Why I'm Boycotting Israel

by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

The Independent (liberal), London, England, April 1 5, 2002

[World Press Review, July 2002]


First, let me say the following as clearly and loudly as I can: I have fought against anti-Semitism all my life, against friends, colleagues, lovers, anyone who expressed anti-Jewish sentiments.

My 9-year-old daughter was taken to see The Merchant of Venice in the week when all her friends were flooding to Harry Potter because we feel she needs to understand anti-Semitism as it arises around the world once again. I refused to support the U.N. conference against racism in Durban because I feared it would give license to people to abuse Jews, and it did. And as I observe the hatred of Jews among many Muslims here and around the world, I feel shame and rage.

I condemn the acts of suicide bombers whose own hopelessness makes them target Israelis in cafes, at weddings, in street markets, by each act blowing away peace and progress. Israel-as it was originally created-has an absolute right to exist and flourish without fear.

But Israel has absolutely no right to do what it wants, to use overpowering weaponry against mostly unarmed people (we will never know how many are being killed in the current deluge), and justify that by referring to the horrendous history which led to the creation of the Jewish homeland.

In fact, I would suggest that Ariel Sharon should be tried for crimes against humanity in Sabra, Shatila, and Jenin, and be damned too for so debasing the profoundly important legacy of the Holocaust, which was meant to stop forever nations turning themselves into ethnic killing machines.

Remind yourself of this. Read the gripping new biography of Primo Levi by Carole Angier, The Double Bond, to understand the inimitable humanity of great Jewish thinkers. Levi's painstaking testimonies about what happened in Auschwitz avoid the traps of special pleading. He surely would not have been able to witness without protest the depravity of the current Israeli leadership.

Sharon can only carry on with his invasion of the West Bank because Colin Powell and his master in the White House crumble before his brutish ways and the U.S. pro-lsraeli lobby. He knows too he has the blind support of Americans and Britons whose anti-Arab racism has this year reached new lows.

One columnist writing in a U.S. journal captures the view held by many. "lsraeli tanks should mow down Arab youths as they throw stones. Kill them. Keep going until the Arabs decide whether they hate Jews more than they love their children."

So do we just blink back our tears and wait for these deaths? No. That would be like killing all imagination and optimism. I have just come back from Cape Town, where I met inspirational people who fought those long, long years against apartheid. They gave me courage that all is not lost. We don't have to depend on craven British ministers who still insist on blaming Arafat (no saint he) more than they can bring themselves to accuse Sharon.

These South African liberationists have already persuaded many people not to buy anything from Israel. No, they admit, apartheid was not exactly the same as what is happening in Palestine. Yet, they recognize familiarities: the racism against Arabs which fuels hard-line leaders; the systematic violence and humiliation; the bulldozers which evoke such trembling memories in many South Africans.

They have not forgotten either that Israel for many years supported apartheid and that some Tories thought white South African rulers were just fine people. Nelson Mandela was declared a terrorist for not denouncing the use of violence against the iniquitous system built on a state of heightened paranoia, just like Israel today.

I think we-all those who want Israel to leave the occupied territories-should follow their example. I have started looking at labels and putting back anything made in Israel. Friends are doing the same. We are emailing organizations-not those based on religion because Palestinians are not only Muslims-but any that want a world committed to universal human rights. Money will count more than words. The United States will not be able to prop up Israel's economy forever; these hard wars are expensive.

We should call on unions, especially Equity, to advise artists to cut relations with Israel. Exchange trips should be off; no holidays in sunny Eilat (perhaps this is happening already because of fear); even Christian pilgrims to the holy places could ask if God may want them to delay the trip. These actions are not directed at Jewish people but at the Israeli government. We will not, for example, stop buying from shops in Britain owned by Jewish people.

I was heartened to find out that others are doing their bit. Professors Stephen and Hilary Rose have started a boycott of cultural, academic, and research links with Israel. They have collected 300 names across Europe. Jewish academics have signed up too.

The signatories know that this means cutting off much that is of value. There are hundreds of joint research projects between Arab and Israeli academic institutions-scarce spaces where decent dialogue has been conducted. But I think they are right to sign up because we are in the middle of an unprecedented inferno which politicians are doing nothing to quell.

We know some Israeli soldiers are rejecting Sharon's strategy and that small peace groups keep going- enduring calls of treachery and worse every time another suicide bomber goes off.

Several Jewish women who work for human rights are making their objections heard. As one Jewish South African friend, an artist who lives in London, put it: "l owe it to my father who fought against apartheid and my grandfather who died in Germany not to let my people turn into fascists. Don't name me, but I say that many of us are beginning to think that Israel is a burden on our backs instead of the imagined haven we grew up thinking it was."

She is not alone. These brave Jewish dissidents and others who refuse to cower will stop the tanks; if not, at least they will ensure that the nameless hundreds who are being killed did not die undefended as the world looked on. So remember to read the label; put it back if it is made in Israel. You will know you did a little something.

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