Why Britain?

No other country outside the Arab world comes close to Britain for the sheer number of boycott initiatives.

Britain's second-largest union, the civil servants association UNISON, will vote later this month on whether its 1.5 million members should launch an economic boycott of Israel. In May, the country's University and College Union (UCU) voted to recommend an academic boycott of Israel to its members. In April, Britain's National Union of Journalists (NUJ) voted to boycott Israeli products. In March, 130 British doctors proposed boycotting the Israel Medical Association and demanded its expulsion from the World Medical Association. Nor are such initiatives anything new. The Church of England decided last year to divest from companies "profiting from (Israel's) illegal occupation" of the territories. The two lecturers unions that merged to form UCU in 2006 had each previously voted to impose an academic boycott on Israel (one decision was later overturned in a revote; the other was subsequently invalidated by the merger). A British architects association has repeatedly urged a boycott of Israeli architects. And private organizations have imposed their own boycotts. A British journal of translation studies, for instance, fired a board member in 2002 solely and declaredly because she was Israeli (and, ironically, a longtime activist against the very "occupation" she was fired to protest). Last month, the Tate Modern museum not only refused to include works by Jewish Israeli artists in its exhibition on contemporary Middle Eastern art, but billed works by Arab Israeli artists as being from "Palestine." CLEARLY, SUCH actions raise many questions. Why, for instance, is Israel the only country singled out for such attention? None of these groups has proposed boycotting Sudan, where government-backed militias have slaughtered some 400,000 people in recent years (compared to about 4,000 Palestinians killed in Israeli-Palestinian fighting during those same years), and are now raiding neighboring Chad and Central African Republic as well. Or Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is deliberately starving his own people; Myanmar, where a military junta overthrew the elected government in 1990 and has brutalized the population ever since; Russia, whose war in Chechnya is thought to have killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians (no exact statistics exist); China, which has occupied Tibet since 1950; or even the US and Britain itself, whose botched invasion of Iraq sparked a civil war that is killing hundreds of thousands of people a year. By any objective standard, these are worthier targets for sanctions than a country that has repeatedly sought to end its "occupation of Palestine" (through the Oslo Accords, the Camp David talks in 2000 and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005), but has been met each time only with increased terrorism; and whose military operations are aimed at defending its own people from terrorist attacks. Moreover, why protest the occupation by targeting the medical profession, which treats Jews and Arabs alike, including Palestinians seeking care unavailable in their own hospitals? Or academia, which probably contains more "anti-occupation" activists than any other profession in Israel? And why would a professional union like the NUJ deliberately sacrifice its greatest professional asset - a reputation for objectivity - by openly taking sides in a conflict it covers, thereby destroying the credibility of its members' reporting? THE MOST puzzling question of all, however, is "why Britain"? There have been boycott initiatives elsewhere, but no other country outside the Arab world comes close to Britain for the sheer number of such initiatives and the range of professions they encompass. Why is Britain alone seemingly consumed with this anti-Israel obsession? Psychologists could undoubtedly have a field day exploring the possibilities. Perhaps this obsession is a reversion to Britain's historic role as a pioneer of new forms of anti-Semitism? Britain, after all, gave the world the first known Christian blood libel against Jews (the case of William of Norwich in 1144); it was also the first country to expel its Jews, in 1290 - two centuries before the more famous Spanish expulsion of 1492. Or perhaps it reflects guilt over Britain's failure, as the country that controlled the area in 1948, to prevent a Jewish state from arising at all? Certainly, it made a good-faith effort - for instance, by giving Jordan and Egypt free access to its arsenals when they invaded the nascent Israel in an effort to strangle it at birth. Nevertheless, it undeniably failed. Whatever the reason, this British obsession has serious policy implications for Israel, which has long regarded that country as one of its closest friends. Britain, for instance, consistently places second only to the US in polls asking which country Israelis would trust to mediate Arab-Israeli talks, or as part of a peacekeeping force under any future deal. THERE ARE two obvious reasons for this belief in British friendship. One is Britain's longtime status as America's closest ally. America is unquestionably Israel's best friend, and Israeli affection for the US has thus been extended to Britain by association. The other is Tony Blair's 10 years at Britain's helm, during which he has been the European leader most supportive of Israel's right to defend itself. This misled Israelis into thinking that most Britons share his views. In reality, however, Blair's support of Israel on this issue has been immensely unpopular with his countrymen, and with British opinion leaders so fixated on Israel-bashing, the situation can only get worse. After all, the NUJ controls what Britons read in their papers, hear on their radios and see on their televisions; the Anglican Church controls what they hear from the pulpit; the UCU controls what college students hear in class; UNISON plays a major role in setting and carrying out policy. What else is left? This does not, obviously, mean that Israel should abandon the public relations battlefield, or cease trying to find common ground with both the British government and individual companies and organizations. But it does mean that it will not be able to rely on Britain much longer as one of its comparative advocates within Europe. Israel must therefore immediately start investing effort, at both the governmental and public opinion levels, in cultivating other European countries to replace Britain in this role. Britain, unfortunately, is already a lost cause.