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Is a boycott of Israel inconsistent? Yes and No

A recurrent challenge in controversies over boycotting Israeli policy is consistency. But what is problematically inconsistent is not the singling out of Israel, but the charge of inconsistency itself.

‘Between the yes and the no, spirits fly from their matter, and heads from their bodies.’ – Ibn ’Arabi

This summer, a friend and I launched a statement, signed by philosophers and political theorists from around the world, backing ‘an immediate boycott of Israel: economic, cultural and academic’. This is a stance which has been publically adopted by practitioners of an increasing number of disciplines: our statement was closely preceded by a similar call signed by over one hundred Middle East scholars and librarians; and in the last few days, a further statement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions has been signed by more than seven hundred anthropologists.

My own reasons for taking this position are made plain enough in the statement itself: what is being done by Israel to the Palestinian people is a piece of murderous colonialism which is allowed to proceed unhindered by – in fact is only possible because of – the United States and other western nations such as the UK and Germany; and it is also my view that if there is any point at all to political philosophers – which I must admit I doubt – then we must demonstrate that purpose by speaking out on issues as important as this, and by showing solidarity with those engaged in the project of resistance against oppression, one of the few undoubtedly worthwhile projects there are.

Protest in support of BDS. Demotix/Terry Scott. All rights reserved.

I work in philosophy, not history or politics or sociology. I make no claim to any particular expertise on matters of the history and politics of the Middle East, and could not say anything about those matters here which has not been said more thoroughly and with more authority by the people of that part of the world and by those who have made it their object of study. In my own case, I have found the work of Mouin Rabbani, Patrick Cockburn, Maxime Rodinson, Khaled Hroub, Noam Chomsky and others extremely helpful, and recommend these to fellow members of the professional ignorantsia that is the discipline of philosophy. Here, however, I’ll confine myself to a comment on one theme, a theme which has been very dominant in the discussions of the boycott issue to which I’ve been party, and a theme which is also very important to philosophers in general: consistency.

The concern for ‘consistency’ comes up again and again. Most often, I’ve heard it in the demand for an explanation as to how it can be right to ‘single out’ Israel. I’ll keep what I have to say about that quite brief. The first and most obvious point to make in response to it – a point which we made in the statement, and which many others have made – is that there are all sorts of reasons why the case of Israel is special: it is heavily backed by rich western states; and its atrocities are continually excused or denied by the leaders and many of the inhabitants of those states, who praise Israel as a fellow ‘liberal democracy’.

In short, Israel is a special case, if only in virtue of the constant claims that it is a special case. And if there are features of a case that justify singling it out for a certain kind of action, then that is no inconsistency; rather, it is responsiveness to the particular features of a situation. If the charge of inconsistency is made against the policy of a boycott of Israel, the claim must be that the features which make the case of Israel distinctive – the colonial relationship, the financial and military backing by western states, the pervasive liberal apologism for the killing of innocents and for the long-term subjugation of a people – are somehow not sufficient to justify singling it out for special condemnation and action.

Always lurking not far below the surface here is the accusation that (since there are no good reasons for such targeted treatment) the targeting must be ultimately indicative of anti-Semitism. That is a very serious charge indeed. Before convicting, we should first ask: what is wrong with the sort of reasons I’ve just named? Why are they inadequate to justify a targeted action like a boycott? (And the response cannot be simply to reiterate that there are states that kill and oppress more people than Israel does, since this would completely fail to address the points just raised.)

To point out the respects in which Israel is a special case, however, is not thereby to claim that is more pernicious than any other state or entity in existence. When we act, we do not simply select The Worst Thing In The World, and put our energy into combating that – and nor should we. We also take into account factors such as whether we ourselves played a part in bringing about the mess in question, whether our friends, family or leaders did, and whether or not we have any power to do something about it (which may depend, in turn, on whether there are existing structures and precedents and networks of support and awareness, such as an established campaign or organisation, to which we can contribute).

