside world. That is, such a boycott would be most felt by those who were likely to be our friends. That's harsh, but these are also the people who have the most interest in turning their societies around. Like Leila, I read the Israeli press and these days Haaretz is full of laments that the left proved worthless in the crunch. Those of us who care about humane outcomes need a lot of stiffening when push has not yet come to shove.

Like you, I'm sure it would be a good thing if Israelis and their neighbors were able to travel freely in each other's states, but that isn't very likely. Lebanon and Syria are, legally, still at war with Israel though there is an armistice. That's why there are the passport hassles. The Occupied Territories are just that, occupied -- under coercive Israeli military rule.

One of the horrors of our present abominable US policies is that it will probably get harder, not easier, for those of us who have US passports to travel freely in the Arab and Muslim world. In June I was able to drive around freely and unhindered in South Lebanon -- even when they rebuild the roads, I am not sure that option will be open again for a long time.

Paradoxically, non-violent pressure for change that seems to narrow our opportunities for dialogue, such as a cultural boycott, may be our best path toward interchange in a peaceful future. Some action is needed -- people in the US can't just let our government lead us to endless war against the world. As I said in my initial comment, we need help from the peoples of the world.

Stephen said...


Thank you for your (second) thoughtful comment. I am glad to exchange views -- as I said, I believe fervently in dialogue! But, as you say, I think we come at this from different perspectives. Here's another stab at mine.

First, I fully agree with you that, as Americans, we are primarily responsible for what our own country does. I simply think that any boycott of the U.S. is almost certain to be incredibly counter-productive. You write that "the targets of a boycott will feel greatly misunderstood, abused and angry to be named as pariahs. They always do. The truth hurts.... but healing cannot happen if we forever avoid seeing ourselves as others see us." But I simply don't think that a boycott of the U.S. will help towards this end.

As you say, we have different points of view. Yours, it seems, is strongly influenced by your experience in South Africa (a situation I don't know all that much about, and so can't speak to). Mine comes from studying (as I do in my day-job as a grad student) U.S. history, particularly the history of the U.S. in the second half of the Twentieth Century. And this leads me to be extremely concerned -- perhaps excessively concerned, although I don't think so -- with avoiding some earlier mistakes.

I think that one of the central mistakes of the anti-war movement against Vietnam was permitting the perception (mostly incorrect, although in some cases correct) that they were sympathizing with the U.S.'s enemy. Not only was this disastrous in terms of its short-term consequences -- public opposition to the war rose along with public opposition to the anti-war movement -- but arguably in its long-term consequences as well. While I don't think that blowback to the sixties explains all the dominance of the right in the years since (circa) 1980 by any means, I do think it is one of (a number of) key factors. It is simply one that we must avoid in the future. Unfortunately, any boycott of the U.S. will -- I think inevitably -- lead not to seeing ourselves as others see us, but to a perception that opposing U.S. Imperialism is sympathizing with the enemies of the U.S. (rather than, as is I think the truth, with the highest ideals of the U.S.). Even aside from moral considerations, it would be an enormous tactical error. The country has been poised on a balance of sanity and insanity for a decade or more; let's not blow it just as we seem on the verge of taking a step in the right direction.

If we want to help the U.S. along, we should work our butts off to elect Democrats in the fall; to ensure that the Democrats are as much of a pro-peace party as possible (which means supporting primary challenges à la Lamont); and then to work on 2008. That's what will work from a practical point of view. What can the rest of the world do? Arguably, not much. Maybe the best thing would be to help us prevent terrorist attacks through good law enforcement (as in the recent Exploding Shampoo Plot), since I fear we are one big terrorist attack away from a far worse government in the U.S. than we have yet seen.

The issue of Israel is trickier. It is not our state. It is, however, the state that the U.S. supports most heavily. On the latter grounds, I can sort of see the argument for a boycott -- although, of course, any such boycott will have its greatest impact in countries which do not support Israel, some of which harbor large and increasing amounts of antisemitism (and I mean genuine antisemitism, not simply opposition to Israeli policies). I am sure that good-faith efforts to distinguish (quite legitimate) criticism of Israel from (quite illegitimate) antisemitism will be made; I have greater doubts that it will be successful.

