Why the Boycotters Are on the Wrong Side of History

Pro-boycott activists leading campaigns against Israel will not be the reason the country eventually changes course.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

This hasn’t been an easy period for obituarists and eulogizers in the Hebrew press. There just doesn’t seem a way for an Israeli writer to put Nelson Mandela’s life and record into a context without coming up against a wall.

You will all have read the same quotes over and over again. How he saw justice for the Palestinians as part of his own nation’s fight for freedom, called Israel a “terror state” and demanded it relinquish its weapons of mass destruction. And then you will have read those quotes of his about how Israel deserves to exist in secure borders, and how it shouldn’t be forced to relinquish territory unless it is assured that its neighbors are not seeking its destruction. Of course, you will have read in the past about the shameful alliance between Israel and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and then seen today’s scoop in Haaretz on how the Mossad trained him back in 1962.

You will also be aware of how many of Mandela’s colleagues in the movement equated present-day Israel to the South Africa of those days (though apparently Desmond Tutu also said in 2011 that the current ANC government is “worse than the apartheid government,” so those comparisons are pretty fluid), and the current de-facto boycott of Israel by South African ministers.

It seems that every analogy made on the late Mandela’s actions is too superficial and biased to allow for any context – no more so than when trying to draw any lessons to our corner of the globe and specific conflict.

But it’s not just in eulogizing Mandela where history defeats any serious attempt at context. Try saying something intelligent about the ham-fisted way the government has been dealing with the migrants issue and you are almost immediately defeated the moment someone calls it apartheid. How can you seriously criticize anything and try and propose alternatives once the standard has been set so high, or low?

The same goes with the Prawer-Begin plan. There is a whole lot wrong with the plan and the paternalistic attitude toward Israel’s minorities which engendered it, but the moment many of its opponents brand it as “ethnic cleansing,” any considered debate is immediately drowned out.

This love of spurious historical usages is, of course, not only prevalent on the left – the most obvious being the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has constantly been using and abusing the memory of the Holocaust in his, overall, justified crusade against Iran achieving nuclear weapons. The use of Holocaust imagery by right and left is a time-honored custom in Israeli politics, sprung in almost Pavlovian fashion.

Following last week's decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israel (that’s Israel, mind you, not just the settlements), there has been a torrent of columns written in response by some of the top Jewish (and non-Jewish) American pundits, explaining why the decision is a travesty.

All the reasons listed are valid: the boycott unfairly singles out Israel; it targets only the Jewish state; and, since it will cause Israel no harm (after all, how could a bunch of woolly brained professors damage anyone by not cooperating with them?), it will only serve to strengthen Israeli hardliners.

But these reasons are beside the point. If you really need a reason for why it’s wrong to boycott a country that was created to serve as the only haven for the world’s most persecuted people, you have learned nothing from history.

I don’t think this lack of any real historical understanding is due to anti-Semitism, because there’s no such thing as anti-Semitism in polite Western society anymore. There can’t be, since anti-Semitism is unfashionable.

Sure, many (though not all) of those hiding today behind the mantra of “not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic” would certainly have been proud anti-Semites had they been living 70 or 80 years ago, when to openly hate Jews was fashionable. But it’s pointless trying to diagnose which of the haters are Jew-haters and which are Jewish-state-haters; we can never know for sure, and it’s beneath us, anyway.

Hating Israel today is radical chic, whether it comes from the ranks of the no-logo-99-percent-vegan-"paci-militants" or the paleo-conservative-ultra-libertarian-isolationists. They are the descendants of those who 70 years ago were idolizing Stalin or Mussolini, and a few decades later Mao, Castro or Pinochet.

They were wrong about history then and they are wrong now. They may have been right about apartheid, but besides that proving as much as a broken clock twice a day, it only shows that sometimes Western democracies get it badly wrong for decades, while despotic regimes – much beloved of the radical chic – can posture as moral for their own interests.

I am not going to insult any readers by repeating all the many reasons why the Israel = apartheid analogy is totally false. Such a comparison both demeans the memory of the victims of apartheid and makes it totally impossible to comprehend and confront the very real racism which exists in Israeli society. As an Israeli, I find that particular racism no less abhorrent and worthy of campaigning against for being less severe and cruel than racism in other countries and societies.

For Israelis, calling out racism in their midst is a civic duty. I would also argue that for Jews who feel responsibility and affinity to Israel, it also a duty.

As regards activists, journalists, politicians and diplomats who think Israeli racism is more deserving of their opprobrium and action than that of their own countries or any of the other member-states of the United Nations, it is a matter for their own conscience.

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk were among the rare leaders who understood what history demanded of them.

History demands the same of Israeli and Palestinian leaders today, but the boycotters are just a distraction from history, blinded by the Jews’ historical success in making the transition from being the most hunted-down and persecuted nation in the world to one thats human-rights record is under a higher degree of scrutiny than any other.

History will compel Israel to correct its course, hopefully sooner rather than later, and it will be stronger and more self-confident as a result. No one will remember the boycotters by then.

People hold a portrait of Nelson Mandela as they stand in line to pay respect to late South African president Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa, December 12, 2013. Credit: AFP

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