The Great Return March in Gaza, 2018. Credit: Asmaa Elkhaldi

The best PR for a boycott of Israel

_ OPINION_Israeli psychoanalyst Iris Hefets shares her thoughts on the boycott of Israel.


Ten years ago, as a fresh immigrant speaking broken German, I answered correctly a simple question on South Africa on a radio contest show and won a prize: Two film tickets to watch “Goodbye Bafana“. I went with a friend, a former Taayush activist, who had also opted out of the Zionist destruction project and left in the twilight of the 2nd Intifada. We found ourselves at the cinema complex of the Sony Center in Berlin, on a red carpet leading us to champagne and popcorn. After the screening of the film, which depicts the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island and his friendship with his white warden, James Gregory, a conversation took place with Gregory’s daughter, who was flown in from South Africa. Outside, we found tables stacked with fine food and South African wine. We began to mingle with numerous African and European ambassadors who were invited without having to solve a puzzle on the radio. We found out that the event was organized by the South African embassy, with the goal of changing the country’s image as an apartheid state and make people stop boycotting it.

It turned out that more than ten years after the end of the apartheid era, customers roaming the aisles of wine bottles at German supermarkets were still leaving those made in South Africa on the shelves. The association ‘South Africa-Apartheid-Boycott’ was stronger than any political reality. This fact is well-known to all marketing experts: A product’s image has a longer shelf life than reality. For example, Subaru was perceived as a car for the masses in Israel even after the prices of its newer models shot up.

On the other hand, a consumer boycott has been proven to be an accepted and significant tactic for bringing about political change. One example is the BDS campaign calling for consumer boycott, disinvestment and sanctions on Israel.

A Detour around Shabak and Mossad

The boycott is action by private individuals, not necessarily organized in a group. The only thing they have in common is support for the entire campaign or a part of it, at a given moment. These people may act as a group and call on their university to divest from Israel. They may decide to not buy Israeli products, not fly to Israel or dissuade their friends from doing so. Sometimes they are not even aware that they are engaged in a boycott (what is known as the ‘silent boycott’). They just walk through the supermarket, the day after seeing the photo of a Palestinian nurse who was murdered by an Israeli sniper, and the image spoils their appetite. Our unconscious reactions are stronger than any IDF Spokesperson clip. Their sense of repulsion at a photo of an Israeli soldier invading the home of a Palestinian family or rejoicing after the murder of Palestinians, is stronger than any rational argument. Most Jewish Israelis who take part in, and are accomplices to the aggression, resort to various rational arguments or denial in order to cover their guilt and blame; “Why did they approach the fence?”, or “If he was arrested, there must be a reason” (even if “he” is a four-year-old). The boycotting constituency abroad, which is less involved than Israelis, is also less impressed by the IDF Spokesperson propaganda. Its repulsion arises through the gut rather than the head.

Full-page advert published in the Washington Post calling Lorde a “bigot”, a week after the New Zealand-born singer cancelled her Israel show.

Israel exerts great power to foil attempts to label it an apartheid state, since the term ‘apartheid’ goes hand in hand with boycott – and what can you do against Miguel from Barcelona who calls on Lio Messi to cancel the Argentina-Israel match. One of the difficulties which Israeli Hasbara is facing is that the boycott movement has a long history to lean on: Boycott campaigns in America or Mahatma Gandhi’s boycott calls to buy Indian products and boycott English ones. He believed passive resistance would sway public opinion towards support for the liberation of India. The boycott on South Africa is the most recent successful boycott example. This campaign, along with other factors, brought about the dismantling of the apartheid regime. In a boycott movement, power lies with private individuals and their world of mental associations. This is a detour around Shabak or Mossad, and therefore Israel has no way to control the movement. Israel can hardly gain anything from implanting collaborators in a boycott group. A private individual can start a petition calling on Lorde not to play in Israel, people all over the world can sign and Lorde will cancel. Israeli Hasbara goes berserk, a full-page ad is published on the Washington Post and New Zealand as a whole comes under a general attack.

Various groups may join a boycott call, following advocacy by specific activists, who put up resolutions for vote. Thus, labour unions can expand the scope of the boycott movement by instructing their members not to collaborate with the Israeli government. Palestinian civil society groups can call on their global counterparts to join the campaign. The boycott movement itself is not an organization which one can control. The boycott is essentially an idea, and therefore it lies beyond the control of any government. One may agree or disagree with the call, sign it or refuse to do so. A totalitarian state may even detain the people who spread such ideas, spy on them, threaten them and sow fear. This is what Israel has tried to do, and it is still waging a rearguard battle. In this battle, the more helpless Israel is, the more absurd its actions are. In fact, these actions have boosted the boycott movement.

