Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Boycott the bullies?

Today I took a break from other work to wander through a few blogs and stopped by at Stephen Frug's Attempts. I discovered this thoughtful place when Stephen was posting letters from his sister who found herself in marooned Beirut at the beginning the recent Israeli bombing campaign. So I was sorry to see that he was featuring a post satirizing people who call for a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions to protest the continuing occupation of Palestine.

In fact, I am going to quote the comment I left there:

How is the world's majority supposed to curb rogue states like Israel and the United States, neither of which show any scruples about using their military superiority to tear up whole societies that might oppose them?

I'm serious. I worked at anti-apartheid newspapers in South Africa in 1990. I can tell you that the anti-apartheid measure which had the most impact on white society was the international sports boycott. Countries change when their citizens are forced to understand that their behavior is making them pariahs.

Israel and the United States need help to change. They/we can't forever get their/our way by bullying all comers. A boycott, especially a cultural one, seems an admirably non-violent way for the rest of the world to get the point across to ordinary people in these societies.

Simple minded perhaps, but a cultural/academic/sports boycott seems one of the few avenues of action open to people of conscience who aren't rulers.

I'm not naïve about what a serious boycott would take. Boycotts that accumulate force are not just individual acts of conscience, though conscience is crucial in building them. They are organized, far flung campaigns that implement a thought-out strategy and tactics to create momentum and achieve maximum effect. They require institutional structures as well as enthusiasm. I worked on one of the most successful boycotts ever, the United Farm Workers Union's struggle to stop consumption of table grapes picked by workers who were denied basic labor protections. And I mean worked. Hoards of young staff and volunteers charged around 16 hours a day for several years to get "Boycott Grapes" to stick, not only in the United States but in Canada and Europe.

A targeted boycott of Israeli cultural and sports institutions would take that kind of organization and that kind of patient, ongoing work, but might be possible. A de facto boycott of US institutions by the more civilized parts of the developed world is already underway, very quietly -- inadvertently abetted by post-9/11 U.S. visa policies.

This essay, by a U.S. academic, presents a well thought out call for a boycott of Israel and a look toward a boycott of the United States.


Stephen said...


Thanks for stopping by. I am not so sure of my position -- despite my tone, which was angrier than I usually do -- that your piece did not give me pause. So I did think about the issue again. But I still think I'm right. (Though I hate to alienate any of my few readers!)

First off, I am far from sure that the U.S. and Israel are uniquely bad on the world stage these days. As I pointed out in my post, things are bad all over -- China in Tibet, Russia in Chechnya, India in Kashmir, etc, to say nothing of the theocracy in Saudi Arabia, etc. Perhaps if I believed Israel and/or the U.S. to be uniquely bad I would feel differently. But I don't. Many states and groups are involved in terrible things. How are citizens of the world supposed to respond to those things? I don't pretend to know. But (leading into point two...)

Secondly, while I can't speak to Israel, but I feel fairly sure that a boycott of the United States would backfire enormously. I think it would increase the U.S.'s sense of the evil of the world, of self-righteousness, its tendency to distrust global institutions, etc. Remember 2004, when a number of citizens of the UK undertook to write to Ohio citizens to promote Kerry? Really didn't help. So no, not a good idea.

Thirdly, I would note in passing that a boycott of a particular practice -- such as grapes grown by mistreated workers -- seems very different than boycotting a whole country, which seems to me far closer -- perilously closer -- to demonizing a people.

Fourthly, of course, there is the unwholesome stench of enforced ideology about the whole affair, which was a main part of my point. I am a great believer in discourse and dialog: this boycott attempts to shut such dialog down. And, just as I am not so sure of my own position that your piece did not give me pause, I am not so sure of my position on Israel that I do not wish to hear what Israelis have to say as well. Not to mention that freedom of speech -- and, make no mistake about it, this boycott, if instituted, would limit that -- is a good in and of itself.

So I think, in the end, I would go with Leila of Dove's Eye View's comment to the same post, right above yours: "You know - read Arabic poetry, listen to Arabic music, hang around in Arab-style houses on divans eating spiced chicken, and you'll turn into an Arab lover. Or - hang around the Lower East Side, eat borscht, read I.B. Singer and listen to Mendelsohn, and you'll turn into a Jew lover. (That happened to me!)" I think that creating that fellow-feeling would do far more for peace and justice than any boycott -- certainly it is a far more productive way to use the arts. (This is not to say Leila would endorse what I'm saying here; I have no idea. Just to endorse her words, not vice-versa.)

