Palestine Diary Day 6 – Trams, Dietrologia and Boycotts


Lewis Baston spent six days with a Labour2Palestine delegation to Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Here we publish his diary day by day.


After a coffee on arrival in Jerusalem, I wandered through the Old City and into West Jerusalem via the Jaffa Gate and the Mamilla Mall. The mall, opened in 2007, is an elegant piece of design, in the shape of a curving pedestrianized streetscape, and it is full of the sort of high-end shops that I feel uncomfortable in. It also has several pleasant but cookie-cutter identical upscale grill restaurants and bars, and it is a pleasant place full of attractive young people enjoying life.  But remember the maxim of an earlier blog post:

This is Jerusalem and everything is politicised.

The Mamilla mall went up despite a chorus of religious and archaeological objections, but that is probably normal whenever anything is built here. Some Palestinians were aggrieved by the mall because, they felt, it was designed to soak up all the consumer spending between the main hotel district and the Old City and therefore take trade away from the mostly Palestinian traders in the Old City. Myself, I am not so sure about that; many cities have old quarters and upscale new malls, and I doubt there is all that much direct competition between the international designer clothes shops and art galleries in Mamilla and the souvenirs and produce sold in the Old City. Sometimes a mall is just a mall.

The reaction to Mamilla is only a small example of a habit of thought, common on all sides in the Middle East (and probably of anywhere south and east of Ventimiglia or, on a bad day, south and east of the Eiffel Tower).  The Italians call it dietrologia, the science of looking behind – never taking anything at face value but always trying to discern the hidden interests and agenda behind an action or statement. Arguments cease to be about the formal matter in dispute, but become instead about the intentions that are assumed to be behind the immediate dispute. Events are interpreted in a teleological fashion, as being part of the grand plan by the Israelis to drive out the Palestinians or vice versa, and the two nations are interpreted as conspiratorial entities united behind their respective schemes to achieve domination and reducible to ‘terrorists’ or ‘imperialists’. It becomes very difficult to find pragmatic accommodations when life is perceived as a zero-sum game and the stakes are as high as Israeli-Palestinian style dietrologia makes them seem. The moderate may point out that life is not zero-sum (that equity and economic development in Jerusalem would increase stability and wealth for all), but it is hard to make it stick when people are constantly looking for reasons (and often finding them) to snap back to their usual position of mistrust.

History complicates this as well. As in Serbia (Kosovo may very well be the cradle of Serb nationhood, but grown-ups don’t generally live in their cradles…), I found myself wishing fewer people knew so much history. As a Briton, I was reminded of the 1917 Balfour Declaration by Palestinians and the closing of the doors to Jewish immigration in the 1930s by Israelis. Nationhood is always a matter of collective imagination, and that of both nations was forged in tragedy – Israel’s in the Holocaust, the Palestinians in their collective experience of dispossession and loss after 1948. Of the Palestinians I encountered, I never heard anyone speaking disrespectfully or callously about the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. But there does seem to be an Israeli blank spot about the ordinary people who lost so much when the state was created. Israeli academics have done much to analyse the true story of 1948, but there seems little general acknowledgement that like so many utopian societies , such as Australia and the United States, the dream was realised at the expense of others. In time, in a more confident mentality, a society built like Israel on free expression, will have that conversation, just as other countries – such as my own, the UK – have had about the darker chapters of their histories, without calling into question their right to exist.

I took the new Jerusalem Light Rail system out to its final stop in West Jerusalem, in order to visit Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl. The Light Rail system is a lot like the new generation of trams that ply the streets of several cities in Britain and mainland Europe, such as Sheffield and Montpellier, but remember…

This is Jerusalem and everything is politicised.

The tram route is therefore a matter of international controversy. It skirts around the Old City between the Jaffa and Damascus Gates, heads northwards up the old Green Line and then turns east to serve the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev.  It is therefore part of the mechanism by which East Jerusalem and the settlement-suburbs is bound in to a single Israeli-dominated city, making it hard for any future agreement to disentangle it all and thereby, it is argued, solidifying the Israeli ‘facts on the ground’.

I am not quite as willing as in the case of the Mamilla Mall to acquit the tram, but the urban planners did have a bit of a problem. If it had been confined to West Jerusalem, there would have been complaints that this was discriminatory allocation of public services; and looked at purely in urban transport terms the system is a good way of linking outlying low-income areas to the centre. It also serves several Palestinian areas and is used by East Jerusalemites, although I was told that the original scheme had long gaps between stops in those areas and that the outcome reflected arguments and legal battles. But the involvement of European firms, particularly Veolia, in setting up the tram has led to calls for a boycott of those associated with the project.

