Why not to boycott Israel over Eurovision

18th May 2019

The beginning of May is always a busy and emotional time in Israel. First comes Holocaust Memorial Day between the 1st and 2nd, and then on the 8th, Remembrance Day, when Jews commemorate the fallen soldiers in Israel’s history. The week long mourning ends with a huge celebration: Independence Day on the 9th. This year, on top of everything, Israel is hosting Eurovision, the mega intra-European song contest. For many in the country, this has meant an extended celebration until the finale on the 19th.  

For many outside of the country, Eurovision has provided the perfect opportunity for an extra week of angry social media posts. This time, they state that we should be boycotting Eurovision in Israel, with some arguing that – as a colonial project – the country is illegitimate.  

The fact that people are still disputing Israel’s right to exist, and trying to exclude it from the international community, albeit disguised as righteous rage towards the Eurovision organisers, is ludicrous. Israel is hosting Eurovision in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. That city is its undisputed and internationally recognised capital. As a sovereign state in uncontested territory the location of Eurovision’s choice of location should not be questioned.

Those who call for a boycott are doing so from a place of prejudice. They hold a binary worldview that pits oppressor against oppressed, BAME against white, Zionist-Christian-Crusader against everyone else. The greatest irony is that many of those who claim that Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory is a fallacy are the ones that most fervently propagate a version of it.

Many of these online “slacktivists” peddle old anti-semitic tropes, repurposed as criticism of Israel. The most popular on our crank Left-Islamist axis are: “Zionism is inherently racist” (which is links back to the prejudices against Jews for their emphatic non-assimilation throughout the ages) and “Zionism was a colonial project” (Jews are invading our societies). The scheming Zionist has replaced the scheming Jew.

Whatever they may insist, these “slacktivists” are not fighting for equality, but for revenge. Calls to boycott Eurovision perfectly embody this dogma.

Yes Israel does bad things. Their treatment of Palestinians is abhorrent. However, as we have seen with countless other “problematic” states, engagement, rather than isolation has tended to work. Most advocating for boycotting Israel advocate engagement with Iran. So why not both? Iran is in many ways a worse regime to live under than Israel is.

True form, the crank Left turns a blind eye to the despotic regimes in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) stand accused of persistently suppressing free speech, arbitrary arrests and torture of their own citizens. Apologists claim that the treatment of Palestinian citizens by their governments are a secondary issue, irrelevant to the question of Palestinian independence.

But you cannot uncouple the issues. If you blame Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu for killing the Oslo Accords on the Israeli side, you should acknowledge that his de facto ally was Hamas. They were equally as keen to destroy the possibility of peace. They have achieved more than their wildest dreams, and even now continue their symbiotic relationship through a never ending waltz of rocket fire: both real and metaphorical.

Those calling for a boycott also forget that there are 1.890 million Arabs living in Israel as Israeli citizens.  Some of the most popular and best restaurants and parties in Tel Aviv, for example, are Arab enterprises. Flourishing in Israel does not make them traitors or the enemy within. They are the ones keeping the flame of Palestinian culture and life burning within the Jewish state. They are the survivors, the ones that refused to leave their homes during a succession of wars that resulted in most of the Palestinian population becoming displaced.  

Those calling for a boycott also forget that it is possible to travel to the West Bank and Palestinian-dominated areas in Israel such as Haifa, Jaffa and East Jerusalem, and to support the Palestinian economy.

Surely it is much more productive to go to an area, engage with the people and empower their economy rather than making ill-informed calls for a boycott from thousands of miles away?

For all the vitriol thrown by Israel against its critics, you are able to visit areas that the government doesn’t want you to see. Were it not so, there wouldn’t be decades-worth of Western students chaining themselves to olive trees, thousands of tourists that pass through the West Bank every year, aid workers, interns and journalists living and working in the West Bank and Gaza. You can go to the refugee camps, sleep there, and talk with refugees. They too have agency and are not pawns to be used by social justice crusaders on their quest to be the most “woke”.

Israeli groups such as Breaking the Silence take you on tours around Hebron and explain the occupation to you from the the perspective of former IDF soldiers. They are regularly abused by the settlers living there: ask anyone who has been on a tour there. They are decried by the government as traitors. But they still operate.

If you do that, also try to understand the Israeli side of the story. Go to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (its free), go to the Israel Museum (its free for students), and to the Iraqi Museum in Or Yehuda (the tickets are cheap). Visit Tzfat and the kibbutzim on the Sea of Galilee. Engage with Israelis and ask them their family’s story. Whether they are Holocaust survivors, were airlifted from Yemen or Iraq in the 20th century, fled from Morocco or walked from Ethiopia to Sudan and then airlifted to Israel, or any of the other millions of stories, they are guaranteed to captivate you. Everyone will know or know of someone who was killed in a war or in a terrorist attack.

Israel is an internationally recognised state, and so it will remain. That is not up for discussion. What is still being negotiated is its form, whether it be one state, two states or a federation incorporating the West Bank, Israel and Gaza.  

The correct way forward is therefore not to isolate Israel, but rather to give Israelis and Palestinians the tools and capital to show each other that coexistence is possible, to assure each side that the other is a trustworthy partner for peace. Sharing angry boycott photos on Facebook does the opposite. It feeds the conflict and perpetuates distrust.

I hope that the latest spat between Donald Trump and Iran and the escalating tensions between the two serves as a cautionary tale for my BDS friends. Boycotting doesn’t bring peace. If anything, as we have seen time and time again – with US sanctions on Iran and North Korea, and with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank – deprivation will only trigger a backlash. The answer is therefore to engage with Israel and their whole population, Arabs and Jews alike.