Israel needs critical friends

By Jennifer Lipman, February 8, 2014

Oh, for the conviction of those who would boycott Israel. Forget about nuance or anguished deliberation, and bring on kneejerk condemnation the minute anyone creative does anything that suggests they might, vaguely, not dislike Israel.

You see it when bands announce they are performing in Tel Aviv; even before the tickets are on sale, petitions are circulated calling for the star to put principles before profits. You see it when Israeli scientists and writers are asked to participate in foreign forums; letters are sent hurriedly to newspapers, signed by an eminent chorus.

The moment Scarlett Johansson was announced as “brand ambassador” for SodaStream, which operates in the West Bank, the backlash was inevitable. Young, blonde, Jewish star, waving a flag for Israel? They were never going to let that one go. So despite ties with Oxfam going back to 2007, she was forced to part company with them. “We have made our concerns [about Israel] known to Ms Johansson,” said Oxfam, leaving her with little choice but to pull one of two plugs.

I daresay that in the reverse situation the more strident of Israel’s defenders would have reacted in much the same hotheaded way – as indeed, many did, after Stephen Hawking backed the boycott, or recently, when the Zionist Organisation of America called for followers to avoid Saving Mr Banks because of Emma Thompson’s attacks on Habima. Much as I disagree with Thompson’s position, it is abhorrent to fight one boycott with another.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians need more sycophantic friends. They need critical supporters, who will say when a line is crossed, who recognise the need for compromise in pursuit of the greater good. Peace will remain illusory when the only people engaging are cheerleaders for a particular side, refusing even to concede that their opponents might occasionally have a point.

For the boycotters, it’s a victory when a concert in Israel is cancelled; likewise for Israel’s more zealous fans any visit from a celebrity is cause for celebration.

Yet how much more constructive are the actions of Ian McEwan, who went to Jerusalem to collect an award, but used the visit as a platform to urge Israeli to “agitate” for democracy and call for an end to the settlements?

Or Mandy Patinkin, better known as Saul on Homeland, a Peace Now advocate who toured Silwan in East Jerusalem and expressed hope that his grandchildren would “be able to have hummus with their neighbours in Hebron”.

Yet as Oxfam would have it, Scarlett Johannson should stay at home and join them jeering from the sidelines. In giving her an us or them ultimatum, they demonstrated that their agenda is not constructive criticism, not dialogue, but unmitigated opposition.

Maybe her platitudes about equality were just that. But Oxfam could have challenged her to agitate for better treatment of the Palestinians, and not just those who work at SodaStream. Instead, they made her take sides, as so many involved in the debate demand.

It’s dispiriting, because candid supporters are surely the best hope of keeping Israelis and Palestinians at the negotiating table.

Oxfam have proved, once again, that support for Israel comes at a cost, but have done nothing to further the cause of change. The Israelis and the Palestinians need more critical friends. How sad that Oxfam want to stop them raising their voices.

Last updated: 8:45am, February 8 2014