There is also a sense in which we may answer ‘yes’: a boycott is inconsistent. It doesn't really make sense to think of moral action as governed by any grand calculation, however complex. If a person judges that she can make a difference for the better by going into teaching, say, or mental health nursing, nobody accuses her of ‘inconsistency’ or ‘bias’ in her prioritising of education or mental health, on the basis that there are more urgent and severe issues she could address instead or as well, like famine or global warming. It is not that we assume that, at the end of a long process of calibration of the person’s talents and inclinations and the context in which she operates, we would find that the best or ‘correct’ course of action for that person to take is to become a mental health nurse (or teacher). Who knows? Maybe the person in question would make more of a difference by vaccinating children. We still do not say that she has acted 'inconsistently' in any culpable sense; we just think of her as making quite a worthy and admirable (and undoubtedly permissible) use of her time and labour.

It is a general feature of our moral lives that we act for reasons that are at least partially arbitrary or ‘personal’: someone chooses to work in mental health because her life has been directly or indirectly affected by depression, for instance; chance, too, will often be a decisive factor - what we end up doing will depend on the people we meet and the places we go to. In this very banal sense, any proposed action against Israel may indeed be inconsistent, in that there are probably other things that are at least as urgent and deserving of our attention – but this is not a kind of ‘inconsistency’ that would normally bother us.

National demonstration for Gaza in Hyde Park. Demotix/Mark Kerrison. All rights reseved.

What is problematically inconsistent, in that case, is not the singling out of Israel, but the charge of inconsistency itself. Why is that charge made against a boycott (or any other criticism or action against Israel), when it would never be made against innumerable other instances of moral action which seek to address some wrong in the world, without necessarily implying that this wrong is objectively the biggest or most urgent or most cost-effectively tackled?

Certainly, there is such a thing as problematic inconsistency, double-standards, or hypocrisy - and no shortage of it in politics. Those who try to smear any criticism of Israel with this accusation are co-opting – to perverse effect – a form of criticism often employed on the left (and by many anti-Zionists).

Chomsky, for example, makes heavy use of this form of argument, and does so extremely persuasively: in Manufacturing Consent, he and Edward Herman make an irresistible case for the existence of a basic principle governing much political commentary in the mainstream media and elsewhere, to the effect that there are 'worthy' and 'unworthy' victims. The 'worthy' ones, whose deaths are covered with column inches and sympathy and outrage, are those killed by those with whom the US is currently on bad terms, whereas the 'unworthy' ones are those killed by the US's strategic allies, and whose deaths go largely unreported.

In the case of criticism of Israel, however, there is no evidence for the claim that such criticism is 'biased' in a parallel way. All the evidence points in the other direction: that apologism for Israel's violence rests on a fundamental double-standard, whereby a situation in which five civilians die on one side (the side of the occupier) and over two thousand on the other side (the occupied population) is described as a 'conflict', and as a 'complex' situation requiring a 'balanced' coverage.

Nor can it be seriously maintained that Israel is unfairly criticised because it is in the US's or the UK's bad books, that the lives of Palestinians are cherished and mourned whilst any harms to Israelis are callously ignored because of the close bonds between the United States government and the Palestinian authorities. What interests might be served by the alleged double-standards underlying the criticism of Israel? Is it that we are all - Jews and non-Jews, anti-racist and anti-fascist activists, liberals and socialists and peace campaigners - crypto-anti-Semites? This just will not wash.

I have no more to say here on the issue of 'singling out'. What I would like to comment on now, however, is a different manifestation of the worry about consistency, which often troubles those otherwise sympathetic to the idea of a boycott of Israel. The worry concerns how we are to 'draw the line'. In the statement we drafted for the Back the Boycott site, we were careful to make clear that the idea was not to shun or isolate Israeli individuals, whether within or outside Israel, but rather to target institutions. This reflects the official call by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and the emphasis of the wing of this campaign devoted to the issue of academic and cultural boycott: the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) makes an explicit distinction between targeting institutions and targeting individuals, and recommends only the former, 'steering clearly away from political tests or other McCarthyist measures'.