One of the recent examples of such intimidation regards the German NGO “Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East” (of which I am a member). A Jerusalem Post journalist (at least by Israeli standards) called the private bank (one with social aspirations!) in which the group kept an account, and alerted the bank’s management to its being an ‘anti-Semitic group’. The group’s bank account was subsequently closed. The group opened an account in a public bank, and a protest campaign began in Germany. Numerous German citizens and civil society groups threatened to leave the private bank unless the account were reinstated. This was the first time a bank account of a Jewish group was closed for political reasons in post-war Germany. We were notified by the bank that the reason for the bank’s move was our being a signatory to the BDS call, and that if we removed our signature, our account would be immediately reinstated. Needless to say, we did not comply, and after long negotiations with the bank the account was reinstated. Even if the bank had insisted on its demand, an entire campaign took place during that period, in which everyone spoke about the boycott, discussed the idea and signed petitions – including one by the US-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), another signatory to the BDS call. The managers of the bank, as well as others in German civil society, had to choose between two positions held by Jewish groups: The official Jewish community on one side and peace groups from Israel and across the world on the other side.

Protest at Cambridge University following the killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza, May 2018. Via HaOkets

Thus, Jews are increasingly speaking in diverse voices and getting farther and farther away from Israeli policy. This also helps dispel views of “Jews” as a uniform group which is connected to Israel and its government and perceived as a local embassy. While some people may be intimidated by the ‘anti-Semitic’ slander, this label has been used so often that its meaning is being lost or changed. As time goes by, the number of ‘anti-Semites’ increases exponentially and has almost become a prestigious club: The late Stephen Hawking, Angela Davis, Ken Loach, Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin, Kate Tempest, Portishead and thousands more.

In fact, Israel is the best promoter of the boycott movement. According to Gandhi’s theory (and one recalls that some Israelis keep asking ‘Where’s the Palestinian Gandhi?’), the more passive the resistance becomes, the more public opinion will sway in favor of the victim. The victorious Israeli mood and the inability to read reality strengthen the sense of victimhood among Jewish aggressors in Israel. The people who shoot in all directions and kill from their fortress, on a daily basis, feel threatened, and they ascribe this threat to something external. Thus, Lorde and her army of fans become the danger. She must be another anti-Semite who wants to destroy Israel or at least a gullible woman who has buckled under pressure. And recently we found out that the danger can also come from a successful footballer, Lio Messi, one who withstands allegations of tax evasion, but gets scared of imaginary threats (or can’t hire a few bodyguards).

This state of affairs amounts to the aggressor losing his marbles, and becoming even more aggressive and ruthless. At the same time, more people across the world start sympathizing with the aggressor’s victims. Israelis live in a bubble, from which they generate motivation to boycott them among others. Israelis make films against ‘de-legitimization’ and tell the boycotters how lovely the Dead Sea/Eilat/Tel Aviv are. Between this and Israel’s indiscriminate or sniper fire, does it come as a surprise that people want to keep their distance from such trigger-happy Israelis?

The only democracy

Israeli actress Esty Zakheim recently recounted an incident at an international film festival she attended. A Belgian filmmakers’ union declared its endorsement of BDS. At first she turned into a “pillar of salt”, yet she found her strength and told the audience: “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel guarantees equal right to minorities of all religions as well as women and LGBT.”

This statement could have been made by Benjamin Netanyahu. Many Israelis who live in their bubble react in this way when they see that BDS is alive and kicking. They pull out slogans we were taught years ago in the Zionist youth movements. As if one can say them and decree a reality by fiat. As if Shakira or the current artist who cancels their gig in Israel need only hear this to change their mind. The same holds for the “terror kites” slogan regarding the ongoing Gaza protest. You just have to say “democracy” and wham – millions of dispossessed Palestinians disappear from view, and the leopard will lie down with the goat.

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But many other women across the world respond differently to injustice and destruction. In 1984 Irish union activist Karen Gearon issued a statement on behalf of her union telling co-workers at the Dunnes Stores not to sell South African products. 21-year-old cashier Mary Manning refused to sell South African fruits and was suspended. Nine female co-workers walked out with her. That was the beginning of a three-year-long battle which led to the Irish government’s decision to stop trading with South Africa, until the end of the apartheid era.

Mizrahis, women, disabled citizens, LGBTQ, Holocaust survivors, Jews, Blacks, Whites and nearly any person with a basic human spirit would be inspired by this struggle. But when we are the aggressors facing the boycott, it’s easy to forget the good which Gearon, Manning and many others have brought to this world. When you tell Jewish Israelis that “The blood of your brother screams to you from the earth!” they respond by “Oh, shut up, am I my brother’s keeper?”

