Pope Francis’s invitation to host a joint prayer for peace at the Vatican highlights the power of gestures in building trust between enemies. The Middle East was transformed in 1977 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem – and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin welcomed him. As the world speculates about what big changes such small gestures can trigger, the systematic Palestinian campaign against such gestures appears petty and foolish. Palestinian calls for Westerners to boycott Israel do little harm but get lots of press. The Palestinians’ related, “anti-normalization” policy of discouraging local Palestinian ties and projects with Israel, gets little world press but does much damage. Pope Francis – and the world – should follow up the June prayer session by encouraging more gestures, more ties, more small acts of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians – and becoming anti-anti-normalization.
Claims about the Israel boycott’s success and the Israel PR machine’s failure are exaggerated. Stacks of fawning headlines have not produced a Palestinian state, while Israel flourishes. Nevertheless, after nearly seven decades of making mistake after mistake undermining their chance at statehood, the Palestinians have chosen another self-defeating strategy. Condemning any ties with Israel, and bullying anyone who befriends Israelis, discourages the kinds of gestures that could detoxify the atmosphere. Palestinians’ “anti-normalization” is anti-peace, illogical, and anti-Palestinian.
In 2005, “Palestinian Civil Society” – actually a self-appointed, grandiose-sounding coalition of radical, jaundiced “Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations” -- proposed a “broad” boycott campaign against Israel. The poster child for this act of idiocy is the perpetual Tel Aviv University graduate student Omar Barghouti. He travels the world telling suckers to boycott Israeli institutions like his host institution which accepts him – and which he does not bother boycotting.
Barghouti’s rhetoric and the boycott call itself are instructive. Barghouti throws around Nazi and South Africa comparisons. The document illustrates how the blacklist and delegimitization movement escalates so easily from criticizing Israel’s West Bank presence to negating Israel’s very right to exist by saying “the state of Israel was built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian owners” and accusing Israel of an “entrenched system of racial discrimination against its own Arab-Palestinian citizens.” Charging ethnic cleansing, colonialism, and racism escalates the fight from a solvable post-1967 border dispute into an existential zero-sum fight continuing the 1948 war to annihilate the Jewish state. What this kind of collective libeling accomplishes beyond generating more tension is beyond me – and that the world enables it enrages me.
The strategy is particularly stupid because it hurts the Israelis and Westerners who most love the Palestinians. Peaceniks who understand that peace is built from the ground up, interaction by interaction, friendship by friendship, project by project, group by group, are thwarted and demonized. This too-clever-by-half strategy delights extremists by polarizing the two peoples. By boycotting the idealists on both sides who try building bridges, Palestinians and their worldwide army of enablers foment tension and hatred.
Note what happened when Professor Mohammed Dakani made an unprecedented visit to Auschwitz with Palestinian students from Al-Quds University. Hoping to show his students the poisoned fruit totalitarianism yields, he instead suffered an Orwellian punishment. The Palestinian university’s worker’s union expelled him – even though he never joined the union. “In this struggle of corrupt politics, hijacked religion, and lost morality, I decided not to be a bystander…,” Dajani told Ha’aretz. “An educational trip to honor the memory of the victims of the ugliest atrocities in history, becomes an inquisition trial tainted with twisted politics and we stand by and do nothing.”
Admittedly, as stupid, self-destructive, offensive and insulting this approach is, it certainly beats suicide bombing. But that is grading on a perverse curve. Just because a tactic is non-violent does not make it wise.
Ostracizing Israel perpetuates tension and Palestinian statelessness. Why should powerful, stable, democratic Israel make peace with a movement calling the Jewish State immoral and its founding Zionist ideology racist, colonialist and imperialist? Those who support this strategy worldwide should admit that rather than working for peace they are cheerleading for war.
After twenty years of sterile diplomacy, seeking sweeping, dramatic, one-stop shopping resolutions to a complicated conflict, we need bottom-up trust building with baby steps not top-down peace processing with giant steps. Let’s cultivate peace on the ground, not peace on a paper; an actual rapprochement not an existential peace. The very economic ties, cultural exchanges, academic conferences, peace projects, educational trips, people-to-people interactions, joint prayers, the boycotters boycott could plant the seeds of peace both people’s need. All the attempts by the noble Professor Dajanis of the world to humanize one another provoke Palestinian demonization and more dehumanization.
People who care about peace should think ahead, forging a path to peace by planning for the day after a peace is declared. Only through building foundations for mutual respect and cooperation can any kind of treaty be sustained. During the Oslo years, the absence of such anchors made it much easier for the Palestinians to switch quickly from negotiation to terrorism, when they felt like it.
Good people throughout the world should heed the words of Professor Dajani. “Jews struggling for justice, peace and reconciliation are being boycotted by Palestinians calling for boycotts and anti-normalization,” he said. “In these clashes between moral values and narrow political interests, evil will continue to prevail if the good look on and do nothing.”
Let’s start by being honest. On campuses, in the UN, among Progressives, in unions, in churches, those who endorse boycotting Israel should admit that they are fighting peace and endorsing war. Pope Francis has pointed the region in the right direction. Pretending that boycotting Israel enhances the peace process is like claiming that poisoning crops will feed the starving.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. The author of eight books on US history, his latest, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!