When Boycotts Backfire

Editorial

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Published February 18, 2014, issue of February 21, 2014.
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From SodaStream to Sochi, the prospect of boycotting everything from fizzy water to the Olympic Games is gaining new currency. It makes sense: In a consumer age, we seek consumerist responses to vexing questions. How to effect political change in another land? How to promote human rights from afar? What’s the moral thing to do?

Seems to us that those advocating boycotts need first to be clear about what they are trying to accomplish, and about whether withholding their participation or purchasing power is the most effective way to achieve those aims. If not, then “boycott” isn’t a sacrifice on behalf of others. It’s merely a statement about yourself.

Before the current Olympic Games opened in Sochi, there was talk of a boycott to protest the Russian government’s appalling attitude towards and treatment of its gay and lesbian citizens. Of course, politicizing the quadriennial global sports competition has a long history in the modern games. The United States and its allies boycotted the 1980 games when they took place in what was then known as the Soviet Union; the Soviets and their pals retaliated four years later by not showing up in Los Angeles.

And what did all that accomplish? Hard to remember now, except if you were one of the hundreds of athletes who had trained with supreme dedication for a race that you then weren’t allowed to run.

There were far fewer calls to boycott the games in Sochi this time. (A rare exception was a Jewish website that mystifyingly declared that it would “boycott” coverage, whatever that means.) Instead, heads of many states decided not to attend the opening ceremonies, President Obama first among them. But Obama did something else, an act more effective than boycott in its rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime. He sent delegates carrying an alternative message: Gay athletes have always played in these games and always will, as equal and welcome competitors.

The wisdom of this tactic was proved on February 9, when Dutch speedskater Ireen Wust became the first openly gay athlete to medal in Sochi. And she won the gold. Her victory won’t immediately alter the discriminatory landscape for gay people in Russia, but it can send a powerful message of inclusion and hope.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “boycott” is more complicated. We oppose the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel because its ultimate aim is not a two-state solution but the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish state, and because it unfairly harms the very people — Palestinian and Israeli —it purports to help.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that BDS’s real threat is intensifying as negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians drag on without apparent progress. Secretary of State John Kerry said so, and was rudely, unfairly castigated by some Israelis politicians, even though Finance Minister Yair Lapid had issued the same warning earlier.

It takes no special clairvoyant powers to predict that should the talks fail, and Israeli settlement activity continue, BDS will grow in strength and authority. Even an unfair tactic could be effective. That threat is one more reason why Israeli and Palestinian leaders must succeed. Unlike the Olympics, there may not be another chance to reach for the gold four years later.


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