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The Boycott and Its Discontents, or How Not To Defend Israel

Every now and then, somebody you thought you knew does or says something so completely out of character that it catches you off-guard and forces you to look at things in new and surprising ways.

Take, for example, the recent statement by the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, calling on “international academic and labor groups” to drop their “boycott campaigns against Israel.”

Whoa. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I guess that ought to clear things right up.

Seriously, though, it’s hard to imagine whom the Wiesenthal Center thinks it’s going to convince. Its argument is essentially that the latest Nobel prize to an Israeli scientist shows that Israeli academia is doing a pretty good job and everyone should lay off. But the boycott crowd isn’t objecting to the quality of Israel’s academic or cultural opus. They’re trying to get Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians, and they’ve identified these boycotts as an accessible pressure point.

Common sense dictates, therefore, that to dissuade them, you need to explain why these boycotts won’t help the Palestinians. And to do that with any credibility – to your target audience, that is – you ought to come to the table with some sort of track record of sympathy for the Palestinians. The Wiesenthal Center doesn’t quite fit the bill. Its most recent statement on the Palestinians was an August 19 press release dealing with “Palestinian self-delusion.”

A powerful example of a smart, effective argument against Israel boycotts was published recently in the New York Review of Books. It came in a letter from Vanessa Redgrave and two fellow culturati, Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman.

No, that’s not a misprint. Vanessa Redgrave defending Israel. Here’s how:

According to an October 7 news report in Haaretz, headlined “Israel critic Vanessa Redgrave slams Toronto Film Fest boycott,” the actress and her allies were speaking out on the brouhaha surrounding the Toronto International Film Festival, which featured Tel Aviv as the focus of its first-ever City to City program, a kind of film festival within a film festival that will spotlight a different world city every year.

Here’s the core of the Redgrave argument, as quoted in Haaretz:

Thousands of Palestinians have died through the years because the Israeli government, military, and part of the population fervently believes that the Arab states and, indeed, much of the world, do not want Israel to exist. How then are we halting this never-ending cycle of violence by promoting the very fears that cause it?

Redgrave and company went so far as to defend the Israeli government against defamation:

We oppose the current Israeli government, but it is a government, freely elected. Not a regime. Words matter.

Haaretz wrapped up by stating that the “Artists who called for a boycott included John Grayson, Danny Glover, David Byrne and Jane Fonda – though Fonda later retracted her decision.”

Since words do matter, it’s worth pointing out that boycott is never once mentioned, nor even hinted at, in the protest declaration by Glover, Byrne et al. Too many friends of Israel have been calling the Toronto protest a boycott. It makes it sound more dramatic, but it’s wrong.

What the declaration does say is that the festival’s newly created City to City program should not have picked Tel Aviv. Indeed, it’s quite explicit on what it does and doesn’t advocate:

We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival]. However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of … an apartheid regime.

Yes, it’s unfair. It’s inflammatory. It utterly misstates the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it demonizes Israel. But it doesn’t call for a boycott of Israeli artists or anyone else. Words matter.

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