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Oliver Sears

The Irish Times, July 23, 2018

As the son of a Holocaust survivor I came to see cultural boycotts as wrongheaded.

What do cultural boycotts entail for those countries under sanction; are they effective and can they be morally justified? As a second-generation survivor of the Holocaust whose family witnessed the discrimination of Nazi persecution in extremis, I have grave reservations that cultural boycotts can ever achieve their objectives without fomenting prejudice against the individual.

In the mid-1980s one of the most well known challenges to a cultural boycott of a nation came to the attention of the international community. Paul Simon’s Graceland album was heavily influenced by South African rhythms and the American singer-songwriter invited black South African musicians to record the album with him. When he decided to tour South Africa with the same musicians, Simon faced resistance from many anti-apartheid supporters and the ANC who had called for a cultural and economic boycott of South Africa.

The ANC, however, had not bargained on Simon’s resolve, humanity and political astuteness. He explained that the inclusion of black South African musicians on an album that sold millions of copies worldwide brought awareness of the political regime he was being asked to boycott to an audience whose knowledge of South Africa started with the Kruger National Park and might have stretched to Nelson Mandela. Years later the ANC conceded it had been misguided to call for Simon to be banned.

There are numerous dictatorships in the world today. Half the world’s population does not enjoy free elections. It is only Israel, it seems, which is the focus of a vehement campaign supporting both a cultural and economic boycott. Supporters of an independent Palestinian state never appear to articulate any dissent towards the governments of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey or any other Middle Eastern dictatorship.

Israel may have its political problems, an illiberal government and an appalling policy towards Palestinians in the occupied territories but it is a democracy where a quarter of its population are Arabs who experience more freedom and opportunity than Arabs in any other Muslim country. The aforementioned Arab states are responsible for human rights abuses that simply dwarf the scale of Israel’s illegitimate actions. It may be scant consolation to the victims of Israeli abuse but boycotting Israeli culture isn’t the answer.

Economic boycotts can occasionally be justifiable. While they can result in a collective national punishment if they are well targeted, it’s largely the regime that feels the pain. The current sanctions against Russia have clearly affected both the government and the associated oligarch class that props it up.

Years of sanctions against Iran were instrumental in bringing it to the negotiating table where agreement to curb their nuclear programme was reached. Historic sanctions against Burma finally brought the ruling generals to turn towards democracy and the years of economic sanctions against North Korea look like they have played an important role in bringing North Korea in from the cold, however naive the US president appears to be.

Sanctions can pour more misery on to the wretched population, oppressed for decades. The argument goes that, in these cases, the situation is so bad for the vast majority of people that crippling sanctions at least give them hope that change is possible. The morality of not investing in the economy and regime of a country that does not embrace democratic values and abuses its own citizens is clear and justifiable.

Cultural boycotts, however, can never be justified. After the shameful war in Gaza in 2014, British MP George Galloway, a lifelong opponent of Israel, not only called for an economic and cultural boycott of Israel, he declared that Israelis were not welcome in his Yorkshire constituency of Bradford West. This, of course, is where all cultural boycotts lead – the vilification and exclusion of the individual based on nationality, race and/or religion.

And the decades-long cultural boycott of the West by the Soviet bloc contributed much to the encouragement of inherent nationalist tendencies and xenophobia that threatens democracy today in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovenia, and prevented Russia from developing a democracy after the fall of communism. If you don’t interact with the cultures you’re taught to fear, it’s very easy to perpetuate that fear.

Nazi discrimination

For Jews the very term “cultural boycott” cannot be separated from the discrimination by the Nazi regime from 1933 that led to book-burning, the Nuremberg laws and the illegality of every aspect of Jewish life, including and especially life itself. When I was growing up in London in the 1970s and 1980s, the son of a Holocaust survivor, my parents avoided German produce wherever possible but there was no proselytising. The most popular make of taxi in Israel was Mercedes, after all. But putting money into a German state that had, alongside its campaign of mass murder, stolen enormous sums of money from its Jewish citizens went far beyond morality. For us it was impossible. It meant funding our own misery.

I followed my parents’ lead until the age of 32. But I studied German at school, read works by Heinrich Boll and WG Sebald, among other German authors, went to exhibitions of Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer and listened to the sublime virtuosity of Anne-Sophie Mutter. To boycott contemporary German culture would have been an obscenity, however understandable given my family history. For it is the exchange of thinking, of art and of trade that sits at the heart of the Jewish diaspora and is the central mechanism that allows competing tribes to communicate and co-exist without slaughtering each other.

My own economic boycott of Germany ended in 2000 with a Damascene conversion due to three main reasons: my stance was not making me feel any better; it certainly wasn’t having any impact on the German economy; and the Germans make the best cars.

Oliver Sears is an art gallery owner and former trustee of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland

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