Ben White: Boycott: The Backlash

By Ben White

In the UK, the Boycott campaign was launched by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) six years ago. However, it has been attempts at a boycott of Israeli academic institutions that has really raised the profile of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) — and also provoked a fierce counter-movement.

Various bodies, like BICOM (Britain and Israel Communications & Research Centre: and Engage (, have set up issue-specific websites; while the former may have deeper pockets, Engage has proved to be more of a rallying point for the anti-boycotters. Their website includes voluminous attacks on the boycott and plenty of articles condemning what they perceive as an anti-Semitic singling-out of Israel.

Launched shortly after the AUT boycott decision, Engage’s opening salvo revealed the campaign’s guiding principles: misrepresentation of the boycott movement, a commitment to — and whitewashing of — Zionism, and a liberal emphasis on ‘dialogue’ between Israelis and Palestinians.

Misrepresenting or smearing the boycott movement has consistently been a core part of Engage’s work. A firm favourite has been to ask why the boycotters are ‘singling out’ Israel and ignoring other international human rights abusers. The claim is that ‘the choice to boycott Israeli Jews rather than anyone else in the world is effectively anti-semitic’, even if those arguing for a boycott ‘do not feel a hatred of Jews’, ‘do not intend to be antisemitic’, or indeed, ‘are themselves Jewish’.

The charge is, of course, ridiculous. Would a Tibetan activist be accused of unfairly ‘singling out’ China, or a Chechen human rights campaigner of ‘picking on’ Russia? The boycott has never been a prize for ‘the World’s Worst Human Rights Record’. The implication is that Israel’s Jewish identity should protect it from criticism, and that the motives of those attacking the state must be related to the state’s Jewishness.

Another typical misrepresentation of the boycott (or “Jew-hunt” as Hirsh likes to call it) is that it presents the conflict as one ‘between good Palestinians and evil Israelis’, and critics are accused of ‘treating Israel as though it were a demonic force’. It’s a laughable caricature of the BDS movement’s position, which is in fact shaped by the historical reality of Palestine’s ethnic cleansing, and the present day dynamic of coloniser and colonised.

This brings us to the second characteristic of the anti-boycott movement: its defence of Zionism. For Hirsh, ‘Zionism is not racism. Zionism is Jewish nationalism and it is not fundamentally different from other forms of nationalism’. Even if that were true at the purely theoretical level (which it isn’t), when Zionism realised the goal of a state, it was achieved at the direct expense of the Palestinians — simply because they weren’t Jewish.

The anti-boycotters are keen to conceal the power asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians, describing the ‘complex’ conflict as being between ‘two peoples’ both ‘with tear-stained histories’. One writer even likened it to an ‘abusive marriage’ where ‘both parties cause, and suffer’ damage. Hirsh protests that the Jews arriving from Europe did not go as colonists and that the boycotters ‘fail to understand how Zionism was a response to European antisemitism, a utopian movement, a social-democratic experiment’.

It all amounts to some neat sidestepping. Many Jews fleeing Europe did not go as colonists but they certainly arrived as ones, their plight a gift to the Zionist leadership who had long been seeking to create a Jewish majority state in Palestine. Anti-Jewish persecution certainly helps to explain how Zionism emerged, but hardly justifies the treatment meted out to Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants. Pity the Palestinians, who, in the name of a ‘social-democratic experiment’, had to endure massacres, death-marches, and ethnic cleansing.

No boycotter claims that the violence, or even racism, is one-sided. The point is the power structure: Israel is the occupier, a state armed and funded by the world’s superpower and the Palestinians are stateless, colonised, and exiled. To compare Hamas with the Israeli state infrastructure and occupation is frankly absurd.

The anti-boycott movement also spends a lot of time trying to rubbish any parallels between Apartheid South Africa and Israel. In an article co-authored with Simon Schama, Anthony Julius wrote that ‘minorities in Israel are guaranteed equal rights under the basic laws’, while another Engage online article notes that in Israel, ‘Jewish and Arab babies are born in the same delivery room, with the same facilities, attended by the same doctors and nurses, with the mothers recovering in adjoining beds in a ward’. This is patently false, since there is a raft of racially discriminatory legislation: from land for Jewish purchase only, to ‘unrecognised’ Palestinian villages, and the gross funding disparity for basic services between the two communities.

Similarly Haifa is often cited as a city where ‘Jew and Arab’ coexist in harmony and prosperity. Omitted is the fact that there would be many more ‘Arabs’ (Palestinians) in Haifa today if 70,000 hadn’t been dispossessed in 1948. That these expulsions across Palestine led to the ethnic cleansing of almost 800,000 men, women and children, is described on the Engage website as ‘a tragic consequence of war’. The fact that Israel subsequently ignored the UN resolution calling for the return of the refugees is of course not mentioned.

Finally, the anti-boycott movement has repeated ad nauseam the need for ‘dialogue’ and ‘engagement’, particularly in academia. Hearty discussions on campus are what will bring Israeli apartheid in the OPTs to its knees. Can anyone seriously believe that 40 years of military occupation and rapacious Israeli colonialism will simply melt away, through the promotion of ‘dialogue and reconciliation’?

-Ben White is a regular contributor to; this article was first published by Palestine News, Autumn/Winter 07

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