Now, philosophers (and also certain other types such as legal scholars) are very sensitive - albeit selectively - to the presence of collapsible distinctions. Perhaps most or even all distinctions are potentially collapsible - in any case, it's easy to see how the distinction between targeting individuals and institutions could start to fall apart. PACBI does offer some guidelines on how to implement the academic and cultural boycott: basically, don't engage in any collaboration with any Israeli university - which means not going to speak at one, not accepting funding or engaging in any project funded (in whole or in part) by an Israeli institution; and there is a slightly ambiguous clause which says that academic institutions are to be regarded as complicit in Israel's colonial aggression 'unless proven otherwise'.

This provides us with more than enough material to get into a tangle. What counts as 'proof' that an institution is not complicit? And what counts as collaboration with an Israeli academic institution, as opposed to dealings with an Israeli individual? Institutions are made of individuals, after all. PACBI's guidelines for the international academic boycott of Israel state that whilst 'events and projects involving individuals explicitly representing ... complicit institutions should be boycotted', 'mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is ... not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott'. This implies a space for those who, although perhaps employed by or studying at Israeli institutions, are not 'explicitly representing' them.

What counts, then, as 'explicit representation'? Affiliation itself does not, we are told, but what about public acknowledgement of the affiliation? In fact, isn’t affiliation to academic institutions ‘publically acknowledged’ by default, by being part of the public domain? On top of all this, PACBI's current guidelines end with the caveat that the implementation of the boycott should be pursued by academics and academic associations 'where possible and where relevant' - a qualification liable to send many into a frenzy of hand-wringing and head-scratching.

This gives us a further sense in which the policy of a boycott of Israel is not 'consistent' - but once again, it is a perfectly permissible (and even advantageous, I'll argue) kind of inconsistency. I'll try now to break down the worry that some have expressed concerning the difficulty in 'drawing a line' that would allow the principle of a boycott to be implemented in a consistent way. One part of the worry, I think, comes from the awareness that an action aimed at institutions will inevitably affect individuals - and that it may do so even where the individuals involved are blameless. That is quite true, and in some ways regrettable. But it is in no way peculiar to the present case, nor is it a good reason to shy away from action.

There is no form of political intervention - at least, none with the remotest chance of success - which does not have a negative effect on individuals, including the blameless (insofar as anyone is really blameless, that is). The strike is the most obvious example: to protest that a strike action by railway workers will inconvenience commuters is to betray a failure to understand the very principle of a strike. The only relevant question is whether the inconvenience and other harms that may be expected to result from the action in question are worth it. In many cases, they are - and these include certain instances of boycott action, such as the action taken against South Africa during the apartheid era.

To my mind, it is obvious that the policies of the Israeli state pose a far greater threat to the physical and psychological well-being of Israelis than any boycott or other peaceful measure which those policies might provoke. I have seen no evidence that an academic and cultural boycott would inflict serious harms on Israeli scholars or cultural figures. Our first concern, in any case, must be with alleviating the incomparably greater harms that have prompted one hundred and seventy Palestinian civil organisations, including all the major unions and the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees, to take the action prescribed by the BDS movement. The claim that such action would alienate sympathetic dissident Israeli scholars, and remove one of the main sources of critical scrutiny of the Israeli state, is equally disingenuous - and is increasingly difficult to uphold, as Israeli universities become more intimately and explicitly supportive of state aggression and repressive of dissenting voices.

There is another part of the worry, though, which has nothing directly to do with impact, but which concerns the perceived difficulty in putting the principle into practice. If there is no sharp distinction between individuals and institutions, and if the official recommendations of pro-boycott Palestinian organisations are so hedged around with ambiguity and caveats, some may feel that what this shows is a fundamental impracticality, incoherence or even danger in the whole idea of a boycott: if a sharp line cannot be drawn, and no fool-proof rules for implementation given, then this introduces a vagueness which could undermine the ability of a boycott policy to guide action - or, worse, initiate a slide towards precisely the sort of persecution of individuals based on their nationality which proponents of BDS claim to be so keen to avoid. The conclusion? Best not to go there.

What to say about this? One obvious point to make is that this line of reasoning doesn't seem consistent either, once we think more broadly about various moral decisions and actions that we seem perfectly capable of implementing. Again,take strike action. Particularly in the case of academics and other 'non-material labourers', there may not always be a sharp line between striking, not striking, and scabbing. If a philosopher has an idea while at the picket line, then in a sense that is to cross the picket line, since the philosopher's paid work consists not just in standing in lecture halls and delivering words to students but also in having ideas, which she may later publish. This may be the source of weak jokes on strike day, but nobody - I hope - really takes it as a decisive reason to steer clear of strike action.

