Against boycott and its rhetoric: a reply to Omar Barghouti

About the author
Samir El-youssef is a Palestinian writer and critic who was born in 1965 in Rashidia, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Since 1990 he has lived in London. Among his books is one co-written with the Israeli writer Etgar Keret, Gaza Blues: Different Stories (David Paul, 2004)

Omar Barghouti responds to Linda Grant’s argument against a cultural boycott of Israel by saying that she is “shifting the debate from issues of accountability, moral responsibility and legality into clichéd personal stories”. He goes on to state that his own call for a universal and institutional boycott of Israel aims to make that country comply with “international law and fundamental human rights” as the only way to reach “true peace based on justice”.

Barghouti’s line of argument and language raises severe doubts about both claims. First, because it is Barghouti himself (rather than Linda Grant) who seems to be “shifting the debate” by dictating that Israel alone of all states and groups in the middle east (he doesn’t mention any others) must be held accountable and responsible, legally and morally, for its actions.

Second, because Barghouti presents his case for “fundamental human rights” and “true peace” in a tone of bombast. His article is full of questionable assumptions, biased assertions, reductive and dismissive statements, condemnations and accusations against those who disagree with him. The language is reminiscent of Palestinian orators who used to urge us to keep fighting “the Zionist enemy” until the “liberation of every single inch of Palestine”.

As a Palestinian, born and brought up in a refugee camp in Lebanon at the time when the PLO was a dominant force in the country, I feel that the content and style of Barghouti’s article suggest that he has other concerns than peace on his mind.

Samir El-youssef is responding to an openDemocracy article by Omar Barghouti

The articles in this debate so far are:

Jacqueline Rose, “Nation as trauma, Zionism as question” (August 2005)

Linda Grant, “Boycotting Israel: a reply to Jacqueline Rose” (August 2005)

Omar Barghouti, “The morality of a cultural boycott of Israel” (September 2005)

A useful background analysis of campaigns for an academic boycott of Israel is:

Stephen Howe, “Boycotting Israel: the uses of history” (April 2005)

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Barghouti invokes defined, binding international laws and principles of human rights not to defend their universal application but solely to accuse Israel of defying them – a selective concern that will seem astonishing to anyone who knows the recent history of the middle east.

This is a category that seems not to include Omar Barghouti. He reduces the events of the twelve years since the Oslo agreements into a mere chasing of the “illusion of peace”, without making the slightest effort to explain the political factors and events behind the failure of the peace process. There is no mention, for example, of the wave of suicide bombings in 1994-96 explicitly aimed by the perpetrators themselves at burying this process; nor of the systemic corruption of the Palestinian Authority.

The misrepresentations and evasions continue. Linda Grant has – in ways shared by a small number of us, Palestinians and Israelis alike – tried to expand understanding and awareness of Israel and Palestine by introducing personal experiences usually excluded from oversimplified daily news coverage of and commentary on events. Barghouti dismisses such attempts as merely “clichéd personal stories”.

He condemns intellectual and artistic collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians as nothing but “providing Israel with a figleaf covering up Israel’s relentless colonisation of Palestinian land and its crimes against the Palestinian people”. (I didn’t realise that the late Edward Said, who collaborated with the Jewish composer Daniel Barenboim, a frequent visitor to Israel, was trying to provide Israel with a cover-up!)

Barghouti accuses Palestinians who have engaged with Israelis in intellectual debates and artistic partnerships of being “guilty of moral blindness and political shortsightedness” and “clinically delusional or dangerously deceptive.” Even more cheaply, he thinks they are bought by the “lure of project funding, prestige and personal gain”. (Perhaps if Barghouti had not been addressing the primarily western readers of openDemocracy he would have accused these Palestinian collaborators – in an endearing Palestinian tradition – of being traitors).

This is not the prose of an artist, but the rhetoric of fanatics and dictators. No wonder Barghouti finds it very easy to advocate that Israel must be universally and institutionally boycotted until it complies with “international law and universal human rights”; and that any communication between Palestinians and Israelis before such compliance “is strictly an exercise in asymmetrical negotiations between oppressor and oppressed.”

Omar Barghouti knows that Israel will resist any attempt to make her comply with such dictates, especially when it is clearly being singled out from all the countries surrounding it – which are not exactly known for their respect for human rights and international law. Indeed he must be aware of the fact that there are enough war addicts in Israel to accommodate him and make the continuation of violence and war inevitable.

The actual meaning of Barghouti’s “true peace based on justice” is that Israel must be punished, brought down to its knees, before a Palestinian is allowed to greet an Israeli in the street. Linda Grant is right: there is a better way than this.