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We need to boycott Israel

June 2, 2010

I hate commenting about Israel, because to do so means getting sucked into a vortex of hatred and lies. As Anton Vowl describes brilliantly, it is almost impossible to write anything without being overwhelmed by a deluge of vitriol.

There are nasty, dishonest people on both sides, but no one beats Israel’s volunteer online army of hasbaranik trolls for sheer viciousness. It’s also a very polarising debate, and its easy to become associated with people you disagree with: “you oppose the attacks on the flotilla? Then you support Hamas!” I really don’t have the time or energy to engage in that kind of poison.

But Israel needs to be stopped. The State has gone, literally, insane, drunk on violence and power. It’s run by the Israeli equivalent of the BNP – violent racists like Lieberman. As Israeli writer Amos Oz puts it

To a man with a big hammer… every problem looks like a nail.

So what do we do? Diplomacy isn’t working, as Israel clearly only understands raw power. Our political leaders are spineless and refuse to speak out. The only solution I can see is to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. I know all the arguments against BDS – that it is a blunt instrument that effects good as well as bad Israelis – but I don’t see what the alternatives are.

I grew up in South Africa under apartheid. I believe that sanctions were very effective at alerting whites to the fact that there was something wrong with their society. At the time, most us became inward looking, and complained about the foreign media lying about us, and said things like “yes, but their blacks aren’t as bad as our blacks”. But in the whites-only referendum of 1992, 69% of white South Africans voted in favour of reform – largely because we wanted to be part of the outside world again. In the age of globalisation, I think this is an even more powerful motivator now.

Of course, the comparison with South Africa and Israel is not straightforward. The union federation COSATU, peace activist Desmond Tutu, and many others have visited Israel and the occupied territories. Many of them conclude, with Ronnie Kasrils, former freedom fighter and South African government minister, that Israel is “worse than Apartheid“. And Kasrils, who is Jewish, should know: he spent his life fighting apartheid.

We need peace and justice in the Middle East. I think that BDS is, realistically, the only weapon we have. Many trade unions in the UK and around the world support it already – only to be denounced as stooges of Iran by pro-Israeli trade union groups.

But we can’t let the hate and lies stop us from speaking out against injustice.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mel permalink
    June 3, 2010 7:50 am

    I completely agree Walton. Sanctions all the way…

  2. Anthony Holland permalink
    June 8, 2010 7:07 am

    As soon as Gaza adopts a policy of Ghandi-style peaceful resistance I will be 100% on their side. Until then, I’m not interested beyond feeling sorry for innocent individuals in the same way I do for Zimbabweans or anyone caught up with conflict and terrible leadership.

  3. June 8, 2010 9:13 pm

    Satyagraha would be lovely, but why is it the Palestinian’s responsibility to renounce violence? Remember, even Mandela refused to renounce violence, because to do so would be to surrender the right to resist oppression.

    Norman Finkelstein has looked at this in some depth and has a lot to say about the issue. Worth a read:

  4. Anthony Holland permalink
    June 9, 2010 11:19 pm

    interesting, and a bit difficult / high-brow / esoteric.

    They can do as they wish, but I would find it a lot easier to take sides if they went for peace. Of course, that’s a lot to ask of a million gun-toating (SP?) traumatized orphaned teenagers. It’s a terrible situation and you’re right about the vortex – this has not been easy to discuss with my German friend, who seems to think Germany is long past the holocaust… And so the distrust spreads.

  5. June 30, 2010 1:03 pm

    Good post, and I agree completely: boycott is a blunt tool (and one which the Hasbaraniks will surely use the Amos Oz quote against), but not using it is even more blunt.
    I recently joined the boycott movement myself, by blocking Israeli visitors from my site, I can reveal that I’ve had my share of hasbara, especially after some Israeli news sites brought the story.
    One question:
    I’ve argued that the one factor that might speak against a cultural boycott in this particular case is the isolationist, “we’re alone in the world and everyone is against us, but we’ll survive” mythology, which has been confirmed in the blog comments and private emails, makes Israel immune to cultural boycott. Not that they won’t notice it, but it will be just another confirmation of the myth, and it won’t affect neither policy nor opinions. The main difference between SA and Israel, then, would be that whereas the South African whites saw themselves as and wanted to be seen as decent members of Western civilization, whereas the Israeli opinion is more indifferent to this. Any comments on that, given your own background?

  6. June 30, 2010 11:09 pm

    Well done. That’s an interesting contribution to the boycott campaign.

    With regard to white South Africans wanting to see themselves as being members of Western civilisation, I’m not really sure that was the case. South Africa has long had a strong isolationist streak, and we were economically a lot more self-sufficient than Israel, with gold, agriculture etc.

    It’s Israel that enters Eurovision, and plays in UEFA.

