Response to Ilan Pappe
By Yotam Marom
Dear Professor Pappe,
I have read your work for a number of years, always impressed with its thoroughness and honesty. You have certainly represented an important pillar of Israeli dissent for quite some time. I have, though, some disagreements with you, and would like to take the opportunity presented by this project to present them to you. I would be honored to receive a response from you – or from anyone else interested.
What I encounter repeatedly in your piece entitled “Disarm Israel” – and your closing paragraph is a good example, although this is not the first time you have written things to this effect – is the idea that there is something uniform enough about Israeli society to warrant collective punishment in the form of a full cultural boycott. That is, actions must be taken not just against the Israeli government, or the Israeli state, or the Israeli military, etc., but against Israeli society. With all due respect, this seems to be a faulty premise on which your steadfast calls for a cultural boycott of Israel are founded.
It is, actually, mysterious to me why you would argue that to be the case, considering you are Israeli and know very well (as anyone who has spent time in Israel), that this is a damagingly simplistic analysis of Israel. After all, you too came from there, as did a long line of impressive left scholars and activists from fields all across the board from culture to economy and more.
Israel is a battlefield. Inside it, an enormous array of forces are fighting, often to the death – fighting over land, over historical narrative, over economic policy, over public resources, over religion, over language, over gender, race, the natural environment, and culture as a whole. The actors in the drama are from every corner of the political-economic-cultural spectrum, and they represent an enormous diversity of ideas. While you and I certainly have many enemies in this battle, we presumably also have partners in some of these voices on some of these issues.
It seems needless to say that in the face of war, occupation, racism, privatization, and religious fanaticism posited by Israel’s ruling elite, there are forces fighting for political, economic, kinship, and cultural equality. While the elites (certainly supported by large chunks of the population) are busy tirelessly privatizing the entire country, increasing settlements, electing right wing racists to the government, holding an entire nation under violent occupation, and entrenching a second-class citizen status for Arabs in Israel, the other side is doing its work as well. Some of the most impressive anti-occupation literature and film are made by Israeli artists. Some of the most condemning historical analyses come from Israeli academics (such as yourself). Some of the most impressive movements for collective ownership, for worker self-management, for environmental progress, come from Israeli activists. Perhaps most effective grassroots organizing against Israeli oppression comes from Israelis – both Arabs and Jews (and some of these Jews are even Zionists…).
I have three challenges to offer your proposal (and that of many others) for a cultural boycott of Israel, grounded in what I presented above:
First of all, while I recognize the term “double standard” with reference to Israel might sometimes be invoked by the Right in an attempt to deflect all critiques and feign innocence – and I certainly am uncomfortable sharing terminology with these characters, even if only for a moment – it certainly does seem that a cultural boycott of Israel does represent a double standard. I do not hear American intellectuals at home or abroad calling for a boycott of every cultural source coming from the United States for its role in perhaps the most devastating version of imperialism in history. I do not hear Canadian or British intellectuals – quite quick to support a cultural boycott of Israel – calling for a black veil to be placed on their countries for their complicity in the wars in Afghanistan and Haiti. Differently from many of your allies in this, you might consider yourself only Israeli, and so find yourself in the position to call for a boycott only of Israel. Still, though, from a theoretical perspective, why only Israel? There are no boycotts on the colorful variety of military dictatorships, oil kingdoms, authoritarian dungeons of all stripes and on every continent, or the bankers and financiers of all those other countries who oppress. Were we to try boycott all cultures of all countries who oppress, we would have a hard time a) deciding who to punish and to which degree, b) successfully punishing them, and c) having any sort of remaining solidaristic exchanges between even the oppressed of those various countries. There would be only silence.
Secondly, a cultural boycott is philosophically flawed, because it is based on an incorrect premise of uniformity within Israeli society, and holds all Israelis equally accountable for the oppression being heaped upon the Palestinian people. This is, after all, the same simplistic logic offered by all sorts of (often violent) groups who target civilians in the course of their struggles – that all civilians are legitimate targets because they are complicit to the oppression carried out by the dominant political-economic-cultural elites of their society. As I noted above, and as could anyone who has participated in any activism around the occupation, Israelis of numerous demographics are part of this struggle themselves. It simply isn’t true that everyone in that society is equally responsible, and it is a slippery slope of an argument to claim that to be the case. You yourself did also note at various points in your paper that a method of struggle must be sophisticated enough to draw a distinction between political entities and people. If we think there is a diversity of beliefs, cultural norms, values, etc. in Israel, our method of struggle for/over/against Israel should also be diverse. This statement of yours, wise and well-founded, somehow seemed missing from your final conclusions. I wondered, as I read your piece, just what Israel even was. It seemed far too simple to be real. I wondered if you could define it, or perhaps be more specific as to who it was you hoped a boycott would target, who the stakeholders were, who were those to be held accountable, and so on.
Thirdly and finally, a cultural boycott seems to be counter-productive to the interests of the international left in fighting for Palestinian rights. In this raging battle within Israel, we have allies. As we can see very obviously, our allies are losing, and our enemies are quickly running away with the ability to define Israel (they are trying to make real the definition you seem to be using). That elite, which has been insidiously smothering our partners for decades, is likely to find a way (as elites under boycott usually do) to deflect onto other, less fortunate demographics the punishment actually meant for them. It is, in fact, always the most vulnerable sectors of society who suffer from boycotts. I wonder why this seems appropriate, justifiable, or effective to you, and to the many other impressive thinkers who support this idea. After all, it seems so obvious that the people who would suffer most under a cultural boycott are not the enormous multinational corporations buying and selling tanks, nor the military that uses them, but our friends in struggle on the Israeli Left, already an endangered species. Besides denying our partners the resources they need in order to continue their struggle, a full boycott bludgeoning its way through Israeli society would only confirm to the Israeli public the ravings of the Israeli Right Wing that the international community will always hate them, ushering them into the warm embrace of those very people and movements we are fighting. We are, then, in a cultural boycott of Israel, not only drowning our allies, but targeting (via culture) the sector in which so many of our allies reside. We are helping our enemies starve our friends. Eventually we would end up with exactly that uniformity with which you present Israel now, and that truly would be a frightening, lonely day for people like us, attempting to encourage, inspire, facilitate, and engage in grass-roots social change in Israel.
Certainly, we must find a way to engage in a serious struggle against inequality, occupation, and the other oppressions heaped on the Palestinians and Arab Israelis – not to mention working class Israelis in general, women, Sephardic Jews, and every other group marginalized by another. But perhaps, before we can do that in a critical, effective way, we need to develop a more nuanced, more sophisticated, more holistic understanding of what Israel is. Perhaps some of our partners on the Israeli left – professors, musicians, writers, activists – could aid us by providing a richer, more complex perspective on Israel and the struggles taking place there. Perhaps, even, this could be part of your contribution to this struggle. Ironically, it is particularly that demographic most capable of understanding the struggles taking place in Israel – those who are there in the heat of those struggles with the tools to express themselves – who would be, in the event of a cultural boycott, left to battle the Israeli mainstream on their own. This seems to be an ineffective way to wage this struggle, but more than that, it is sad.
Thank you for your time. I hope to hear from you.