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Reasons for boycotting Israel: Catholics from southern Africa speak

Boycotting Israel

By Editor, Southern Cross (Southern Africa Catholic Weekly)
September 12, 2012

South Africa is taking a lead in instituting boycotts of Israel over that country’s occupation of the West Bank, and the oppression and dispossession of Palestinians there.

This month, the Student Council of the University of the Witwatersrand voted in favour of an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and in August South Africa’s deputy foreign minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, called on the country’s citizens not to visit Israel. He later clarified that he referred only to high-profile visits.

Calls for boycotts against Israel, especially academic and cultural embargoes, have a special resonance in South Africa. Many believe that the boycott movement of the 1980s contributed to the fall of apartheid.

“…to criticise Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza is not intrinsically anti-Semitic, nor does it contradict Israel’s right to exist in peace or its right to defend itself by reasonable and proportionate means.”

Pop singers such as Madonna, Rihanna and Elton John have been criticised for performing in Israel, much as 1980s entertainers were criticised for performing at Sun City.

The concerns expressed by the pro-boycott lobby are well-founded. Israel is a serial offender against United Nations resolutions and international law. Israel continues to illegally occupy the West Bank and is illicitly building settlements in those territories. These not only exacerbate friction between Jews and Arabs, but also constitute brazen land theft and a concrete obstacle to peace.

By encircling Bethlehem – the town where the Prince of Peace was born – with a wall twice as high as that which once divided Berlin, Israel has created a ghetto which stands as a symbol of injustice.

The defenders of Israel rightly point out that on the scale of human rights abusers there are many worse offenders. Few of them, however, are being treated as anything but pariahs. Madonna is not planning concerts in North Korea, nor is Rihanna going to Sudan, nor Elton John to Iran. When these international celebrities take to the stage in Tel Aviv, they implicitly endorse an unjust political reality. For the same reason they should not appear in China.

The boycott movement of Israel intends to highlight abuses which are being kept quiet, especially in the West.

This is an important issue for Christians: among those victimised by Israel’s draconian occupation are Palestinian Christians, with whom we should stand in solidarity. Indeed, the occupation is a leading cause of the drain of Christians from the land of our faith’s birth.

It is necessary that public pressure be applied on Israel, which is acutely protective of its reputation, even if this means being labelled “anti-Semitic” or “racist”.

However, boycott initiatives must guard against visiting hardship upon ordinary Palestinians or the peace movement.

For example, a travel boycott would destroy the Palestinian religious tourism industry, one of the few sources of steady revenue and employment. Palestinians remember well the devastating effects on tourism of the Second Intifada, or uprising, in the first years of the past decade, when tourism was reduced to a trickle.

Instead of advocating a travel boycott, peace activists will serve the greater good by encouraging the use of services provided by Palestinian operators (Christian pilgrimage operators in the Holy Land usually are Christians).

This would answer Mr Ebrahim’s concerns that visits by South Africans to Israel “would somehow endorse the occupation of Palestinian territory”.

Indeed, using Palestinian services instead of those offered by Israel would represent explicit and material support for the oppressed – and a sign of the Christian solidarity with the oppressed which the Church’s leaders in the region and the Holy See have called for.

It must be clearly understood: to criticise Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza is not intrinsically anti-Semitic, nor does it contradict Israel’s right to exist in peace or its right to defend itself by reasonable and proportionate means.

But it must also be understood that Israel has no claim to the moral high ground it asserts for itself and is granted by much of the West. If boycotts are one way of communicating this, then they merit serious consideration.

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