Didja see the Moslems demonstrating on the streets of London, Paris, Copenhagen and the rest? Didja see them burning embassies in Beirut and Damascus? Crazy, huh? About a bunch of cartoons published months ago in an obscure newspaper in Denmark... And now they're boycotting Danish goods... Yemen has banned Danish cheeses... Far out!
Meanwhile, in the quieter council rooms of the Anglican Church, it has been decided to disinvest from "companies profiting from the illegal occupation - by Israel that is - of you-know-where-and-what. For most Israelis and Jews around the world, choosing which of these developments is more hypocritical and plain sickening is too difficult - they both make the blood boil.
These developments have sparked much reaction, not surprisingly and rightly. This column will focus on one aspect of them.
What we have seen, coincidentally in the same week, is two very different examples of the general phenomenon known as "boycotts." These involve a conscious, often organized, decision to disassociate from a country, or an ethnic/religious/national group - or even an individual, as in the case of the original Captain Boycott, of County Mayo in Ireland, who gave his name to the phenomenon.
At the level of international relations, boycotts are usually termed sanctions, as in the case of Southern Rhodesia in 1965 and more recently, of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But although "sanctions" clearly imply punishment or at least pressure to achieve a specific result, "boycott" has a different connotation. Whilst it is also a form of pressure on the boycottee, it is primarily an expression of protest on the part of the boycotter/s.
Thus the Arab states have maintained an economic boycott of Israel, Israeli companies and even foreign companies engaged in business with Israel since 1948 - and in some respects, even earlier. The official aim is to damage the Israeli economy, which has always been highly dependent on foreign trade. In practice, as with the Southern Rhodesian and Iraqi examples, these have totally failed to achieve that goal. Damage was indeed done, but the overall result was to spur initiative and ingenuity in circumventing the boycott, so that the effort boomeranged. In virtually no case have sanctions or boycotts forced countries, much less groups or individuals, to comply with the demands of the parties that imposed them - a point worth noting apropos the upcoming UN debate on Iran or how to deal with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
Nonetheless, and despite their long experience with boycotts directed against them, Jews seem to be very keen on boycotting others. In the Iraq war period, an endless stream of e-mails urged Jews to boycott France, French goods and even French culture. The same had been true of the USSR in earlier years. An outstanding example is the refusal of many Jews to visit Germany and buy German goods. However, these examples, especially the last, provide an opportunity to understand what boycotts are really about.
Clearly, no-one in their right mind believes that the refusal of Jewish consumers to buy Volkswagen cars or AEG washing machines will have a measurable impact on these companies, let alone the overall German economy. Rather, by not buying them the boycotter is making a statement - primarily to himself - about his views or beliefs. Whether his decision causes more monetary damage to himself or the producer is actually irrelevant, because the central issue is the subjective viewpoint of the boycotter, not the objective state of the boycottee. The boycotter wants to demonstrate his displeasure through disassociation from the boycottee; if the latter is actually damaged as a result, so much the better. If not, never mind.
The more ideological/religious the motive for the boycott, the more impervious to rational - i.e. economic - considerations the decision becomes. Even if the German product is the best, or only, one available, the boycotter of Germany will not buy it. All Jews can identify with that, even those who don't behave that way, because we are all Holocaust survivors in some sense. But boycotting Israel because the Jews have planted themselves on territory formerly controlled by Moslems? That's religious extremism - and anti-Semitism to boot. One man's just principles are the next man's fundamentalist dogma, so the first one doesn't eat at McDonald's because fast food causes obesity and the second one because it is the epitome of American cultural imperialism. Either way, sales are hit and the share price declines.
But there remains an enormous gap between refusing to give your custom - or investing your money, for whatever warped rationale - and between burning the place down (whilst urging that the employees be beheaded). That is the dividing line currently defining the clash of civilizations.