Debate At South Bank – For or Against the Cultural Boycott of Israel
Tonight was one of the more unusual events. A debate at the South Bank Centre in the Purcell Room between Omar Barghouti, an Israeli Arab who founded PACBI, the Palestinian Academic Boycott Initiative and Seni Seneviratne from Sri Lanka, who were in favour of the Boycott and Carol Gould, a freelance ex-left Zionist and Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian
To some of us the title was a no-brainer. Would anyone, even Jonathan Freedland have argued against a boycott of Furtwangler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which was used and funded by the Nazi Party to legitimise it? In fact Freedland admitted that the cultural boycott against South Africa was a success, so he was pretty much all over the shop and confined to making a series of often random points.
Carol Gould said nothing that was memorable, as I recall of my previous experience of her as a Press TV panellist. And when she did it was wrong. She cited Ruth First and Joe Slovo as Jewish opponents of Apartheid in South Africa, which they were of course. But they were disowned by the Jewish community and would undoubtedly have supported, as do fellow ANC members like Ronnie Kassrills, a boycott of Israel today.
Seni and Omar Barghouti therefore had the debate very much to themselves. It helped of course that the audience was overwhelmingly pro-boycott. Out of 150 people present about 15 at most were opposed to the boycott. Clearly the Zionists and Jonathan Hoffman had decided to boycott the debate!
But although his points were disjointed and random, Jonathan Freedland made a number of points worth considering:
i. The Boycott campaign is not clear whether it is aimed primarily at opposing the 1967 occupation by Israel or the dismantling of Zionism as its objective. Omar in his response made it sort of clear that it was the latter, but of course there are many, not least Israelis, for whom a boycott only applies to what was seized in 1967.
ii. By promoting a boycott we are strengthening the bitterenders in Israel – the far right.
iii. That Israel is not an apartheid state unlike South Africa
iv. That the boycott is selectively applied to Israel but not other human rights violators.
v. That Israel is singled out as a Jewish state unlike states which are Muslim (though this was Gould’s main point too).
vi. That implicitly the boycott is therefore anti-Semitic and both speakers made reference to the Jews and the Nazi ‘boycott’ of the 1930’s.
I spoke early on in the debate and dealt with the latter in what little time there was.
Boycotts are How the Powerless Oppose the Powerful
Despite Zionist rhetoric, boycotts have always been progressive. The first political boycott in Britain (I exclude Capt. Boycott in Ireland!) was the boycott of slave grown sugar in the West Indies. Some 300,000+ people took the pledge. Is Freedland seriously suggesting that was racist?
Likewise the only Boycott in the Nazi era was the boycott of German goods organised by the Jewish unions and the international labour movement. The so-called boycott of Jewish shops on April 1st 1933 by the SA was nothing of the kind – it was an armed siege, just as Gaza today experiences an armed siege. But even more pertinent, the SA intended the ‘boycott’ to last indefinitely. Hitler called it off after one day after Goring and the German capitalists panicked at the effects of the Jewish Trade Union Boycott of German goods. In late March Goring called the German Jewish leaders to see him and they said they had no influence. But also invited, after lobbying, was the German Zionist Federation which openly stated that it opposed the Boycott as an ‘unZionist’ way to do things. Unsurprisingly because the Zionist movement was intent on laying their hands on German Jewish wealth (this was openly stated). They therefore concluded Ha’varah, The Transfer Agreement between Nazi Germany and Jewish Palestine (Yishuv)! 60% of capital investment in the Yishuv between 1933-39 came from Nazi Germany! But what benefitted Zionism did not benefit Jews. The Jews able to take advantage of Ha’avarah were wealthy German Jews who could have got out anyway. What it did was seal the fate of ordinary and poor German Jews for whom no other weapon was available. For those interested, read Edwin Black’s book ‘The Transfer Agreement’.
Is the Boycott Aimed at Securing a Single State
Although the PACBI statement is clear that the boycott movement takes no position on the 1 vs 2 states position, by opposing Israeli apartheid and the concept of a Jewish state, it is clear that only a 1 state solution has any chance of achieving this. Omar Barghouti made it clear that the struggle continues whilst there is a Jewish state, i.e. a racist state.
Is a dishonest conflation being made between Apartheid South Africa and Israel
Freedland’s strongest argument is that unlike South Africa, where Blacks were in a majority, in Israel there is a rough demographic equality. However he failed to mention that that is because the South African policy of bantustanisation failed, since South Africa depended on a supply of cheap Black labour. Zionism by contrast followed the US/Australian model of colonisation i.e. expulsion or massacre or both.
Which is worse? The former obviously. But within Israel there is a form of discrimination and racism against Arabs that is woven into the fabric of Israel’s Zionist cloth. It is no accident that the only ‘anti-racism’ law in Israel excluded racism based on religion. Even Rabbi Meir Kahane voted for the law!
The fact that half of Israel/Palestine is Jewish, whereas in South Africa the Whites only numbered 20% at most, is irrelevant to whether Israel is an apartheid state. Israel was very aware of the pitfalls of minority rule, which is why ¾ million Arabs were expelled in 1948-9 and hundreds of thousands since then, not least in 1967. But in terms of separate development, then Israel is as much of an apartheid state as South Africa was.
I also have to say that Omar Barghouti’s reliance on the UN definition was not helpful. The UN is a creature of the powerful states in the world. It brought Israel into being and it can best be described as a ‘thieves kitchen’.
