Monday, May 30, 2011


I traveled to South Africa in February of 1995, very shortly after the ANC came to power.  We were making our way from Cape Town to Johanesburg, where we were to participate in a voter registration drive.  In a rental car we drove along the Garden Route, marveling at the stunning beauty of it all and stopping on occasions to talk to people, all of whom were exceptionally friendly and keen to converse.  In Port Elizabeth, a kindly lady invited us to her home and served us tea and cookies, and wanted to know all about us.  She was, herself, quite apolitical, and probably also a bit of a racist, in a genteel sort of way ("all those cute, cute, chocolate babies").  We stayed all of 30 minutes and when we were getting up to leave, she said, "I cannot tell you how wonderful it is that people like you are coming to South Africa again". 

And there it was.  What the years of boycott and sanctions had meant for that woman and for many, one is sure, like her.  It was not the declining economy that got to her - she had not suffered from it.  It was not the moral injustice of apartheid that got to her - even if in her way she didn't think it quite right.  Surely, her individual life had not changed much.  The black housekeeper, one could be sure, would continue to come, and the guests for tea would continue to be white.   What got to her was the universal judgment, the relentless condemnation, the rejection. Juxtaposed with that was her need - that community's need, to be approved of, to be accepted, to be taken back into the bosom of the 'civilized' world.  'You cannot imagine how wonderful it is that people like you are coming here again'...

The boycott of Israel is very much at its beginning.  Economically, it has been insignificant.  It has even been difficult to get a compelling result for boycotting goods from the settlements.  The cultural and academic boycott, however, has been considerably more successful.  And gradually, one is starting to perceive the hurt feelings, the sense of insult, that are emerging, in Israel, around it.  The palpable consternation at being judged, condemned, rejected, emerging precisely with those sections of the population that long the most for such acceptance, those sections of the population that would like to think themselves non-culpable, but which are.

Why do you boycott Israel, people ask.  Shouldn't you boycott the US?  But boycott is like guerrilla warfare.  You pick the fights you can win.  We just might win this one.

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