The continuing fight over the anti-boycott law is doubly depressing. Although the law is unnecessary and counter-productive, most opponents nevertheless overreacted, once again hysterically claiming that Israeli democracy is dying. It is hard to believe free expression is imperiled in a country that debates such laws so loudly.
I support citizens’ rights to boycott people, products, and places of business on principle. Yet I also consider the current move to boycott Israel evil, anti-Semitic in effect and frequently in intent.
I was raised on the self-righteous feeling a good boycott brings. Whenever I saw a Jew driving a Volkswagen or a Mercedes-Benz, I felt superior, knowing I rejected German goods. Boycotting Germany let me register continuing disgust with the Holocaust.
I understood boycotting as a tool, neither inherently good nor bad. The Arab boycott against Israel was wrong. But we responded with our own boycott, against Pepsi, for succumbing to Arab pressure, and for trading with the Soviet Union. To this day, when I drink those sugar-bombs we call “soft drinks,” I prefer Coke, which was all over Israel when I first visited – as were German-made Mercedes-Benz taxis, which really confused me.
Boycotting is a wonderfully democratic move. It injects an alternative ethical calculus into the selfish and self-indulgent consumerist equation. It makes politics personal. And it is transportable. Like kashrut, which kept me “doing Jewish,” at least three times daily, no matter where I was, boycotting German products – and Pepsi – affirmed my Zionism wherever I traveled, whenever it came out –sometimes in unexpected ways.
When I registered with my fiancée (now my wife) for wedding gifts at Caplan-Duval’s, a Montreal Jewish institution, I made my stand. I was already unnerved by this basic training in marital materialism, as I adjusted from buying an entire 40-piece dish set for $29.99 to registering for one China setting at $299 a pop. And I was embarrassed that in the Montreal fishbowl, the registry was so public, as Jews learned who was marrying whom by seeing who registered for what. When our only choice for knives was Henckels, I refused to register to buy German knives for our Jewish wedding. “Don’t worry,” the saleswoman replied, “all our Jewish clients buy Henckels” – whispering the word “Jewish.”
At the same time, I detest the entire BDS – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions -- strategy hatched by the hate-Israel mob, rebranded by Toronto activists as the “Blacklist, Demonization and Slander” campaign. I have spent far too much time combating the boycott, co-chairing a task force against BDS during the Foreign Ministry’s Global Forum against Anti-Semitism and once flying from Jerusalem to testify on Parliament Hill in Ottawa against the anti-Israel boycott.
When testifying before a multiparty parliamentary commission investigating Canadian anti-Semitism, my panel included representatives of the pro-boycott postal workers’ union. Defining bigotry as an essentialist attack on a group, repudiating the group itself not particular actions, I quoted the union leaders’ rhetoric to charge them with anti-Israel bigotry, illustrating how they were either being morally sloppy – or malicious. I insisted that, given the Arabs’ systematic, anti-Semitic campaign against Israel – with its genocidal overtones calling for Israel’s destruction – the moral onus was on them to distance themselves from this abomination.
Peace Now demonstration against Boycott Bill (Marc Israel Sellem)
So yes, the current anti-Israel boycott is wrong. But so too is the Knesset legislation. Part of the boycott strategy is a poison pill strategy – trying to trigger Israel into making self-destructive moves in overreacting to a threat which, so far remains marginal. Flailing is not leadership. Laws that result from panicked attempts to outlaw political positions are like the shouts of a substitute teacher – the louder the yelling or the more heavy-handed the law, the more weakness it shows.
Predictably, opponents within Israel and outside have done what they always do when criticizing Israel – go to offensive extremes. Zvi Bar''el in Ha''aretz decried the settlers’ impeding “conquest” of Israel, comparing the settler “minority” trying to control Israel to the dictatorial Alawite minority in oppressive Syria; others compared Israel to theocratic Iran. In the Jerusalem Post, Larry Derfner claimed “There’s no Right and Left anymore, only a Right and a Further Right.” Then, he said, “I’ve written against the boycott, but the anti-boycott law is giving me second thoughts.”
Opponents overlooked the fact the United States itself enacted anti-Arab-boycott laws in the 1970s. The Department of Commerce prohibits American firms from participating in foreign boycotts the United States does not sanction. Punishments for non-reporting let alone participation include fines and imprisonment.
Israeli democracy will survive – whether or not the Supreme Court bails out the Knesset by disallowing the law. But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed once again to stand up for an important principle and a pragmatic strategy in fighting de-legitimization, which should unite left and right in defending the country, rather than becoming another flashpoint. Those of us on the front lines seek left-wing voices to fight de-legitimization, understanding how important pro-Palestinian voices can be in making the argument that delegitimizing Israel makes compromise more difficult by shifting the fight from a potentially negotiable fight about borders to an existential fight about Israel’s survival. Publicly, the government and the Knesset could fight de-legitimization better – and improve Israeli political culture too – by nurturing broad-based alliances rather than concocting heavy-handed laws that polarize and won’t work. The issue is too important to leave to partisan politicians playing to their extremists. Israel needs good arguments not bad law.
The fight against de-legitimization requires subtlety. In this PR fight, Israelis must not only ask “do we have the right to take this action,” but “will it play right?” Last year, Israel was justified in boarding the Mavi Marmara but was far more effective this year with a subtle campaign that undermined, mocked and dismissed without fighting directly. Similar tactics will defeat boycotts too.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”