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Behind the Boycott

Time was when a boycott demanded personal sacrifice as an expression of protest. That’s how the name first was coined, when Irish tenant farmers and tradesmen in the late-19th century refused to deal with the agent of an absentee landlord named Charles Boycott. And that’s how it has continued in the popular imagination: blacks in Montgomery, Ala., walking miles and miles to avoid the segregated city buses; consumers forgoing lettuce and grapes in solidarity with ill-treated farm workers.

The boycotted faced economic consequences, and so did the boycotter, sacrificing something important in service of a higher goal.

But the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel will have none of that. Despite its well-honed and increasingly effective rhetoric, its adherents seem uninterested in performing any personal sacrifice, or even measuring their “success” by hard numbers. They are most intent on sullying Israel’s name and bullying anyone who might suggest another path toward peace in the troubled region.

They talk the talk, but sure don’t walk the walk. For just one example of rank hypocrisy, consider Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian leader of the BDS movement and one of the founders of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. And what does Barghouti do when he’s not a political activist? Why, he’s in a master’s degree program in philosophy at Tel Aviv University.

When our Gal Beckerman asked him last week to explain his affiliation with an institution he wants boycotted, Barghouti said he would not discuss his personal life. Huh?

But what he advocates is very personal and, ultimately, self-defeating. While the stated goal of the BDS movement is to isolate and discomfit Israel and support human rights for the Palestinians, it is clear that many followers are not trying to change Israel. They’re trying to eliminate it.

The argument that pushing Israel into economic, academic and cultural purgatory will somehow persuade its government to dismantle the security barrier, evacuate the West Bank and embrace its sworn enemy is misguided. And that’s being generous. Whatever the flaws of the Netanyahu administration — and there are many — it is clearly responding to (and, true, at times stoking) real fears and anxieties among the Israeli population.

The boycotters are either grossly ignorant about the Israeli psyche, or don’t care to understand it. The attempt to isolate and delegitimize “is counter productive because of the nature of who we are. It confirms our worst fears,” says the noted South African journalist Benjamin Pogrund, who now lives in Israel and writes extensively about boycotts, having lived through the apartheid era in his native land.

While the BDS movement hopes to do to Israel what a similar movement claims to have done in South Africa, the economies are not at all equivalent. South Africa’s exports during the apartheid regime were limited, while Israel is intimately connected to the global economy, especially in technology, medicine, finance and scientific research. A real boycott, of course, would eliminate more Israeli-born medicines and technological advances than there is room to recount here, but then, according to the BDS approach, one can still throw mud at those who save you.

A more fair, useful and indeed noble way for outsiders to influence the Israeli government and its people is to engage and encourage both them and the Palestinians to take meaningful steps towards reconciliation and support of human rights across the troubled landscape. Perhaps the first thing that these “boycotters” ought to sacrifice is their self-righteous belief that only one side of this conflict bears any responsibility for its continuance.




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