Reality Check: About these boycotts

While Elvis Costello made the wrong call in cancelling his gigs here - the PA-sponsored boycott of Israeli goods is less clear cut.

May 24, 2010 07:26
4 minute read.
Reality Check: About these boycotts

jeff barak 88. (photo credit: )

In the late 1970s, Elvis Costello sang that he didn’t want to go to Chelsea, and last week he decided he didn’t want to come to Israel either and perform in Caesarea as originally planned later next month. In a long-winded statement on his Web site, typical of the problems pop stars have when trying to articulate a political position, Costello could only explain his decision “as a matter of instinct and conscience.”

It’s a shame he didn’t first take a look at Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s clearly argued statement explaining why she, in the face of calls to boycott Israel, had decided to come to Tel Aviv to accept the Dan David Prize earlier this month.

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Leaving nothing to instinct, and still keeping her conscience clean, Atwood noted that “cultural boycotts serve no good purpose if one of the hopes for the future is that peace and normal exchanges and even something resembling normal living conditions will be restored.”

She also perceptively added that “moderates who want to promote dialogue always get hammered twice as much, as they get stones thrown at them from several directions at once.”

Atwood came under heavy pressure not to visit and the intellectual rigor and strength of character with which she repelled these attacks are worthy of respect. Culture Minister Limor Livnat would do well to study Atwood’s remarks and use them as a riposte to those considering boycotting this country. The minister’s childish response to Costello – “an artist who boycotts his Israeli fan base is not worthy of performing in front of them” – was really quite pathetic.

The calls for a boycott are not going to go away, and Israeli cultural leaders need to be able to argue cogently against them. Banning intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky from entering was not a promising first step in this direction. And Israelis who have crossed Turkey off their list of holiday destinations this summer due to disquiet with Turkish government statements also need to ask themselves if they can in all honestly criticize Costello.

WHILE COSTELLO made the wrong call in cancelling his gigs here – he should have come, and visited the West Bank if he felt the need to make a political statement – the appropriateness of the Palestinian Authority-sponsored boycott of Israeli goods made in the West Bank is less clear cut. On an individual level, there is nothing wrong in a Palestinian consumer choosing a Palestinian-made, or indeed any other product over that produced by an Israeli company with a factory based in the West Bank or the Golan Heights.

Consumer choice is one aspect of freedom and if a Palestinian shopper prefers to boycott Israeli goods as part of a national effort to promote the Palestinian economy then it is hard to disagree with that choice. Indeed, let’s not forget that Israelis, every time they turn on the radio, are exhorted in adverts to buy blue-and-white in order to protect Israeli jobs or warned that every time an Israeli employs an illegal foreign worker, they are taking a job away from an Israeli.

Some arguments against the Palestinian economic boycott verge on the tenuous. The manufacturers’ claim that they are providing jobs for the around 20,000 Palestinians who would otherwise be unemployed might have some factual basis, but ignores the real reason for their basing their factories there: the winning combination of cheap land and cheap labor. Were labor costs and rents the same in the territories as they are in Israel, these manufacturers’ concern for Palestinian employment figures would soon disappear.

BUT THERE are a number of problematic aspects to this boycott, the most glaring being Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s participation in the demonstrative burning of Israeli products made in the West Bank.

If Fayyad is not aware of the dark symbolism of burning Jewish-made products, that is one cause for regret; if he is aware of it and yet continues to throw Israeli goods into the flames, this is a cause for concern and seriously damages his image as a moderate with whom Israel can do business.

As Atwood noted, such acts serve “no good purpose” if one hopes for a better future.

An official Palestinian boycott of Israeli products made in the territories is also a political act that does not contribute to the positive atmosphere needed to help the recently launched proximity talks. Palestinian traders selling Israeli-made goods produced in the West Bank reportedly face fines of up to $14,000 or even prison which, while not a “hostile act” as the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip would have us believe, is still a serious violation of the spirit of the economic agreements made between Israel and the Palestinians during the Oslo period.

The Palestinians have drawn up a list of goods that they have identified as being manufactured in the West Bank and Golan Heights and distributed it to Palestinian households. The PA should leave it at that, relying on persuasion, not punishment, to allow consumers to make their choice. An official boycott is not a harbinger of the open society to which Palestinians aspire.

And as for Elvis Costello, he should at least come to Israel in August to watch his wife, the Canadian jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, perform in Ra’anana.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of  The Jerusalem Post.

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