If you follow the news closely enough, you might have caught a small item recently noting that Meg Ryan had canceled a scheduled appearance at a film festival in Jerusalem to protest Israeli policy. This was significant not because anyone should care what the nose-crinkling movie star thinks about the Mideast but precisely because no one does. Ryan, a conventional Hollywood Democrat, is a barometer of celebrity politics. Her sort of sheeplike, liberal opinion once reflexively favored Israel. Now it’s dabbling in the repellent idea of shunning the entire country.
Support for the Israeli cultural boycott has been growing in surprising places lately. After the Gaza flotilla incident in June, rock bands including the Pixies canceled performances at a music festival in Tel Aviv. Elvis Costello announced in May that he was canceling two upcoming performances to protest the treatment of Palestinians. Unlike Ryan, Costello is a thoughtful person whose views are worthy of respect. So why, exactly, do I think he’s wrong, too? Why is a private embargo—which includes an academic boycott and the push for divestment on the anti-apartheid model—an unacceptable way for outsiders to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians?
One argument is that academic boycotts are intrinsically unacceptable because they violate the principles of free expression and the universality of science and learning. A parallel objection applies to cultural boycotts, which directly target the most forward-thinking members of a society. In the case of Israel, shunning writers like Amos Oz and David Grossman, who serve as national consciences, seems not only intrinsically vile but actively counterproductive. On the other hand, it would be hard to justify a blanket rule that cultural and academic sectors are always off-limits. In authoritarian societies, cultural institutions do tend to become ideological proxies—think of the National Ballet in Cuba, or the East German gymnastics team.
An even weaker case against the cultural boycott is that it’s unlikely to work. While it’s certainly true that cultural sanctions on their own are more inconvenience than lethal weapon, they can have a real impact. In South Africa, cultural and, in particular, sports sanctions—banning the country from the Olympics and from international cricket and rugby competitions—were an effective form of pressure. When it comes to Israel, it’s hard to predict what effect cultural and academic isolation might have. Some Israelis take international rejection as an affirmation, concluding that amid a sea of hostility their only recourse is self-sufficiency. On the other hand, opponents of the Netanyahu government cite global opprobrium as an argument for a different political course.
Perhaps boycotts should be off-limits as a tactic against democratic societies, where other means of peaceful protest exist. But here, too, it’s hard to come up with a blanket rule. The immediate resort to sanctions when an elected government—say, Arizona’s—does something objectionable seems extreme and disproportionate. Yet an elected democracy like the Milosevic regime in Serbia can oppress ethnic minorities or commit genocide as well as an unelected one. And, indeed, one could argue that only in a democracy are the people truly responsible for the actions of their government.
The stronger case against a cultural boycott of Israel is based on consistency, proportionality, and history. That supporters of this boycott seldom focus on China or Syria or Zimbabwe—or other genuinely illegitimate regimes that systematically violate human rights—underscores their bad faith. Boycotters are not trying to send the specific message, “We object to your settlement policy in the West Bank.” What they’re saying is, “We consider your country so intrinsically reprehensible that we are going to treat all of your citizens as pariahs.” Like the older Arab economic boycott of Israel, which dates back to the 1940s, the cultural boycott is a weapon designed not to bring peace but to undermine the country.
Because Israel is a refuge for Jews persecuted everywhere else, this kind of existential challenge is hard to disassociate from anti-Semitism—even if Ryan and Costello intend nothing of the kind. When people are trying to murder you because of your religion, it is difficult to credit the bona fides of those who merely want to shun you because of your government.