Cultural Boycott — some reflections

A week ago, I started my cultural boycott of Israel, in direct response to, but not caused only by, the events surrounding the murders (or war crimes) on the Freedom Flotilla. These are some reflections on the boycott itself and on the reactions it has caused.

What is a cultural boycott, and is it fair?

I consider my blockade as part of a cultural boycott of the same kind as that against South Africa in the 80s. As such it is a gesture which some people will feel is hurting them unjustly.

On an individual level, that is entirely true: why should all the good-hearted, friendly citizens of Israel, those who have never voted for Netanyahu and who are against the blockade of Gaza and feel sorry for the citizens of Gaza – why should they be punished for the transgressions of their Government and the IDF?

But this misses the fundamental character of a cultural boycott: Unlike trade embargos or disinvestment it is not meant to hurt the economy, or to pressurize or punish individuals through the means of market economy (“we have something you need, but we won’t give it to you”). Rather, it is a symbolic gesture, aimed to send a signal: “judging by your behaviour, as a group, by watching the actions of the people you are represented by, we can’t regard you as decent people. We can do without that contact. It’s up to you to give us a reason to want talk with you.”

This is the perspective in which I see the boycott: as an explicit act of non-communication. The way you let yourselves be represented as a collective (and, I must add, present and re-present yourselves, again and again) I don’t want to talk with you, just as I didn’t want to help the schoolyard bully with his homework, even when he hadn’t done anything to me directly.

It has been said that a boycott of this kind is based on a fundamental trust in the people one wants to reach and influence. The comparison with South Africa is illustrative: the apartheid rulers were – or wanted to be – an integrated part of international society, and they wanted to be seen as decent people, by themselves and others. That’s why the boycott worked.

As far as I can tell, the same can be said about the people of Israel: they want to be met as decent people. I hope that’s true.

Reactions from Israelis

So far, I’ve received lots of emails from Israeli citizens in response to the boycott. It has been a depressing read.

There are two trends in these mails.

First, there is the hoard of mails with the main or – usually – only message: “go fuck with dogs you mother faker”, “you are a pig and a dog”, “your children will be sick”, “ISRAELRAPEDYOURASS”, “Go to the hell, idiot!!!”, “Good day to you, Adolf”, “bloody antichrist” (which I found oddly amusing, coming from Israel. Could have been a Christian Israeli, of course), and “you nazi pig. we know where you live”. These are exact quotations, and just a small selection

A large portion of them also seem to know exactly how much – or should I say: how little – I know about the true situation, that I only know what I’ve seen on CNN and other brainwashed media.

Quite a few tell me – openly or indirectly – that the reactions against Israel in general and the boycott in specific are anti-semitic, that the boycott is a hostile assault or even an act of violence.

Apart from that, I’ve received exactly one mail from an Israeli who supports the boycott, and exactly one blog comment from an Israeli who disagrees strongly withe me but still supports the boycott. Other than those two, not a single person so far has in any way acknowledged that Israel has done anything that is worth reacting to (at least without [qua|nul]lifying it with one of the two continuations: “…but we were right!”, or “…but others are just as bad.”).

Secondly, almost without exception, every single mail I have received has offered to educate me about the Truth, taking for granted that I only know what the pro-Palestinian media have fed me and the rest of the world, and that not a word of it is true.

This extreme focus on One Single, Indivisible and Indisputable Truth is so universal in the pool of messages that it looks like an obsession.

If there is only room for one Truth of this kind in one’s world, it must be difficult to accept any statement which conflicts with the truth one has accepted. Hence the notions that “We are Right, everyone else is Wrong”, and, consequently: “The whole world is against us”, that usually accompany the lessons in Truth (if not in these exact words).

This, and not the unbridled hatred that pours off of a lot of the mails, is the most depressing part of the reading experience. It’s so consistent that it’s scary: I’ve been met with hundreds of mouths lip-syncing different words to the same track. The intros vary from “get the facts right, you asshole” to “I can understand your anger, but let me tell you how it really is”, but the song is the same in mail after mail:

The ’so called humanitarian workers’ on the Freedom Flotilla were terrorists (which is proven by a picture showing one of them holding a knife) and Israel had the right to do what it did (forgetting that, no, according to international agreements, Israel did not have the right to do what it did: it was “an illegal act of war”); there is no need for humanitarian aid in Gaza (proven by a certain Gaza Restaurant Menu, by pictures of fruit stands in Gaza marketplaces, and by reference to how many trucks of goods Israel sends or lets through every day).

So what is truth, then? And what is a fact?

This is not the place to go into that whole question, neither the philosophical aspects nor the practical ones. (But let me mention that I’ve spent some time in my academic life discussing the question “If history is a construction (and it is hard to argue otherwise), why do facts matter?”, with the explicit goal of arguing that Holocaust denial is not only stupid and immoral, but also destructive, even for those of us who are fortunate not to have first- or second-hand knowledge of the events that are being denied.)

