Tricycle Controversy: Why Jews Don’t Do Boycotts

Academic and cultural boycotts are often portrayed as a wielding of 'soft power', but they are intended to shut down debate, an act to which many Jews have an instinctual aversion.

Daniel Reisel
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Pro-Israel demonstrators in London during the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, July 20, 2014.
Pro-Israel demonstrators in London during the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, July 20, 2014.Credit: AFP
Daniel Reisel

The Jewish People are a noisy crowd. We thrive on argument and debate. This is signalled as early as the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, when Abraham, in an act of chutzpah unparalleled in any ancient religious text, charges God: “Shall not the Judge of all the world deal justly?" (Genesis 18:25).

Following on from the combative and argumentative Biblical heroes, the Hebrew prophet famously spoke truth to power. The words of Amos and Isaiah, of Micah and Zechariah, have withstood the test of time and become part of the genetic code of Western civilization.

The rabbis of the Talmud saw themselves as the heirs of this prophetic tradition. The Talmud itself is a wide-ranging debate lasting over a thousand years, an argument that starts before the rise of Alexander the Great and doesn’t end until after the fall of the Roman Empire. In a sense, it didn’t even end there.

Through commentaries and counter-commentaries, the flame of the tradition is kept alive. That is the paradoxical nature of Jewish spiritual survival: To preserve it we have had to constantly change it. Argument was the classical mode of that transmission.

In a striking definition, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105a) states, chutzpah malkhuta be-lo taga hi— chutzpah is royalty without a crown. Frank arguments elevate us, even the cobbler and the shopkeeper. In the absence of military might, argument became our weapon of choice. The power of chutzpah comes from the fact that that it carries its point, afilu klapey shamaya — even against Heaven (Sanhedrin 105a).

The rabbis go so far as to state that be’kvot meshiche chutzpah yisagah – in the Messianic age chutzpah will prevail (Mishna Sota 9:5). That is the rabbinic vision of Heaven: One eternal argument.

It is against this background that Jewish opposition to the attempts at cultural boycotts must be seen. Academic and cultural boycotts are often portrayed as a wielding of 'soft power', a way of showing one’s disapproval of a particular cause. Yet, as the London Tricycle Theatre saga shows, even Jews who disapprove of many aspects of the current Israeli government have an almost instinctual aversion to cultural boycotts. We consider closing down a good debate a sign of defeat; we much rather would continue arguing.

Last November, Yachad co-sponsored the hard-hitting Israeli film "The Gatekeepers" at the U.K. Jewish Film Festival. The film is comprised largely of remarkably candid interviews with the last six heads of Israel’s General Security Services, known by its Hebrew initials as the Shin Bet. It was produced with help from international funds, but also with significant support from the Israeli government and nominated for the 2013 Israeli Film Academy Award.

The film evokes pride, pain and discomfort in equal measure. After the film, we had former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon lead a wide-ranging and often tempestuous discussion about morality in war and the dilemmas a democracy faces in fighting terrorism. Ayalon emphasised the strategic urgency for Israel to create the conditions for a final status agreement that includes withdrawal from the settlements and addressing the core issues of the conflict. To do what it can to make the two-state solution a reality.

What this makes clear is that Jews are happy to disagree, even with Israel. The UK Jewish Film Festival has always been one of those venues, where different perspectives could be heard and debated. A cultural boycott is anathema to the vast majority of Jews because boycott is not part of their culture. Jewish experience suggests that if you find something you disagree with, you seek to change it. You argue about it. What you cannot do is to walk away or wash your hands of it.

This is especially true when it comes to Israel. British Jews overwhelmingly see Israel as a core part of their identity. In the latest Jewish Policy Research poll, 82% Jews in the UK stated that Israel was a key part of their Jewish identity. They argue with Israel, hold it to account, debate over Shabbat dinners and in town squares. What they are not prepared to do is to close down the conversation. They are not prepared to stop engaging, to cease the dialogue.

Elie Wiesel was once interviewed in a television programme about Judaism aptly titled 'The Holy Argument'. The presenter asked him, “Judaism seems like a very noisy religion – is there such a thing as silence in Judaism?” With a faint smile, Wiesel sat back in the big leather armchair, tilted his head to one side and replied: "Judaism is full of silences. But we don't talk about them.”

Until this summer, European governments and civil society have largely resisted calls for a boycott. However, the mood is now changing. On a governmental level, both the UK and Spain have announced that they will be reviewing and possibly even freezing some of their arms exports to Israel. Yet for many, what is more worrying is the spectre of cultural and academic boycotts against Israel.

What riles British Jews about the boycott is not just the patent unfairness with which it is applied. It is not even the historical fears that such an action raises within us, though that is part of it too. More deeply, a cultural boycott outrages our most primordial Jewish instincts; it offends our stubborn Jewish belief in the value of conversation, of negotiation, of painstaking debate and discussion.

Yachad strongly opposes cultural or academic boycotts of Israel. They shut down dialogue at a time when we need it the most. We believe what Israel needs is more committed engagement, not less. As Jews, we argue because we care. Reasoned disagreement constitutes our most powerful weapon, in the best tradition of Abraham and the noisy prophets of old.

Daniel Reisel is a Research Fellow at University College London and the Chair of Yachad, a British Jewish organization that campaigns and advocates for the two-state solution.

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