General Topics

Boycott & Hanukah


Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was a protestant land agent in Ireland in the second half of the eighteenth century. The British rulers imposed harsh conditions on the Irish and were hated for it. In 1880, the Irish Land League initiated a protest when Captain Boycott tried to evict poor tenants. They withdrew workers from his lands and refused to serve him in local stores. This was why his name gave us the word we now use when someone refuses services or support to an individual, business or country. To boycott. It didn’t work because other workers were willing to step into the gap. It would be many years before the Irish gained Home Rule. But it inspired the Swadeshi movement in India amongst many other attempts at non-violent opposition. That boycott didn’t work either.

Boycotts rarely have the desired effects. At most, they can make the person who applies a boycott, feel self-righteous. I have boycotted. In the fifties, I boycotted Germany and its products because I believed that most Nazis were rehabilitated into the infrastructure and senior positions in Germany after the war. No one I knew would have been seen dead in a Mercedes or a Volkswagens (Hitler’s people’s car) in the years after the Second World War. But then when Israel received these cars as part of the reparations settlement in the 1950s, it seemed ridiculous, if every other Israeli taxi was a Mercedes, to refuse to buy or travel in one!

Then I boycotted South Africa for its Apartheid policies. But other than making us feel virtuous, it had little effect. The Apartheid regime began to collapse for other reasons; the Mozambique and Angola wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union and a crisis of confidence and conscience within. Similarly, with the boycott of Southern Rhodesia when Mr Smith declared Unilateral Independence. I went on to boycott Chinese goods over its invasion of Tibet. I boycotted Turkey over its invasion of Cyprus. I even joined a Tamil boycott against the Sinhalese.

The Arab League initiated a boycott of Israel after the Arab Israel Wars of 1948 with the support of all the Arab and Muslim world. But it had negligible effect. Neither did violence if it came to that. And now I boycott any organization or person or business that picks on Israel to boycott. Since they choose to ignore all the other far more egregious mass murdering countries and those who have occupied territories around the world. I know it hasn’t and won’t change anything, but it makes me feel I am doing my part. And clearly AIRBNB, pathetically bowing to pressure, doesn’t realize it either. That is why we accuse them of prejudice as well as cowardice for picking on settlers in the West Bank. And I for one will never use them. Boycotts are weak tools. But they do flush out the hypocrites.

One of the reasons for the existence of the BDS movement and its spread is that Israel is portrayed by the left as the proxy for the USA and as an imperialist, colonial invasion of the Middle East. Which is precisely why Hanukah is the best answer to the BDS.

There is much debate both in religious and academic circles about the origin of Hanukah.  The earliest sources we have are the two “Books of The Maccabees” which were written in Hebrew around the Second Century BCE. They were not included in the Jewish Biblical canon. The rabbis were no fans of the Maccabees. But these books were preserved in Greek translations as part of the Septuagint, the translation of the Tanach into Greek. They record, the well-known revolt of the Judeans in 167-160 BCE against the Syrian Greeks and their ruler Antiochus after they desecrated the Temple. The guerrilla campaign led to the Greeks withdrawing and the rededication of the Temple. The eight-day ceremonies imitated King Solomon’s dedication of the First Temple, as described in the Biblical books of Kings and Chronicles. The Festival of Lights came much later. Under Roman Occupation the rabbinic authorities were a peace party and reluctant to celebrate a military victory. Instead, they turned Hanukah into a spiritual festivity celebrating Jewish survival as a miracle, and proof of Divine intervention.

What is clear from Greek, Roman and Jewish texts of two thousand years ago, long before Islam and the Quran emerged, is that the Judean people and their State flourished and was at various stages and under various leaders, autonomous and religiously vibrant. The Dead Sea Scrolls all attest to a complex but lively religious world based on the biblical texts and how they were interpreted differently by competing groups and sects. I recommend a recent publication “Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and stories that shaped Early Judaism” by Malka Simkovich. I am not sure I agree with the sub-title, but the book is an excellent introduction to the richness and variety of Jewish texts long before competing religions tried to replace Judaism.

