The cowardice, the vanity, the sin of boycotting Israel

By Bradley Burston

Live in this tainted Holy Land long enough, and you come to learn that there are two kinds of political activists, much as there are two kinds of artists.

The first kind, the kind who changes the world, points to something that has yet to have been seen, something that seriously needs to be seen, and cries out, “Look at this.”

The second kind, the kind who changes nothing, barks in a voice every bit as insistent, “Look at me.”

I was privileged this weekend to attend a marriage of art and activism of the first sort, the new film “Ajami.” Jointly directed by an Israeli-born Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli, spoken mostly in an Arabic salted with Hebrew, Ajami is an overwhelming work, clenched, compassionate, violent, perplexing, complex beyond facile comprehension. It is a creature of this place. It rings true.

Given the depth and breadth of its lens, and the fact that the directors worked for seven years to fit their story into two hours, it is all the more galling that earlier this month, political activists very much of the second sort, bluntly caught Ajami in the collateral damage of a scattershot anti-Israel campaign.

Ajami was among a number of dark and critical Israeli films, among them “Lebanon” and “Jaffa,” which were effectively sniffed at and dismissed by the strident, star power-chasing protest at the Toronto International Film Festival, a protest so shallow and so misplayed, that it has had the effect of doing the occupation a distinct favor.

There is something in Ajami’s nuance that helps explain why the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, of which the Toronto protest was an ingenuously unacknowledged bastard cousin, has proven a wholesale failure.

What Ajami shows, in continually surprising revelations, is the essential core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: people on both sides trying to protect their loved ones and keep them alive, often with heartbreaking consequences.

This is what the BDS movement and the Toronto group cannot begin to accept. This is why they continue to alienate peace activists working in Israel and Palestine, and continue to blunder their way into doing the bidding of an eternal occupation.

The Toronto Declaration was ostensibly a protest against a festival decision to honor Tel Aviv and its centenary celebrations. But the neo-Socialist Realism text of the open letter went far beyond that. It denounced TIFF for failing to publicly note, for example, that “Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages.” An uproar ensued, not least because many observers, including some leftists, saw an implication that Tel Aviv, and, by extension, Israel, was itself occupied territory, bereft of legitimacy.

Jane Fonda, a headliner of the celebrities who signed the Toronto group’s declaration, came to recant her support, candidly writing in the Huffington Post that that she had “signed the letter without reading it carefully enough” and pointing in particular to the “abandoned villages” passage.

She added that “it can become counterproductive to inflame rather than explain and this means to hear the narratives of both sides, to articulate the suffering on both sides, not just the Palestinians. By neglecting to do this the letter allowed good people to close their ears and their hearts.”

The Toronto group was unmoved by Fonda’s words. They had achieved their goal, that of turning the spotlight away from Israel and, if only briefly, toward the real martyrs for Palestine – themselves. The web flowed with praise – and even petitions – hailing the courage of the “true heroes” of the Toronto Declaration.

The progression was shocking to watch. The vanity of the movement is matched only by its cluelessness. On the Declaration’s blog site, one of the links following the text of the open letter and its framer’s protestations that they were not calling for a boycott, was a statement by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel: “We encourage filmmakers and audiences to boycott the Spotlight as it extends a gesture of ‘goodwill’ to a colonial and apartheid regime which is violating Palestinian human rights with utter impunity.”

One of the founding members of PCABI is Omar Barghouti, who, while arguing for a crippling academic boycott against Israel, is currently studying for his master’s degree at Tel Aviv University. Asked by the Forward about his affiliation with an institution he wants boycotted, “Barghouti said he would not discuss his personal life.”

Citing Barhjouti’s refusal to walk the walk, the left-leaning weekly did not mince words in denouncing the BDS movement in an editorial this week. The movement’s adherents, it said, “seem uninterested in performing any personal sacrifice, or even measuring their ‘success’ by hard numbers. They are most intent on sullying Israel’s name and bullying anyone who might suggest another path toward peace in the troubled region.”

There was something altogether fitting about going to see Ajami on the weekend before Yom Kippur, the time of year when Jews are commanded to re-examine themselves in the harshest of light. Radical in its shifts across borders, language, and time, it forces shaken moviegoers to reconsider their preconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, no less, about themselves.

The BSD movement and the Toronto Declaration group, might consider doing no less. This has been a particularly self-defeating period for the boycott movement. It has shown itself to be mean of spirit and narrow of vision.

When singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen sought to dedicate concerts in Ramat Gan, Israel, and the Palestinian city of Ramallah to the cause of reconciliation, donating the proceeds to Israeli-Palestinian groups working against all odds toward that goal, boycott activists, many from the U.K., forced the cancellation of the Ramallah concert. Many Palestinians were horrified, and said so publicly, no less when the boycott proponents succeeded in getting Amnesty International to cancel its plans to play a role in fostering the distribution of the proceeds.

This week we observe the ancient boycott known as Yom Kippur. We ask forgiveness for sins of a hardened heart, of judgmentalism and hatred, of a willful deceit of others and an unknowing deceit of ourselves.

For the sin of demanding that only others search their souls and repent. And for the sin of finding others guilty and passing sentence, without having the courage to allow the accused to face their accusers.

To the BDS people and their spiritual kin in Toronto, let me say just this: When you criticize Israel, for God’s sake – if only for the Palestinians’ sake – tell the truth. The whole truth. Not just your carefully composed cardboard cutout, the cartoon of the Jewish villain and the Arab martyr. And not from a distance.

Come here. Do the work. Take the risks. Put your slogans and your posters and your buttons and signs and t-shirts and open letters to the test. Put your life where your sloganeering is.

You despise Israel, we get that. You dismiss the capacity of Israelis for good faith and humanism. We get that too. But if you talk struggle in Toronto and San Francisco and Irvine, it’s no more than talk, and wasted breath at that. You can boycott away, all you like. In the end, you’re only drumming up more business for Israel.

Alternatively, as a first step, you might go see Ajami. If it’s hard as hell for you to understand, then you’ve made a beginning. See it again.

It’s Yom Kippur. It’s time to get rattled. Just as in the cartoons, when you run off a cliff, it’s only when you look down, that you begin to plummet.

Look down. We’re all falling here. We’re all trying to keep our families and friends, our children and our elders, from the cliff. Until you understand that, you understand nothing.

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