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Ben White v Alex Stein

Ben White to Alex Stein

Firstly, thank you for agreeing to this debate. Since space is limited, I’ll jump straight in.

I believe that Paul McCartney’s concert should not go ahead, firstly on account of Israel ’s ongoing crimes against the Palestinians, and secondly, because I believe that a boycott plays an effective role in a wider campaign for a just peace in Palestine and Israel.

(I’d like to add that while someone might disagree with the first premise – and hence consider the boycott ridiculous or sinister – it’s possible to agree with this assessment of Israel ’s past and present, but consider a boycott to be tactically flawed.)

McCartney will play in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park, on the site of a Palestinian village destroyed in 1948. There are hundreds of such spots all over Israel, a “ghost map” of communities emptied of the unwanted Arab population who remain refugees.

The ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine 1948 that made it possible to create a Zionist state are not simply history. Israel continues its efforts to erase Palestine from the map; like in the occupied territories, where an apartheid regime of privileges separates Israelis from the stateless Palestinians.

Dismantling this regime is the way to create a peaceful tomorrow for Jews and Palestinians. As Israel continues to show no desire to voluntarily withdraw or surrender its power, a boycott is just one tactic in this struggle. McCartney should stay away.

Alex to Ben

Ben, thanks for kicking things off. I oppose the idea that McCartney should boycott Israel. At the same time, I think an artist’s conscience should play a role in where she or he plays. The question before us, then, is what should McCartney’s conscience dictate he do?

I’m more interested in what’s effective than what’s right or wrong. What can McCartney do to improve the situation according to the wishes of the Israeli and Palestinian populations on the ground? Practically this means what can McCartney do to advance the cause of a two-state solution along the lines of the Geneva initiative? We know this is the desired outcome, because poll after poll shows that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Israelis and Palestinians support such a solution. (I’m not dogmatically opposed to some sort of “one-state” solution, by the way. The moment the people of the land support it, I won’t be one of those standing in their way.)

How can McCartney do his little bit to work towards this outcome? Luckily, we already have precedent. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd (how I wish this debate concerned New York rappers instead of ageing rockers!), after the inevitable pressure from the pro and anti-boycott lobbies, decided to perform at Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, a village jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. He also demonstrated his opposition to the separation barrier.

Surely this is the most effective course of action? Come to the country, engage with the local population, do your bit to encourage them to learn to live in peace. By boycotting you simply miss the chance to have an impact. This is why I disagree with your claim that a boycott plays an effective role in the campaign for a wider peace, although I’d be interested to hear you spell out precisely what that wider peace would look like and what steps Israel would have to take for the boycott to be ended.

Ben to Alex

I’d like to begin by pointing out what I felt you didn’t respond to from my initial email: the description of Israel’s land theft and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, past and present. This despite it being the foundational reason for the pro-boycott argument I laid out. You do say, however, that you’re “more interested in what’s effective than what’s right or wrong”. This can seem like you either dispute the reality of Israeli discrimination since 1948, or even, that you’re not sure whether it is “right or wrong”.

I was also interested that you based a significant part of your reply on the apparent support amongst Israelis and Palestinians for the Geneva accord. There are two problems with this tack. Firstly, it means the approach rests almost entirely on unspecified polling data, which is then used as cast-iron proof of what a majority of both peoples want, and thus what we should all be working towards.

But secondly, even if the Geneva accord was the holy grail, this still wouldn’t mean that concerts and “engagement” are the right way forward. That’s because Israel is completely unwilling to allow a sovereign Palestine to emerge in the occupied territories. Colonisation continues apace, settlements are integrated into Israel’s infrastructure, and international law is laughed at daily. “Coexistence” concerts can only provide theme music for subordinate, colonial “autonomy”; not usher in independence.

(Incidentally, I haven’t taken up your invitation to “spell out precisely” what a wider peace would look like, as I thought that it is not really the specific focus of this debate – plus relevant thoughts of mine are readable elsewhere.)