It is utter ignorance (and anti-Jewish propaganda) to think that the Jews and Judaism had no connection with the Land of Israel before the rise of Jewish Nationalism, Zionism, in the Nineteenth Century. You might just as well say there was no such thing as an Arab before the rise of Arab Nationalism. And if Imperialism is defined by conquering someone else’s territory then Islam is much more of an Imperialist and Colonialist. The only difference between Jewish settlement and Arab settlement in Israel is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli leaders have agreed that Palestinians have rights to a homeland too, and are happy to have Arabs living amongst them, whereas the PLO and Hamas are not. The reason why boycotting will not undermine Israel is precisely because the Jews are not an interloping, alien invasion who will be threatened. Most Israelis regard Israel as their homeland, not a colony. And for thousands of years, they kept on coming back whenever political or economic conditions allowed. The large wave of immigration that came in the nineteenth century was, in its way, no different to the mass immigration that revived Safed in the sixteenth century after the expulsions from Iberia. Certainly, with just as strong a case as Arab migrations to places where there were employment and prospects.

Hanukah is the sequel to the Exodus. The assertion of the Israelite self-identity and with its land. Hanukah is the continuum of Jewish survival despite our own self-inflicted tendency to ruin what we have built. Hanukah is our original celebration of independence, of our preserving our traditions and rights to our homeland. The apparent miracle of the oil lasting eight days is a fanciful postscript to offer us the alternative to violence. The assertion of positive values in preference to fighting. But if it is claimed that we have no such rights, then whether it is the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians the Muslims of the Socialist Left, we have no alternative but to emulate the Maccabees and fight.

Happy Hanukah everyone!

6 thoughts on “Boycott & Hanukah

  1. Boycott & Chanukah. Jeremy, your weekly post is always something I look forward to. This week’s post is one of the best you have written. I will be sharing it with both my synagogue where, being Reform (Finchley Reform Synagogue), many of our congregants and leadership need reminding of this context. As a leader of our Israel Group I’ll see how we can get this into our Chanukah narrative!

    And as a Board member of StandWithUs, I wi share this as inspiration for the work we do as this resonates so clearly.

    Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah.

  2. I agree with Stephen – I love this analysis. The 8-day miracle of the oil was never a convincing reason for me to celebrate Chanukah. As an aside, I once tried to boycott Nestle because of the way they effected nursing mothers in developing countries to have their milk dry up, thereby being dependent on Nestle formula for their children (but without sufficient clean water to prepare it safely or the money to buy enough of it). I discovered, however that it’s not just chocolate and coffee. Nestle own almost all the hair and beauty products I was using, plus a whole load of other food companies including Osem. Rachel against Nestle was a non-starter so I gave up.

  3. Jeremy –

    Well written. I have one question, though, with two parts that are mirrors of each other:

    1 – If Boycotts, ultimately, do not work, then why the furor over everything BDS? It seems a lot of light and heat to generate over something that supposedly is ultimately impotent; and

    2 – On the other hand, what of 2000 yrs of commentary, starting most decisively in Torah itself, extolling, or more appropriately, demanding and exhorting, the social, political, financial, and some would say the political, chauvinistic, eugenic, and xenophobic aspects (as compared to the “spiritual” aspects . . . . . . ) of bishul ackum, Pas Yisroel, and Yayin Nesech?

  4. I suggest that the opposition to BDS is not over a boycott, or choice to disinvest or even sanctions. It is over the stated and unstated ideal of eliminating Israel ( River to the Sea)! And the narrative that Israel alone is to blame.

    As for your second point I suggest that in the past most cultures were exclusive to some degree and tried to prevent fraternization between them and other s and within. Just think of the barriers to fraternization between classes in Europe. Of course that too does not always work and certainly today it is much less than it was in my youth. But in modern terms all social welfare laws, benefits and citizenship are expressions of exclusivity.

    I do not like those laws in Judaism that historically put up barriers even if I understand the intention. In the way that I do not like those laws that deal with slavery. But I suggest they fall into the category of laws created to be a fence rather than a core principle. and ones that historically were often observed in the breach.

  5. I am posting a response I received from Michael Hein that I think deserves serious consideration!


    I didn’t want to “clutter” your blog responses with further verbose dialogue, but feel free to post this if you’d like.

