The term “boycott” comes from the Irish struggle against landlordism in the 1870s. Charles Boycott was a ruthless English landlord who evicted tenant farmers who failed to pay their rent. Many of those who lost their farms ended up penniless and even died of starvation. Irish nationalists were split between those who advocated armed resistance and those who thought that the best tactic was to simply not do business with the landlords who needed their labor and supplies. As Boycott was the first to be targeted, the tactic was named for him. As the novel, Boycott, by Colin C Murphy says: there is more than one way to fight a war.
Today, Israel is being targeted by boycotts. As an academic, I feel the threat to international scientific collaboration, research funding, and access to intellectual networks. I am grateful that the vast majority of my colleagues around the world, including those who openly express criticism of Israel, are not involved in BDS activities. Nonetheless, I do not agree with those who say “academics should be separated from politics.” Frankly, if somebody wants to express his opposition to Israeli settlement activity, or even to Israel’s very existence, by having nothing to do with Israel, and causing Israel economic pain in order to exert pressure, I can’t really object to their emulation of the Irish tactic. Of course, I can, legitimately, criticize the anti-Semitic wrongheadedness of such actions.
Boycotts are not wrong because academics, sports, or art should be kept out of politics, but, rather, because what they are trying to achieve is evil. BDS is not the Irish of the 1870s, but rather the Nazis of the 2010s.
But the boycott that is not acceptable, either intellectually or ethically, is to systematically suppress morally and legally acceptable actions that serve to promote what one purportedly believes in. J Street, and, for that matter, AIPAC, claim to have Israel’s best interests at heart, although left wing and right wing Israelis would vehemently disagree with both respectively. The Israeli government claims to be the defender of Jews everywhere and to be acting to preserve the Jewish people. But all American Jewish organizations and the Israeli government impose a boycott on the most crucial tactic that could serve their expressed goals of saving the Jewish people and Israel: namely, aliya by choice of Jews from North America.
This type of boycott is the worst, because it is done in an Orwellian fashion. One doesn’t raise the subject of aliya in polite conversation. Programs like Birthright bend over forwards and backwards to emphasize that they are most definitely not about aliya. There is Nefesh b’Nefesh, worthy of praise for helping the small self selected and self motivated olim from North America to overcome the hurdles of aliya. But the numbers arriving on their very welcome planes each summer are very small. And they dare not, at risk of alienating the establishment, go beyond those few olim to try to expose the broad American Jewish Community and especially its youth to the notion that living in Israel is both an important Jewish moral imperative, but also a great place to live and bring up children.
Israel is treated, by both American Jewish leaders and their Israeli counterparts as a Holocaust Museum, the world vanguard against Islamic extremism, the refuge for Jews on the run from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and, lately France, but not as a place one would choose to live. Jeffery Goldberg in a recent piece in the Atlantic on “Is it Time for the Jews to Leave Europe,” spent twenty tortured pages coming to the pretty obvious conclusion: yes. But he had to digress for two pages to explain why nothing of the sort is true regarding the United States. The glib, hypocritical, intellectually dishonest writings of people like Goldberg and Peter Beinart, who will talk critically about every inch of Israel’s predicament without even referring to the fundamental issue of where Jews who claim to love Israel should live is much worse than BDS.
Then there is Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post who thinks Israel will be just fine if we annex the West Bank and grant citizenship to all the Palestinians living there because some debatable demographic projections show that Jews will remain a majority. Even if the demography is right, shouldn’t some of Glick’s acerbic pen-womanship be directed at the failure of so called “Zionists” to put their mouth where their money is going? To live in Israel and not just support it from afar as some source of Jewish “identity” fetish? Isn’t such behavior not only denying Israel a source of population and economic growth that no amount of lobbying Congress or financial support could provide, but also simply a dishonest betrayal of the notion that Israel is the expression of the Jewish people’s right and desire for self determination?
To all of these “lovers of Israel,” I say, take two Diasporans and call me in the morning. Boycotting Israel is bad, but not as bad as boycotting part of your own truth.
Aliya from North America in sufficient numbers, say half a million, is the necessary, and perhaps even sufficient condition to save both Israel and the Jewish people. As Hillel Halkin wrote in a much ignored essay in Commentary entitled “If Israel Ceased to Exist” (2007), Israel and the Jewish people will disappear not because of Iran but because American Jews didn’t move to Israel in numbers, and the Israeli establishment did nothing to attract them. As he put it, roughly, Jewish history is like baseball, first Temple is strike one, second Temple is strike two, strike three and you’re out. The game is not over, but we are in the bottom of the ninth, two out.