On Private and Public Boycotts

Suppose you were given two tomatoes of equal size, quality, taste and price. Suppose you were told that one was from an Israeli kibbutz and the other from a West Bank settlement. Would you choose to eat one and not the other? 

Some would undoubtedly be indifferent and choose either — a tomato is a tomato is a tomato. Others would discern. For some, it would be an unflagging endorsement of the right of Jews to settle in Judea and Samaria. For others, it would be a demonstration of opposition to the settlement drive on the West Bank. According to several scholarly analyses, those British Jews who oppose the settlements are the overwhelming majority.

Does a private refusal to eat a settlement tomato therefore constitute a boycott of the state of Israel? Or is it a personal choice — and for some, a moral choice — about a controversial government policy? 

All this resonates in the recent call of Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, for a boycott of settlement produce. Many communal organisations rightly feared that this would be the first step in a process, leading to a boycott of Israel itself. It is also the rationale of why many British Jews who refuse to buy settlement produce do not publicise it. It is one thing to make a private protest, it is another to publicly become a poster person for the BDS campaign. 

Three years ago, the Knesset amended the Entry into Israel Law of 1952 which barred anyone — including diaspora Jews — who makes “a public call for a boycott”. Indeed a senior member of the New Israel Fund was detained for a short period at the airport by confused officials. In March 2017, emboldened by the recent election of Donald Trump, Bezalel Smotrich, a leader of the far right in Israel and the former Minister of Transportation, introduced a further clause which referred to “any area under Israel’s control” — meaning the settlements on the West Bank. 

A sizeable minority of Knesset members opposed this amendment and strongly argued that this violated freedom of speech — a view voiced by the American Jewish Committee. Many believed that this was a method of cracking down not on BDS adherents, but on diaspora critics of the West Bank settlement drive. 

Jewish academics who studied Israel, in particular, were incensed. The Haifa-based Association of Israel Studies which boasted many American members, commented: “There can be no checkpoint of ideas. Security forces and defences are essential for deterring actual attacks. But it is fantasy and misleading to think that interrogating academics at the country’s gates contributes to national security. Ideas, good and bad, have no borders.” 

While diaspora reaction has so far inhibited the implementation of this law, it remains on the statute book and still opens up the possibility that the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy — despite her clear, unreserved opposition to BDS — could be barred from Israel because of her call to boycott settlement produce. Since the new Labour leader and possible next prime minister, Sir Keir Starmer, has backed her approach, would he also be stopped at Ben-Gurion airport?

When Israel barred two members of the US House of Representatives, a year ago, Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presidential candidate, said: “No democracy should deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas — even ideas they strongly object to. And no leader of the free world should encourage them to do so.”  

The incoming Israeli Ambassador, Tzipi Hotovely, then Deputy Foreign Minister, strongly opposed Mr Biden’s view. 

As with the debate on annexation by British Jews, while many representative organisations are beginning to recognise that unity of purpose is not served by uniformity of views, they however continue to dither in taking a lead on difficult questions.

Jewish Chronicle 7 July 2020

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