Workers Eamon O’Donoghue, Mary Manning, Catherine O’Reilly and Nicky Kelly. Dunnes Stores workers against South Africa’s apartheid regime, Ireland, 1985. Via HaOkets. Source: Photocall Ireland

We’re upstairs and the Palestinians are downstairs

A Jew arrives at the Munich train station in 1945, holding a large suitcase. He encounters a German and asks him, “Excuse me, Sir, are you an anti-Semite?”. “Heaven forbid”, responds the German, “How could you possibly think that?”. The Jew meets another German and asks the same question. ”How dare you even ask such a thing! Am I an anti-Semite?”, responds the German. The Jew encounters another German and asks him the same question. This time, the German says ”Eh… Yes”. ”Oh, so you must be an honest man. Could you please keep an eye on my suitcase for a few minutes until I return?”, says the Jew.

So if honesty is the issue, here is a response to claims raised by Jewish Israelis and their siamese twins all over the world regarding the BDS:

1: You’re boycotting Israel in its entirety

This is partially true. The BDS guidelines delineate a boycott against events sponsored by the Israeli government or products made in the occupied Palestinian territories. In this sense, BDS does not target all Israeli citizens, but rather the government and its policies. However, unconscious processes are involved and many incidents of boycotting occur not under the umbrella of BDS, but as part of the psychological association “Israel-apartheid-boycott”. And even when BDS is criticized, and a German newspaper prints the main headline “No to a boycott of Israel”, the words “boycott” and “Israel” appear together and the associative link is reinforced.

Quite a few members of academia recount lukewarm responses to requests sent to international peers. The fear of inviting and being rejected due to BDS relates to the second claim raised against BDS supporters:

2: You’ve given up on us

A shadow of truth hovers above this claim. A vibrant debate took place recently around an explosive post by Alon-Lee Green of the “Standing Together” movement, making this claim. BDS is a campaign by Palestinians, and those who envisioned and implemented it have indeed given up on Israel. After 70 years of Nakba and 50 years of occupation, with Israel sowing destruction while speaking of peace, Palestinian youths who see the uppity Oslo Palestinians living the good life at their expense have decided to stop talking. They have given up on using words to reach out to Israel. People of every creed and gender all over the world, including in Israel, are free to join this Palestinian call. By doing so, they move from dialogue via words to dialogue via actions. Israelis who are boycotted experience isolation, siege, destruction and fear – which they inflict on the Palestinians. This includes leftist activists, who are convinced of their righteousness and are not used to having things done over their head or to having relevance only as supporters.

The very act of calling for and imposing a boycott undermines the idea of Jewish-Israeli partnership with Palestinians on equal footing. This time the Palestinians are on top. They lead this campaign, and we as Israelis – no matter how radical we are – play no major part in the story. We may catalyze processes with our support or dissent, but the formula Palestinian BDS + Citizens of the world = An Isolated Israel does not include us as active ingredients. We are merely the desirable outcome.

More than 15,000 people showed up in the heart of London for a mass Palestine exposition in 2017. Credit: Roba Al-Sharkawi / The Turban Times

Supporting a cultural and academic boycott of Israel is all the more difficult in leftist, mostly Ashkenazi circles. A boycott of products and tourism mostly hurts the lower classes in Israel – and the elites can live with that. Many members of academia (90% of them are Ashkenazi) tell their international colleagues how critical they are of Israeli policies, while sending their children to serve in the army and telling fellow Israelis how anti-Semitic the outside world is.

It doesn’t cost much to say something, at least not at conferences abroad. On the contrary. But when even the more affluent sectors of society feel the pressure, the story changes. Something gets through to them. They are not invited to a conference, or their colleagues abroad don’t send solidarity messages when Israel embarks on a bombing mission. The sense of isolation gets to them, along with the fear of becoming lepers. These are in fact the people one should target: Members of Israeli academia (still) have tenure and they could use their protected status to act against Israel’s cruelty towards Palestinians, refugees, Mizrahis and Ethiopians. But they are a part of Israel, its own flesh and blood. The physicians among them treat Palestinian hunger strikers (Why? It is forbidden and there is no medical indication in favor of treating a person who is not ill and is not interested in treatment, certainly not when he’s chained). These Israelis allow TV crews to film inside the hospitals as part of Israeli Hasbara (advocacy) campaigns. They wish to assist Shabak without being ostracized at conferences abroad. The academic boycott reminds them that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

