Saturday, June 12, 2010

Why boycotting a country is immoral

We have recently witnessed various attempts to boycott Israel, both academically and culturally. The academic boycott involved not collaborating with Israeli scholars, not allowing them to publish in journals, not inviting them to conferences, and not accepting invitations to speak in Israel. The cultural boycott involved artists and musicians cancelling planned visits, and authors refusing to allow their works to be translated into Hebrew. These actions were motivated by the idea that Israel was behaving immorally, and the boycotters sought to distance themselves from Israel's actions and to make a public statement.

I would like to argue here that the act of boycotting is in itself immoral, and that it stems from confused and misguided thinking.

The first thing that is wrong with the boycott is that it constitutes collective punishment. In this case, the entire population of a country is considered to be morally responsible for the decisions and policies of its government, and the actions of its armed forces. In practice, the population holds a wide variety of opinions, and in some cases, the government's policies do not even reflect the opinion of the majority, due to the complicated electoral system and the formation of coalition governments.

It is particularly noticeable that the attempts to boycott Israeli academics end up targetting some of the most prominent pro-Palestinian activists among the Israeli population, since the academic world tends to be more left-wing than nationalist. It may also be the case, though this has not been studied to my knowledge, that Israelis interested in hearing performances by foreign musicians and reading translated fiction are more likely to have left-wing, universalist tendencies.

In this way, the supporters of the government's policies are likely to respond to the boycott with apathy, saying things like "good riddance" and "everyone hates us anyway", while those who want to be part of the world community and who value western culture feel they are being rejected because of actions and policies they do not support.

The second reason I find these boycotts immoral is the attitude of righteous indignation and self-justifying of the boycotters. By making these decisions, they are declaring that they have absolute knowledge that they are right and others are wrong, and they want to exclude those they believe are wrong from the human community. This demeans and dehumanizes the people they reject.

In my opinion, moral people have a primary attitude that we are all human and should all be treated as human, and that behaviours we believe are wrong should be corrected through education and dialogue. Refusing to have contact with perceived wrong-doers seems to me to reflect some sort of subconscious primal fear of contamination.

The boycott represents one of the most extreme forms of creating a clear separation between two groups, "us" and "them", implying that "we" are right while "they" are wrong. Moral behaviour requires people, in my mind, to expand the "us" group to include all of humanity, instead of excluding and dehumanizing certain groups.

Ultimately, we are all individuals and our lives involve certain things beyond our individual control. Some people may agree 100% with the policies of their elected leaders, while others may violently disagree. To treat all the individuals living in a country as a uniform group with uniform opinions is misguided and naive.

I also find it strange that so many people around the world have such strong and definite opinions (or even certainties) about the complex issue of Israel and Palestine, while they probably express no such opinions about other national disputes around the world. In most cases, I don't believe their opinions are based on thorough knowledge of the facts.

It is also strange that the boycott weapon is not applied over other issues that could be considered just as important. For example, I think many British and European academics and artists might be strongly opposed to the death penalty if they thought about it, but would they boycott the US states that execute convicts?

There seems to be a lot of hypocricy going on among the sort of people who say, on the one hand, that the west must have dialogue with countries like Iran and China, because dialogue is the only way to promote progress, while on the other hand they consider Israel somehow beyond this sort of treatment.

The final point I would like to address is the motivation behind actions. Some actions are motivated by the survival instinct. A country whose existence is threatened, after being at war for its entire lifespan, behaves differently than countries that are safe, prosperous and thriving. Of course, this does not justify every action, but it does explain the mindset and needs to be taken into account. However, I now believe that there are more than just these two levels, surviving and thriving. There is a worse level, below that of surviving, and this is where people are motivated by destructiveness. In order to thrive, one's physical needs have to be guaranteed, so one has the time and energy to spend on development. In order to survive, one has to be willing to fight and sometimes pay a high price. This is not an ideal state to live in. However, there are also those who actively enjoy destroying things and causing pain, and are motivated by hatred. It seems to me that singling out the population of one country as unworthy of receiving the same treatment as the rest of the world can be, in some cases, an act of hatred, disguised as a moral act.

I would like to call on readers who supported the idea of boycotting Israel to reconsider. First, please think of Israel as a country full of very diverse individuals rather than as one uniform group. Second, learn the facts and discover that things are not as simple as you may have thought. The world is not made up of black and white. Finally, please be honest with yourself and consider the motivation behind your opinion. If you find you are a person capable of hatred, I hope this will shock you into trying to change yourself.