‘What about Iran and China?’ attack on BDS draws boos from the commenting crowd

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I was alerted by Glenn Greenwald’s column yesterday to this extraordinary short piece at Left Foot Forward entitled “So why did Stephen Hawking think it was ok to visit Iran and China?” The author’s accusation of hypocrisy that we have heard so often is nothing new, but the sophistication of the numerous commenters who destroy the “What about X?” argument is very encouraging. A small sample (many others worth reading as well):

Whose land is Iran occupying? What indigenous people is Iranian govt ethnically cleansing to make way for some colonial fantasy? Iran is subject to sanctions, has been for years. There’s nobody writing op-eds excusing its behaviour in western MSM. Iran doesn’t have a well funded and well oiled lobby machine in the west to excuse each and every human rights violation its guilty of. Israel is shielded from sanctions by Uncle Sam, so its really only BDS that can in any way put pressure on Israel, pressure that the international community should be putting on it, but for some reason refuses to. Not so with Iran, its been sanctioned up the gazoo. So its important that ppl like Hawking involve themselves where they can help to exert pressure that governments should be exerting. Its quite simple really, just not for the foaming mouth breathers who want Israel a free rein unlike any other nation in tyjhe world.

Unsurprisingly, James’ post makes no mention of the views of the Palestinians themselves. Instead of noting that the call for boycott originated with hundreds of Palestinian civil society organisations (trade unions, professional groups, community groups) he presents the pressure as being from “pro-Palestinian campaigners”: http://www.bdsmovement.net/cal… The case being put here is that Hawking should ignore the clear call from Palestinian civil society. If there was a widespread view amongst Iranians that a boycott would be effective, then there’d be a strong case for respecting that, just as was the case in South Africa. This ‘what aboutary’ (should one not criticise Saudi because Iraq carries out more executions etc.) results in support for the status quo and upholding the control of the powerful. If one takes the view that only states can selectively impose sanctions, but that pressure from individual citizens is unacceptable unless applied against all ‘bad people’, then fine. It is just a relief to millions of people who have gained their liberty from such boycotts, that when states refused, or only latterly took action against injustice, many ordinary people did do what they could.

The answer on why Israel and not Iran or China is pretty simple– effectiveness and consequences of a boycott. Precisely because Israel is internally democratic in its procedures (as opposed to anti-democratic in its occupation), a boycott can effect the government through pressure by its citizens. (Same theory on South Africa back in the day). Political action is not a mere abstraction or about symbolism; the question is whether the boycott is tied to active strategy that may be effective. A symbolic boycott of China or Iran has little meaning if there is no theory of how it could change the regime’s behavior. Political action often targets “less bad” targets precisely because they are more subject to pressure, but a demand that no pressure can be put on such targets until the absolute worst targets change their behavior is basically a “get out of jail free” pass for all lesser offenders from political pressure.

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