The Cost of Boycott

For some time, Dr. Eitan Galun, the head of Hadassah Medical Organization’s Goldyne Savad Gene Therapy Institute, has been engaged in research to cure a genetic disease prevalent in the Palestinian community. He recently requested genetic material from a Norwegian scientist and was refused. "Due to the present situation in the Middle East, I will not deliver any material to an Israelitic (sic) university," she responded by e-mail. With this statement, she engaged in nothing less than a boycott of Israel and its scientists. By her actions, which confuse science with politics, the Palestinian population will needlessly continue to suffer from a disease that could be cured through scientific cooperation. This irony seems to have escaped the Norwegian researcher.

This is only the latest example of how some sectors of the international community are singling out Israel and the Jewish people for boycott and censure. Israel has long and consistently been a prime target of international boycotts. Since 1948, the Arab League has enforced a triple-level boycott aimed at isolating the Jewish state: Through economic warfare, it has targeted Israel and Israeli businesses in a primary boycott, companies that did business with Israel or Israeli companies in a secondary boycott and, finally, companies that deal with businesses on the secondary boycott list. Since October 2000, the Arab League has reinvigorated its boycott of Israel.

The Arab League boycott of Israel is illegal under U.S. law. The Export Administration Act of 1977, the primary anti-boycott law, prohibits any U.S. citizen or company from complying with a boycott against a country friendly with the United States. Any requests received by an individual or company for boycott information must be reported to the Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance in the Department of Commerce. Fines have been imposed on U.S. companies that acquiesce to the Arab boycott of Israel.

Within this context, it is distressing that there are increasing calls for boycotts within the American Jewish community. To decry the actions of those who would willfully bring economic harm to Israel while mimicking them against other targets — media outlets, fast food chains, auto manufacturers, entire nations — is to employ an insupportable double standard. The wisdom from Pirkei Avot of "Do unto others…" still rings true even — or especially — in our very dangerous world.

From a practical standpoint, too, boycotts present major strategic limitations. An editorial published in the May 2, 2002 issue of the prestigious British journal Nature, reacting to the spate of European boycotts against Israeli scientists, stated: "…the concept of a research boycott restricts channels that are better kept open. …Such boycotts are misguided and should be opposed in favour of constructive initiatives." In the end, boycotts effectively isolate their targets and withdraw the boycotter from the opportunity for future dialogue.

For instance, if we do not like the way that Israel is portrayed in the media, initiating a conversation with the newspaper, radio station or magazine is the most constructive avenue for change. Hadassah did just that — to some stiff criticism recently — when we invited the president of National Public Radio (NPR) to participate on a panel discussion at our national convention that analyzed media bias against Israel. There were many in the audience who think NPR does not treat Israel fairly in its coverage of the conflict. They forcefully stated so. They listened and they were heard. There were those who disagreed with the speaker’s conclusions, and those who did not. Yet, no one left the session without feeling that an open, freewheeling and important discussion had taken place — that this dialogue was a starting point that holds great promise for change.

The concept of dialogue is sacred to Judaism. The Talmud is written in the form of a dialogue with several minority opinions represented. In civil affairs, democracy is civic dialogue governed by law. As Americans, we are citizens of the world’s most successful democracy. As members of the Jewish community and the Zionist movement, we are grounded in a strong tradition of democracy and dialogue. We proudly point to Israel, our Jewish homeland, as the only democratic state in a region rife with dictators and demagogues who use boycotts to destroy our Zionist dreams.

Boycotts — which by their very nature rule out dialogue — are not democratic tools. In this age of instant communication, most boycotts derive from that most ungoverned of democracies, the World Wide Web. With its promise of reaching thousands of people with the click of a mouse, the Internet has given anyone, anywhere — with a beef and a computer — the ability to organize a boycott. In fact, we are living through the Wild West of the Internet age. Facts are rarely checked; targets are chosen at will; damage is done at lightening speed. Rather than fostering democracy, employing the Web to engage in boycotts is to encourage herd mentality at its worst.

The Hadassah National Board recently passed a policy statement rejecting all calls for boycotts from the Jewish community. We urge our members to resist the nearly endless and seductive invitations to join boycotts. We urge the same of our colleagues in the Jewish community at-large. We urge everyone to keep the paths of communication open, to discuss, to argue, to settle conflicts through open negotiations and not the unilateral actions of a boycott. As in the case of the Norwegian researcher, the cost of doing otherwise is simply too great.