The Last Refuge
The timing of the mini-maelstrom over an opinion piece by Neve Gordon, who teaches politics and government at Be’er Sheva’s Ben-Gurion University, calling for a boycott of Israel, was somewhat grotesque. Hardly have the throats dried of those calling for his dismissal, for his citizenship to be revoked, for his expulsion and, if all else fails, his stoning, when another petition has surfaced on the Internet, this one calling for a boycott of Ikea. A bad article on the back page of a Swedish tabloid is enough to produce a call here for a consumer boycott to which thousands sign their names. Turkey has barely recovered from the boycott that our package tourers imposed on it because its prime minister had the gall to attack our president, and already we are cruising toward our next boycott target. It’s our right.
It’s a safe bet that most of the boycotters of Antalya and Ikea are the same people who want to tar-and-feather the Israeli professor who dared promulgate the use of the very same civic weapon. According to the Israelis who railed against Gordon, the imposition of a boycott is a legitimate, perhaps even effective, means of punishment that can be invoked against our enemies, real or imagined. Gordon, an Israeli patriot who served in the Paratroops and is raising his two children here, thinks that a 42-year-long criminal occupation should generate at least as much international protest as an article in a Swedish newspaper, and that this protest can and should be translated into concrete measures. The Israelis think that one scurrilous article is enough to warrant punishing everything Swedish, and that one comment by a prime minister is enough to do the same to everything Turkish. Gordon thinks the occupation is a sufficiently important motive to boycott everything Israeli.
Since the time of the ban imposed in the Jewish community by Rabbeinu Gershom at the turn of the first millennium, which applies to offenses of considerably less severity than mistreating 3.5 million people – namely, marrying more than one woman, divorcing a woman without her consent and reading private correspondence without the owner’s consent – the boycott has been a just and appropriate civil weapon. And since the boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the boycott has also been an effective weapon. Israel is demanding its invocation against Iran, America wants it imposed against North Korea and both of them are demanding it against the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, and worse, against all the residents of Gaza. Israel, and with it most of the international community, imposed a boycott on 1.5 million Gazans only because they did not vote for the right party in the democratic elections that the international community demanded.
A country that constantly demands boycott from the world and also imposes boycotts itself, cannot play the victim when the same weapon is turned against it. If the election of Hamas is cause for boycott, then occupation is a far more potent cause. The fact that Israel is living a lie – pretending that the occupation does not exist, that it is just, temporary and unavoidable – does not make the struggle against it any less legitimate. So let us admit the truth: The occupier deserves to be boycotted. As long as the Israelis pay no price for the occupation, the occupation will not end, and therefore the only way open to the opponents of the occupation is to take concrete means that will make the Israelis understand that the injustice they are perpetrating comes with a price tag.
Anyone who champions the struggle against the occupation is no less of a patriot than a soldier who shoots a bound Palestinian or a settler who plunders land and builds his house on it, in defiance of every law. They are giving Israel a far worse name than a lecturer who calls for a struggle against the occupation – just ask Israel’s critics. It is precisely the Gordons, those who fight from within, who are repairing slightly the horrific damage that has been done to Israel’s image in the past few years. They are proving to the world that despite everything Israel is not monolithic, that not all Israelis speak with the same voice, that not all Israelis are Liebermans or Kahanists, and that maybe Israel is, after all, a type of democracy with freedom of expression, at least for its Jewish citizens.
Gordon went one step further. Boycott is the next logical step, he believes, because all else has failed. Forty-two years of fruitless fighting from within and an occupation that is only growing stronger, dictate stepping up the struggle. We tried demonstrations but the masses did not come; we tried conferences but they led nowhere. All that’s left is to give in, to go on with the routine of our lives, like all the Israelis, to shut our eyes and hope for the best – or to intensify the struggle, in conjunction with the intensification of the occupation. The Israeli soldiers who shoot at civilian demonstrators in Bil’in or Na’alin, almost like in Iran, are perpetrating a far more illegitimate act against the state’s rule of law than those calling for an international boycott. But no one will urge the revocation of their citizenship.
Gordon chose not to follow the herd, unlike most of his cowardly colleagues or the nationalists. It is one’s right to think that an Israeli who does not boycott Israel does not have the right to call on others to take that step, or that the call for an external boycott is the last option of Israeli patriots who do not want to abandon the country or throw up their hands. There is, however, no place for the vicious attacks on Gordon. The height of ludicrousness was achieved by the President of Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Rivka Carmi. She was appalled by the article published by a member of her faculty, fearing it could affect the university’s donations from American Jews. Here, then, is a new criterion for good citizenship and morality: the harm it wreaks to our schnorring. It’s also a new gauge for academic and civic freedom of expression: If something miffs the donors from Beverly Hills or Miami Beach, then we must not speak it aloud. Quiet – people donating.
The reactions from official Israel, and from the street, have lately become more irritable and more aggressive. An article in a Swedish paper or in an American paper, a report by Breaking the Silence or Human Rights Watch, whatever does not conform to the official right-wing, militaristic, nationalist line, is reviled, delegitimized and subjected to an outpouring of hate. This is an encouraging sign. Only when Israel, at both the official and the popular level, begins to understand that something went awry here, that something is morally rotten, that maybe protest, documentation and exposure are justified, then what remains is the last weapon in the hands of the defenders, the weapon of unrestrained attack on the protesters and the documenters.
If Israel were sure it is right, it would not be so frightened and be so aggressive against everyone who objects to its official line. If we were convinced that the soldiers of Breaking the Silence are making up stories and that Gordon’s call for a boycott and his description of Israel as an apartheid state are unjust, we would not be so abusive toward them. Not only Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi, from Shas, but also Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who expressed "disgust," and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, who called for Gordon’s dismissal – two ministers who are supposed to be in charge of imparting education and values – were in the forefront of the assault against Gordon. It is not just a question of basic intolerance for different and even subversive opinions, whose expression is a fundamental value in every democracy. It is also a manifestation of edginess and aggressiveness that prove what Gordon and others like him want so much to show in Israel and abroad: that something very basic and very deep is flawed in the third kingdom of Israel.
GIDEON LEVY writes for Ha’aretz, where this piece originally appeared.