Re: Re: Disarm Israel
Reply to Ilan Pappe's Resoc Article
Thank you for your response and I, this time, apologize that it took so long to answer.
Your disagreement with me on the point that we have partners on the Left in Israel who are fighting the very oppressions you speak of, seems to be a disagreement in degree, not in form. That is, you seem to be saying that the Israeli Left is too small, too insignificant to defend – a “drop in the water of consensus” as you put it. Perhaps if the Left were bigger, more committed, more inspiring, we would think differently. Perhaps if there were a million protesters against the war, as you put it, things would be different. Since that isn’t the case, we should cut our losses, quarantine the whole mess, and boycott until they are tired of being in time-out. I understand the logic.
But perhaps the more honest solution is to actually build the Left there. You say that there is no time for this, and in a sense I agree. There is no time to build a Left anywhere in the world, and everywhere in the world the Left is small, and this building should have taken place more properly a century ago, but this is the situation and this is our task. Without this, regardless of sanctions or boycotts or wars or any other means of settling disputes, there will never be a just, egalitarian society anywhere, and definitely not in a country as torn apart ethnically, religiously, ideologically, economically, and in every other way as Israel is. It strikes me that Israeli activists and their partners around the world should be doing this, developing a more constructive form of struggle than boycotting academics and artists.
A reformist tactic like a boycott can be part of a revolutionary strategy only if it leaves space for steps after, if it strengthens rather than weakens our position to demand more, if it calls forth the imagination necessary for further struggle, if it empowers the revolutionaries. A tactic (like a boycott) that punishes everyone rather than a tactic that empowers the Left, is part of a dead-end strategy. It cannot possibly have anything to say about the future. It is a non-discursive, silent form of communication. It can’t lead very far. What does a boycott have to say about how the conflict should end? What does a boycott have to say about how Israel should look? What does it have to say about the way people treat each other, about the way to maintain autonomous cultures but live in solidarity? What does it have to say about the future? Nothing. It doesn’t really say anything. It is a “No!” rather than a building block. It is silence, like a child who pushes another child because she has become so exasperated that she has lost her words. It is, ironically, the international Left’s version of the separation barrier. Just as Israel erects walls because it doesn’t know how to speak to Palestine, the boycotters are erecting their own walls.
All that being said, I should say, a boycott is certainly – and should remain – part of the arsenal of the international Left. It is one of many things we can do to groups that transgress the boundaries of human rights that we set. This should be part of an intricate strategy for progressive change. But of all things, a cultural boycott? What does Prime Minister Netanyahu care that some sociologists from Haifa University aren’t allowed to speak at a conference at Oxford? What do the racists like Avigdor Lieberman care that Leonard Cohen is not allowed to perform in Ramallah? How does this affect the policy-makers, the warlords, the class of people perpetuating violence and occupation? Maybe I am missing something, but it sounds crazy to consider that some sort of meaningful tactic, to expect something like that to change this Israeli state policy of aggression and occupation that has outlasted a dozen Lefts, wars, outpourings of grassroots resistance, and whatever else.
If you want to talk about a boycott, knowing that it is a less-than-best-case-scenario tactic, let’s at least make it a serious boycott. Make it a government boycott, a military boycott, an economic boycott on anything made by settlers, something with teeth, something with a direct connection to the occupation and Israeli racism. Why do you want to punish the artists and professors? Who will it help? As far as I can tell, it certainly doesn’t set Likud back, certainly doesn’t threaten the state, certainly doesn’t confront Israeli militarism. If anything, it only confirms AIPAC’s ranting and raving that the world is against the Jews, as insane as those ravings are. It certainly doesn’t find partners and allies in the socialist youth movements who are busy partnering with Palestinian youth movements. It certainly doesn’t breed more leftist academics and it silences the ones that exist. It certainly doesn’t do much to imagine what a shared society might look like. I can’t imagine what good it does.
Part of revolution is using the tools of the oppressor to undo the oppression. Perhaps it dirties our hands, but we have no other choice, because the status quo controls the resources. This has been the case throughout the Left’s entire history in one way or another. For this reason, I spent a year in Israel using Jewish agency money to teach in an Arab school in a village split by the ’67 border. I taught towards Palestinian self-determination, feminism, social revolution, ecology, and community activism. Perhaps my students will become revolutionaries. You want to boycott projects like that, and for what? And all the while, the governments of the countries that all these righteous academic boycotters live in funnel millions of dollars of military funding to Israel every year. Boycott them! Oppose the British government’s position on the conflict! Lobby Obama! Boycott Caterpillar and Boeing! These are boycotts I would support. Why guilt-trip the odd Israeli Arab filmmaker who somehow managed to get government funding for his movie? Why alienate the left wing professors of law at the University of Tel Aviv? If you want to boycott, because you have tired of dialogue and have given up on the masses of people to rise up, at least boycott the warmakers and not the filmmakers.
You wrote early in your letter that our main disagreement lies in our perspective on Zionism. While it is true that we disagree about the essence and potentials of Zionism, I actually don’t think it has anything to do with our disagreement on this issue. In fact, ironically, it strikes me that you particularly as an anti-Zionist should actually agree with my position even more than I do. If you are honest about wanting something better for the future, then you must have in your mind that soon – as soon as the occupation ends perhaps – and particularly if you get your way and there is one state for many peoples in Palestine – Arabs and Jews will have to learn to live together in a shared society. I fail to see how a boycott which coerces one side into merely not hurting the other (and nothing more) could possibly serve to progress these two sides towards actively sharing a society. I fail to understand how it accomplishes anything but exacerbating the resentment the sides have of one another. I fail to see how a boycott makes that society a more peaceful, more egalitarian society, how it brings us closer to Arabs and Jews living side by side autonomously and solidaristically all at once. I fail to see how anything but building a meaningful Left in Israel could achieve this.
I understand that you have given up on the Israeli Left. I don’t blame you. It has made a pitiful showing in the last few decades. But I wonder, even if we agree to a boycott, what else? Of course, that can’t be all, can it? In the end, even after a boycott, there will need to be a society, will there not? What will happen when the occupation ends, as it will one day? Will it be a cold war? An integrated society? A collection of culturally autonomous but solidaristic communities and nations? Will they live in a silent, coerced peace, having been burned by the international world and told not to be bad again? Or will it be a creative, egalitarian, vibrant, solidaristic piece? How can we possibly have that kind of peace, with justice, with equality, with cultural growth, if our only response to the conflict is the slap on the wrist of a boycott? Who will usher in that society if not the Left that you have given up on by supporting a cultural boycott? What will be next?
Thank you for your time in reading and responding. I appreciate our correspondence very much. I would remind you that you promised that if there are a million protesters against the occupation in Tel Aviv, you will stop calling for a boycott. Well then, friend, I’ll consider going back to build that movement if you come with me.