    Where I was going with my comparison was as follows.

    It is almost axiomatic that many, if not most, of those who advocate BDS also desire the extermination of Israel. I have no qualms stating that as a given. I am a little uneasy at stating that without doubt 100% of every living being advocating BDS is a rabid anti-semite who’d wish all Jews dead. But I could even stipulate to that comment, too, in furthering my comparison.

    For what is the gist of what I’d like to say, and for the vitiating of it from the standpoint of antisemitism, one must demand two conditions:

    1 – that all people, persons, parties, or groups who advocate for and or vigorously pursue BDS also and necessarily concurrently yearn for, aim for, actively participate in, or would like to participate in, acts or actions that move forward the physical destruction of Israel and the extermination of Jews. That is to say, that all people involved in BDS take arms training using MK’s as targets, have actively given financial support to Hamas, have given succour to escaping terrorists, etc.

    That there is, necessarily, and universally, and uniquely, a one to one correlation between the person(s) wanting and willing to engage in economic war against Israel and Jews (BDS) and their desire, or performance, in engaging in, or directly supporting physical war against the Jews.

    That if there exists, say, some person who happens to be an anti-semite, and who advocates the economic warfare of BDS against Jews, but absolutely eschews and denies a desire for hate-crimes, terrorism, or physical warfare against Jews, then since there is not a one to one correlation between BDS and physical warfare against the Jews, then the extermination of Israel (From the river to the sea) cannot be morally used as a justification to prevent adherence to the policy of BDS.

    To me, this is NOT a “distinction without a difference”. It is not a distinction without a difference because, unlike you, I believe boycotts work; and, also, am an “orthodox card carrying” Libertarian. In that light, I believe that they [economic wars] are also permissible, under all circumstances, and at all times, between two people, two families, two States, two religions, or any combination of the above, and that they need not be tied to “moral” causes to justify themselves.

    That is to say, that economic warfare does not need a moral basis, is free to be pursued by anyone at any time, against anyone else at any time, and that physical warfare either in support of said economic warfare on the one hand by the instigator to press his gains, or, by the “defendant” in defense or mitigation of that economic warfare on the other hand, is always prohibited, and is a cause for a milchemet mitzva.

    Economic warfare must, to be “fair” take place in the marketplace, and in the marketplace alone.

    I know that that view will be held by a only a tiny minority of people – uniquely Libertarians. At least, at first that is what will be thought. But in concert with a recent email discussion we had, core principles of the first truly Representative Republican Democracy, The United States, include the inalienable right (one of the three) of the pursuit of happiness – extended in exegesis to include the freedom to purchase what I want and not purchase what I don’t want, and Freedom of Association; all supporting, at least in theory, my individual protection to make economic war against anyone I’d like to for any good reason – or for no good reason at all! I believe firmly in such principles, as do most Libertarians.

    2 – That at the same time, and to show no malice, but indeed to defend the act simultaneously with pointing out the easily discernible hypocrisy – I would never deny literalist, or even fundamentalist chareidim, their purview to practice economic warfare against the less religious, or the non-Jew, specifically because I believe in the primacy of the right for anyone to wage economic warfare against anyone else, without interference, as part of the inalienable rights granted to us by God, as extolled in the Declaration of Independence!

    It is, however, also true, that in adequately explaining, and holding to such a stance, the stench of hypocrisy emanates from the floor up to the nostrils of anyone who would consider it, regarding the demonization, and attempt to legislate against, or outlaw BDS wholly divorced from physical warfare – thus preventing anti-semites’ legitimate rights to engage in economic warfare, while preserving Jews’ rights to do the same by having free reign to continue to hold fast to the rules of kashruth, (and other tenets of absolutely strict observance) that have as their true basis economic warfare married to chauvinism and eugenics, with only a thin veneer of spirituality covering them.

    As a Jew who understandibly would hold congress with few, if any, BDS’ers, nevertheless, I believe both camps have a right to wage any degree of economic warfare they desire, and that both camps have no right to engage in unjustified physical warfare at all, and that any other qualified stance either in protection of one side or the other is hypocritical and prejudiced.


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