How to silence the boycotters

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

If proof were needed of the sheer folly of the campaign to launch an academic boycott of Israel, it came in two dollops last week. First, the armed takeover of Gaza by Hamas showed the true irrelevance of the boycott effort. Palestinians were shedding their brothers’ blood, their putative state broken in two and their dream of statehood set ever further back – and all the while a handful of British scholars delude themselves that their refusal of the odd invite from Tel Aviv University will help.

The second proof came in the list of signatories to the anti-boycott advertisements that appeared in national newspapers last week. Among the familiar and reliable names – the Robert Winstons and Ruth Deechs – were several that leapt out. Dr Keith Kahn-Harris and Prof David Newman, for example: both on the left and both firm critics of Israeli policy. Yet there they were, nestling alongside my upstairs neighbour on this page, Prof Geoffrey Alderman, who could never be mistaken, even by his enemies, for a leftist.

This is the genius of the boycott campaign: to have driven together those who would normally be bitterly divided by the question of Israel. What, from the boycotters’ own point of view, could have been more counter-productive? A smart pro-Palestinian campaign would peel away Zionist moderates from the hardliners, leaving the ultra-hawks isolated. That’s certainly what any undergraduate course in politics would teach.

The boycott has already had the opposite effect. Instead of encouraging mainstream Jewish critics of the Israeli occupation to speak out, it’s made them close ranks with those they would ordinarily oppose. A few years back a couple of very eminent Liberal Jewish rabbis attended a memorial ceremony for Deir Yassin. Now the chief executive of Liberal Judaism denounces the boycott as “antisemitic.” This is the boycott’s great achievement: to have triggered an outbreak of unity in defence of Israel. Those readers who have got used to spitting with rage when reading my own critiques of Israeli policy might note that I too have joined the anti-boycott chorus – forming a rare consensus with my fellow contributors to this slot.

Indeed, I admit to a flush of pride at the communal efforts mobilised to overturn the University and College Union vote: the websites, the meetings, the campus activism. Nor can I be the only one reassured by the news that Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz have joined forces to form a legal dream team, committed to using the law to block the boycotters’ every path.

And yet, I cannot help but feel that, for all our ingenuity, this is an unwinnable struggle. Not that we can’t overturn this boycott, or the ones proposed by journalists or doctors or artists: I’m sure that, through organisation and hard work, we can defeat them all. But we will be plugging gaps in a leaking ceiling: each time we stop one flow, another will burst forth somewhere else. We can hold back the flood for a while – but not forever.

The flood in question is the global desire to see the Palestinians get a state of their own, combined with global disapproval of Israel’s retention of the territory it won in 1967. We can come up with a thousand clever, nimble arguments – insisting that there’s no one to give the land to, that the Palestinians are so bent on Israel’s destruction they have forfeited the right to statehood – and all of these might buy us some time. They have bought us a few years already. But we cannot hold back the tide indefinitely.

Some will say that Israel’s enemies will never be satisfied until the country has disappeared completely – and for some hardcore anti-Zionists that is doubtless true. But we should think back to that most basic, undergraduate lesson in politics. It’s politics-for-beginners that Israel should try to separate its mild critics from its hardcore foes. A serious, sustained effort at peacemaking, opening with a statement that Israel is ready, in principle, to withdraw to the 1967 borders, subject to minor adjustments, would do just that. If progress came, only the die-hard, irreconcilable anti-Zionists would be left – suddenly reduced to an isolated fringe. (That is indeed what happened in the Oslo heyday of the mid-1990s.)

But if things continue as they are, we risk tainting the entire idea of a Jewish state with the reality of the day-to-day occupation. The average onlooker, watching the horrors on the TV news, grows susceptible to the message that this nightmare is the logical consequence of Israel’s very existence, that the only way to improve things is to shun Israel entirely.

So yes, we need to keep applying our wit and energy to overturning the boycotts, to plugging those leaks. But what a difference we could make if we dedicated even half that effort towards nudging Israel in the right direction – and to beating back the flood before it drowns us.