Umberto Eco does not understand the cultural boycott

Everywhere you look the boycott debate is in the news. Last week, acclaimed British writer Ian McEwan captured headlines for refusing Palestinian calls to boycott the 2011 Jerusalem Book Festival. Instead, McEwan accepted this year’s award with a sharp speech denouncing Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians and visited the weekly Shiekh Jarrah demonstration. Today, the Italian writing legend Umberto Eco caused more BDS controversy with statements denouncing the cultural boycott call as a ‘form of racism.’

Eco told reporters today at the Jerusalem Book Festival that, “I consider it absolutely crazy and fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government.” Eco’s strong comments reflect the depth of ignorance that is populating the BDS debate. According to Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural boycott of Israel (PACBI):

We, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid, by applying the following: Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions; Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions; Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;  Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations; Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

Notice that nothing is mentioned about individual Israeli academics in these points. The boycott is designed to target Israeli institutions that benefit from, assist and entrench the occupation. Individual Israelis and Jews are not included in this call. PACBI recently released a statement saying that, “our campaign has consistently targeted Israel and its complicit institutions, not individuals.”

Soon, the Israeli government will make public support of BDS illegal for Israelis. The time to have an honest and serious discussion about the movement, its aim and its effectiveness is now. Pandering to fears by using false accusations will achieve little other than enliven supporters of extremist Israeli policies. Enemies of Palestinian nonviolence have painted the BDS movement as an attempt to de-legitimatize Israel and Israelis. What BDS does, increasingly effectively, is draw attention to Israeli occupation, conquest and aggression using nonviolent tactics. Leaving us with a simple question: Does the Occupation de-legitimize Israel or do nonviolent efforts to stop it?