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Israelis feel boycott's sting
Creeping sense of isolation as culture, economy take hits

By Danielle Haas, Chronicle Foreign Service
San Francisco Chronicle
6 August 2002

Jerusalem -- Relations between the Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy at this city's Hadassah Hospital and the Norwegian Veterinary School have long been warm.

So it came as a shock when Professor Ingrid Harbit, who heads the Oslo school, sent Goldyne an e-mail on April 22 rejecting its request for a DNA sample because of Israeli military activities in Palestinian areas.

"(Against) this background, I find it impossible for me to deliver any material to an Israeli university," she said in the note.

Many Israelis fear that their country is fast becoming an international pariah after a rash of cancellations by foreign artists and sports figures, as well as calls within international academic and business circles for a boycott of Israel -- either for safety reasons or to protest the Ariel Sharon government's handling of the Palestinians.

The creeping isolation has added to the psychological and economic pressure on Israelis as they struggle to maintain a semblance of "life as normal" amid the bloodshed.

"It's reconfirmed the Israeli sentiment growing since the start of the intifada that 'the whole world is against us,' " said Chemi Shalev, a writer and commentator for the mass circulation Ma'ariv newspaper.

Experts also warn of practical ramifications. Israel already is suffering from the effects of the global economic downturn and the cost of fighting the Palestinians.

On Monday, Finance Ministry officials said they estimated that the economy would record about $10.5 billion in lost output this year -- half coming from the effects of the Palestinian uprising and half from the world economic slowdown. The intifada's cost to individual Israelis works out to about $1,000 per person.

The already shaky economy contracted 0.6 percent in 2001 and is expected to post another 1 percent drop this year. The jobless rate stands at 10.5 percent.


Senior Israeli economist Yoram Gabai, noting that resource-poor Israel is almost totally dependent on selling goods it produces to the outside world, said, "Isolation means economic collapse, not just a decline in standard of living."

"Faster than expected, we will find ourselves in the time warp of (white- dominated) Rhodesia in the 1970s and South Africa in the 1980s: enforced isolation from without and an isolationism from within," Gabai predicted. "The enormous price of isolation will drag us into withdrawing from the (occupied) territories, either in the context of a peace treaty or without one as a unilateral act."

The pressure being applied from abroad has drawn stinging criticism from Israeli officials.

Science, Culture and Sports Minister Matan Vilnai said the boycott in the cultural sphere was "understandable given the security situation and daily images on TV." But he condemned any shunning of the country for its military tactics as "contemptible" at a time when Israelis were "fighting for our lives. "

The primary reason cited by many people choosing to stay away is fear for their safety. There has been an alarming 42 percent drop in tourism in the first half of this year from the same period a year earlier.

Eight foreign cast members recently canceled their scheduled participation in a new opera production of the Israel Philharmonic, while well-known performers who once regarded Israel as a natural stop on their tour circuit also have given the country a wide berth, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers rock group, which canceled last year.

More recently, the Bremen Opera and Venice Baroque Orchestra called off scheduled appearances at the Jerusalem arts festival in May, and the Belgian Groupov theater group canceled for "ideological reasons."


Israeli arts and cultural institutions are hunkering down to weather the storm.

An Israeli museum spokeswoman said that attendance by foreign visitors had dropped by 80 percent since the conflict began and that the number of local visitors had been halved. It still mounts exhibitions but now closes on Sundays because of the fall in numbers.

"We are trying our best to carry on, to let people know we are open for business," she said.

The famous Masada desert fortress and the grave of Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, were among 58 tourist sites given a temporary reprieve from closure after an 80 percent drop in admission receipts.

Sports figures also have given Israel the cold shoulder. In March, UEFA, European soccer's governing body, barred Italian team AC Milan from playing a match in Jerusalem, and several players from the English soccer team Chelsea stayed away from a game with Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Israeli business executives have had to travel overseas to meet counterparts who are hesitant to come to them, and foreign student programs have seen attendance fall.

An increasing number of people cite Israeli activities in the West Bank mounted as part of its "war on terror" as the reason they want to break academic and financial links to Israel.

"The Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders. However, there are ways of exerting pressure from without," Professor Steven Rose, a Jewish academic from Britain's Open University, wrote in a letter to the Guardian newspaper in which he opened a campaign to suspend European funding of Israeli universities.

In May, Britain's largest lecturers union urged universities and colleges to consider severing academic links with Israel to protest its "illegal and barbaric" incursion into Palestinian areas.

Soon afterward, Mona Baker, a professor of translation studies at Manchester University, triggered an outcry after sacking two liberal Israeli academics because she did not wish to "continue an official association with any Israeli under the present circumstances."

Foreign businesses, trade unions and European states also have begun pressure campaigns.

In April, 34 Swedish personalities signed an article in a national newspaper urging a boycott of Israel and calling on the European Union to suspend its trade agreement with Israel until "there is respect for life, freedom of moment and property."

Norway's second-largest food chain, Coop Norge, also called for a boycott of Israeli goods.


More predictably, similar calls are resounding throughout the Arab world.

Ahmed Khazaa, head of the Arab League's central boycott office in Damascus, recently told member states that an Arab ban on business with companies that trade with Israel was a "noble, peaceful" way to express support for Palestinians.

Advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes have disappeared from many public places in Syria, while Uncle Ben's rice and Mazola oil are on a 50-item list compiled by a government panel organizing a boycott of American goods.

Israelis who have traveled abroad have also felt the sting of anti-Israeli sentiment.

Pop singer Achinoam Nini, better known as Noa, had just completed singing the peace song "Hawks and Sparrows" in June when two protesters mounted the stage at London's Barbican Theater, seized her microphone and proclaimed that they were obstructing her concert to "make a political point."