I have a question for Levy, the self-appointed conscience of the State of Israel: Will the boycott apply to you?
For years, Levy has been dining out as the go-to Israeli for Europeans in search of an authentic voice to denounce the Jewish State. No one has been a more reliable expositor of their preconceptions than Levy, who can always be counted upon to tell readers just how monstrous and racist his fellow Jews are.
Yet, presumably under the full-scale boycott Levy champions, he would not be permitted to step foot in the very same European countries that have showered him with prizes and speaking engagements. He would not be able to bask in the praise of figures like the disgraced former columnistfor the United Kingdom’s Independent newspaper Johann Hari, who, in addition to lauding Levy as “heroic,” ruminates on how Israel “discreetly ignores the smell of her own stale shit.” Boycotts, by definition, do not allow for exceptions, even for self-righteous left-wingers who consider themselves above their fellow citizens, “too brainwashed with nationalism to come to their senses.”
Levy dispenses with a limited boycott of the settlements – a path advocated by that other great friend of Israel Peter Beinart – in favor of boycotting the Jewish state itself. “All of Israel is immersed in the settlement enterprise, so all of Israel must take responsibility for it and pay the price for it,” Levy declares. “We are all settlers.”
Democratic allies tend not to boycott one another as a method of persuasion. That is the sort of measure reserved for dictatorships; countries that are ruled by a clique, not a polity. So the notion that Europe, never mind the United States, would institute a boycott against the Jewish State – with all of the fraught moral issues such a selective act would conjure – is remote.
Levy’s prescription is not just far-fetched, but blinkered. He writes as if the occupation – which he fixates upon as the crux of the problem between Israel and the Palestinians, as if the latter’s rejectionism were not an issue – exists in a vacuum. Palestinians have no agency in his narrative. That it is the Palestinian Authority, and not Israel, which has balked at peace negotiations for the past four years goes entirely unmentioned. A boycott of Israel will do nothing to persuade Palestinians to back down from their recalcitrance; on the contrary, it will just embolden their most reactionary elements.
Of course, no call for a boycott of Israel would be complete without a comparison to apartheid South Africa. Drawing any sort of moral equivalence between the two conflicts is a slander against Israel, not to mention a disservice to the South African liberation movement, which never embraced religiously-inspired suicide terrorism nor attempted to wage a war of extermination against South African whites.
But the comparison is also inexact in both the effectiveness it attributes to sanctions in bringing about the downfall of apartheid, and the appraisal of Israel’s regional security. Levy and other boycott supporters are kidding themselves if they think that an economic boycott (which was never fully embraced on an international scale) was the straw the broke the camel’s back in South Africa. Equally, if not more, significant was the end of the Cold War. Once the Soviet Union’s collapse became inevitable, it was clear that the Moscow-backed African National Congress would not transform the country into a communist dictatorship. South African whites were thus persuaded to support F.W. de Klerk’s reformist agenda. They could have held out longer against international pressure if they wanted, but made the calculation that it was no longer worth the effort.
And so for Levy’s comparison to work, Israel’s external threats would have to cease to exist, just as the apartheid government’s rationale of defending itself against the communist menace collapsed along with the Berlin Wall. That means no more revolutionary Islamist government in Iran, no Hamas in Gaza, and no Hezbollah in Lebanon. Only when those threats are neutralized will Israel truly be able to make peace with its neighbors.
Levy dismisses the claim that a boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic. But as long as Israel is being singled out for anything, then it is by definition prejudiced. When boycott advocates call for similar measures to be imposed on China for its occupation of Tibet, or Russia for its carpet-bombing of Chechnya, or Iran for any of its various human rights abuses, can they be absolved of the suspicion that they are acting under anti-Semitic impulses.
But perhaps the best argument against a boycott is Levy himself and the paper that publishes his screeds. The mere existence of Gideon Levy, that he is allowed to write the things he does, no matter how inaccurate, is a testament to the openness of Israeli society and its capacity to reason. When the Palestinians produce a single Gideon Levy, never mind an institution like Haaretz, then, perhaps, will peace be at hand.
James Kirchick is a columnist for Haaretz and a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.