With remarkable consistency, the “Truth” that I’ve been offered is either of a propagandistic or rhetorical nature, or strongly open to interpretation, which a priori defies the notion of an undisputable Truth. Here are some recurring ways in which Truth is revealed:

Pictures.

A picture can lie more than a thousand words. The media know that, and so does every governmental propaganda machine in the world. What is not in the picture? What are the circumstances of the picture? Is it at all genuine? I once took two pictures of a lecture hall, one showing it to be near-empty, the other crammed with people. All it took was a different angle.

Experience.

“Have you ever been to Israel? Didn’t think so.” “Since you do not live in threat all your life, you do not deserve to speak out loud.”

If that’s your opinion, then so be it. I don’t see any reason in such a standpoint, and I choose to disregard it. As Rohan phrased it in one of the comments: “Would I have need to have been in Germany in 1938 to condemn Kristall night?”

Words.

A lot can be done with words – they are powerful tools. There is a huge difference between a peace activist and a so-called peace activist; this so-called peace activist may have donated to a so-called ’charity’ organization with ’alleged’ ties to Hamas, and is thus a muslim fundamentalist terrorist, and voilà: a flotilla of peace activists is transformed into an armada of terrorists. And what do terrorists carry on their ships, if not weapons and ill intentions?

All this is done with words, quite innocent little changes, a seed of suspicion sowed here (’alleged’, ’so-called’), a quick generalization there, and suddenly a ludicrous statement such as “The fact that only 9 Jihad activists [were killed] is proof to the IDF soldiers’ restraint”, acquires a shade of the reasonable (and to some, it parades as the Truth).

An example

I’m not going to go through the whole arsenal of rhetorics, but limit myself to the question of the legality of the Israeli interception, as an example.

  • What is the status of the conflict between Israel and Gaza/Hamas? Is it what the lawyers call an IAC (“International Armed Conflict”), or is it a NIAC (“Non-International Armed Conflict”)?
  • Does it matter for the the legality of the actions if it is an IAC or a NIAC?
  • Is Gaza occupied by Israel or not?
  • Is the blockade of Gaza legal or not?
  • Can a blockade, if legal, be enforced in international waters?
  • The general agreement among experts in international law is that the conflict is a NIAC, because Israel has never declared war on Gaza (To do that, it would have to recognize Gaza as a state, in which case the Geneva Convention would apply, which ironically would have sharpened the demands on how Israel treats both the civilian population of Gaza and the Palestinian prisoners, and improved the conditions for both).

    Furthermore, that this distinction matters, since the regulations in the various naval war agreements (none of which, as far as I’ve been able to check it, Israel have signed) about intercepting ships apply only to nations at war, engaged in an IAC.

    Furthermore, that Gaza is de facto occupied; this is not determined by the physical presence of soldiers, but by the actual control over the area and its inhabitants.

    Furthermore, that for a blockade to be legal, it must be determined as legal by the UN Security Council under Section 42. This is not the case: the blockade of Gaza is unilateral, undisclosed, and – as far as merchants have been able to infer from the goods that have been denied into the region – encompasses items (sage, vinegar, etc.) which under no circumstance can be considered as contraband, but which make the blockade serve as a collective punishment — explicitly regulated aginst in the various regulations. For ths and other reasons, the blockade has never been accepted by the UN.

    Lastly, the right to blockade does not extend to international waters, where any vessel can travel freely. Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador, sums it up concisely:

    Because the incident took place on the high seas does not mean however that international law is the only applicable law. The Law of the Sea is quite plain that, when an incident takes place on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody’s territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.

    There are therefore two clear legal possibilities.

    Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime.

    Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorised Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.

    Now, it is possible to come to the opposite conclusion and construe the blockade of Gaza as a legal act of warfare, to cut-and-paste from different naval war agreements (none of which Israel has signed) to legitimize the interception and the use of violence, etc.

    None of the versions are the Truth. “Fact” is simply not a relevant term in this matter. Interpretation is not just a possibility but a necessity.

    Interpretation is not about twisting and turning the truth, corrupting facts; it’s about exposing your own facts to those of other people. I.e. to interact with other interpretations.

    If you think the sun is yellow, but the whole world says: “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken,” you have three options: you can say “The whole world has gone mad!”, you can say “The whole world is lying!”, or you can ask yourself: “What do all those people mean by that?” and then ask the world the same question. In either case, it would be wise not to put too much hope in communication with that other world if you keep insisting that the sun is yellow, even though that’s how it looks to you.

    Besides, the world is not denying that the sun is yellow. The Gaza/Flotilla issue is not a matter of denying the obvious. It’s about different interpretations, against different standards.

