Why we shouldn’t boycott Israel

Samir El-Youssef, writing in this week’s Jewish Chronicle, on why John Berger, Brian Eno etc, are wrong to call for a cultural boycott of Israel. A Palestinian writer, published in a Jewish newspaper – sometimes there are reasons to hope.

A senseless cultural boycott
By Samir El-Youssef
Open forum: Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef says any ban on Israeli writers and artists will be self-defeating

The call — made recently by John Berger and others — for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel amounts to a mere show of sentimentality and ignorance. It is intended to help Palestinians under Israeli occupation, but it tends to view them as a hopelessly passive society. Similarly, it tends to reduce the Israeli state and community into a homogeneous entity whose policies are collectively willed and carried out.

As for the idea that what has been taking place in Palestine/Israel is a simple matter of victimised Palestinians struggling to free themselves from Israeli victimisers, this is a preposterously reductionist view that could never help promote peace and justice.

Since the Oslo Accords, both societies have been marked by contradictions and divisions. From the assassination of former Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin to the recent scandalous factions fighting in Gaza, each side has experienced internal strife — over many issues, but particularly over the proper agenda for dealing with the other side. On both sides, powerful constituencies believe that there is no other option but the continuation of war and violence; but there are others, albeit with varying degrees of sincerity and commitment, who have been working towards a peaceful settlement.

Many Israeli writers, artists and scholars have, in various ways, supported negotiations and peace. Some have bravely embraced the Palestinian right of self-determination and statehood — and been branded “bleeding hearts” and “Arab lovers”.

To boycott such individuals would certainly not force the Israeli government to loosen its grip on the Palestinians. The Israeli government is not in the habit of listening to “bleeding hearts” and “Arab lovers”. Nor would it help Palestinians to face up to the reality of their internal conflicts. If anything, it would only weaken a constituency which, more than any other in Israel, has been committed to the cause of peaceful co-existence.

Instead of childish shows of solidarity with the Palestinians, those calling for a boycott should put their energies into positive actions. They should spare no opportunity of bringing Palestinians and Israelis together, at least for the purpose of arriving at an honest understanding of why the agenda for peace has failed to produce.

Writers and artists are not decision-makers, nor do they have direct influence on their official representatives, but they can do what no politician can effectively do. Through open-hearted dialogues and intellectual collaboration, they can understand the anxieties and ambitions of the other side and convey them to their respective communities.

After all, when things go up in flames, which they often do in our blessed corner of the world, meetings between writers and scholars of the two communities might be the only line of communication — and hope. Let us not forget that it was two Israeli scholars who initiated what became known as the Oslo Accords. Let us, therefore, reject any call to kill that communication and hope.

Samir El-Youssef is a Palestinian novelist and commentator. He was born in Rashidia, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, and now lives in London. His new novel, “The Illusion of Return,” is to be published by Halban on January 11