11 July 2011

Why Boycott Culture?

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!

Tony Greenstein


  1. I said nothing that was memorable? Perhaps if I had been allowed to speak by the rude crowd trying to drown me out you might have heard me. If you were listening you would have heard the Chair Joanthan Heawood say my comment about Cuba, China, Iran and Venezuela was a 'powerful' one. And if I am such a unmemorable author why would PEN and the Festival have invited me at all? They even told me how thrilled they were that I had agreed to appear. If I am such a shlepper why did Foyles grab me afterwards to sign a pile of copies of my novel (incidentally, optioned to be made into a television drama series) and beg me to get them some more copies of my non-fiction book? And if my work on Press TV is so unmemorable, as you say, why do they keep inviting me back over and over again?

  2. Carol

    I heard you very well. The audience was not very sympathetic to your message because they have heard it all before - it's called blaming the victim, something Israel and its supporters do quite frequently. Just as they talk about 'peace' whilst losing no opportunity to engage in violence and lies (even assaulting peace activists arriving to try and go on to Bethlehem 2 days ago).

    If Jonathan Harwood found your comment about Cuba etc. powerful then it shows how easily impressed some people are. Cuba has been the subject of a Boycott for some 50 years, something Israel has always supported! And yes Tibet is the favourite, indeed the only, human rights cause of the right. Nothing wrong with Venezuela and but for the coup against Mossadegh in 1953 we wouldn't have the vicious clerical regime that is now in power.

    So yes it's no great surprise that Clerical TV asks you back all the time, probably because you are a caricature Zionist. Never asking once as to whether Israel's reactions to its victims might just have something to do with the traditional reaction of the colonial master to any sign of rebellion - which is to step up the repression.

    I also found you trite, with your references to the Mufti, who was put in his position by none other than Sir Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commission in Palestine and the most pro-Zionist member of the Liberal Govt of Asquith. Despite coming 4th in an election to the post. The truth is that the Zionists preferred to deal with him rather than the secular Palestinian Istiqlal Party, just as they preferred to help bring into being Hamas as a counterweight to secular Palestinian nationalism.

    These little things might escape you but the Mufti was a minor war criminal. Allying with the enemy of the occupier of your country was common in the 3rd world for whom Britain was indeed as bad as the Nazis. India, Burma are just 2 countries where those opposed to colonialism had illusions in the Nazis.

    But what you probably didn't know was that the Muslim SS Divisions did not become involved in deportation of jews. In fact 2 of the division were sent to France for retraining because of their bad attitude on this score, and promptly rebelled and tried to join with the French Resistance - the only known example of such a rebellion in the history of the SS.

    Just as Muslim Albania was the only country occupied by the Nazis not to deport a single Jews. Likewise the Arab countries that were occupied by the Nazis or their Vichy allies.

    I didn't say, incidentally, that your fiction is unmemorable, having never read any. It was your self-indulgent and self-serving contribution to the debate. The fact that you used to be a member of Mapam speaks volumes about that group and you.

  3. Wow ! You are a gallant Englishman! After 35 years here the one thing I and so many of my fellow long-time American expats notice about many Britons is that you are so quick to insult people. So this evening I have learned from your chivalrous writings that I am 'unmemorable;' 'trite;' 'self-indulgent and self-serving' and a 'caricatuter Zionist.' Thanks ! Anything else? And by the way, what was self-serving and self indulgent about what I said? Inasmuch as the South Bank Festival left Jonathan Freedland and me out of the printed programme we could have been truly self-indulgent and just walked out.

  4. Thanks Mr. Greenstein, this was an interesting post, full of valuable information. And Carol Gould's inept defense and your rebuttal provided a nice chuckle as well!

  5. re Carol Gould: If you threw around red herrings at the meeting as you have in this comment, the claim to have said something "memorable" is illustrated away by yourself. In his reply here Tony Greenstein focuses correctly on what he stated in his post. Tiresome, ├╝ber-Zionist half arguments that have been rebuked over and over again since you wrote this in 2007. Is this the best anti-boycott advocate writer available?

  6. signing: eGuest

  7. Ah, I'm not a 'gallant' Englishmen. Nor quaint either I'll warrant. But despite so many Britons being willing to insult Americans you have managed to stay for 35 years. I guess it must be the habits of an ingrained masochist come to survey their empire.

    I said you were self-indulgent and self-serving because like many of your ilk you never seem to ever be able to put yourself in the shoes of your victims, how you are perceived.

    You spoke about anti-Americanism at the meeting, as if it isn't understandable that when you kill over a million people in Iraq, when your murderous military tortures, rapes, bombs, incites sectarian conflict to take the heat off itself that people don't jib.

    You've never understood, beneath the grime of your culture, why people detest Americans like yourself for your smug self-satisfaction. Novellists are supposed to have an imagination, some empathy, to be able to put themselves in the other's skin as it were.

    Do you understand what it as like to have your country invaded by settlers, with bibles in hand, saying that this was their promised land? That European settlers thought their religion entitled them to clear off the natives? If Muslims did that, other than as an echo, you'd be calling them fundamentalists, barbarians etc.

    Yet Zionists went to Palestine, from the start sought to remove the indigenous population, with its Jewish labour and land policies, then when there was a reaction used that reaction, often very primitive for a primitive society as the further excuse and justification for their appalling violence.

