In the Anti-boycott Battle, Johansson Is Fantasy but Kerry Is Captain America

Sexy stars notwithstanding, only Western governments can prevent Israel’s isolation and only a peace process will spur them to do so.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

After her Super Bowl/boycott kerfuffle with SodaStream/Oxfam, Scarlett Johansson has officially joined the ranks of historical Jewish heroines. Hitherto to be found on lists of lists of “sexiest Jewish women” (in Buzzfeed’s latest she was number 5, before Bar Refaeli but after Natalie Portman) she can now compete in the “hottest Jewish heroines” league, which includes, among others, Esther, (Queen of Persia) Judith (Assassin of Babylonia) and, according to the Talmud, Rahab (Harlot of Jericho).

I don’t know whether Johansson knew what she was getting herself into when she agreed to star in SodaStream’s Super Bowl promo, but once she realized her predicament, she made a clear decision to double down and dig in, all the way to her roots. Her favorite literary heroine, Marjorie Morningstar – or at least her conservative creator, Herman Wouk - would have been proud.

Inevitably, Johansson turned into a lightning rod in the rapidly escalating public debate over boycotts. In the pro-Palestinian tweets, blogs, memes and Facebook posts that swamped social media, she was an unscrupulous Zionist collaborator who sold out the oppressed in exchange for thirty (or more) silver coins. In the parallel pro-Israel universe, Johansson was an unflinching femme fatale, a Jewish Jeanne D’Arc standing tall against the rabid anti-Semites of the world.

Johansson’s preemptive resignation from Oxfam and her unequivocal stance against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) may have been lampooned and lambasted by her legions of critics, but it nonetheless constituted a major PR victory for anti-boycott forces, at least in the short term. With all due respect to the charms and fame of Abe Foxman or Malcolm Hoenlein, Johansson resides on a different planet: she is a mega-celebrity, a global A-Lister, idolized, coveted - and imitated - by hundreds of millions worldwide.

At the same time, the Pyrrhic element of the Johansson jamboree cannot be denied either. It is precisely because of her prominence that hitherto unknowing and possibly uncaring millions have been alerted not only to Soda Stream’s operations in the territories –that’s the company’s business - but exposed to the very concept of a boycott against Israel. And in the boycott business, at least from Israel’s point of view, ignorance is bliss, no news is good news and sleeping dogs are better left to lie.

Seen in this light, the celebration of Johansson’s steadfast support is only a consolation prize, a temporary diversion from the threats that lie ahead. It is similar to the pride and comfort that pro-Israel groups in America took in the emphatic repudiation by 220 university presidents of the academic boycott recently adopted by the American Studies Association; a few short years ago, they tend to forget, the ASA decision itself would have been unthinkable.

Israel and its supporters are having a hard time focusing on the new reality, a common symptom for those who have been burying their heads in the sand for too long. The government no longer denies the threat posed by the boycott campaign but it is still finding it difficult to look it straight in the eye. As Barak Ravid reported this week, the ministers are debating whether to allocate $30 million to an anti-boycott hasbara campaign, as if the horses that have left the barn can be rounded up again with clever commercials and PR campaigns. The pro-settler and anti-peace right wing, meanwhile, have come up with their own fallback position that lumps the BDS movement together with Kerry and the West into one big anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic bloc that won’t be appeased, they say, by Israeli withdrawals or a two-state solution.

For the same reason, when Secretary of State John Kerry warned in Munich this week that the status quo is “illusionary” and “unsustainable," Israeli leaders preferred to rudely rebuff his words as “threats”, rather than internalize them as a concerned but stark assessment of the shape of things to come. It is the messenger who is the problem, rather than the message, as the Anti-Defamation League asserted in a statement released in New York on Sunday: as a key player in the process rather than an outside observer, Kerry’s comments “create a reality of its own”, the ADL said.

But even if one accepts the premise that Kerry misspoke or that BDS is malevolent to its core, that does not negate the essence of the Secretary of State’s razor-sharp assessment. The success or failure of an international boycott against Israel does not depend on the intentions or motivations of its activists nor on the steadfast opposition, however brave or glamorous, of its critics. Only the resolve of Western European governments, and the will of the US Administration to prod them, are capable of stemming the rising tide of Israeli isolation.

And only a viable peace process, Kerry is saying, can create the kind of political motivation needed for these governments to clamp down on boycotters and to hold critical public opinion at bay. The collapse of peace efforts will render these governments indifferent to the boycott, at best, or actually eager to join the campaign themselves, at worst.

Israel should not accept Kerry’s proposals because of the threat of boycott, but it can ill afford to ignore the ramifications of rejection either. The boycott movement may be unfair but it is not going to evaporate into thin air. If the peace process fails, even Natalia Romanova, the Black Widow that Johansson portrays in the Marvel films, won’t be able to stop the enemies at Israel’s gate. There is only one Captain America left in this movie and, out of character or not, the role is being played by John Kerry.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in "Marvel's The Avengers."

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