Are Boycotts Unethical?

Wanna hear the dumbest reason ever why boycotts are not unethical? Sit down first. Make sure you’re not sipping your coffee, or any other drink. According to Dr Oliver Leaman boycotts are fun! They are entertainment.

Comparing boycotts to other demonstrations, Leaman got all nostalgic about his hippy days when American students were protesting the Vietnam War, saying that when you are in a boycott it is an enormous amount of fun – you meet people, go to parties, meet girls, and there is no cost involved in going to those demonstrations. Well, perhaps you might get a police baton on your head, and that isn’t fun.

Referring to the 60s (he calls himself a geriatric hippy), he describes the demonstrations as having been very fashionable. That’s the word he used – fashionable – I kid you not. And then he asks: “What is wrong with going along with a fashionable cause if it is fun?

I think BDS is becoming increasingly fashionable, which is why I think it is becoming increasingly successful. I don’t think that’s because of any particular merit about it.

He claims that BDS is going from strength to strength. It has been able to label Israeli policies in ways that grab the attention of people around the world and that are uncomfortable for Israel. And that is the point.

He discusses whether or not it is antisemitic to pick on Israel particularly when there are so many places that are violating human rights to much greater extents. He admits that it is quite possible that some people protest against a country because they have a “negative attitude” toward the majority or the power base of that country. It’s possible, he says, but that doesn’t show that it’s wrong, only that their motivation may be “suspect”.

He continues, saying that people are allowed to pick which injustice they want to protest. If they want to punish a certain country because of injustices in that country, that is their right, no? And if some people are antisemitic that does not mean the boycott is not justified. So “we should not be caught up with motivation” of the boycotters, unless it is ONLY based on not liking a particular group of people. “That’s a bad thing of course.” I was glad this philosophy prof did not drown us in incomprehensible jargon.

He remarks about the incredible successes of Israel in the industries so he imagines that BDS is not going to really hurt Israel that much, except by stigmatizing the country somewhat. And that is the punishment of BDS – a kind of symbolic striking “at the heart of the policy which you are trying to counter, and it also provides you with a lot of entertainment.”

Then he comes to the punch line: boycotts don’t have an ethical basis; it’s similar to supporting a football team. (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.) It’s acceptable if one can find justifiable criticism. And, he adds, “what country anywhere in the world has not done something of which it ought to be ashamed”? So it seems that any country could legitimately be the target of boycott.

He concludes by suggesting that while we talk about boycott as if it is a significant moral issue, he thinks we should be more nonchalant about it since, as research has shown, boycotts don’t really have major impact in any case.

Are boycotts a matter of punishment? Well, he says people talk about boycotts as if we know exactly what they are, but we don’t. And, he declares, we need to think more about what we mean by boycott. I’m undecided whether or not that was the most intelligent thing he said in his talk.

If you want to punish yourself and listen to this 19 minutes yourself, or if you just don’t believe that I haven’t made this all up, you can listen to him on the website, Boycotts – Past and Present.

And if you want to see what he looks at, here is a youtube video of a recent lecture he gave. This was the best I could do because I couldn’t find a photo that was in the public domain.

By the way, you may be interested to know that Leaman was involved in quite a scandal – he complained about being the target of antisemitic threats to life and limb and unprotected by the UK university where he taught philosophy. He ran away without telling his employer (who found out where he was by some Internet detective work) and joined the faculty at University of Kentucky where, apparently, he remains to this day unless he is invited to lecture at conferences such as the one reported here. This gives him the chance to visit his UK allotment garden where he is faced with the tremendous dilemma of whether or not to join others who are boycotting a neighbour (well he guesses he is a neighbour because he lives quite close to him) for having felled a tree in his allotment. This dilemma was fodder for his ruminations in said lecture.

Just as a final BTW – the rest of the conference was instructional and serious. I guess this geriatric hippy has passed his academic best-until-date.

About the Author
Sheri Oz, owner of, is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.
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