The stick of boycott v the carrot of recognition

By Khaled Diab

The targeted should be complemented with recognition of the Jewish state and grassroots engagement with ordinary Israelis.

Monday 1 October 2012

In a YouTube video, Chili Peppers express their excitement about their imminent Tel Aviv gig.

It is a mark of the phenomenal success of a certain band from Los Angeles that the words Red Hot Chili Peppers are primarily associated in the minds of millions with a unique flavour of funky sounds that has all the spice and kick of the piquant fruit they are named after. The Chili Peppers were an important and integral part of the soundtrack to my youth.

Appealing to the band's sense of , many Palestinians and supporters of the cultural boycott against Israel called on the Chili Peppers to cancel their recent concert in Tel Aviv but to no avail.

“Art alone cannot break down a wall that appropriates Palestinian land and resources,” Palestinian-American poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi, who is a member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, wrote in an article for al-Jazeera calling on the band to cancel their Israel gig. “But artists and their art can inspire millions to take conscientious action against occupation and discrimination.”

In ignoring this outcry, were Kiedis and his crew guilty of putting profit over principle and of hypocrisy?

In the past, I might have responded with an unqualified, “Yes, they were”, and advocates of the boycott against Israel see the Chili Peppers as having sold out the Palestinians by coming here and behaving as if there were no occupation. And to their discredit and shame, the band which has dedicated so many memorable lyrics to the racism and segregation suffered by African-Americans and the plight of Native Americans, despite expressing strong love for Israel, did not seem able even to spare a single word for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who live in enforced segregation.

That said, the situation is not entirely black and white. The Chili Peppers have a special emotional link with Israel, because the group's original guitarist Hillel Slovak was Israeli, and Kiedis and crew may have decided that Israelis cannot be held collectively responsible for the crimes and injustices committed by their state.

For myself and the majority of Arabs, the idea of boycotting Israel is almost second nature, given that it has been an integral part of Arab political for decades. Even in Egypt, which has had a peace treaty with Israel for most my life, those who deal with Israel or Israelis are often depicted as unscrupulous opportunists who are out to profit from the misery of their Palestinian brethren.

Prior to moving here, I did not buy any Israeli products and, given my commitment to ethical spending, I still believe that a targeted economic boycott is justified to ensure that people do not bankroll the occupation and the subjugation of the Palestinians. In fact, in addition to the popular boycott, Western governments should not effectively be rewarding Israel for its intransigence and there is a case to be made for the to suspend military aid and the EU to downgrade relations with Israel – which the EU's former foreign policy chief Javier Solana once described as an EU member in all but name – until a peace deal is reached.

However, I do have serious misgivings about the cultural and academic boycott. Although institutions which perpetuate the occupation, such as military research centres or universities on occupied land, should rightly not be dealt with, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) effectively calls for a blanket boycott, arguing that, “unless proven otherwise”, all Israeli academic and cultural bodies “are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights”. But presuming guilt until innocence is proven is unjust, and this is a form of collective punishment, albeit not on the scale of the .

On a more pragmatic level, it is also counterproductive. Take the case of the German documentary about Jerusalem which was set to feature both Palestinian and Israeli residents to show the reality of life in the divided city. Pressure from campaigners caused many Palestinians to pull out of the project, the upshot of which will be that the film is more likely to show only Israeli perspectives.

The veteran Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab – who co-founded the now-defunct Bitter Lemons journal where Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals engaged in oft-heated dialogue – described the furor as a form of “intellectual terrorism”. Other activists who advocate joint action and dialogue I have spoken to have complained of a growing rejection of their approach.

“Some regard any encounter with an Israel as ‘normalization'. I am against normalization… but dialogue is not normalization,” a prominent activist who has spent years promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue told me. “Peace is too precious to be left only to politicians,” she emphasised.

Part of the reason for this hardening of positions appears to be disillusionment and scepticism at the entire apparatus – which put some emphasis on dialogue and collaboration between the two sides – put in place as part of the failed and discredited “”.

“The aim of most of these so-called dialogues is to give the impression that there is an exchange going on,” one young activist involved in the BDS movement told me. “But this happens without the recognition of our rights, without the acknowledgement that there is a people being oppressed.”

But by punishing sympathetic Israelis along with hostile ones, this kind of unenlightened boycott alienates the doves more than it isolates the hawks. Although the cultural boycott claims to target institutions and not individuals, individuals who work for these bodies more often than not fall prey to the boycott, regardless of their politics.

“They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” complained , the maverick Israeli historian and one-time friend of the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, warning that the Palestinians were boycotting “the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture”.

“It's a very, very closed-minded tactic,” he told me.

Moreover, the Arabs have little to show for their decades of boycott, beyond perhaps the emotional satisfaction of not dealing with the enemy. Some suggest that it has even strengthened Israel. “I think that the reason for Israel's prosperity is, ultimately, an unexpected result of the boycott,” believes Iraqi-Israeli poet Sasson Somekh, who was a close friend of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

“I am against boycotts, even of your worst enemies,” he told me. “If you want to influence them and change the status quo, you need to have dialogue with them, not boycott them.”

Counterintuitive as it may sound to many Arab ears, the best way forward is for ordinary Arabs, not just Palestinians, to engage more with ordinary Israelis – both in dialogue and joint action – because there can be no resolution to this conflict without an Israeli partner, and gaining that partner requires the empowering of Israel's increasingly marginalized and embattled peace movement.

Moreover, the blanket Arab boycott belies a profound and damaging misunderstanding of the Israeli psyche and the existential angst Jews have suffered following the deadly pogroms of the previous century and the Holocaust. The majority of Israelis do not see the boycott as a principled stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, but as a manifestation of Arab rejection of Israel's right to exist.

