February 3, 2014

GLICK | Cheering for Peace: The Problem With the Boycott

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By JACOB GLICK

As a self-proclaimed politico, Super Bowl Sunday is never the climactic television event of my year. I watched it, of course, but my attention was held far more easily by last week’s State of the Union, with its endless comedic interplay between the winking Joe Biden and the dour John Boehner. This still would have probably been the case even if there had been an ounce of suspense in the great Broncos’ massacre of 2014.

So it comes as no surprise that as I sat within the chicken-wing-graveyard of my Super Bowl party, my interest was suddenly piqued by Scarlett Johansson’s ad for SodaStream. While any unexpected appearance of Scarlett Johansson is usually enough to pique my interest, I was likewise drawn in by the declarations being made by my fellow Super Bowl viewers. They lauded the actress herself (predictably) and made reference to the controversy bubbling around SodaStream and its status as an Israeli company with production venues located in the West Bank.

And this brings us to boycotts.

While that one moment of political awareness dissolved as soon as Scarlett began dancing around with seltzer in hand, my Super Bowl party did briefly brush against the debate over a boycott of Israel, and thus tapped into an issue that has come to surface not only in the American public psyche, but also — and especially — in the psyche of the University and of the The Sun itself.

In the two weeks since publication began, my fellow columnists, Rebecca John ’14 and Anna-Lisa Castle ’14, made needlessly polemic arguments in favor of the American Studies’ Association recent academic boycott of Israel. In both these columns, Cornell’s opposition to these boycotts was depicted as something barbaric and Machiavellian, leaving the Administration complicit in the greatest moral outrage of the early 21st century. I feel very strongly that the best collegiate newspaper in the nation deserves a more nuanced debate than that.

I do not wish to rehash the basic arguments against boycotts. A recent — and very much needed — Letter to the Editor makes the case against their strategic utility. But it must be said that President David Skorton’s opposition to a boycott of Israel rests on far more solid ground than a purportedly flimsy devotion to “academic freedom,” as Castle suggests. Before our campus is whipped into a frenzy by those who believe that President Skorton — in a bid to ensure progress on his Tech Campus — has somehow formed a blindly-pro Israel conspiracy with Technion and other American universities, this Opinion section deserves a few hundred words of perspective.

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis, with the help of Secretary of State John Kerry, is reaching its boiling point. The next few weeks will determine whether Israel can endure as a Jewish, democratic state, and whether a Palestinian state can be forged with the pen rather than with the sword. This is a moment of hope, however tremulous, and the result of such a moment hinges on the ability of the public to encourage its leaders to embrace that hope, rather than retreat to their usual tropes of fear and paranoia.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming under fire from his far-right coalition allies for the mere suggestion that a peace plan 40 years in the making may actually be viable — what gall! — all our newspapers, from The New York Times down to The Sun, ought to be tempting him with the heroic allure and political necessity of peace. If the American public desires peace, it must do it all it can to force Israel, the stronger of the two parties, to prepare for the possibility that these long-dismissed negotiations may actually succeed. And discussing the threat of boycotts only enables conservative elements of the Israeli political spectrum, already wary of peace, to legitimate their own narrative of isolation and obstinance. Instead of shifting Israel’s conservative policies, boycotts may very well entrench them.

Boycotts are neither anti-Semitic, nor even necessarily “anti-Israel,” and I do not wish to suggest that my fellow columnists harbor unseemly resentments of any sort. But their endorsement of boycotts, at this moment in time, undermines their own stated goals. When John bemoans the Palestinians’ suffering under a “genocidal state apparatus” — I will leave the abhorrence of that statement for my readers to ponder — and when Castle more reasonably states that the Palestinians need a movement to make their “dignity” inevitable, both columnists endorse the necessity of a Palestinian state. Yet they go on to polarize the debate in such a way that forces us to choose sides rather than choose peace.

Each moment we waste discussing boycotts gives credence to forces within Israel who would rather not give concessions to a hostile world. Each word we read denouncing Israel (or Palestine) as a nation beyond redemption is another nail in the coffin of peace. It is not productive. To whomever wishes Palestinian sovereignty to be not a fever-dream of human rights activists but a reality attainable by our Secretary of State, leave behind boycotts for this moment. Think of how Israel and Palestine might move forward together, rather than rage over the ugliness of their present.

If we, as a campus and a nation, are more interested in achieving a dignified peace than in airing dissatisfactions and anxieties with the Jewish State, we should discuss how Israel can make good on its commitment to Western, democratic values and not how we might punish it for supposed violations of these values. We may not get another chance.

Jacob Glick is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jglick@cornellsun.com. Glickin’ It appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.