    Only 2 days ago friends of mine tried to openly fly into Israel to reach Bethlehem. In front of crowds they were assaulted both by the Police and Israelis. Israelis have an addiction to violence as you can see from that lone American Jewish teenager (the kind that I do admire) who stood up to the Jerusalem Day protestors in a kippa and shouted Palestine.

    He was set upon by 4 beefy police, punched and attacked and had his keffiyah twisted around his mouth so he couldn't speak or breathe. Ever thought saying something about this rather than acting as a self-publicising cleaning advert trying to make Zionist shit smell a littl sweeter?

    Your plaints about how you and JF weren't on the programme somehow seem trivial compared to the guy and his family whose home has been demolished over their heads and who are thirsty. But as I said Carol, imagination is not something you have in abundance.

  8. I should add that my daughter will be visiting Cambodia and Vietnam this summer. She will be able to see some of the effects of American civilisation in those countries - Agent Orange, a million dead in Vietnam and another million in Cambodia/Laos. The beneficial byproducts of US hegemony and war.

    That is the only export that the USA has on offer. And now it is doing it in the Middle East with a vengeance, to secure its supplies of oil. And they have trivial and superficial literary folk like Carol Gould, always willing to dress up American imperialism's barbarousness in a few trite cliches and repetitive slogans.

  9. Hear, hear!

    This American (although even that term smacks of imperialism, as American properly denotes the inhabitants of two continents) is fervently behind all efforts to smash US imperialism and the assorted injustices of its satrapies such as Israel (or Saudi Arabia or Mubarak/Tantawi Egypt or etc.).

    This is for both moral reasons, because of the sheer horror and blood that US imperialism unleashes upon the world, and self-interest, because of the harm that US imperialism does to our own society.

    Please disassociate this US American from any spokespersons such as Ms. Gould.

  10. Carol Gould: "what was self-serving and self indulgent about what I said?"

    Well, you wrote: "Foyles grab me afterwards to sign a pile of copies of my novel and beg me to get ...". I do not think they "grabbed" or "begged" you. They just asked you, self serving person.

    Still, you are to reply to Tony's main point: you do not have a single imagination for Palestinian's situation.


  11. Great post, Tony, and I pity that Carol, She must be thinking she fell into a meat grinder.

    I think regarding the boycott strengthening the right, there is another point to be made. By its nature, the cultural boycott, and that sets it apart from the economic boycott, targets institutions that draw both their cadres and their constituencies from the wealthiest/highest status parts of Israeli society. It is false, and shows the muddling role of the Zionist "left," to think about the upper class of a society as its "progressive" part. That aspect of the cultural boycott should always be stressed, as in fact the cultural institutions the boycott targets are not popular in Israel, where they are perceived, confusingly, as both elitist and unpatriotic. The cultural boycott has therefore the potential to weaken the Israeli right by undermining the consistency of its analytic grid.

  12. "...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 would differ with you on this. Israel has used torture since it's inception. And I would think that Tony would know about the thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese imprisoned without charge and held for decades. To say what Syria has done is 'far worse' is a stretch-bigtime..


  13. I have never disputed Israel's use of torture and agree that it has been there from the beginning. However there are degrees of torture even. That Israel uses torture systematically is also not disputed but the degree of suffering and harm in Syria is undoubtedly higher. We boycott Israel because it is the pillar of reaction and imperialism in the Middle East not because its human rights record is the worst.

    The same was true of South Africa under Apartheid which also pointed to the human rights record of surrounding Black African states. This too was irrelevant. I'm not aware of Israel castrating 13 year old boys or extracting finger nails or some of the other delightful and charming practices of Syrian and Egyptian torturers.

    Israel has certain, albeit limited, democratic rights even for Palestinians, despite the record of the courts. There have been cases such as Kadan where Israel's High Court has overturned things like the JNF policy of only selling to Jews. Of course the present government has neatly sidestepped this legislatively. But there is a constitutional and legal mechanism in Israel which doesn't operate in Syria, Saudi Arabia etc. precisely because the latter do not rest on any form of democratic legitimacy.

    Israel's government is elected by Israeli Jews and has created certain safeguards, a few of which trickle down to Arabs, especially in Israel. This doesn't mean that Israel isn't the source of oppression, with its US paymaster, in the Middle East simply that the Arab states surrounding it have no popular base and rest on communalism and coercion

    "...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 would differ with you on this. Israel has used torture since it's inception. And I would think that Tony would know about the thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese imprisoned without charge and held for decades. To say what Syria has done is 'far worse' is a stretch-bigtime..

  14. "She will be able to see some of the effects of American civilisation in those countries - Agent Orange, a million dead in Vietnam and another million in Cambodia/Laos. The beneficial byproducts of US hegemony and war."

    You ever been there you pretentious cock?

    You should, and see some of the effects of Cambodian civilisation. People are idiots everywhere, no one has a monopoly, although you're pushing the enveloper in that arena...

  15. I've blocked your other abusive post but let this one through. Try to think of another insult other than 'pretentious cock'.

    The effects of Agent Orange are well known, as are the destructive effects of US imperialism.

    Or did one have to visit the gas chambers to know they existed?


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