Boycotting Israel: a reply to Linda Grant

Jacqueline Rose
4 September 2005

Linda Grant takes issue with my call for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel – a small part of a long interview addressing a wide range of important intellectual and political issues surrounding the nature of Zionism and the condition of Israel.

The personalised nature of her reply includes remarks which do not merit a response: her imputing to me a desire for “cultural gagging” or “instrumentalising” or “controlling” writers for my own political ends; her suggestion that I might be, or even wish to be, in charge of such a policy; that I admire a writer like David Grossman only when he agrees with me, as if engaged disagreement could not be part of admiration; and that I would support dialogue with writers selected on the basis of their ethnicity or race. I also note the dismissive reference to the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

The context for this debate is two earlier openDemocracy articles:

Jacqueline Rose, “Nation as trauma, Zionism as question”

Linda Grant, “Boycotting Israel: a reply to Jacqueline Rose”

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Leaving these remarks aside, I would make four points.

First, Israel receives no international sanction for the illegal occupation of Palestine and the violation of international law in the territories. Indeed the nation receives huge amounts of international aid, benefiting from a larger amount of financial support from the United States than any nation in the world, with the possible exception of Egypt. On 3 October 2000 – after the outbreak of the second intifada on September 30, when Israel responded to stone-throwing Palestinians by attacking civilian targets with US helicopters – President Clinton made the biggest deal for a decade to send military helicopters and spare parts to Israel.

Second, no effective critique of these Israeli violations or of US support for them can be expected from the British government. Indeed, Tony Blair endorsed George W Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon in March 2004 which supported the annexation of key West Bank settlements to Israel – thus reversing thirty-seven years of US policy. Despite the pullout from Gaza, there is no realistic prospect of viable Palestinian statehood without international pressure being exerted on Israel.

Third, in focusing on the issues surrounding a cultural boycott Linda Grant does not refer to the wholesale destruction of the civilian and cultural infrastructure of the Palestinians by the Israeli army (for example, of the Khalil Sakakini cultural centre in Ramallah in April 2002, since rebuilt), nor of the dire effects of the occupation on Palestinian educational and academic freedom at all levels.

In this context to call for a boycott – academic, cultural, or both – is indeed (on this much we agree) a mark of despair. I should have stated in my openDemocracy interview, as I have elsewhere, that I was a reluctant supporter of the Association of University Teachers’ boycott in Britain, for two reasons: because it seemed inconsistently and somewhat randomly applied, and because I too have the desire to keep open paths to dialogue wherever possible. But imperfect as it was, I welcomed the attempt by academics to do something on the grounds that, at the level of international politics, nothing is being done.

Jacqueline Rose is the author of The Question of Zion (Princeton, 2005)

Linda Grant’s next book is The People on the Street: a writer’s view of Israel (Virago, 2006)

Fourth, although I think we should be cautious about any unqualified equation of Israel’s policies with apartheid South Africa, the experience of the boycott in the latter case has some lessons. It is worth remembering that the supporters of United Nations general assembly resolution 2396 (passed in December 1968) calling for a cultural boycott of South Africa were similarly accused of supporting censorship, of endangering academic freedom, cutting off the black population from much-needed contacts with the west, and alienating the whites.

None of these objections were completely wrong, anymore than are the objections to boycott in relation to Israel. But the boycott against the apartheid regime endured, and it is also worth remembering that – together with the dialogue which flourished with the country’s artists and writers at the same time – it helped bring the regime to its end and lay the foundations for an inclusive democracy.

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