Strengthening the Israeli Right
This was the weakest point of Jonathan Freedland’s points and Omar Barghouti’s strongest response. To suggest we should not support Boycott because it would only make the Israeli Right even more intransigent is to mimic the Thatcher argument that a Boycott would only harm those it was intended to help (which both Freedland and Gould argued). As Omar quite correctly said, and he might have been echoing Jabotinsky in reverse, there is no example in history where those with colonial privileges have voluntarily given them up. What Freedland is arguing for is in essence capitulation of the Palestinians within a truncated statelet. Yes the Israeli right will become more belligerent, as did PW Botha in South Africa but it also tells those with the real power, the handful of Israelis who own the majority of wealth in the country, that their time is up. To allow the right-wing of the Zionist movement (whose difference with what remains of the Left Zionists has only ever been tactical) to dictate the means of struggle of the Palestinians and their supporters, means in practice giving Liebermann a veto. Indeed it is naked cowardice since the very people supposedly hurt by the Boycott (the Palestinians) are the ones calling for it. Those who remember the hypocrisy of Thatcher, decrying sanctions on South Africa, when she had been one of the most racist leaders of a major political party in this country, was breath taking hypocrisy. Her only concern was the effect on Dennis’ investments in South Africa. The fate of Black South Africans was of no concern and likewise when Jonathan Freedland makes the same point one can be sure that this isn’t what motivates his opposition.
Freedland also pointed to the Israeli left who should be our allies and singled out David Grossman. But he forgets that Grossman supported Cast Lead, the bombing and invasion of Gaza and he also supported the 2006 attack on the Lebanon up until his son was killed. The reality is that the Israeli left is virtually no more. The Israeli Labour Party, which was never socialist, has some 8 seats left in the Knesset, having lost their leader Ehud Barak and their previous leader Amir Peretz to Netanyahu. Meretz is down from 12 seats at its height to just 3 today and when one recalls that Mapam, which was only a part of Meretz, used to have the second largest contingent in the Knesset after Mapai (ILP) one realises that the material circumstances of occupation and expansion have triumphed over a barren ideological commitment.
Israel is unfairly singled out when its human rights record compares favourably with for example Syria
This is a serious argument and one that was not dealt with satisfactorily. One should say at the outset that because people concentrate on Palestine does not and should not imply anti-Semitism, as Zionists often allege. But it is true that for example at the same time as Cast Lead was killing 1,400 people in Gaza, Sri Lank was killing up to 20,000 Tamils.
Likewise no one who has seen reports of the Syrian police can have any doubt that their barbarities, the castration and killing of a child, the mowing down of demonstrators, the use of torture (Syria was after all one of the countries the US rendered people to) is far worse than anything Israel has done. That is a fact. So why do we boycott Israel and not Syria?
I dealt with this partly in my response. It was what Jonathan Freedland called ‘exceptionalism’. I don’t agree. Israel represents the strategic base of the West and the US’s watchdog in particular in the Middle East. It is, in the words of ex-Secretary of State Alexander Haig, an unsinkable aircraft carrier and more than worth the $3b subsidy each year. It is no accident that virtually the whole of the Arab world is ruled by Arab dictators – the Mubaraks and Assads and Sauds. The Arab world and also Iran is a repository of oil, the most valuable of all commodities, without which the world’s economy could not function. In order to obtain cheap and dependable supplies, the US has followed a path of installing reliable dictatorships through the tried and trusted method of coups etc. It is no accident that the Israel ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ reacted to the Arab Spring with apprehension and fear, offering at one stage to send military help to Mubarak by all accounts. You will notice that despite the disagreements with Syria over Hizbollah primarily, there has been no call to support the demonstrators because, as Carol Gould acknowledged, 91% of the Egyptian people support the Boycott!
This was the argument used by apologists for Apartheid in South Africa. They pointed to surrounding Black states and asked why we single out South Africa. The reason is clear. SA and now Israel were/are the main props of the system that deprives people of their liberty and economic resources (most oil money goes to pay the USA for the means of repression and war).
Is a Jewish State Automatically Racist
When Omar stated that a Jewish state is a racist state, Carol Gould and Jonathan Freedland pointed to the number of Arab states, even if the former over exaggerated their number. In fact it is quite possible to envisage a Jewish state which is as harmless as say the Catholic Vatican State or indeed Christian Britain, where religion plays a marginal role.
The difference is that in Muslim countries, Islam is used to justify the oppression, murder, torture etc. of Muslims. It is the legitimator of oppression. Boycott is generally not used as a tool against regimes that repress their own peoples, unless those people themselves call for a boycott. In Israel it is different. Being a ‘Jewish’ state is not a quaint custom and characteristic of the state. On the contrary it is fundamental to the nature of that state. In Iran being Jewish, and there are 25,000 Jews, does not mean that your civil and political rights are any less. In Israel the contrary is true. The state, any state, cannot daven (pray), or worship or eat kosher. What being a Jewish State means is giving Jews, vis a vis non Jews, privileges. These privileges are numerous and range from land rights, renting, employment, schooling and even welfare payments. Israel is not a state of its own citizens but a state which claims responsibility for those who are not even its citizens but live in other countries and are Jewish. That means that I have the right to ‘return’ to Israel, even though I have never lived there, was not born there and don’t wish to live there. But a Palestinian who was born there, whose ancestors lived there, who owned property there, s/he cannot live there. In other words being Jewish in Israel is no different to being Aryan in Nazi Germany. That is why Israel is indeed different and why the attempt of Jonathan Freedland to pretend that all would be well if Israel only withdrew behind the Green Line is disingenuous.
And last, a big thank you to Naomi Foyle for all the work she put in to organise the event!