How Not to Argue Against the Boycott of Israel
each other during a protest against an illegal outpost near the
Israeli settlement of Kharsina in the West Bank city of Hebron
on May 22, 2009. (HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images)
In the most recent Newsweek you can find this diatribe by Jacob Weisberg against the ongoing cultural and academic boycott of Israel. At times Weisberg describes the thinking behind the boycott as merely "wrong" and "unacceptable," but he also rises to the bait, using terms like "repellent" to describe the campaign, accusing those advocating the boycott of "bad faith." He claims that the campaign is "not only intrinsically vile but actively counterproductive." And, eventually, he comes around to asserting that "this kind of existential challenge is hard to disassociate from anti-Semitism." As far as I can tell Weisberg barely makes the effort.
I do not support the boycott for reasons I have laid down here repeatedly. Having said that, Weisberg's screed is more or less wholly incoherent. Here are some problems with the case he presents:
(1) Weisberg categorizes Israel among "democratic societies, where other means of peaceful protest exist," contrasting it explicitly with "authoritarian societies" such as Cuba or the former East Germany or "China or Syria or Zimbabwe—or other genuinely illegitimate regimes that systematically violate human rights." Where has Mr. Weisberg been? He seems to have missed the past decade or so of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. That policy can be fruitfully summarized as one that systematically violates their human rights. Those in the west - including many Jews - support the boycott precisely because they see Israel as adopting authoritarian policies. And I would remind Weisberg that that is not simply the view from abroad - there are Israelis (e,g., Neve Gordon, David Shulman) who make the very same case. Does Weisberg have something like a response to such criticisms? Moreover, did he raise his voice - even in private - when American donors threatened to withhold financial support from Ben Gurion University where Neve Gordon teaches because of his outspoken criticisms of the regime and its policies? I suspect not.
(2) I think the boycott will be counterproductive in ways that Mr. Weisberg suggests; it may well simply reinforce a bunker mentality among Israelis. That said, Weisberg claims that "cultural sanctions on their own are more inconvenience than lethal weapon." How then, does the boycott rise to the level of an "existential threat" - how, that is, does it constitute "a weapon designed not to bring peace but to undermine the country" - and so provide evidence of "antisemitism"? Among the reasons I think that public argument is the most useful reply to the Israeli repression of the Palestinians is that it treats the Jewish population just like everyone else. It thereby subverts kneejerk complaints of antisemitism. Mr. Weisberg is an advertisement for that approach. Here is my challenge to him: stop hiding behind charges of antisemitism and provide a coherent argument to justify the systematic, ongoing mistreatment of the Palestinian population, including not just official repression by security forces, but the ongoing harassment by Jewish "settlers" in Palestinian territories. Those are the issues that give rise to the boycott campaign. You do not so much as mention them in your essay.
(3) Israel is indeed. as Weisberg insists, "a refuge for Jews persecuted everywhere else." In part that is why those who many of those who support the boycott are so disappointed in the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The policies of the regime and the actions of many (not all) Israelis run counter to the putative ideals of the nation itself. That is the problem here. This is not simply about posturing celebrities. It is about real politics. Weisberg mocks the "sort of sheeplike, liberal opinion [that] once reflexively favored Israel." He is right to do so but perhaps not for his reasons. No country aspiring to be democratic - here we can include both Israel and the U.S. - should rest content with unthinking support. Weisberg insists that the "case against a cultural boycott of Israel is based on consistency, proportionality, and history." He overlooks the policies that lead advocates of the boycott to see their campaign as wholly consistent and proportionate. And he neglects to see that it is precisely the history that Israel is meant to embody that make its repression of Palestinian populations appear especially damning.