Alex to Ben

I didn’t deal with the issue of Israel’s creation because there isn’t much room to discuss it constructively in such a short space. Suffice to say that I disagree with the claim that Israel was founded on ethnic cleansing. Am I to take from your emphasis on 1948 that Israel would have to return to the pre-partition days (right of return as well) for the boycott to end? If that’s the case, I wish you luck. This is what Noam Chomsky calls the politics of Mars, while in the real world, suffering continues. Either way, it’s crucial that you state absolutely clearly what steps Israel would have to take for your support of the boycott to end, both for the readers’ benefit and for mine.

The issue of “right or wrong”: Even if you could demonstrate to me that encouraging McCarthy to boycott Israel was somehow morally appropriate, you would then have to prove it to be an effective strategy. I would dispute that. Israelis aren’t particularly reliant on foreigners for their entertainment. There’s a vibrant home-grown scene in all aspects of the arts – music, theatre, literature – testament to the extraordinary revival of the Hebrew language. If McCartney decided not to come for political reasons, the Israeli population would collectively shrug its shoulders. They would ask “Why is Israel the only country he has decided to boycott?” and then carry on with their lives.

Geneva accords: polls aren’t cast-iron. But they have repeatedly shown clear majority support for some sort of two-state solution. Your line about a concert at Neve Shalom being “theme music” is cute, but inaccurate. What is more likely to change hearts and minds? McCartney playing Neve Shalom and calling on 50,000 people to take real steps to give Palestinians a genuine, sovereign state, or signing up to the PACBI letter? As Chomsky has stated, the choice is between the politics of Mars and the politics of the real world.

Ben to Alex

Inevitably, there are two different emphases that have developed here: one, related to Israel’s history and what a just solution would look like, and two, the usefulness or otherwise of the boycott.

It’s revealing that for you, an “emphasis on 1948″ seems worthy of comment. Such a reference point would go without saying for Palestinians: expelled 60 years ago, they watched as their land disappeared under new Jewish towns and picnic parks, unreachable behind barriers, gun barrels, and a web of discriminatory legislation.

Of course, it’s not actually about returning to a vanished past, except in the sense of acknowledging what happened – which you don’t. Quite simply, Palestinians should have the same rights in Palestine and Israel as Jewish Israelis do: the rights of residence, land ownership, and nationality (to name a few). All the things, in fact, they have been systematically deprived of since the foundation stones of Israeli statehood were laid on the rubble of the Nakba.

The “politics of Mars” seems to be shorthand for ideas deemed far-fetched and impossible, conveniently fenced-off from “sensible” discussion. Yet once more, you appear to believe that the liberation of even the occupied territories will be advanced by McCartney mid-set “calling” on people to do the right thing.

Like the hope that the Palestinians will “recognise” their own dispossession, that seems to be a far more fanciful path to peace when compared to the growing, international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions, aimed at applying the kind of meaningful pressure Israel has so far avoided. All of this in order that Palestinian rights are finally respected and both peoples can breathe easily, removed from the suffocating grip of a colonial relationship endangering everyone concerned.

Alex to Ben

It’s not that 1948 isn’t of importance. I merely disagree with your claim that Israel is solely responsible for the fate of the Palestinians. The Palestinians chose to reject the UN partition resolution, which was the least bad solution on offer. The logic for rejecting partition is the same logic for rejecting some sort of binational solution: there wasn’t much difference – in 1947 – between the argument supporting sharing a single state with the Jews and the argument supporting partitioning the land with the Jews. As Benny Morris notes, “Without doubt, Arab expulsionism fuelled Zionist expulsionist thinking during the 1930s and 1940s.” The few Palestinians that did support what today is called a one-state solution tended to meet a violent end.

Today, a majority of the Palestinian people on the ground support a two-state solution. I do as well, although I hope that eventually a more integrated future might be possible. I support Palestinians having rights of residence in the new Palestinian state, land ownership and nationality (plus I support the right of Israeli-Palestinians to full land equality, a topic I have written about in the past).

If the Palestinians recognising their own dispossession is what you understand by their strong support for a two-state solution, so be it. I’d suggest you take that up with them. In the meantime, focusing efforts on getting the likes of McCartney to boycott Israel is the worse kind of gesture politics, an alternative to the difficult task of building trust on the ground, work done admirably at places like Neve Shalom, a place you don’t seem to see as fit for hosting the Beatles’ finest.

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