Is boycott ever legitimate?

The streets outside New York’s Met Opera were cold on October 20th, 2014 as protesters gathered outside the building.  The usually civilized Opera House was more familiar with fractiousness inside its walls than out.  But on this evening a couple of hundred concerned citizens gathered to vocalise their opposition to the opening of a new production of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’.  Around a hundred protesters sat in wheelchairs to symbolise their solidarity with the subject of the opera, Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American who was killed by members of the Palestine Liberation Front (later to become the PFLP) while on a cruise ship celebrating his 36th wedding anniversary.

The opera (which I have not seen) is the subject of ire from certain sectors because of its sympathetic portrayal of the members of a Palestinian resistance group who were responsible for committing some horrific crimes.

Protestors had asked the Director of the Met, Peter Gelb, to cancel the piece and – in the absence of this – decided to protest both outside and inside the Met building: several protesters were removed by security during the performance.

It was an interesting turn for the books: many of the same organisations who decry the call for a cultural boycott against Israel condemned the opera.  The New Yorker’s Alec Ross observed how a leaflet from “the Zionist Organization of America described the opera as “anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, anti-American, anti-British, anti-gay, & anti-western world.”  But if it is okay to boycott one cultural event why not another?  Under what standards is a boycott legitimate or appropriate?  Why – opponents of an Israel boycott often ask – is there no boycott of Saudi Arabia or the many other brutal States the world round?  It is a legitimate question.

To answer, it is worth going back to the origins of the word boycott.  County Mayo, in the West of Ireland, was the part of the country most negatively impacted by the Great Famine of 1845 – 1852.  Across the country people emigrated for the UK or USA or died of starvation, all-the-while food was being exported to Britain.  The British political establishment did little to help the starving masses.  In under a decade Ireland’s population was reduced from 8 million to 4 million.  In Mayo, where the potato blight struck first, the impact on generations of families was deep and severe.  So the county was easy recruiting ground for a newly established organisation called the Land League, led by Michael Davitt.  In the 1880’s Davitt began to organise local farmers who paid enormous rent to absentee landlords, often for poor quality land.  Davitt demanded “Fair rent, Fixity of tenure and Freedom to sell”, known to every Irish schoolchild as the ‘three F’s’.

Captain Charles Boycott, whose moniker is affixed to the process we know so well, was a land agent for Lord Erne.  Michael Davitt began to organise farmers to withdraw their labour from Erne’s land.  This withdrawal of labour escalated over time.  It soon became a full-court-press of social exclusion of Captain Boycott who could not get service in shops and was refused all social engagement by the locals. The British establishment organised in support of Boycott spending enormous resources to support him.

Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, called for the boycott as a legitimate alternative to violence against oppressive British policies in Ireland.  He described it as a way of giving the “lost man an opportunity to repent.”

From this story of ‘social excommunication’ we can learn a lot, including some key pointers about when a boycott is legitimate.  I think there are four questions to ask oneself:

  1. Is the boycott in support of human rights/upholding the rule of law?
  2. Is the boycott led by the victims of human rights violations and/or organised in meaningful solidarity with them?
  3. Is the boycott an alternative to political violence?
  4. Does the boycott fit into a clear political structure which supports nonviolent, human rights-based alternatives?

If you can answer yes to these four questions then I think you are engaged in a legitimate boycott.  It goes some way towards answering the point about what makes Saudi Arabia different from – say – Burma (as it was called when facing a popular boycott).  It is not that activists are measuring the scales of injustice but rather that people who have been directly impacted by that injustice are calling on others to stand in solidarity with them.  The day Saudi women ask us to boycott the Kingdom I will be only too happy to stand with them.  Similarly, when Palestinian civil society organises a nonviolent alternative to resisting the occupation, a call rooted in a response to the International Court of Justice’s condemnation of the wall, I think that merits serious consideration and is a legitimate application of boycott.

If boycott has a flaw, as a tool, it is this: that the boycott of ‘things’ (injustice, human rights violations) can – in the heat of the moment – become conflated with the boycott of people.  For us to fulfill Parnell’s vision of boycott it must allow the ‘lost man’ to come back to his senses.  Boycott must be enacted with an openness to dialogue with the very people who are organising or supporting the oppression of others.  This view isn’t popular.   But, being open to listening to the Other is the basis upon which a dialogue for real change can begin.

Such listening may involve facing up to grievous errors of tactic or tone in our own work for justice.  But we should be prepared to accept our errors while steadfastly committing to the justness of our cause.  In a world where people are building walls in their hearts, and on their lands, listening to Other people is as fundamental a tool as withdrawing our support from that which we can not morally endorse.  Our conversations may be tough, they may be angry: but they should exist.  Otherwise the boycott becomes a wall for our opponents to organise behind.

About the Author
Eoin Murray is an Irish journalist based in Edmonton, Alberta. He is currently editing a book of essays by Palestinian & Israeli human rights activists called 'Defending Hope'.
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