I boycotted apartheid South Africa with the best of them, which makes enjoying my visits there and my consumption of that country’s wine and fruit all the sweeter now. But I’m ambivalent about the Boycott-Disinvest-Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Why? It is not a simple question. Having seen what happens on the West Bank, I know that gross injustices are taking place. So why my reluctance?

Part is that the whole basis of apartheid South Africa was injustice. The regime had no right to exist, and there was a democratic alternative to govern the country in the form of the ANC. This is not the case with Israel, which is a legitimate country whose government is based on free elections among its people. South Africa could not pretend, despite cosmetic constitutional exercises like the tricameral parliament, to be anything other than a dictatorship of a small, racially-determined minority of its people. Within its proper boundaries, Israel is a democratic state with freedom of expression while South Africa was a crude, censored society under apartheid. I go on holiday to less democratic countries than Israel (Russia, Cambodia, Cuba, Vietnam). I don’t boycott Chinese goods despite their government’s occupation of Tibet and use of prison labour; nor do I boycott Texas for its morbid enthusiasm for the death penalty or Alabama for its new racism. So I’ve no difficulty with Israeli fruit, nor the many advanced technologies that Israel does well in, nor the idea of going to the restaurants, beaches and museums of Tel Aviv.

Nor am I happy with forms of protest that target culture, journalism or academia. These are among the most open and liberal areas of Israeli life, and cutting them off from contact with Europe is, to my mind, wrong. Academics and musicians native to Israel are doing nothing wrong, and cutting them off will just encourage an isolationist mentality in Israel with all the lack of critical thinking that entails. Nor should one be too harsh about, for instance, musicians playing concerts for the Israeli armed forces – it would be radical indeed to stop doing so, given that Israel does need armed forces and that military service is woven so deep into the country’s culture. The Israelis get indignant about how Palestinians name their streets and squares, and are paranoid about indirect connections with ‘terror’. It is time they became less precious about that, and in the spirit of give and take Palestine’s supporters should not treat Israel’s cultural ambassadors boorishly on the basis of an excuse about links with the Israeli armed forces.

I dislike the idea of supporting the occupation in any way. Firms directly involved in building the Wall, or supplying things like pepper spray to the Israeli army to enforce their control in a place where they should not be, are doing something wrong. The basis of the occupation is unethical and there is a serious lack of control and monitoring of how the armed forces behave. Goods extracted from the West Bank via the settler economy also seem to me to be ethically suspect. Palestinian activists will say to me that this is perhaps a false distinction, and probably so will Israelis from the other side; I want to maintain a clear line in my mind between legitimate Israel and the occupation, but maybe the truth on the ground is more complicated and difficult. I would not criticise Palestinians for wanting others not to buy Israeli goods while the occupation persists (as long as we understand this as being the occupation of territory the wrong side of the Green Line), but neither can I embrace the strategy wholeheartedly.

To me, the issues are of selectivity and usefulness. Singling out Israel, alone, seems unjust. But many people who boycott Israel do also try to follow ethical principles by boycotting companies that destroy the environment, or Chinese goods, but I personally am less than consistent in avoiding these, and I visit non-democratic states as a tourist. It’s a bit like vegetarianism. I respect the principle (if it’s based on consistency), but I don’t follow it personally. Calling someone an anti-Semite because they join a boycott with the intention of lifting it once the occupation has ended is mere gutter abuse that pollutes public discourse.

Is a boycott useful? I am not sure. I do not personally make choices about security equipment or concrete barriers, but I would support the government in a boycott of firms in these sectors that behave unethically and enable breaches of international law. But I am unconvinced about the idea of a wider consumer boycott by us Europeans. Even moderate Israelis see this as collective punishment and it triggers memories of the first official measure of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, namely the boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933. The vast majority of Palestine’s supporters do not intend or see it that way, but this – and the general mulish attitude of many Israelis to outside criticism however friendly and well intentioned – makes me think that a boycott may be an obstacle to understanding rather than an effective measure of protest and pressure. But what, my Palestinian advocate friends will ask, can one do to change the incentives so that Israel takes peace and withdrawal seriously if one doesn’t use the levers of economic pressure? To that I have to say that I don’t know. But I do think that for change to come, there has to be demand for it within Israel, and that to achieve that there needs to be not just pressure but alliance with progressives within Israel, and sensitivity to how their case might be best helped from abroad.

Lewis Baston writes for The Guardian, Progress and LSE Politics and Policy blog on elections and politics.

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