So maybe that leads me to my positive suggestion to replace the notion of boycotting Israel. There are, at the moment, travel bans in place so that no one who has been in Israel can go into Lebanon, Syria and other countries (I'm not sure which ones) -- my sister-in-law carries two passports so she can travel in both worlds. I would presume, therefore, that the same applies to Israelis themselves. I would suggest lifting those bans, and instituting cultural exchanges. Bring Israelis of all stripes to Lebanon, to Syria, to the West Bank -- and show them culture. Don't indoctrinate them; don't talk politics. If you can show them movies that deal with love affairs and not politics, so much the better. But over time, this will do far more for peace -- and for justice in Palestine -- than a boycott.

Similarly, I think Americans should go abroad more. (Although, of course, at the moment they would probably not be welcome and well treated -- a theme of another recent post of mine, that the evils of one side to do not imply the good of another side. It still would be worth a try: even shouting is dialogue of a kind.)

So there: I guess I have an alternative proposal after all. More speech, more contact, more viewpoints, more art, rather than less.

Oh, two minor notes: I'm not "featuring" that post particularly; I put my posts up in order, it was the most recent one (I start teaching next week). Scroll down a bit and you'll see a collection of links to various posts I've written in the past few months (sorry, no link -- apparently this comment set-up doesn't allow links!) -- including a number critiquing Israel's recent actions in Lebanon, incidentally.

Second note: it was my sister-in-law, not my sister. Just for the record.

Stephen Frug

janinsanfran said...

Here's the comment I left answering Stephen at his blog:

I think I can come pretty close to conceding all four of your main points. I just think about them differently.

On your first point -- yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with a man who has spent his whole life in international human rights work. We asked him: "who is the worst abuser of human rights in the world?" He answered unequivocally: "China. They have the most people." He named India second, same grounds. This quantitative assessment makes sense to me but my pro-boycott thinking comes out of a different calculation. If I take U.S. democracy at all seriously, I am responsible for the misdeeds of my own country. And since my country seems also to enable everything that is worst about Israel, I feel responsibility there as well.

Point two -- I completely agree with you that the targets of a boycott will feel greatly misunderstood, abused and angry to be named as pariahs. They always do. The truth hurts. We like to think of our countries as moral actors. Ours certainly isn't and we make it safe (and provide the weapons) for Israel to act immorally. But healing cannot happen if we forever avoid seeing ourselves as others see us.

Third -- yes, there are huge differences between a consumer boycott of a non-essential product and a cultural/academic/sports boycott of a country. But whether such a thing could be done well seems to me an open possibility. I do know that the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa was extremely effective because it communicated (without shooting anyone!) to ordinary white citizens that their country was condemned for specific practices by the whole world. This clarity of message is a product of good boycott design. Something similar could be done in relation to the US and certainly in relation to Israel by strategically and tactically smart organizers. You don't have to boycott a whole country -- you have to create cultural pressure that gets your adversary's attention in a way that is internally morally disturbing.

Fourth -- certainly, all of us who are genuinely liberal and who strive to be peacemakers usually want to enhance dialogue as well as being temperamentally inclined to make nice. "The stench of enforced ideology" (great phrase) does hang around a cultural boycott. But aren't there times we also have to simply say NO? You are right that a boycott would entail loss; I like the idea because it would entail less loss than any other way of creating effective pressure on abusers of international standards.

A cultural boycott in any of its manifestations would fall most heavily on those members of the boycotted society who were most oriented toward the outside world. That is, such a boycott would be most felt by those who were likely to be our friends. That's harsh, but these are also the people who have the most interest in turning their societies around. Like Leila, I read the Israeli press and these days Haaretz is full of laments that the left proved worthless in the crunch. Those of us who care about humane outcomes need a lot of stiffening when push has not yet come to shove.

Like you, I'm sure it would be a good thing if Israelis and their neighbors were able to travel freely in each other's states, but that isn't very likely. Lebanon and Syria are, legally, still at war with Israel though there is an armistice. That's why there are the passport hassles. The Occupied Territories are just that, occupied -- under coercive Israeli military rule.

One of the horrors of our present abominable US policies is that it will probably get harder, not easier, for those of us who have US passports to travel freely in the Arab and Muslim world. In June I was able to drive around freely and unhindered in South Lebanon -- even when they rebuild the roads, I am not sure that option will be open again for a long time.

Paradoxically, non-violent pressure for change that seems to narrow our opportunities for dialogue, such as a cultural boycott, may be our best path toward interchange in a peaceful future. Some action is needed -- people in the US can't just let our government lead us to endless war against the world. As I said in my initial comment, we need help from the peoples of the world.

Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stephen said...

It seems a bit much to continue having this conversation in duplicate, at both your place and mine. And since mine was the original post, and since Leila is only pitching in over there, and I will take the liberty of saying that I will reply to the above at my blog. I invite Janinsanfran, and any other readers, to come on over and see the next exciting installment in the Great Israeli Boycott Debate.

(Note: I deleted & reposted this comment to fix spelling errors. Hope it doesn't end up a duplicate...)