Israel entered disturbing, unfamiliar territory this summer in its struggles against boycotts and economic warfare. After nearly a decade of noisy but largely toothless campaigns to isolate it on the international stage, Israel now faces a concerted effort by Palestinians under its rule to isolate the Israeli settlers living among them in the West Bank.
The weapon of choice is a boycott of settlement-based products, services and jobs. And Jerusalem doesn’t have a clue what to do about it.
The problem is that this is unlike any boycott Israel has faced before. For one thing, it’s working. Israeli news reports tell of factories shutting down and millions of shekels lost. That’s never happened before, in all the years of Arab boycotts and campus divestment rallies. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin called it “a declaration of war against Israel.” The Yesha Council, which represents Jewish settlers in the West Bank, called it “economic terrorism.”
For another thing, this boycott isn’t exactly anti-Israel in the normal sense. Up to now Israel has argued to foreign governments and universities, mostly successfully, that an across-the-board boycott of Israeli products and institutions is an attack on the Jewish state itself, not on any particular policy. That proves that Israel’s foes are bent on destroying it, not merely changing it. But the new campaign attacks only a specific policy, and a highly controversial one at that: building an Israeli civilian presence in the still-disputed territory captured in 1967. There’s no challenge to Israel proper or its economy; Palestinian leaders have stated repeatedly.
That makes it much more awkward for Israelis to object. Official government responses have been correspondingly tepid, mainly arguing, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in May, that Palestinian boycotters only “hurt themselves.”
Even more awkward, the boycott is an embodiment of something Israel has been demanding for years: that Palestinians pursue their goals non-violently. Boycotts are not violent. Dubbing a settlement boycott illegitimate suggests, in effect, that Palestinians have no right to pursue their goals at all.
Nothing, though, has confused and angered Israelis as much as a second boycott announced in late August by a group of Israeli theater personalities, who vowed not to perform in West Bank settlements. The announcement singled out the bustling West Bank town of Ariel, population 17,000, where a $10 million government-funded municipal auditorium is scheduled to open in November. The auditorium’s schedule for the opening season was published August 25, featuring appearances by major repertory theater companies including Habimah and the Cameri. In response, two actors announced on August 26 that they would not participate.
On August 27 a formal boycott letter was released, signed by 36 actors, directors and playwrights and addressed to the governing boards of the country’s six major repertory theaters. “The actors among us hereby declare that we will refuse to perform in Ariel, as well as in any other settlement,” the letter said. “We urge the boards to hold their activity within the sovereign borders of the State of Israel within the Green Line.” By August 31, close to 60 artists had signed on. Other academics and authors have voiced their support.
Israeli debates over settlement policy are nothing new. But they’ve taken on a newly frantic tone in the past year, since Netanyahu agreed to work toward Palestinian statehood. Each side now sees a final decision approaching, and each side fears it will spell disaster — for its own views and for Israel.
The actors’ boycott has touched off new levels of rage in the pro-settlement camp. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called for cutting off the government subsidies of theaters that won’t perform in Ariel. Culture Minister Limor Livnat, who oversees theater subsidies, said the actors are “dividing Israeli society and spreading hate.” Other Likud lawmakers are demanding that funds be cut to any theater that employs actors who refuse to perform.
There are murmurings on the Web that the actors could even be charged under a pending Knesset bill that outlaws public support for boycotts against Israel. Assuming, that is, that the bill passes while the actors are still talking boycott. It’s not clear, though, whether the actors’ boycott would qualify as anti-Israel, as their angrier critics claim. That goes back to the question of whether an attack on the settlements is an attack on Israel.
This is where it gets really complicated. The anti-boycott bill is an outgrowth of a campaign launched last winter by a right-wing student group, Im Tirtzu, against a handful of Israeli professors who endorse international boycotts of Israeli universities. Ironically, Im Tirtzu’s latest action is a call for an international donors’ boycott of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev because it employs several of the professors. If the bill passes and the professors risk fines, so will Im Tirtzu.
Settlers have faced boycotts before from opponents of government policy. Some have even pitted settler against settler. And then there was the boycott called against The New York Times in 2001 by Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, after the paper dared to state that Shiloh, a settlement just east of Ariel, was not in Israel. The Israeli consulate, responding to a journalist’s inquiry, confirmed that Shiloh was indeed not in Israeli sovereign territory. The facts didn’t stop the outrage, though. They rarely do.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).