Take another example: we may accept it as a guiding principle that we do not sit by silently while others around us make remarks which we judge to be sexist, racist, or otherwise abusive - out of a desire both to discourage such remarks and not to make ourselves complicit in them. But this is no terrain for sharp lines. There will be endless ambiguities as to what counts as sufficiently beyond the pale such that we feel compelled to say something, as well as various other considerations, taking into account the background and motivations of the person making the comment, the relations of power among those present, the likely damage resulting from an intervention. We don't necessarily think of it in these terms, but we make these complex calculations all the time. The alternatives would be either gutless, uncritical complicity in whatever happens to go on around us, or crashing and counter-productive insensitivity.

Omar Barghouti of BDS. Demotix/Kevin Van den Panhuyzen.

To the extent that there is ambiguity as to the 'correct' implementation of a boycott (in particular, an academic and cultural boycott) of Israel, I suggest, this ambiguity is similarly necessary. The alternatives would be to abandon the whole idea (and the existence of ambiguity and grey areas is hardly enough to warrant that), or to propose something crude, callous and inflexible. Instead, we could do what we have no trouble doing elsewhere, and live with the ambiguities, grey areas, difficult judgements and even dilemmas.

To say all this is not to collapse the action of boycott into a purely private matter for the individual and her conscience. The point is to recognise that an action like that of a boycott is inescapably public and private, and cannot make sense if it is reduced to either one or the other. One mistake - at the root of many of the misconceptions discussed above - is to think of the boycott of Israel on the model of so-called 'ethical consumerism', where the aim is conceived as one of personal purification, or the maintenance of clean hands.

Adorno is perhaps the person to have formulated the point most starkly that such purity is both impossible and inappropriate as an ideal in the world we live in, with his statement that ‘wrong life cannot be lived rightly’ (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). But the point is actually quite mundane. It does seem both pointless and perhaps culpably inconsistent - at best, a permissible indulgence - to avoid certain products in a private attempt to steer clear of complicity in the unethical practices involved in the production of goods. You can buy 'fairtrade', but you will very often be buying from the same company that also sells the slave-made coffee and owns the sweatshops. The only way that 'ethical consumerism' can have any worth is by also being a public and collective act - as, for example, in the case of the organised boycott of Coca-Cola after the murders of trade union leaders in Columbia, a boycott held at the request of Columbian workers and activists. The goal, too, must always be conceived as public: not the realisation of individual purity or inner peace, but the collective realisation of some change or other in the world.

Equally, however, the boycott of Israel is not a purely public matter: there cannot be a fully comprehensive, publicly available, objective and unambiguous formula, that tells us exactly what to do under all circumstances. Sometimes, the right answer may differ from person to person, and sometimes there may be no 'correct' answer at all. My situation, if I were to be asked to give a talk at an Israeli university, is not the same as the situation of Edward Said, when he chose to visit his home town.

The 11th-century Islamic scholar Al-Ghazali understood this duality of public and private very well. Ghazali discusses the right and the duty of ordinary Muslims to perform 'hisba' (to command the good and to condemn or prohibit what is bad in the conduct of others). He gives a whole series of conditions which publicly and objectively define and qualify this right and duty: for instance, the duty applies only to the believer (whether man or woman, free man or slave) who has reached the age of majority and is in command of his or her faculties; the right, however, is also possessed by the mature adolescent who is not yet of age, but who is capable of distinguishing right from wrong; the physically disabled person is not obliged to intervene to prevent a wrong-doing, but must condemn it in his (or her) heart.

There are cases, however, which are not so easy to legislate for. What about somebody who fears personal harm, were they to intervene to prevent some offence? Fear, as we know, can be just as debilitating as a physical impairment. For Ghazali, there is no way of specifying or measuring the point at which fear releases a Muslim from the duty of hisba, nor any objective way for a third party to ascertain when and whether that threshold is reached: that, ultimately, is between us and God.


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