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A Boycott on Both Your Houses

The Left is not alone. The Right also imposes its own forms of cherem. The Im Tirtzu organization has threatened to pressure donors to boycott Israel’s universities if the universities don’t act according to the organization’s wishes. Another form of cherem may be seen in the decision of some members of the Right to advocate refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces as a response to the disengagement from Gaza and its aftermath. And the list goes on.

Both sides have similar justifications for boycotts. The conscience of the professors, like the conscience of the rabbis of the yeshivot, does not allow them to go along with injustice or its perpetrators. Their blood rages at the iniquity and calls for action, demanding civil resistance via boycotts. The boycotters on both sides also rely on higher authorities: the Left relies on international law (which dictates that the settlements are illegal), while the Right relies on Jewish halakhic law (which contains the prohibition “grant them no quarter,” which is understood as forbidding handing over areas of the land of Israel to non-Jews). These two types of law are competing underpinnings of the State’s legal system that serve as serve as two alternatives used as tools by those who are dissatisfied with decisions made by the State.

The Israeli boycotters on both sides of the political spectrum unwittingly are joining those who boycott the State of Israel itself. If we handle our domestic differences of opinion by means of internal boycotts, how can we object when thinly disguised anti-Semites use similar methods against Israel or its academic institutions? Pirkei Avot teaches that our sage Hillel saw a skull floating in the water and said, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:7), warning us that we should not do unto others what we would not want done to ourselves.

The cherem is an exilic tool for settling disputes. Jewish communities in the Diaspora, from Worms to Baghdad, lacked progressive democratic tools for conflict resolution and therefore imposed excommunications, boycotts and sanctions against unruly members. But things are different in a democratic state. Public and ideological disputes are supposed to be resolved through the marketplace of ideas and the political system, with the final decision entrusted to the institutions of the State. The rule of law, the backbone of democracy, is supposed to refer disputes regarding the validity of public decisions to the courts. Both the Left and the Right must accept these implications of sovereignty.

The government’s decision to evacuate settlements such as Gush Katif or Amona may infuriate the Right-but it is binding upon them nevertheless. Any question regarding the validity of such decisions must be resolved by the courts, as it was in the case of the disengagement from Gush Katif. Similarly, the government’s decision to establish Ariel and Ofra over the Green Line is binding upon the Left, much as it may infuriate them. Ariel has received full approval from the Israeli democratic apparatus. Thus, when intellectuals as a group boycott the thousands of residents of Ariel, they are deliberately boycotting the democratic decision-making process in Israel. This argument is not a formal one, since the intellectuals involved are not acting by virtue of the law; rather, it is an argument that pertains to the social and cultural essence of democracy.

The Left asserts that the settlements were largely established illegally. The Right claims that the decision of the Sharon government to evacuate Gush Katif was made undemocratically. It is not important to determine who is right, but it is important to accept the final result: The State and its courts authorized both the building of Ariel and the evacuation of Gush Katif.

An individual citizen who does not agree with a democratic ruling can protest against it or even refuse to obey it, as long as he or she is willing to pay the price. But organizing as a group in order to oppose the results of a democratic decision tugs too strongly on the fringes of the Israeli tallit (prayer-shawl). Because this tallit, in which lives of Left and Right are intertwined, may tear. 


Professor Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on September 1, 2010, and has been translated and used with permission.