Boycotts have been a method of peaceful protest for centuries. In the years precluding the American Revolution, colonists boycotted British tea and other taxed goods. In the early 20th century, Indians boycotted British salt and marched to the sea to collect their own. Later, in the mid-20th century, oppressed South Africans called for a boycott of South African universities and goods to protest apartheid. One of the most recent boycott movements that have acquired international attention is a movement known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS). Launched in 2005, this campaign advocates for the boycott of Israeli goods and culture, to peacefully protest the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine.
Currently, Israel occupies a number of settlements on Palestinian land, most notably in the West Bank. The BDS movement calls for a withdrawal from these areas and demands that Israel recognizes the equal rights of its Arab-Palestinian citizens and protects Palestinian refugees. To achieve this goal, supporters of the movement have encouraged people to avoid Israeli-made products and even use a new mobile app that allows users to check if a product is manufactured by a company sympathetic to Israel, according to Al Jazeera. The other side of the campaign is the cultural boycott, which encourages artists to avoid performing in Israel, as well as urges people to boycott universities in a way quite similar to the South African Boycott.
Many BDS advocates have embraced this platform in its entirety. Unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be dealt with this simply. Yes, an economic boycott can be extremely effective in both eliminating one region’s dependence on another and in encouraging a change in policy, but a cultural boycott is something else entirely. To boycott Israeli culture and to discourage artistic involvement in Israel will only serve to breed more division between the two parties.
Take, for example, a movement by aapproximately 700 artists who refused to “play music, accept awards, attend exhibitions, festivals or conferences, [or] run masterclasses or workshops, until Israel respects international law and ends its colonial oppression of the Palestinians” in collaboration with the boycott, according to a letter in the Guardian in 2015. If Israel were cut off from all of these external influences, it would become even more isolated from other cultures, and interaction between Israel and other nations would suffer. A number of artists wrote a letter in response to the letter in the Guardian, rejecting this cultural boycott on the basis that “cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement, for change.” Culture must be used as a method of communication and interaction, rather than a technique for isolation, especially because of its educational value. Boycotting universities, performances and art will only cause further misunderstandings in the region.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT, explains that he supports parts of the BDS movement but thinks that the cultural boycott is a mistake. He does not suggest boycotting operas, art and universities inside Israeli territory “just as [he does] not suggest boycotting Harvard University and [his] own university, even though the United States is involved in horrific acts.” In this sense, he is correct; the boycotting of higher education will do more damage than good when it comes to promoting understanding between Israel and Palestine.
However, Chomsky correctly makes an important distinction in his interview between boycotts against Israeli settlements and against Israel. Since the BDS movement aims to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the settlements should be the target of the boycott. Boycotts directed at Israel itself are less practical, since they are aimed toward becoming a legally recognized country. According to Chomsky, this would be akin to boycotting the United States. It directs the anger of the movement toward the existence of Israel, which detracts from the credibility of the movement and gives it a less practical aim.
BDS is admirably nonviolent in its protests, but even peaceful protests must not be taken lightly. It is understandable that a simple economic boycott of Israel will not be the solitary solution to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but the movement must not cause more harm by advocating for cultural isolation.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.