This also gets back to the issue of whether Israel (as opposed to the U.S., which we've already agreed is different because it is our country (although of course no organizer of an anti-U.S. boycott could say that!)) is uniquely bad. I suspect this is the nub of the issue. I am not convinced that it is; you, I suspect, are. After all, the South African boycott worked because the entire world was convinced that South Africa was committing an evil unlike that committed anywhere else in the world -- indeed, that the (then-current) South African regime was as such illegitimate. Broad boycotts against Israel are -- I think pretty clearly -- an attempt to declare the current Israeli state illegitimate.

Note that it's not simply to mark Israel's occupation of Palestine as illegitimate. This, of course, I agree with -- and a targeted boycott (such as an expansion of Leila's personal refusal to buy goods made on the west bank) would strike me as very reasonable. But that's not what this boycott is aiming for. And, as evidence, I will cite the article you linked to on your blog arguing for such a boycott.

That article applies comparatively little attention to Israel's occupation of Palestine -- which, again, I agree is illegitimate, but which (as I tried to suggest in my original post) is hardly unique. Rather, it focuses on Israel's status as a racist state -- racist because it is focused on maintaining the superiority of an ethnic group. This is, I think, putting the worst argument forward. I think it might be reasonable to argue either that Israel's occupation of Palestine is the worst such occupation in the world now (I doubt it, but maybe), and/or that it is the worst such occupation that we in the U.S. have a responsibility for (arguable before Iraq, but more difficult to argue now). But I simply don't buy that Israel is unusually racist as a nation.

There are two elements here: the ideal and the practical. As far as the former goes, I agree: Israel is racist in its conception. But no more so -- indeed, precisely as much as -- any state which privileges one religion or ethnic group over others. (It's a bit tricky, because Jews are both; but I think it's pretty much the same thing.) Saudi Arabia, for example, won't even allow Jews in the country. (I am reminded of the antisemitic joke from Ulysses: "You know why Ireland never expelled its Jews? Because it never let them in!") And no one except Muslims is allowed in Mecca or Medina. Now, I readily grant that in practice it is a very different thing to discriminate against actual people living in a country and to discriminate against people by keeping them out. But in theory they are equally racist. Further, of course, ethnic discrimination is commonplace around the world. (Again, we are not talking about the occupation, but about the idea of Israel as a Jewish state as such.) So in theory, yes, I agree, Israel should be a state of its citizens with no privileging for any religious or ethnic group -- just as should every country in the world, though few if any are.

But now we come to the practical side of matters, namely, that this strikes me as a terribly counter-productive thing to argue at this time. The reason is simple: the best chance for peace, I believe, is in a two-state solution; such a solution will only work if there is a viable Palestinian state and a viable Jewish state; to attack the latter as inherently racist is to undermine the whole idea. Now, Virginia Tilley, author of the above-linked article, presumably has no problem with this, since she is the author of a book arguing for a one-state solution. And perhaps she's right. But I don't think she is: I think that a two-state solution is the most likely hope for peace. This is not to say that we should accept discrimination within Israel proper -- we most emphatically should not -- but that to boycott Israel in an attempt to get them to rebuke the idea of a Jewish state as such is a terrible idea. It will not only undermine the pro-peace cause practically (simply as a boycott); it will undermine the most likely foundation for peace.

So I would argue: set up two viable states, one Palestinian, one an Israel with fully equal rights for its citizens, but allowing it such non-ideal trappings as the law of return. Let the two countries exist in peace for a generation. And then, if it seems hopeful, try to undermine the entire idea of religious and/or ethnic based states -- not only in Israel, but everywhere.

Let me make it clear: yes, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is illegitimate and immoral and should be stopped. I would support measures such as pressuring the U.S. government to withhold aid towards that end. I would support a targeted boycott at settlers on the occupied west bank. But I don't think that Israel as such is an illegitimate state -- not more so than most states in the world today -- nor do I think that Israel's occupation is worse than many of the horrors that exist in the world today.

All of this, of course, is apart from what I continue to see as the main issue -- freedom of speech, being in favor of the spread and flow of culture rather than against it, and so forth. (Also, I should say, I think there is all the difference in the world between an individual boycott, such as Leila describes above, and an organized, international boycott.)

I feel like there were other points I meant to make, but this has already gotten way too long, so I will stop here. If others occur to me, I may post them later. (And, as always, I reserve the right to change my mind if new arguments, new evidence or a sudden realization that I've been a butthead should come up.)