Is the purpose of the calls for boycotts against Israel and its citizens because not a concern for the human rights or welfare of Palestinians, or actually a call ultimately to eliminate the state of Israel? If there were a real concern for human rights for the Palestinians, why are there not calls for a free Palestinian press, or for the release of journalists from Palestinian prisons, or for an end to the corruption in the Palestinian leadership?
Instead, these calls for boycott look suspiciously like a racist response to the existence of a Jewish state -- as if most of its citizens were wearing a yellow Star-of-David in Nazi-like fashion, and deserved to be punished or eliminated. Even Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, well-known critics of Israel and pro-Palestinian activists, have characterized the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel as "hypocritical," and run by individuals who falsely claim to represent the Palestinian people.
Whether the calls for boycott are the product of leftist anti-nationalist posturing, antisemitism, or simple ignorance, is a matter of judgment. In their disingenuousness nature they are simplistic responses to complex, unresolved problems that ignore the distinctions between diverse kinds of activities and issues, such as the different territories and populations, or how "appropriately" to defend oneself in the face of continued aggression. If the advocates for boycott do wish for peace, what they are proposing is actually counterproductive: they create an atmosphere in which calls for boycott have been, and are, an obstacle to the start of negotiations between the parties, and in which adversarial positions only become hardened even further as threats are seen to increase. There seems to be a cognitive dissonance, an inability among the boycotters, to distinguish between facts and the spun perception of them; or perhaps there is an indifference to facts, or perhaps there is a reluctance to place any facts at all in the context of the real, ongoing relationship between the disputing parties.
Boycotts of Jews and Jewish interests by Arab groups go back almost a hundred years, and have become more prominent with the declaration in December, 1945, of the newly formed Arab League Council of 23 countries. The declaration stated that, "Jewish products and manufactured goods shall be considered undesirable to the Arab countries." Hypocrisy was present from the start. The Arab states were less interested in helping Palestinian Arabs than in preventing Jewish products from entering their own countries and competing with them.
This boycott, administered by the Central Boycott Office in Damascus, attempted to isolate Israel economically as well as diplomatically, and did administer some temporary harm to the economy of Israel after the state was established in 1948. In addition to the Arab states, some non-Arab businesses, among them Pepsi, McDonald's and most Japanese car companies, abided by the boycott, but it was more honored in the breach than in the observance.
Since the 1980s a number of Arab states, starting with Egypt, and with the exception of Syria, have abandoned the boycott, wholly or in part, unable to ignore the new world of globalization, international trade, and binding international trade agreements, particularly that of the World Trade Organization. As a result, Arab countries, both through legal channels and clandestinely through third parties, have been trading with Israeli companies in a considerable fashion, including in irrigation and security systems, and high-tech components, and have accepted Israeli investment.
The boycott is still technically in force by Arab countries, though often bypassed, ineffective and negligible. Its impact now is less in economic affairs than in becoming a major polemical weapon in the hands of those non-Arabs who are critical of ,or want to condemn, Israel -- purportedly because of their opposition of Israeli settlements and their unwillingness to believe that, to the adversaries of Israel, it is regarded as one big settlement.
People can understand the politically motivated logic of Arabs, inside Israel as well as outside, calling for a ban on products made in Israeli settlements, including Ahava Dead Sea health products, Beigel and Beigel pretzels, Super Drink soft drinks, Oppenheimer chocolates, fruits, vegetables, computers, and many other products. It is an illustration of democracy in Israel --- and revealing about those who do not wish Israel well -- that a major advocate of the boycott is Ahmad Tibi, the Arab-Israeli deputy speaker of the Knesset.
Unmentioned is that the boycott called for by the Palestinian Authority is a violation of the April 29, 1994 Paris Agreement between Israel and the PLO which expresses respect of "each other's economic interests," and recognizes "the need to create a better economic environment for their people's and individuals." A further fallacy in the Palestinian logic is not only that the boycott is a violation of signed agreements, but also that, in a country the size of Vancouver Island or New Jersey, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the economy of the settlements from that of Israel as a whole.
What is surprising is the acceptance of this hostile strategy by non-Arabs, particularly citizens of Britain and other European countries. The campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) began in July 2005 by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), arguing that they support the Palestinian cause because Israel was not complying with international law and universal principles of human rights -- regardless, of course, of whether they themselves were or not.
The campaign has led to various kinds of actions: in the academic area, in the economy, in mainstream Churches, in the media, in cultural activity, and by non-governmental organizations. In the full irony of the camel never seeing his hump, and contrary to self-proclaimed liberal ideas of free speech and opposition to censorship, academic and cultural groups have expressed their support. The annual Israeli Apartheid Week in the United States and Europe has led to demonstrations on university campuses in which anti-Israeli advocates have prevented the expression of dissent, and has also stimulated antisemitic demonstrations.
A few examples of boycott actions suffice to illustrate the anti-Israeli malice. The British Association of University Teachers (AUT) Council voted in April 2005 for different reasons to boycott two Israeli universities, Haifa and Bar-Ilan; under pressure from members supporting academic freedom, the boycott was cancelled. However, the British National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) in 2006 called for a boycott of Israeli academics and universities; and in 2009, a new group, the British academic union (UCU), passed a resolution to the same effect.
Moty Cristal, a well-known Israel expert on negotiation theory and mediation was disinvited from the conference on conflict resolution held in Britain in 2012 and arranged by the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust because of the objection by the Unison trade union, a constant and open critic of Israel. Further, two Israeli scholars were dismissed from editorial boards of scientific journals published in Manchester by the Arab editor.
Economic businesses have entered the picture. In April 2012 the British Co-operative Group, the fifth largest supermarket group in Britain, said it would no longer do business with any supplier of produce from Israeli settlements. It is probably the first major supermarket group in Europe to implement such a boycott. Its customers will miss the Arava export growers, Mehadrin, Agrexco, and Adafresh collective exports of fruits and vegetables. Paradoxically, these companies have employed Arab workers in the fields and packing-houses. Moreover, Histadrut, the Israel trade union, has had good relations with PGFTU, the Palestinian counterpart for Palestinian workers.
Most surprising has been the activity of mainstream Churches, and by individuals in the cultural and entertainment sections of society. The latter are hardly likely to be sophisticated analysts of Middle Eastern affairs, yet well known musicians, Elvis Costello, The Pixies, Cassandra Wilson, Gil Scott Heron, performers including Emma Thompson and Mark Rylands, and filmmakers Ken Loach and Jean-Luc Godard have expressed support for a boycott, or refused to visit Israel. This attitude is more likely to result from fear, intimidation, misplaced self-righteousness or from a desire to be seen as politically correct among their peers, than from any political or moral conviction. A group of anti-Israeli activists in 2009 tried to stop the Toronto Film Festival from featuring Israeli films, and the films of Steven Spielberg have been banned in 14 Arab countries because he had made a $1 million donation to Israel in 2006.
Recent studies by psychologists and neuroscientists studying the causes of the unwillingness of individuals to deny reality or to question either the situation at which they are looking or their own behavior, suggest that advocates of boycotts against Israel seem to be prevented by their pre-existing beliefs -- whether anti-Israeli or antisemitic attitudes -- from appreciating the the context in which facts can be understood. If they truly wanted to help the Palestinians, their time and energy would be better spent in encouraging Arab states and Palestinians to demand better governance from their leaders, and possibly even to enter into negotiations to normalize political and trade relations with Israel. The argument that the boycott should remain in place until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved is the exact opposite of the path to either a settlement or to peace.
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under Attack by the International Community.