I am not an overtly political sort of chap. However, I am minded to comment by a couple of tweets picked up with the #bbcproms hashtag during the last couple of days, suggesting that the Prom on Thursday given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra should be boycotted. Given that the concert appears to be sold out, this seems a little like the proverbially belated request to make secure the equine sleeping quarters, but nevertheless I am disturbed by the mindset I perceive here.
I do not propose to bore any reader with historical details of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, nor to advance any opinion or judgement on the rights and wrongs. What I do want to do is explain why such a boycott is at best misguided and at worst dangerous. If you wish to broaden the argument to cover the whole issue of boycotting Israeli cultural and academic activity, feel free.
There is a well-known quotation by Winston Churchill, ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’, with which I expect most sensible people would agree. Although I am no historian, I would guess that throughout its existence, the human race has only ever succeeded in bringing conflict to an end in two ways: where one side has annihilated the other, or by some form of negotiated ceasefire or surrender. Surely better the latter than the former.
When a group of people propose a boycott of something, they are really suggesting that the time for negotiation is at an end – after all, you can’t talk to the other side if you’re boycotting them. And if you eschew contact with your opponents, does that not imply that the only way you can win the argument is to obliterate them?
For many years, the British government and the IRA dismissed any idea of negotiating an end to the Irish Troubles, and the violence continued as a result. Somehow, there was a change of position on both sides, and although there are still a small number who want to perpetuate the conflict, today we have a negotiated settlement that has made Northern Ireland a much safer place to live. On the other hand, in Sri Lanka there have been allegations of mass murder of Tamil civilians during the final phase of their civil war; if this is true, it shows what can happen when a dispute is allowed to run to a military conclusion without a negotiated surrender.
Of course, the Israeli Government and the Palestinians have had long periods during which any diplomatic contact was refused. Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas, and Hamas do not accept Israel’s right to exist. In effect, they are boycotting one another. What might be the end result of this? Perhaps Israel will bomb Gaza out of existence. Perhaps the Palestinians will succeed in ‘pushing Israel into the sea’. Would either of these scenarios be remotely acceptable to any intelligent person? I hope not!
So if you cannot contemplate such a one-sided conclusion to the conflict, you surely have only one other option: negotiation. You have to have dialogue between the sides. And you cannot have dialogue at the same time as a boycott. Better to try to understand your opponents than to ignore them. Better to listen to a fine orchestra than to bury your heads in the sand.