Friday, January 21, 2011

The French BDS Movement

I generally avoid writing about Israel-related issues in this blog, because the blog form does not permit the many nuances and caveats (contortions?) that I find necessary to bring to the subject. But I posted something the other day about the cancellation of an appearance by Stéphane Hessel at the École Normale Supérieure. This led to a somewhat testy exchange among several commenters on the original post. I therefore want to return to the issue today. And since Israel is at the center of the French free speech issue, I will inevitably be drawn into a comment on French attitudes toward Israel.

I note first that a petition protesting the cancellation of the Hessel lecture has drawn a response from Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF (Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France). Prasquier, like Cincinna (one of the commenters on my previous post), claims to be a supporter of free speech and invokes a career of pro-speech positions in support of his claim. Also like Cincinna, he sees no contradiction between his general support for free speech and his specific opposition to M. Hessel's appearance at ENS. On what grounds?

First, he states that the "Boycott, Divest, Sanction" (BDS) movement against Israel contravenes French law banning discriminatory boycotts. And indeed, Alliot-Marie, when she was interior minister, sent a memorandum to prosecutors reminding them of this law and urging them to use it against an array of allegedly anti-Israel actors. This leads M. Prasquier to say that Hessel is being "prosecuted, not persecuted." But Prasquier goes on to undermine his own invocation of the majesty of the law by indicting Hessel for hypocrisy as well as discrimination: why hasn't he boycotted Syria, Libya, and Burma, Prasquier asks? So it appears that there are "good" boycotts and legitimate uses of "discrimination" as well as "bad" ones, and it is to be left to our gentle rulers to decide which causes are just and which are not. Any attempt to disagree with the government's choice of which states can be supported by French citizens and which states can be opposed is deserving of suppression, according to Prasquier. I imagine that Cincinna agrees. This abdication to the French state of the right to protest the foreign and military policy of another state is hardly consistent with the right of free speech as I understand it. (Parenthetically, I also find it difficult to understand why Cincinna, a self-described conservative, wants to grant the state the right to determine what the legitimate exercise of free speech is; I thought conservatives wanted to limit the power of the state in the name of individual liberty and freedom of conscience.)

Prasquier, like Cincinna, also insists that Hessel's protest of Israel policy is aimed at the "delegitimation" of the state of Israel, "the only democratic state in the region." To be sure, there are among supporters of the BDS movement some who would deny Israel's right to exist. There are others who would simply deny Israel's right not only to occupy for more than 40 years but now also to colonize the West Bank. I disagree with those who would put an end to Israel and agree with those who would put an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but I see no reason to deny either group the right to state its case on French (or American) soil. The fact that Israel is a democracy does not render all its actions beyond reproach. Switzerland is a democracy that has banned minarets, but no one has proposed preventing French citizens from stating a position pro or con the Swiss law in France.

In short, one doesn't have to support BDS (and I do not) to support Stéphane Hessel's right to support BDS. I would have thought this would be obvious to self-described champions of free speech, but apparently, when it comes to Israel, different principles apply.

11 comments:

eric said...

Ah. I, and perhaps other not-so-careful readers, have only realized on reading this post that Hessel's talk was cancelled because he supports the BDS movement, rather than as an instance of BDS.

Divestment and sanction seem to me much more reasonable, less problematic than boycott.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Eric, Perhaps you could elaborate on your distinction. My parents would not buy German automobiles long after the end of World War II. I thought this was an unjustified boycott but an emotionally comprehensible one. I boycotted South African goods and non-union lettuce back in the day. And boycotts are a standard response of many democratic states to the behavior of other states. Why should boycotts be treated differently from other "sanctions?"

the fly in the web said...

My father, many of whose regiment went into Japanese captivity during World War II, would have nothing Japanese in the house.
As you say, emotionally comprehensible.

I too boycotted South African goods....
to boycott seems about the only thing people can do when their governments will do nothing.

So giving the said governments the power to decide who and what can or cannot be boycotted is to limit yet further the power of people to protest.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Perhaps what Eric objects to is the kind of boycott one sees in academia, where Israeli scholars are sometimes prevented from speaking at conferences. To me, this is an impermissible violation of free speech, as was the boycott of Israeli publishers that took place at a Paris book fair a while ago, if memory serves.

brent said...

As background to my previous post, I would mention that the Workmen's Circle, a secular Jewish organization in Boston to which I belong, agreed recently to rent space (in accordance with its open rental policy) to a local BDS group. After being denounced in the local Jewish press, the WC was threatened with expulsion from the consortium of local Jewish organizations unless it cancelled its rental contract (it refused). What this incident (and many similar ones) tells me is that, in a climate of hysterical rhetoric about 'existential threats to the Jewish state', Israel's longstanding commitment to democracy is deeply threatened by its most fervent supporters, who would sacrifice any and all of its democratic practices (and free speech is fundamental) to address those 'existential' fears. As a friend of Israel (but not of its government) I find this tendency dangerous--to Israel, to the US, and to any hope for peace in the Mideast.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Brent,
Yes, I'm aware of the Boston events, and I share your concerns. Indeed, the involvement of a number of American Jewish organizations in incidents of suppression of speech (such as the cancellation of scheduled lectures by the late Tony Judt) is something I consider to be deplorable, and I am alarmed to see the anti-speech tactic spreading to France. Israel's "friends" must not be allowed to become its worst enemies.

Passerby said...

@Art,

Unfortunately this anti-speech tactic coming from the CRIF leadership is nothing new. A reminder, the famous Besancenot-Cukierman episode in 2003 (in French):

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xf90gi_roger-cukierman-face-a-olivier-besa_news

FRANCIS said...

Freedom of speech is a good thing. But why always one-sided ?
When it was a pro-Israel speaker, who did object ? "quand Elhanan Yakira, un israélien, professeur de philosophie à l’université hébraïque de Jérusalem et auteur du livre « post sionisme et post shoah » est invité à l’ENS pour parler de son livre, il est insulté et sa conférence est sabotée. (12 mai 2010)"

Arthur Goldhammer said...

I would of course defend Yakira's right to speak as well, as I made clear in my response above. But one also has to recognize that the exercise of free speech may arouse protest by those who hold different views. Hessel's speech, had it been allowed to proceed, might have aroused such protest by BDS opponents. Free speech includes free counter-speech, but there must be rules that ensure a fair hearing. "One-sidedness" is precisely what I am objecting to, and I don't care which "one side" is being favored. The only way for speech to be free is for "all sides" to be allowed a hearing, even those that are objectionable to the majority. Especially those, in fact.

FRANCIS said...

On the whole, I do agree. But I must repeat that this kind of attitude is mostly one-sided. Alain Finkielkraut on free speech «Ce n’est plus un secret: l’ENS est devenu un véritable foyer de haine à l’égard d’Israël. Un interdit total y pèse sur l’expression des sionistes en ce moment.»
The contrary is not true, even it it may happen.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Alain Finkielkraut would not be my standard of reference on this point. In any case, the power of the state is currently being used to suppress speech on one side of the Israel question, not on the other. I'm objecting to **state** control of speech. It's perfectly legitimate for the CRIF to protest Hessel's lecture, but it's not legitimate for the state to raise the threat of prosecution in order to silence a critic of Israel. Similarly, there is no shortage of civil society critics to protest various statements by a Finkielkraut, R. Camus, or E. Zemmour. Let the critics be heard, but let AF, RC, and EZ continue to appear on radio and TV as well.