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Why I'm boycotting anything 'made in Israel'

Exchange trips should be off: no holidays in sunny Eilat, even Christian pilgrims to the holy places might delay their trips

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
The Independent, 15 April 2002

First let me say the following as clearly and loudly as I can: I have fought against anti-Semitism all my life, against friends, colleagues, lovers, anyone who expressed anti-Jewish sentiments. I remember one night in 1974 when I stood for four hours under a lamp-post in north Oxford recovering from a screaming row with my ex-husband after he accused me of being excessively emotional about the Holocaust. My nine-year-old daughter was taken to see The Merchant of Venice in the week when all her friends were flooding to Harry Potter because we feel she needs to understand anti-Semitism as it arises around the world once again. I refused to support the UN conference against racism in Durban because I feared it would give licence to people to abuse Jews and it did. And as I observe the unsheathed hatred of Jews among many Muslims here and around the world, I feel shame and rage.

I condemn the acts of suicide bombers whose own hopelessness makes them target Israelis in cafés, at weddings, in street markets, bursting open the bodies of the young and the old and themselves; and by each act blowing away peace and progress. Israel – as it was originally created – has an absolute right to exist and to flourish, without fear.

But Israel has absolutely no right to do what it wants, to use such overpowering weaponry against mostly unarmed people (we will never ever know how many are being killed in the current deluge) and justify that by referring to the horrendous history which led to the creation of the Jewish homeland. In fact I would suggest that Ariel Sharon should be tried for crimes against humanity in Sabra and Shatila, and Jenin and other occupied areas and be damned too for so debasing the profoundly important legacy of the Holocaust, which was meant to stop forever nations turning themselves into ethnic killing machines.

Remind yourself of this. Read the gripping new biography of Primo Levi by Carole Angier to understand the inimitable humanity of great Jewish thinkers, people who had every reason to surrender to the abomination of all-out vengeance but never did. Levi's painstaking testimonies about what happened in Auschwitz illuminate connections and avoid the traps of special pleading. He surely would not have been able to witness without protest the depravity of the current Israeli leadership.

Sharon can only carry on with his invasion of the West Bank because Colin Powell and his master in the White House crumble before his brutish ways and the US pro-Israeli lobby. He knows too he has the blind support of Americans and Britons whose anti-Arab racism has this year reached new lows. One columnist writing in a US journal captures the view held by many: "Israeli tanks should mow down Arab youths as they throw stones. Kill them. Keep going until the Arabs decide whether they hate Jews more than they love their children. I don't think the Israelis would have to dispose of too many Arab children before the white flag would go up."

So do we just blink back our tears and wait for these deaths? No. That would be like killing all imagination and optimism. I have just come back from Cape Town where I met inspirational people who fought those long, long years against apartheid. They gave me courage that all is not lost. We don't have to depend on craven British ministers who still insist on blaming Arafat (no saint he) more than they can bring themselves to accuse Sharon.

These South African liberationists have already persuaded many people not to buy anything from Israel. No, they admit, apartheid was not exactly the same as what is happening in Palestine. Yet, they recognise the familiarities. The racism against Arabs which fuels hard-line leaders; the systematic violence and humiliation to force a population to succumb to what is an unjust deal; the bulldozers, oh the bulldozers which evoke such trembling memories in so many South Africans who remember how they too had their homes and lives turned to dust not that long ago.

They have not forgotten either that Israel for many years supported apartheid and that some Tories thought white South African rulers were just fine people. Nelson Mandela was also declared a terrorist for not denouncing the use of violence against the iniquitous system built on a permanent state of heightened paranoia, just like Israel today.

I think we – all those who want Israel to leave the occupied territories – should follow the example of the South African activists. I have already started looking at labels and putting back anything made in Israel. Many of my friends are doing the same. We are e-mailing organisations – not those based on religion because Palestinians are not only Muslims – but all those who want to see a world committed to universal human rights. Money will count more than words. The US will not be able to prop up the economy of Israel forever and these hard wars are expensive.

We should call on unions, especially Equity, to advise artists and others to cut relations with the state of Israel. Exchange trips should be off; no holidays in sunny Eilat (perhaps this is happening already because of fear), even Christian pilgrims to the holy places need to think if this is when God may want them to delay the trip. Please note these actions are not directed at Jewish people but at the Israeli government. We will not, for example, stop buying from shops in Britain owned by Jewish people.

I was heartened to find out that others are doing their bit. Professor Stephen Rose and Professor Hilary Rose have started a boycott of institutional, cultural, academic and research links with Israel. They have collected 300 names across Europe. Jewish academics have signed up too. The signatories must know that this means cutting off much that is of value. There are hundreds of joint research projects between Arab and Israeli academic institutions – scarce spaces where decent dialogue and co-operation has been able to carry on. But I think they are right to sign up because we are in the middle of an unprecedented inferno which politicians are doing nothing to quell.

We know some Israeli soldiers are rejecting Sharon's strategy and that small peace groups keep going, enduring rejection, accusations of treachery and worse every time another suicide bomber goes off. Several Jewish women who work for human rights are trying to find ways to make their objections heard. They know they must tread carefully so as not to give succour to Jew-haters but unless they take an ethical position, they will be violating all that they stand for. As one Jewish South African friend, an artist, who lives in London put it: "I owe it to my father who fought against apartheid and my grandfather who died in Germany, not to let my people turn into fascists. Don't name me but I say that many of us are beginning to think that Israel is a burden on our backs instead of the imagined haven we grew up thinking it was, the place of safety and honour in an evil world. I will not stand by and let them do this in my name."

She is not alone. These brave Jewish dissidents and others who refuse to retreat and cower will stop the tanks; or, if not, at least they will ensure the nameless hundreds who are being killed did not die undefended as the world looked on helplessly. So remember to read the label; put it back if it is made in Israel. You will know you did a little something.