    Judging and communicating

    I don’t suggest that every citizen of Israel should roll over and play dead and surrender all their power to any bypasser, or some kind of pseudo-leftist, emotional crap like that – I’m fully aware that that’s not how things work.

    But it would pay off to be aware that the twisting of truth (presented as The Truth) and bending of rules that the international community to an increasing degree perceives in the leaders you (and I’m speaking to the Israelis now) are represented by, makes you all, as a group, come through as a bunch of liars, to put it bluntly.

    But even more importantly, the outside world sees you making decisions of a kind which can only be legitimized by a standard of ethics and morals which is predetermined: which starts out with a fixed scale of valuation of people: that some people by default have greater rights than others. That’s a standard which is detestable to me, whether it is grounded in a racist ideology, such as the German nazis, or in a self-imposed division into Us and Them, Good and Evil, True and False, as I perceive behind the automatic accusations of antisemitism/-zionism that erupt every time anyone criticizes anything Israel does.

    Dylanchords is all about communication, about the empowering potential of music and language, the means that are available to all human beings of empowerment and growth through cultural interaction. Music and poetry are stylized ways of handling the patterns of tension and relief, of bodily reactions and physical encounter. Through these means, we can extend the possible world, for ourselves and for others.

    Now, this is serious business: exposing other people to a transformed world calls for righteousness and honesty from both the giver (in my case: Dylan and, concerning the website, myself) and the receiver (myself, the visitors). There is an individual responsibility in there, of safeguarding and cultivating that will to empower the other and thereby gain in strength oneself.

    I know of few regimes since apartheid South Africa that have combined physical power with a dishonest use of language to the degree that Israel’s rulers do and have done for as long as I can remember. When I have to put up with their patent lies (the ’Gaza Restaurant Menu’, for example), their immoral rhetoric and their consistent abuse of logical fallacies, in their official statements, in news reports, in blog commentaries, in private mails, etc., they are distorting the language I use and through which I perceive the world. That’s a game I don’t want to play in: I don’t want to communicate with people who – either directly or indirectly through the people they have elected and, judging from the responses so far, wholeheartedly support – are polluting and corrupting language.

    Friendly advice

    Many have asked me: “Well, Dr. Adolf Smartass, tell us, what should we do then?” I sense a sarcastic undertone the way the question is formulated, but nevertheless:

    1. Stop looking at the world in black and white.
    2. Stop equating truth with right.
    3. Stop arguing for the lesser evil. Remember that, as Hannah Arendt said, “those who choose the lesser evil very quickly forget that they choose evil.”
    4. Stop assuming that anyone who disagrees with you is against you.
    5. Stop calling anyone who disagrees with you an “antisemite”, “pig”, “dog”, “nazi”, “Hitler”, “Goebbels”, etc. If the “Antisemite” card is played every time someone criticizes something Israel has done, it looses its force, also in the situations when it should be played. Yes, there are antisemitic traits in some of the Hamas documents, and there is a lot of it in populist propaganda in muslim countries and elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean that everything the Hamas says is antisemitic, nor that every criticism of Israel by definition is a cancerous outgrowth of an antisemitic ideology.
    6. You have a great cultural heritage. Don’t waste that on self-pity and anger.

    We are what we do, and should be judged by that. It’s not the other way around: that we can do according to what we are judged – by ourselves or others – to be.

    *

    Note: The comments to this post will be moderated. I will not let through posts with the sole or main purpose (1) to tell me that I’m an idiot (no need to restate the obvious), or (2) to duplicate any of the “facts” in the comments to the previous post.


    59 thoughts on “Cultural Boycott — some reflections

    1. Thanks for a wonderful site and a couragous and ultimately correct decision at that. Keep on the good work!

      Best,
      Ludvig

    2. I think that the situation of Israel and Gaza is particularly complex. To start with, before we can even begin to address the practical issues on either side, I feel that we first have to acknowledge the extreme political sensitivities – and overreactions – on both sides. After that, though, it doesn’t become any less political. Then, backers of the recent actions of the state government of Israel may be viewed as making a veritable political landmine out of the issues.

      As far as I’ve understood of it, the state of Israel refuses to acknowledge Gaza as a sovereign state. That’s one side to it.

      Others facets of it would involve attacks of assault and of stated retribution, from either side, to the other – attacks in which, it would seem, civilians are *intended* to be the primary casualties, whoever the attacker would be.

      Personally, I wish Gaza had a Ghandi. Maybe that’s just me.

    3. Hi Eylof, I entierly agree with the need to boycott Israel. I know mant Israeli who are ashamed of there fanatic and stupid government and know only to well the only possible outcome…. MORE CONFLICT. A boycott must begin with individual act’s, what we buy, is a way we can all influence our world.
      The ANC in South African called for a comecial boycott, knowing that It was black South Africans who would suffer first. But it had to be done!
      Thanks for a great site

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