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Ha’aretz: “With a little help from the outside”

By Gideon Levy, Ha’aretz. 4th June 2006

The laugh of fate: The state waging a broad international campaign for a boycott is simultaneously waging a parallel campaign, no less determined, against a boycott. A boycott that seriously harms the lives of millions of people is legitimate in its eyes because it is directed against those defined as its enemies, while a boycott that is liable to hurt its academic ivory tower is illegitimate in its eyes only because it is aimed against itself. This is a moral double standard. Why is the boycott campaign against the Palestinian Authority, including blocking essential economic aid and boycotting leaders elected in democratic and legal elections, a permissible measure in Israel’s eyes and the boycott of its universities is forbidden?

Israel cannot claim the boycott weapon is illegitimate. It makes extensive use of this weapon itself, and its victims are suffering under severe conditions of deprivation, from Rafah to Jenin. In the past, Israel called upon the world to boycott Yasser Arafat, and now it is calling for a boycott of the Hamas government – and via this government, all of the Palestinians in the territories. And Israel does not regard this as an ethical problem. Tens of thousands have not received their salaries for four months due to the boycott, but when there is a call to boycott Israeli universities, the boycott suddenly becomes an illegitimate weapon.

Those calling for a boycott of Israel are also tainted with a moral double standard. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) in Britain and the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario, which have both decided to boycott Israel, did not act similarly to protest their own countries’ war crimes and occupations – the British army in Iraq and the Canadian army in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the handful of human rights advocates and opponents of the occupation in Israel should thank these two organizations for the step they have taken, despite their flawed double standards.

It would have been preferable had the opponents of the occupation in Israel not needed the intervention of external groups to fight the occupation. It is not easy to call upon the world to boycott your own country. It would have been better had there been no need for Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, bold people of conscience who paid with their lives after standing in front of the destructive bulldozers in Rafah. These young foreigners did the dangerous and vital work that Israelis should have done.

The same is true for the few peace activists who still manage to roam the territories, to protest and offer assistance to the victims of the occupation in the framework of organizations like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) – which Israel fights – preventing its members from entering its borders. It would be better if Israelis mobilized to fight instead of them. But except for a few modest groups, there is no protest in Israel and no real mobilization. Thus, it only remains to hope for the world’s help.

The world can help save Israel from itself in limited ways. In a situation in which the governments of the West effectively support the continuation of the occupation, even if they declare their opposition to it, this role moves to civil organizations. When a group of American attorneys, including Jews, calls for a boycott of the Caterpillar company, whose bulldozers razed complete neighborhoods in Khan Yunis and Rafah, it should be thanked for this. The same applies to the boycott of the universities: When an association of British university lecturers boycotts Israeli colleagues who are not prepared to at least declare their opposition to the occupation, we should appreciate it. Each group in its field, and perhaps this will someday also include tourism officials, business people, artists and athletes. If all these boycott Israel, perhaps Israelis will begin to understand, albeit the hard way, that there is a price to pay for the occupation – a price in their pockets and in their status.

The occupation is not just the domain of the government, army and security organizations. Everything is tainted: institutions of justice and law, the physicians who remain silent while medical treatment is prevented in the territories, the teachers who do not protest against the closing of educational institutions and the prevention of free movement of their peers, the journalists who do not report, the writers and artists who remain mum, the architects and engineers who lend a hand to the occupation’s enterprises – the settlements and the fence, the barriers and bypass roads and also the university lecturers, who do nothing for their imprisoned colleagues in the territories, but conduct special study programs for the security forces. If all these boycotted the occupation, there would be no need for an international boycott.

The world sees a great and ongoing injustice. Should it remain silent? It is not, of course, the only injustice in the world. Nor is it the most terrible. But does this make it any less necessary to act against it?

It is easy to exempt ourselves from our moral responsibility and attribute, as usual, any criticism to anti-Semitism. There may indeed be some elements of anti-Semitism among those calling for the boycott. But also among them are groups and individuals, including quite a few Jews, for whom Israel is close to their hearts. They want a just Israel. They see an Israel that occupies and is clearly unjust, and they believe they should do something. We should thank them for this from the bottom of our hearts.