The stronger case against the cultural boycott of Israel is based on principles of consistency and proportionality—and on history. Supporters of boycotting Israel seldom focus on China, or Syria, or Zimbabwe, or other genuinely illegitimate regimes that violate human rights not in deviation from their own principles but systematically. This underscores their bad faith. Boycotters are not trying to send a specific message, such as "We object to your settlement policy in the West Bank" or "We think you need to be willing to give up more for peace." What they're saying instead is: "We consider your country so intrinsically reprehensible that we are gong to treat all of your citizens as pariahs." Instead of warning that Israel risks becoming an apartheid society if it fails to make peace, boycotters have concluded that Israel already is an irredeemable apartheid society. Like the older Arab economic boycott of Israel, which dates back to the 1940s, the cultural boycott is a weapon designed not to bring peace but to undermine the country.
Because Israel is a refuge for persecuted Jews, this kind of existential challenge is hard to disassociate from anti-Semitism—even if people like Meg Ryan and Elvis Costello intend nothing of the kind. It is for this reason that unlike in South Africa, where the internal opposition supported sanctions, none but the most extreme voices in Israel are likely to come around to the idea that their country deserves to be boycotted, divested from, or punished with sanctions. When people are trying to murder you because of your religion, it is difficult to credit the bona fides of those who merely want to shun you because of your nationality.
That leaves the question of what opponents of Israeli policies can legitimately do. Given the unlikelihood of the U.S. Congress ever using military aid as leverage to pressure Israel—or allowing President Obama to do so—it makes sense to look for more discriminate ways to challenge the most objectionable Israeli policies. For instance, the high court of the European Union ruled earlier this year that goods manufactured in the West Bank don't qualify for preferential treatment given to Israeli exports. In a similar vein, the New York Times recently delineated the way in which American supporters of the settlements claim hundreds of millions of dollars in tax deductions. When Elvis Costello takes on that scam, I'll be right behind him.
A version of this article appears in this week's Newsweek.
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