Byline: Jacob Weisberg
The very idea is repellent.
If you follow the news closely enough, you might have caught a small item recently noting that Meg Ryan had canceled a scheduled appearance at a film festival in Jerusalem to protest Israeli policy. This was significant not because anyone should care what the nose-crinkling movie star thinks about the Mideast but precisely because no one does. Ryan, a conventional Hollywood Democrat, is a barometer of celebrity politics. Her sort of sheeplike, liberal opinion once reflexively favored Israel. Now it's dabbling in the repellent idea of shunning the entire country.
Support for the Israeli cultural boycott has been growing in surprising places lately. After the Gaza flotilla incident in June, rock bands including the Pixies canceled performances at a music festival in Tel Aviv. Elvis Costello announced in May that he was canceling two upcoming performances to protest the treatment of Palestinians. Unlike Ryan, Costello is a thoughtful person whose views are worthy of respect. So why, exactly, do I think he's wrong, too? Why is a private embargo--which includes an academic boycott and the push for divestment on the anti-apartheid model--an unacceptable way for outsiders to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians?
One argument is that academic boycotts are intrinsically unacceptable because they violate the principles of free expression and the universality of science and learning. A parallel objection applies to cultural boycotts, which directly target the most forward-thinking members of a society. In the case of Israel, shunning writers like Amos Oz and David Grossman, who serve as national consciences, seems not only intrinsically vile but actively counterproductive. On the other hand, it would be hard to justify a blanket rule that cultural and academic sectors are always off-limits. In authoritarian societies, cultural institutions do tend to become ideological proxies--think of the National Ballet in Cuba, or the East German gymnastics team.
An even weaker case against the cultural boycott is that it's unlikely to work. While it's certainly true that cultural sanctions on their own are more inconvenience than lethal weapon, they can have a real impact. …