    The same mindset existed in South Africa. “The whole world hates us, we’ll have to go it alone” etc. – hence the arms trading relationship with Israel. The main difference is that apartheid wasn’t bankrolled by America, so despite what people thought, the government knew they were in crisis. For most white South Africans, there were probably three issues, in order of importance:

    1). Sport. Not being able to beat the rest of the world at rugby was very painful.
    2) Travel restrictions (combined with the fact that sanctions hurt our currency making travel more expensive).
    3) Conscription. People accepted it for a long time, but the death toll was high, and when the war moved away from Angola and into the townships, I think a lot of people started to question the point of it.

    It is very difficult when you live in a country to escape from the emotional and mental space that it exists in. Discourse is framed in a certain way, and it’s extremely difficult to break out of it. For this reason I understand why some people oppose a cultural boycott: they’re afraid it will shut down discourse even more.

    Just to give you a personal perspective: I grew up under apartheid in a small town near the Swazi border. Kids from farms used to arrive at school in landmine proof armoured cars. I had military training from age 10 or 11. I was quickly able to reject all of that, and I was still quite young when I decided I was against apartheid. Living in a rural area with lots of Zulus, I really liked the people and decided that apartheid was ridiculous. However, for me the debate was still framed in very white way: I believed that the ANC were terrorists (because that’s what the news said), and that the outside world had been duped by them. If I had been able to articulate it, I probably would have argued that the franchise should be extended progressively to blacks who had a certain level of education, to slowly build a black middle class.

    I was certainly opposed to sanctions, as I thought it would hurt the economy and make black people poorer.

    A lot of the important records that were big when I was around 15 were not available: Depeche Mode 101, U2 Rattle & Hum and so on. This didn’t really bug me, as being able to get pirate copies made them cooler. However, I remember when The Cure’s Disintegration album came out: it was available in South Africa, but with a big label on the back saying all proceeds would be given to the ANC. I think this was tactically quite clever. When I bought the record I crossed a psychological barrier, and began to associated political action with the sense of rebellion and ressentiment I got from alternative music. A few years later I joined the ANC.

    (Music played a very strange role. Even conservative whites really liked Eddy Grant’s ‘Give me hope, Joanna’, which makes no sense).

    I think we need to be careful with the boycott and apply it selectively. I think we should be trying to communicate with Israelis and challenge those who are questioning the status quo to take a psychological step across a barrier, rather than making them defensive. For instance I watched a great Israeli film the other night: Lemon Tree. It frames the conflict very well in human terms, and it’s the kind of thing that should not be boycotted, because it opens the Israeli mind.

    But we need to do whatever we can to shut down their economy, deprive them of entertainment, and send a clear message that they are not members of the civilised world.

  7. July 1, 2010 9:07 pm

    Hey! Thanks a lot for sharing. Interesting read. So this means that the difference is smaller than I thought, and that, ironically, Israels main asset compared to South Africa is its lack of independency. Interesting.
    It also interested me to hear about the role played by music in this. So even though Botha & company didn’t care much about U2, others did, and that made a difference. There is a chance that Dylan may have a similar role in Israel. I think I’ll keep my boycot going for a while longer…
    A world where Depeche Mode is not available sounds good in my book, though…

  8. July 1, 2010 9:29 pm

    Actually music was hugely important in South Africa. For me ‘alternative’ music was really important as a way of articulating different values. I mostly listened to British post-punk.

    However, what was really significant was the development the white Afrikaans counter culture Voëlvry (‘Outlaw’) folk movement. It really helped young Afrikaners reimagine themselves.

    It was a very politicised, extremely creative folk/punk movement.

  9. July 2, 2010 3:58 pm

    What did/do you think about the Paul Simon/Graceland case? I agree that boycotts should be applied with care, but I’m not sure about the “selectively” part (and when I say: I’m not sure, that’s what I mean: I’m not sure). Back then, I thought that it was silly of him to disregard the boycott the way he did, no matter how good his intentions were. It was also — and even more — stupid not to take a clear stand. As I remember it, he came through as the naïve “I’m just a musician” character, which did not do any good. These are just my recollections. How did it look from within?

  10. Anique permalink
    July 23, 2010 6:09 am

    I agree with your proposal of boycotting, disinvestment and sanctions. That really hurt us in South Africa, I remember well, in fact, we still suffer travel wise with our passport, my sister is struggling with that right now.

    Also your quote hits the nail on the head, so to speak. I have been feeling like that for a while re. any Israeli political news – its become he said, she said, … he did, she did … like high school arguments (obviously with much huger repercussions) but that is it in a nutshell. The non high school part is the complete lack of humanity. Shocking!

    I say bring on the sanctions. To boycott, anyone have a good list of products to boycott?

  11. mika permalink
    June 24, 2012 12:55 am

    You are surely aware that Arab Israelis serve in parliament? In fact there are currently 16 serving in many different parties. MK Tibi constantly calls for Israel’s surrender to the Palestinians. He’s still a member of Knesset. Your boycott doesn’t actually do anything. You try to hurt Jews, I guess, but you also hurt Ethiopians, Russians, Arabs, Bedouins, and Thai people that live in Israel.

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