Dahlia Schweitzer

Why the Movement to Boycott Israel Disappoints and Disgusts Me

We think that what matters is whether we’re right or wrong, with whom we agree and disagree. But perhaps the trick to calming down our currently over-heated stateall over the world it seemsis to learn to listen. And to consider. And to allow oneself to be challenged or questioned without defensiveness.

But howwhen it hurts so much? When there’s so much at stake? When lives are under threat, communities are under attack, evil and/or corruption seems to be looming at every turn?

A suggestion: First, we breathe. Next we marvel at the diversity and complexity of the human experience. Then we face facts and realize that none of our tried and true ways are working any more. Which means opening ourselves to something new and probably uncomfortable.

Anyway, here’s a post on the subject of boycotting Israel. I don’t want you to agree with it. I don’t want you to disagree with it. All I want is for you to read it, and along the way, if you’ve lost it (which is understandable), to reacquaint yourself with the ability to detach, to step away from your own opinions, and to try to understand those of someone else. Because it’s that ability to understand ideas, not to accept nor agree with them, that holds the hope for saving this planet and staving off what could very well become another world war. 

When the war broke out in Gaza, it was impossible for me to stay detached. After all, I was in Tel Aviv when rockets were fired. These were my family members, my homeland, fighting for its own self-preservation, and I was there, seeing it firsthand. My emotions ran high as the war confronted me directly, as I felt acutely that the soldiers fighting were doing so to protect me and my mother and my sister. My beloved country (a country where I am not even a citizen but still a place that feels unmistakably like home) was under siege.

I will be the first to admit that Israel is not blameless. That Netanyahu could have done far more to push a mission of peace and compromise. That a two-state solution is necessary and inevitable. That the current situation is miserably complicated and that both parties hold a certain amount of guilt.

But that said, I also fully embrace the right of Israel to protect herself, and I also feel that the poor citizens of Gaza need to be protected from Hamas. I’m not declaring Israel as liberators, and I am refusing to condemn all Palestinians as evil because of the actions of a few.

Long story short, I’m invested. I post news articles and editorials on Facebook about the situation. I get riled up by ignorant simplifications and cries of hatred against the Jews. I struggle to maintain as healthy a distance as I can—until I can’t anymore.

A few weeks ago, I received an email that reported that the UCLA Student Workers Union had decided to support the BDS movement, a movement advocating to “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel.” There had been no vote. It had simply been decided by those in charge. I was told it was impossible for me to resign from the union despite my extreme disappointment over this issue. Nonetheless, I did write a very stern letter saying that I was resigning, even though I knew I was still obligated to pay my union dues.

And then a week ago, I received an email from the Queer Caucus of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, of which I am a part, calling for a vote in support of the BDS movement.

When I raised the question why the Queer Caucus would be advocating a boycott of the one country in the Middle East where queers are appreciated and respected and given more legal rights than in the United States (and especially more so than in the other Middle Eastern countries, where they would be publicly stoned or whipped to death), I was told to stop using pro-Israel talking points. When I asked why it was relevant for the Queer Caucus even to take a stance on this issue, I was accused of being callous and deflecting.

So instead I have decided to write a general response to the BDS movement and an elaboration of my feelings on it.

First of all, the BDS movement will not bring any kind of real peace or resolution. It is a propaganda tool, a vehicle of ideological hostility, meant to shut down communication rather than foster it. It will not effectively improve anything for Israelis or Palestinians. It contradicts what I see as the fundamental purpose of academia, which is to encourage dialogue and education and to promote specifically the kind of foundation that will enable people to have articulate and informed opinions.

By banning Israeli academics from conferences, by telling artists and musicians to boycott Israel, we are slamming the door on empathy, tolerance, and most importantly, conversation. We are punishing the innocent as well as the guilty. Israel is a progressive country in many ways. There is increased support for a Palestinian state among the growing moderates, there have been many High Court decisions expanding rights not only for Arabs, but for women and the LGBT community. Israel has a better record on environmental rights than most countries in the world. Israel’s record of avoiding civilian casualties is remarkable. This is a society that appreciates and recognizes dialogue. That encourages debate. That is not afraid of progress and change. Jews, Muslims, and Christians can criticize Israeli politics freely. And yet, somehow they have become the villains, the only country academic institutions are actively boycotting.