To allay such fears and deprive Israeli hawks of their intellectual and emotional prey, I think that the majority of Arab countries who have not yet done so, perhaps through the Arab League, should immediately recognize Israel within its pre-1967 borders. This simple, highly symbolic act – which actually costs the Arabs nothing and does no harm to the Palestinian cause – can help the Arab world, rather like Anwar Sadat once did, to go over the intransigent Israeli leadership's heads and appeal directly to the Israeli public.

Sadat believed that a psychological barrier existed between Arabs and Israelis – a “barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, or deception” – which constituted “70% of the whole problem”. While the percentage is open to question, in this, Sadat, for all his failings, was largely right.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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15 thoughts on “The stick of boycott v the carrot of recognition

  • Izak Friend

    Does the part of the Belgian population, which does not want Arabs settling in the country, have the right to kill the colonist Khaled Diab and his child? Or are there special protections for Arabs, that do not apply to Jews?

    No Arab country tolerates Jews, and Future Maybe Palestine In The Sky has no plans to tolerate any. Why don”t you work on that, before demanding that Israelis give up the protection of an Israeli state.

    We in the West should demand a freeze on Arab immigration and naturalization, and deportations of those Arabs who are already here. See how they bloody like it.

  • Andrew,
    read my article, I didn’t say no to BDS, but I believe the culturall
    boycott needs to be seriously rethought. That said, I’m not certain
    whether it is actually the “single strongest” weapon at the disposal of
    the Palestinians. For instance, what exactly has 60+ years of Arab
    boycott achieved? I believe what is needed is a smart mix of targeted
    economic boycott and engagement, carrots and sticks.

  • Khaled: You want to talk about a single country? There (Noa and Yael) are your
    Israelis who are actually working toward it. Israel didn’t magically
    usurp land for the past 64 years and suddenly historic Palestine was
    completely colonized, rather it was the inaction of many and the
    distorted discourse, such as what you are pushing here (“two sides”), that gave Israel the room and the time to do so. You assumed that Noa
    was suggesting perpetuating a crime against Israel’s Jewish population,
    and were alarmed, and yet at the same time you speak against the single
    strongest nonviolent tool we as Palestinians may have ever had at our
    disposal: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

  • I am also
    an Israeli anti-Zionist and agree with Noa and advocating for the
    Palestinian right of return for years – to be precise: for 40 years now.

  • Decolonization is not a ‘crime.’ it’s JUSTICE. I
    am not calling to displace anyone. I am calling for the eradication of a racist
    political entity and setting up a democratic and inclusive one in its stead. I’m
    not only Jewish, but an Israeli citizen, born and raised in Tel Aviv, which is
    where I’m sitting right now. And yes, I am anti-Zionist, like most of my
    friends here, and yes, I yearn to see the end of the Zionist state and the
    formation of a real democracy and yes, I have been advocating for the Palestinian
    right of return for years.

  • Whoa, there, Noa, speak for yourself. What you’re advocating is avenging a historic crime by perpetuating a (potentially greater) future crime.

  • Khaled
    – there are no ‘two sides’ here, no symmetry. There is currently a
    colonial occupation in Palestine, which means there is the colonizing
    society and its privileges and there is a dispossessed colonized.
    Therefore, who care what the Israelis want? they wish to preserve their
    privileges. We should all wish for the Jewish state to be eradicated and
    for a complete decolonization of Palestine.

  • Noa, like I said above, I’m personally in favour of a binational state (as I’m anti-nationalist), and have written dozens of articles about it, but as I’m an outside observer, it is not up to me to decide which option the two sides ultimately move towards.

    On the contrary, Alaa, ignoring the psyche of your occupier is damaging. It’s probably more urgent to understand your enemies than it is to understand your friends.

  • “”the blanket Arab boycott belies a profound and damaging misunderstanding of
    the Israeli psyche and the existential angst Jews have suffered
    following the deadly pogroms of the previous century and the Holocaust.
    The majority of Israelis do not see the boycott as a principled stand in
    solidarity with the Palestinians, but as a manifestation of Arab
    rejection of Israel’s right to exist.””

    isn’t my job as a Palestinian to take into consideration the views of my occupier. It is my job to do what I think is best to gain my freedom. That said, my personal views include lessons i’ve learned from reading
    about the Holocaust.

  • the
    so-called ‘two state solution’ is merely a ploy to perpetuate apartheid
    and occupation and maintain ‘Israel’ as an American outpost in the
    Middle East. Is that what you offer ‘Arab states’ to support?

  • Khaled: You are suggesting Palestinians in Israel be forced to continue living in a self-proclaimed Jewish state?

    since you’re speaking out against a tactic Palestinian civil society (NGOs, collectives, unions and so forth) has called for, are you yourself Palestinian?

  • I’m calling for the rest of the Arab world to do so, because Palestinians,
    by and large do: the PA accepts the two-state formula and Hamas has said
    it is willing to put in place an “indefinite truce” in exchange for a
    Palestinian state on pre-67 borders (which is de facto recognition). My
    personal preference is a single, binational state (federation/confederation) for all its citizens in which everyone lives
    in complete equality.

  • I wouldn’t know where to begin. Is Mr. Diab really calling on Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, i.e. a colonizing entity that expelled them from their lands?

  • A
    piece that should definitely be discussed in larger parts of society. The author, in my opinion, conveys a very deep understanding of the Israeli side. Would that more people on both
    sides cared for such a deep understanding of “the other” – the whole
    conflict could be dealt with and solved in a very different manner…


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