Ambassadors Online – Academic Public Diplomacy


BDS: Humanism or Racism?

By –Idan Zak

30 June 2012. Madonna, the renowned singer, started a few weeks ago her world tour by giving a “Peace Concert” in Israel. She donated free tickets for Israeli and Palestinian peace organizations, and delivered a speech in favor of peace during the show. Personally, I thought it was a nice idea, but apparently some people saw it as a violation of Palestinian rights.

The Israeli “BOYCOTT!” organization published a letter addressed to human rights organizations, urging them not to participate in the Peace Concert. As part of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, the organization calls artists from all over the world to boycott Israel and urges the world’s universities to cut their academic connections with Israeli universities.

The boycott activists claim that boycotting Israel is a humane action, aimed to help the Palestinian people. They see Israel as a racist, evil country that has to be punished. Many articles have been written about the groundless claims against Israel, but let’s assume for a minute that all their claims are correct, and look at the potential of cultural and academic boycott, as a tool for promoting peace and humanism in the Middle East.

Can such a boycott serve humane goals? As so-called human rights’ activists, the BDS members surely know that culture and education contribute significantly to the promotion of democracy, humanism and pluralism, and enhance modern and liberal opinions. This is true everywhere, and specifically in Israel. College degrees have a major role in the improvement of the socio-economic status of Arabs in Israel. Art and culture in Israel have an important role in criticizing the government and its policy. Plays and literature, academic schools and research – all contribute to the promotion of democratic, liberal and humane values.

In the Israeli academy, as well as on Israeli theatres’ stages, and through Israeli prose and poetry, a lively and self-inquisitive discussion concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taking place,   In the Israeli universities, Arabs, Druze and Jews are teaching and researching, with no discrimination whatsoever. In the theatres, Arab actors are performing alongside Jew actors, and naturally no one cares whether you’re a Jewish or an Arab Israeli when you buy a ticket for Madonna’s concert. So how can it be said that boycotting Israeli academy and culture can be a weapon in the hands of humane activists?

Throughout history the opposite has usually proven true. It was the academy and culture who threatened even the darkest regimes. The best way to disprove absurd racist ideas is by academic means. One of the best ways to fight dictatorship is by publishing plays, movies and books which object to it and criticize it. This is why the darkest regimes in the history of mankind censured culture and academy in their countries and used these assets for their own needs. Fortunately, things are different in Israel. As I mentioned above, both academic and cultural institutes are independent and do not hesitate to criticize the government. Those who call for boycott are trying to change this situation, and to force Israel into becoming the dark regime they claim it to be, by suppressing its culture and academy. The BDS activists do not care at all about the role of the academic and cultural institutes in Israel; they simply want to boycott any Israeli institute, regardless of the values they stand for.


Why? On the BDS website it is stated that “Israeli cultural and academic institutions directly contribute to maintaining, defending or whitewashing the oppression of Palestinians, as Israel deliberately tries to boost its image internationally through academic and cultural collaborations”. In other words, the BDS activists wish to prevent one from seeing the full picture. When they describe Israel as a dark and racist country, a problem occurs]: anyone who has been in Israel, or is familiar with Israeli artists and scholars, has encountered a modern, western culture and academy that do not fit in the story the BDS are trying to sell. Instead of dealing with Israel’s advantages, the BDS, much like the most horrible regimes the world has known, is trying to censure culture and academy in order to draw a false, simplified, one-sided picture of reality.

Those who boycott Israel aren’t “Pro-Palestinians”, for their actions are not aimed at benefiting anyone. On the contrary; since many Israeli institutes help Palestinians in many ways, harming those institutes is in fact harming the Palestinians themselves. Israeli hospitals extend medical treatment to Palestinian children and train Palestinian doctors. Academic institutes in Israel cooperate with Palestinian institutes, and the Israeli MFA initiates training and study programs for Palestinian women. Harming Israeli institutes is harming all those cooperative enterprises and many more, a bad idea for anyone who is “Pro-Palestinians”. In fact, those so-called “Pro-Palestinians” activists abroad are more extreme than the Palestinian people. While many Palestinians are willing to cooperate with Israeli institutes, the BDS activists are trying to stop any such cooperation, not minding the consequences or the effect on the peace process.

Not only are the BDS members not “Pro-Palestinians”, they are also not “Pro” anything. They’re simply “Anti-Israeli”. They do not object to a specific Israeli government or policy, they object Israel itself. Their goal is not a humane goal, it is a political one. The BDS movement claims to support the boycotting of Israel until their three demands  are fulfilled: they demand Israeli retreat to the 67′ borders; equal rights for the Arabs in Israel; and the promotion of the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return to Israel’s territory. Even Norman Finkelstein – who loses no opportunity to attack Israel and who is empathetic towards HAMAS and Hezbollah – attacked the BDS movement, saying that the fulfillment of these demands (specifically the third) means the destruction of Israel. The BDS activists do not wish Israel to exist, and they recognize no right for a Jewish state.  They want Israel to be eliminated and they are promoting this goal by their international activity. Like any other incitement, their first step is to portrait Israel as inhuman.

Many Anti-Israeli actions are taking place under the flag of so-called human rights and Humanism. An academic and cultural boycott on the one hand and a humane activity on the other are total opposites. He who boycotts artists and scholars on a national basis is a racist, not a humanist.