Israel is not South Africa. Israel is not an apartheid country, contrary to the ignorant accusations. It is a country where thousands protest in the street in support of Palestinians. It is a country with Arabic Theater Festivals. It is a country where Arabs serve in the Knesset, in the Judiciary, in the Foreign Service, in the academy, and in business.

And yet it is the only country being threatened with BDS.

Regardless of those who insist that the BDS movement is not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, I would like to say, REALLY? Either you are in denial or just naïve. Many supporters of the BDS movements call explicitly for the end of Israel as a sovereign state. The BDS movement does nothing to acknowledge the frequent terrorist intentions propagated against Israel, and it does not respond to the complexity of the current situation (which cannot be dealt with via harsh ultimatums or divisive campaigns). Merely condemning Israel does not address actual Palestinian problems or move us closer to peace.

The BDS movement is merely a continuation of the boycott called for by the Arab League against Israel since 1945, which picked up after the Nazi boycott against the Jews ended. Jews were also excluded from European universities until the 19thcentury and then again after Hitler’s rise to power. Is this really a legacy we want to perpetuate? By targeting Israeli businesses, academics, cultural activities, this merely supports the Arabic movement to refuse to recognize the state of Israel. Artists and academics are often the most vocal advocates for peace. Why silence them?

The BDS movement is hypocritical because there is no comparable boycott called for against other non-democratic countries with significantly worse records of human rights abuses. It is based on a complete double-standard. Many Jews (myself included) are hurt by the continued hostility to the idea of the Jewish homeland, while countries with far worse violations, like Darfur, Iraq, Syria, China, etc. are not discussed. In China, there are no free trade unions and independent trade union activists are often jailed, with strikes and demonstrations violently broken up, and documented horrible working conditions. But yet where is the movement calling for the boycott of Chinese goods?

The BDS movement will not help Palestinians, and, in fact, may worsen their situation, as it will directly affect their jobs if economic sanctions are directed at companies that employ them. As a rule, boycotts are organized in conjunction with the unions. But Israeli unions very clearly argue that the BDS movement merely strengthens the Israeli right, rather than the moderates, who are our best hope for peace.

If you really want to help, why not invest rather than divest? There are hundreds of organizations working actively to build civil society in Israel and in the territories. Why do we not support them? Give them a louder voice?

The BDS movement does not foster any kind of healthy debate on the issue. My mother works actively with international theater companies precisely in order to foster a sense of collaboration and unity – and as a result of the BDS movement, many theaters now refuse to return her messages. What good will that accomplish?

The BDS movement does not acknowledge that three times the state of Israel has tried to reach peace. In 1967, there was a UN resolution for ending the occupation in exchange for Israel’s right to exist. Israel accepted it. The Palestinians, along with other Arab nations, rejected it, saying no peace, no negotiation, no recognition. No one advocated a boycott of these Arab countries. In 2000-2001, Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak, along with President Clinton, proposed Palestinian statehood and the end of the occupation. Yasser Arafat rejected the offer. No one called for any kind of boycott then. In 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered an even better deal to the Palestinians. They rejected it. No one called for any kind of boycott then.

So why call for a boycott now without acknowledging Israel’s repeated attempts at peace? Why call for an overly simplistic ultimatum without acknowledging the complexity of the issue? The way to peace is not paved with ultimatums but with negotiation, compromise, and dialogue – and isn’t that what academics are supposed to promote?

“No longer to listen is no longer to engage in the dialogue of thought,” argues Howard Jacobson. “Which disqualifies you as a scholar and a teacher, for what sort of example to his pupils is a teacher who covers truth’s ears and buries it under stone. A university that will not listen does far more intellectual damage to itself than to the university it has stopped listening to.”

Academic freedom is not something to be rejected under times of duress. That is, instead, when it is all the more essential. When our dialogue needs to intensify, not be silenced.


About the Author
DAHLIA SCHWEITZER is a writer, teacher, and former cabaret star. Schweitzer's works include the books Cindy Sherman's Office Killer: Another Kind of Monster, Queen of Hearts, and Seduce Me; essays in publications including Jump Cut and The Journal of Popular Culture; and an album of dance music, Plastique.
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