If you follow the news closely enough, you might have caught a small item recently about Meg Ryan canceling a scheduled appearance at a film festival in Jerusalem to protest Israeli policy. This was significant not because anyone should care what the nose-crinkling movie star thinks about the Mideast but precisely because no one does. Ryan, a conventional Hollywood Democrat, is a barometer of celebrity politics. That sort of sheeplike, liberal opinion once reflexively favored Israel. Now it’s dabbling in the repellant idea of shunning the entire country.
Support for the Israeli cultural boycott has been growing in surprising places lately. After the Gaza flotilla incident last month, rock bands, including the Pixies, canceled performances at a music festival in Tel Aviv. Elvis Costello announced in May that he was cancelling two upcoming performances to protest the treatment of Palestinians. On his Web site, Costello wrote, “[T]here are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.” Unlike Ryan, Costello is a thoughtful person whose views are worthy of respect. So how is he wrong? Why is a private embargo—which includes an academic boycott and the push for divestment on the anti-apartheid model—an unacceptable way for outsiders to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories and press for political change?
One argument—advanced by Alan Dershowitz and Anthony Julius—is that academic boycotts are intrinsically unacceptable because they violate the principles of free expression and the universality of science and learning. A parallel objection applies to cultural boycotts, which don’t just affect but directly target the most open-minded and forward-thinking members of a society. In the case of Israel, shunning writers like Amos Oz and David Grossman, who serve as national consciences, seems not only intrinsically vile but actively counterproductive from the point of view that opposes the Netanyahu government. On the other hand, it would be hard to justify a blanket rule that cultural and academic sectors are always off-limits. In authoritarian societies, cultural institutions tend to become ideological proxies—think of the National Ballet in Cuba or the East German gymnastics team. Carving out big loopholes merely ensures that sanctions will fail. There’s no blanket cultural exemption in American sanctions in place against Iran. Israel itself is calling for comprehensive international sanctions against Iran that would cover artists and intellectuals.
An even weaker case against the cultural boycott is that it’s unlikely to work. While it’s certainly true that cultural sanctions, on their own, are more inconveniences than lethal weapons, they can have a real impact. In South Africa, for example, many scholars argue that sports sanctions, generally classed as a form of cultural boycott, were an effective form of outside pressure. Banning racially discriminatory teams from the Olympics, and from international cricket and rugby competitions, took away something people really cared about. When it comes to Israel, it’s hard to predict what effect cultural and academic isolation—or bans on participation in sporting events—might have. Some in Israel take international rejection as an affirmation, concluding that amid a sea of hostility, it has no recourse other than self-sufficiency. On the other hand, Israel does care about world opinion, and opponents of the Netanyahu government might cite growing global opprobrium as an argument for a different course.
Perhaps boycotts should be off-limits as a tactic against democratic societies where other means of peaceful protest exist. But here, too, it’s impossible to defend a blanket rule. The immediate resort to sanctions when an elected government does something objectionable but reversible seems extreme and disproportionate. I’m thinking here of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s interdiction of official travel to Arizona because of its draconian immigration law or the European Union’s boycott of Austria after the neo-fascist Jorg Haider joined the government in 2000. But an elected democracy like the Milosevic regime in Serbia can oppress ethnic minorities or even commit genocide as well as an unelected one. And, indeed, one could argue that only in a democracy are the people fully responsible for the actions of their government, making a collective sanction more rather than less justified.
The stronger case against the cultural boycott of Israel is based on principles of consistency and proportionality—and on history. Supporters of boycotting Israel seldom focus on China, or Syria, or Zimbabwe, or other genuinely illegitimate regimes that violate human rights not in deviation from their own principles but systematically. This underscores their bad faith. Boycotters are not trying to send a specific message, such as “We object to your settlement policy in the West Bank” or “We think you need to be willing to give up more for peace.” What they’re saying instead is: “We consider your country so intrinsically reprehensible that we are gong to treat all of your citizens as pariahs.” Instead of warning that Israel risks becoming an apartheid society if it fails to make peace, boycotters have concluded that Israel already is an irredeemable apartheid society. Like the older Arab economic boycott of Israel, which dates back to the 1940s, the cultural boycott is a weapon designed not to bring peace but to undermine the country.
Because Israel is a refuge for persecuted Jews, this kind of existential challenge is hard to disassociate from anti-Semitism—even if people like Meg Ryan and Elvis Costello intend nothing of the kind. It is for this reason that unlike in South Africa, where the internal opposition supported sanctions, none but the most extreme voices in Israel are likely to come around to the idea that their country deserves to be boycotted, divested from, or punished with sanctions. When people are trying to murder you because of your religion, it is difficult to credit the bona fides of those who merely want to shun you because of your nationality.
That leaves the question of what opponents of Israeli policies can legitimately do. Given the unlikelihood of the U.S. Congress ever using military aid as leverage to pressure Israel—or allowing President Obama to do so—it makes sense to look for more discriminate ways to challenge the most objectionable Israeli policies. For instance, the high court of the European Union ruled earlier this year that goods manufactured in the West Bank don’t qualify for preferential treatment given to Israeli exports. In a similar vein, the New York Times recently delineated the way in which American supporters of the settlements claim hundreds of millions of dollars in tax deductions. When Elvis Costello takes on that scam, I’ll be right behind him.
A version of this article appears in this week’s Newsweek.