James Bowen: A Boycott by Any Other Name

By James Bowen
In the late 19th century, changes in Ottoman law created a new class of large landholders, including the Sursuq family from Beirut, which acquired large tracts in northern Palestine. A similar situation had long existed in Ireland, where most land was controlled by absentee landlords, many of whom lived in Britain.

The 1880s, however, initiated dynamics that led the two lands in different directions. In 1882, the first Zionist immigrants arrived in Palestine, starting a process that subsequently led to the eviction of indigenous tenant farmers, when magnates like the Sursuqs pulled the land from under their feet, selling it to the Jewish National Fund.

In contrast, in 1880, Irish tenant farmers started a process that turned them into owner-occupiers. A former British army officer played a role in this drama, which introduced his name as a new word into many languages.

Western Ireland was again suffering near-famine conditions. The potato crop had failed for the third successive year. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, agent for Lord Erne, the absentee landlord of an estate in County Mayo, refused the request of tenants for a rent reduction and, instead, in September 1880, obtained eviction notices against 11 of them for failure to pay their rent.

Thirty years earlier, evictions had expelled huge numbers of Irish to North America. But times were changing: A nationwide tenants’ rights movement, the Land League, had recently been formed, under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, a scion of the landlord class, whose pro-tenant sympathies were inherited from his American mother, a woman whose grandfather had been one of George Washington’s bodyguards. Speaking on September 19, 1880, Parnell outlined the strategy of the league:

"When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him, you must shun him in the streets of the town, you must shun him at the shop-counter, you must shun him at the fair and at the market-place and even in the house of worship, by leaving him severely alone, by putting him into a sort of moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his kind, as if he were a leper of old, you must show him your detestation."

Three days later, court officials attempted to serve Boycott’s eviction notices on the tenants, and the Land League policy went into effect. Within two months, Boycott’s name had become a synonym for ostracism, he had left the estate, and both landlords and government had discovered the power of ordinary people. Within a year, legislation at Westminster provided government finance for tenants wishing to purchase their farms.

For too long, Israel has been taking land from which Palestinians have been evicted, and detestation is spreading around the world. In Ireland, photos of Israeli bulldozers are placed beside those of landlords’ battering rams. Even a former U.S. president has recognized hafrada ("separation" in Hebrew) as apartheid. Disgust has reached such a level that even highly conservative institutions that normally try to avoid politics are driven to express concern.

One such body is Aosdana, the Irish state-sponsored academy of artists. Its annual general assembly on March 28 passed a resolution whose full text is: "Mindful of the August 4, 2006 call from Palestinian filmmakers, artists and cultural workers to end all cooperation with state-sponsored Israeli cultural events and institutions, Aosdana wishes to encourage Irish artists and cultural institutions to reflect deeply before engaging in any such cooperation, always bearing in mind the undeniable courage of those Israeli artists, writers and intellectuals who oppose their own government’s illegal policies towards the Palestinians."

Although on the surface, this is a mild resolution, it is a boycott call in all but name. Its significance was not lost on Dr. Zion Evrony, the Israeli ambassador in Dublin. The very same day, he issued a press release that was replete with cliches that might have worked several decades ago, when Irish people were still unaware of the horrors that Israel has inflicted on the Palestinians.

Possibly, the alacrity of Dr. Evrony’s response was due to the fact that the strength of feeling among Irish artists had been rehearsed in the Irish press. Indeed, the proposer of the motion, playwright Margaretta D’Arcy, who is Jewish, had written in The Irish Times on February 16 that, "I was reluctant to advocate a cultural boycott of Israel until I visited the country for the first time last November … I became convinced that a cultural boycott was necessary, if only as an act of solidarity with those in Israel who seek to remove the inequality, discrimination and segregation of their society."

Continuing, she quoted from "Land Grab," by Yehezkel Lein, published by B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: "The settlement enterprise in the occupied territories has created a system of legally sanctioned separation based on discrimination that has, perhaps, no parallel anywhere in the world since the apartheid regime in South Africa."

Ms. D’arcy finished by saying: "My uncle went to live in the Holy Land in the 1920s to help set up the utopian dream of peace, justice and equality between Jew and Arab. It was only when I arrived there that I realized how mistaken he was. He would have done better to have stayed in the East End of London to struggle for peace, justice and equality in England."

Parnell finished his call to action by saying that "there will be no man so full of avarice, so lost to shame, as to dare the public opinion of all right-thinking men."

They were both right.

-Prof. James Bowen is the national chairperson of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign. (Haaretz.com)

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