Good books and bad boycotts

By Alex Brummer, July 8, 2013

Paul Theroux has long been among my favourite writers. I enjoyed his early African novels, have admired his travelogues, and was immensely excited to read of the publication of his new book, Last Train to Zona Verde.

Then I remembered an interview with Theroux published in the Guardian in May.

He was asked which living person he most despised, and why. "Ariel Sharon for his role in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre of 3,500 civilians, mainly Palestinians, in Lebanon in September 1982," Theroux replied.

No one can pretend this was the greatest day in Israel's 65-year history. But it was fully investigated by the independent Kahan Commission and Sharon paid with a period in political exile. Moreover, blame for the tragedy can be shared with the Phalangist, Christian militias.

Compare the scale of Sabra and Shatila to the UN findings of the slaughter of 80,000 innocents in Syria and the dislocation of millions to refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. It doesn't measure up at all, even if one agrees there is no such thing as moral equivalence.

It makes me want to start a boycott campaign

But what I really resent is that Theroux's comment makes me want to organise my own boycott campaign and not buy his book, even though it is something I want to read. His comments are a betrayal of my liking for his work as a person of letters.

This is not the first time this has happened recently. How could one feel anything but sympathy when one of Scotland's best and most effective writers Iain Banks tragically revealed that he had cancer. But before his death last month he felt it necessary to remind everyone why he was leading a cultural boycott of Israel. After this, catching up on his novels before he left us somehow didn't seem such an attractive proposition.

One of my favourite recording artists is the singer Annie Lennox, having seen her perform live in Washington during my sojourn as correspondent in the city.

How dispiriting it was then to find her a leading campaigner against what she viewed as Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

The truth is I might have even stayed with the struggling Co-op Bank after its takeover of the Britannia building society, where I had an account. I rather admired its ethical credentials. It has developed cash machines that speak to the visually impaired - an inspiring idea. But how could one carry on banking with the only commercial organisation so far daft enough to boycott West Bank goods, even when that means that Palestinian produce marketed by Israeli fruit companies is also proscribed?

It was not long before I was closing my account and destroyed my Co-op card.

The campaign to delegitimise Israel, with Stephen Hawking among the latest to jump on the bandwagon, is a direct affront to my own cultural tastes. Of course the Palestinians have a genuine case that needs to be heard. But the tendency of figures in the arts and on the left to see Israel as the source of all wrongdoing in the Middle East, and to be part of the delegitimisation campaign, is immensely disturbing.

Far from encouraging a boycott of Israel, it leads those of us who really admire writers such as Theroux, to want to abandon them. But at a deeper level, a warped political judgment on the Middle East raises questions about the credibility of Theroux's accounts of what is taking place elsewhere, for example in Southern Africa.

People in the arts and commerce are entitled to their views. But as the Arab Spring has demonstrated, the Middle-East narrative that has Israel at the centre of all that is wrong in the region, has proved a canard.

The real tragedy of the Middle East is food poverty across the Arab world, youth unemployment and yearning for an end to kleptocracy and repression. That is why Israel's unthinking critics and boycotters betray us all.

Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 10:45am, July 8 2013