The stick of boycott vs. the carrot of recognition
For the majority of Arabs, myself included, the idea of boycotting Israel is almost second nature, part of Arab political culture for decades. But I have serious misgivings about the cultural and academic boycott. A boycott should coexist with an Arab recognition of the Jewish state and grassroots engagement with ordinary Israelis.
It is a mark of the phenomenal success of a certain band from Los Angeles that the words Red Hot Chili Peppers are primarily associated in the minds of millions with a unique flavour of funky sounds that has all the spice and kick of the piquant fruit they are named after. The Chili Peppers were an important and integral part of the soundtrack to my youth.
Appealing to the band’s sense of justice, many Palestinians and supporters of the cultural boycott against Israel called on the Chili Peppers to cancel their concert in Tel Aviv last week but to no avail.
“Art alone cannot break down a wall that appropriates Palestinian land and resources,” Palestinian-American poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi, who is a member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, wrote in an article for al-Jazeeracalling on the band to cancel their Israel gig. “But artists and their art can inspire millions to take conscientious action against occupation and discrimination.”
In ignoring this outcry, were Kiedis and his crew guilty of putting profit over principle and of hypocrisy?
In the past, I might have responded with an unqualified, “Yes, they were”, and advocates of the boycott against Israel see the Chili Peppers as having sold out the Palestinians by coming here and behaving as if there were no occupation. And to their discredit and shame, the band which has dedicated so many memorable lyrics to the racism and segregation suffered by African-Americans and the plight of Native Americans, while expressing strong love for Israel, did not seem able even to spare a single word for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who live in enforced segregation.
That said, the situation is not entirely black and white. The Chili Peppers have a special emotional link with Israel, because the group’s original guitarist Hillel Slovak was Israeli, and Kiedis and crew may have decided that Israelis cannot be held collectively responsible for the crimes and injustices committed by the Israeli state.
For myself and the majority of Arabs, the idea of boycotting Israel is almost second nature, given that it has been an integral part of Arab political culture for decades. Even in Egypt, which has had a peace treaty with Israel for most my life, those who deal with Israel or Israelis are often depicted as unscrupulous opportunists who are out to profit from the misery of their Palestinian brethren.
Prior to moving here I did not buy any Israeli products and, given my commitment to ethical spending, I still believe that a targeted economic boycott is justified to ensure that people do not bankroll the occupation and the subjugation of the Palestinians. In fact, in addition to the popular boycott, Western governments should not effectively be rewarding Israel for its intransigence and there is a case to be made for the United States suspending military aid and the EU downgrading relations with Israel – which the EU’s former foreign policy chief Javier Solana once described as an EU member in all but name – until a peace deal is reached.
However, I do have serious misgivings about the cultural and academic boycott. Although institutions which perpetuate the occupation, such as military research centres or universities on occupied land, should rightly not be dealt with, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) effectively calls for a blanket boycott, arguing that, “unless proven otherwise,” all Israeli academic and cultural bodies “are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights.” But presuming guilt until innocence is proven is unjust, and this is a form of collective punishment, albeit not on the scale of the Gaza blockade.
On a more pragmatic level, it is also counterproductive. Take the case of the German documentary about Jerusalem which was set to feature both Palestinian and Israeli residents to show the reality of life in the divided city. Pressure from campaigners caused many Palestinians to pull out of the project, the upshot of which will be that the film is more likely to show only Israeli perspectives.
The veteran Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab – who co-founded the now-defunct Bitter Lemons journal where Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals engaged in oft-heated dialogue – described the furor as a form of “intellectual terrorism.” I have spoken to other activists who advocate joint action and dialogue, that complained of a growing rejection of their approach.
“Some regard any encounter with an Israel as ‘normalization’. I am against normalization… but dialogue is not normalization,” a prominent activist who has spent years promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue told me. “Peace is too precious to be left only to politicians,” she emphasised.
Part of the reason for this hardening of positions appears to be disillusionment and scepticism at the entire apparatus – which put some emphasis on dialogue and collaboration between the two sides – put in place as part of the failed and discredited “peace process.”
“The aim of most of these so-called dialogues is to give the impression that there is an exchange going on,” one young activist involved in the BDS movement told me. “But this happens without the recognition of our rights, without the acknowledgement that there is a people being oppressed.”
But by punishing sympathetic Israelis along with hostile ones, this kind of unenlightened boycott alienates the doves more than it isolates the hawks. Although the cultural boycott claims to target institutions and not individuals, individuals who work for these bodies more often than not fall prey to the boycott, regardless of their politics.
“They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” complained Shlomo Sand, the maverick Israeli historian and one-time friend of the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, warning that the Palestinians were boycotting “the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture”.
“It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic,” he told me.
Moreover, the Arabs have little to show for their decades of boycott, beyond perhaps the emotional satisfaction of not dealing with the enemy. Some suggest that it has even strengthened Israel. “I think that the reason for Israel’s prosperity is, ultimately, an unexpected result of the boycott,” believes Iraqi-Israeli poet Sasson Somekh, who was a close friend of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
“I am against boycotts, even of your worst enemies,” he told me. “If you want to influence them and change the status quo, you need to have dialogue with them, not boycott them.”
Counter-intuitive as it may sound to many Arab ears, the best way forward is for ordinary Arabs, not just Palestinians, to engage more with ordinary Israelis – both in dialogue and joint action – because there can be no resolution to this conflict without an Israeli partner, and gaining that partner requires the empowering of Israel’s increasingly marginalized and embattled peace movement.
Moreover, the blanket Arab boycott belies a profound and damaging misunderstanding of the Israeli psyche and the existential angst Jews have suffered following the deadly pogroms of the previous century and the Holocaust. The majority of Israelis do not see the boycott as a principled stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, but as a manifestation of Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist.
To allay such fears and deprive Israeli hawks of their intellectual and emotional prey, I think that the majority of Arab countries who have not yet done so, perhaps through the Arab League, should immediately recognize Israel within its pre-1967 borders. This simple, highly symbolic act – which actually costs the Arabs nothing and does no harm to the Palestinian cause – can help the Arab world, rather like Anwar Sadat once did, to go over the intransigent Israeli leadership’s heads and appeal directly to the Israeli public.
Sadat believed that a psychological barrier existed between Arabs and Israelis – a “barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, or deception” – which constituted “70 percent of the whole problem.” While the percentage is open to question, in this, Sadat, for all his failings, was largely right.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger - www.chronikler.com - and writer, currently living in Jerusalem, who has spent about half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea