Should You Boycott Me?
My first blog post for Open Zion caused a stir for this simple reason: I’m a settler, and Peter Beinart decided to publish my words anyway.
On Twitter, Beinart was roundly accused of contradiction: He ‘calls for a boycott on settlement products,’ yet he’s willing to ‘publish, [and] promote authors who are active in the settlement enterprise.’ By way of response, let me say a few quick words about boycotts.
There are four forms of boycott: (1) academic; (2) economic; (3) cultural; and (4) boycotts that only target the settlements.
Academic boycotts are the easiest to dismiss. A founding principle of academia is that all knowledge is valuable. I read the works of Gottlieb Frege despite his anti-Semitism. If a homophobe discovered a life-changing super-computer, we’d utilize, publish and disseminate his research. Research ethics should be respected, but if they were to be violated, we’d still utilize the findings: imagine the cure to cancer discovered via torture. Wisdom is independently valuable; it generally shouldn’t have to answer to other values.
As for economic boycotts, it’s a consumer’s right to support whomever she wants. But economic boycotts have their moral and pragmatic risks. Pragmatically, they’re likely to backfire. The fact that Israel has attracted the exclusive zeal of these boycotters only strengthens the Israeli right, who love the rhetoric of ‘Israel alone against an anti-Semitic world’—a rhetoric that leads to more and more regressive policies.
In the unlikely scenario that enough people were to boycott Israel so as to actually imperil its economy, we might begin to see radical changes in Israeli policy, but there would be an ethical price to pay. This scenario would constitute collective punishment, causing a whole population to languish in poverty until they elect a suitable government. Perhaps we should sometimes adopt such policies as the lesser of two evils. Iranian poverty, caused by economic sanctions, might be better than World War III, for instance. Nevertheless, the point remains: economic boycotts are unlikely to change Israeli policy; they are in fact likely to backfire; and, if they do work, they could only do so on the back of collective punishment.
Now to cultural boycotts: It can hardly be called collective punishment if Elvis Costello refuses to perform in Israel. Perhaps it’s an ethical and effective way of shaking up a population, as they find out that their heroes are not willing to visit their country. And perhaps Elvis Costello fans are much more likely to vote for left-wing parties as a result. But I doubt it. There is a general, if loose, correlation between appreciation for contemporary art and progressive politics. Perhaps Elvis Costello and other artists who boycott Israel only end up ‘harming’ their already progressive fans. Right-wing politicians and their supporters are very unlikely to be moved by cultural boycotts. Furthermore, a vibrant art scene is likely to produce more progressive thinking. So, cultural engagement is a better route to reforming a country than cultural boycotts.
Indeed, the Israelis who follow Arabic music are the sort who are more likely to sue for peace. These sorts of cultural exchanges should be encouraged. There’s also an ethical point to be made here. Each culture has something to share with the entire world. To limit cultural engagement at certain political borders is to dilute the purity of art.
I’ve written about settler-specific boycotts elsewhere. In a nutshell, my point is this. I’m a settler. I’m not a racist. I’m not a bigot. I’m in favor of the two-state solution. I live in a settlement routinely ceded to Israel by Palestinian negotiators, as do the majority of settlers.
Many settlers could be coaxed into voting more progressively if they could be convinced that their property will not be taken from them and that their security will be protected. These two things are consistent with Obama’s formula: 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. Many settlers could be co-opted into the peace camp and become part of the solution rather than the problem. Alienating that population isn’t, in my opinion, the best way to agitate for change on the ground.
Unfortunately, most boycotters won’t be moved by these arguments. They’ve fallen into a sort of groupthink, very often underpinned by an almost unconscious anti-Semitism. After all, they rarely boycott any other country. Still, my message to them is this: My settler identity does not—as you and Beinart’s accuser seem to suggest—justify your desire to silence me.
So don’t boycott me. I can be part of the solution—if you’ll let me.