Calls for the boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2019. Via HaOkets

In a similar fashion, the cultural boycott reminds Israelis that we can’t go on listening to concerts while our foot is on someone else’s throat. When you live in Israel, it’s very easy to be ignorant of the fact that a few miles away, people are living without proper medical care, water, electricity and the basic security of knowing their house will not be demolished. This applies not just to the territories occupied in 1967. For the Jewish Israeli residents of Omer, Meitar and Lehavim north of Beersheba, it’s about their Bedouin neighbours living a stone’s throw away, but out of sight. These Bedouin neighbours clean their towns during the day but are not allowed to enter at night. Their homes are demolished routinely. The Boycott reminds such Jewish Israelis that even if they can drive to Tel Aviv, an hour away, they will have to settle for local entertainment. Hundreds of international artists have already signed on to BDS statements, and they have no intention of coming to Israel. Others cancel planned concerts, after hundreds of thousands of activists call on them to do so.

This is another way of making it clear to Jewish Israelis that power has its limits: One can murder, rob, blackmail, separate families, detain children and torture people. But you can’t get love for this from most people in the world. We don’t control the feelings of other people. Reality dissuades people from getting near Israel. That’s a deterrent. Not even Shabak or Mossad can stop that. You can sell Tel Aviv as a cool city with endless parties to young Europeans, but it gets harder and harder to bring Jewish youths on birthright trips, with plenty of money and propaganda. As time goes by, more and more Jews all over the world walk away from solidarity with Israel, and most BDS activism in the US today is organized by Palestinian and Jewish activists. These Palestinians have mostly been raised abroad, getting good education and knowledge of how the whole thing works. Most Palestinians in the world are not a part of “Peace Now” or any other liberal Israeli ‘peace’ group. Many of them have not been allowed to spend a single day in Palestine.

The academic and cultural boycott hits the Israeli elite, regardless of the material damage. Those who have money can go see Shakira perform elsewhere, but the boycott poses a threat, by reminding Israelis that they are not welcome as long as they act so cruelly (note that unlike shameful anti-Semitism, which targets Jews on the basis of being Jewish, Israelis are boycotted on the basis of their actions and conduct).

Attendees at a 15,000 strong Palestine exposition in London writes messages in support of the Palestinian cause, 2017. Credit: Roba Al-Sharkawi / The Turban Times

3: The boycott does not impact the Israeli public positively

That’s right. The boycott is not supposed to do that. The opposite is true. It is supposed to make us feel bad, and to increase our suffering level, so that we personally realize that this can’t go on. In a world where words have meaning, where Cain is afraid of murdering Abel because there is fear of god in his heart, words have power. In a world where Cain carries a powerful weapon and has no inhibitions, there is no point in making him feel good or trying to influence him. He is dangerous, and one needs to target him, punish him and protect him from the wrath of the masses, by the mark of Cain. Imagine yourselves as women living in a commune with a group of men whose members repeatedly rape one of you, prevents her from reaching the hospital when she’s in labour, and imprisons and murders your children. Would you speak to these men? Would you expect anyone to try to influence them positively? What one needs in such cases is someone with more power to rein in the perpetrators and stop the rape, first and foremost. This is what BDS is trying to achieve: Show Israel that enough is enough and that there is a price to pay. Cain, after murdering his brother, cannot walk around fearless. He feels hounded and he seeks refuge. But how can one hide from one’s conscience and from shame?

This form of communication, in which we let others feel how we feel, by action rather than words, is an ancient form in our development. When a baby trembles, when their lower lip protrudes in insult or when they scream to the top of their lungs as if they were being slaughtered, they let us feel their own chill, the grave harm which they feel, their existential fear. We use this form of communication before we acquire a language to speak, or when we lack the words to convey our feelings to others. At this stage, it is impossible to get through with words to Israeli society. Satire shows, clips by gifted artists, articles by serious people are filmed or written constantly, but these are nothing more than a joke. The majority of Israelis sit and laugh at comical sketches which portray them as sadomasochists, thereby enjoying these sketches and proving their veracity. The Palestinians being strangled under the boot of Israelis who send their children to carry out this abuse are not amused by this. They have appealed to the world. Maybe there are people out there who still have the fear of god in their hearts.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the writer’s only and do not necessarily represent those of The Turban Times.

Iris Hefets is an Israeli psychoanalyst who has resided in Berlin for the past 15 years. She was the editor of the Mizrahi-leftist website Kedma.

This entry by Iris Hefets originally appeared in Hebrew on HaOkets. A translated version, by Ofer Neiman, is published by The Turban Times.

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