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August 13, 2013 8:37 am

Should Jews Support a Boycott of Putin’s Russia?

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

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In center, Russian President Vladimir Putin sits between Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres at a dedication ceremony for a monument in Netanya commemorating the Red Army's victory over the Nazis. Photo: GPO.

JNS.org – One of the oft-repeated criticisms of the movement to boycott Israel is that it portrays the Middle East’s only healthy democracy as the ultimate rogue state, ignoring at the same time those authoritarian regimes that violate the most basic human rights on a daily basis. Frankly, that’s why I’m pleased to announce that the boycott I’m writing about here, one that is picking up pace, has nothing to do with Israel, the Palestinians, or the Middle East in general.

This time, the target is Russia. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has reverted to the habits of the old Soviet Union, cracking down on internal dissent, backing the world’s worst regimes, such as Syria and Iran, and adopting a confrontational stance toward the United States, most recently by granting asylum to Edward Snowden, a fugitive who is regarded by many Americans as a traitor.

As a stalwart of what he regards as “traditional” values, Putin has also declared war on homosexuality. In July, Putin signed a bill that makes it illegal for gay couples to adopt Russian-born children. And if you are a heterosexual couple living in a country where gay marriage is legal, then you too are prohibited from adopting Russian children.

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There’s more. Visitors to Russia who are suspected of being gay, or of supporting the cause of gay equality, can be detained by the police for up to two weeks. Even the mere act of educating children about homosexuality could land you with a heavy fine or prison sentence, because you’d be engaging in what the Russian state calls “homosexual propaganda.”

These ugly measures have rightly sparked outrage in the free world. Some activists, particularly in the gay community, believe the time is now right for a boycott of Russia. As The Atlantic magazine described it, “from Vancouver to London” gay bars and clubs are dumping Russian vodka. On top of that, prominent celebrities like the American playwright Harvey Fierstein and the British actor Stephen Fry are advocating a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in the Russian resort of Sochi.

How should Jews assess these Russian boycott calls? The question is an important one, because we have been on the receiving end of many boycott campaigns over the last century. The Nazis famously coined the term “Kauft Nicht bei Juden”—”Don’t Buy From Jews”—in their campaign to ruin Germany’s Jews on the eve of the Holocaust; in 1945, the Arab League initiated a boycott of the Jewish community in the British Mandate of Palestine, which later mushroomed into a boycott of the State of Israel; and in our own time, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has attempted to demonize Israel as the reincarnation of apartheid-era South Africa.

Because of these experiences, many Jews understandably feel that we should have no truck with boycott campaigns anywhere—otherwise we risk looking hypocritical, as well as potentially endangering Jewish communities residing in the target state.

But I don’t entirely share that view. Boycotts were not invented to target Jews (the word originates from nineteenth century Ireland, where Charles Boycott, a British landowner, was ostracized by the surrounding community for unfairly treating his tenants), nor have they been restricted to Jews (think of the boycott of racially segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, which brought the civil rights movement unprecedented attention).

Instead, we should judge boycotts through two considerations. Firstly, is the boycott justified? Secondly, can the boycott be effective?

When it comes to Israel, most boycott advocates believe that the Jewish State has no right to exist; insofar as their actions are directed toward the elimination of Israel as a sovereign state, we can safely deem their motives to be horrendously unjust, not to mention anti-Semitic. In the Russian case, however, no one is challenging Russia’s right to exist. Indeed, doing so would be patently absurd. Instead, the boycott is directed at changing an unjust, discriminatory policy. Changing policy was also the goal of the Montgomery bus boycott, and of the American boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Given that our sense of justice is profoundly offended by Russia’s aggressive stance towards the gay community both domestically and abroad, it is reasonable to assume that the moral case for a boycott is a sound one. Once the discrimination is rescinded, the boycott will follow suit.

What, however, of its effectiveness? Boycotts are fast developing a reputation for achieving only a sense of worth among those engaged in the boycotting, with little practical impact on the target. Again, look at Israel: while it might be emotionally satisfying for, say, anti-Zionist Jews to declare “Not in My Name,” the material consequences for Israel of their boycott activities are, thankfully, pathetically invisible.

That explains why some Russian gay rights activists are—wisely, in my view—playing down the significance of the current boycott. “To be honest, I don’t see the point in boycotting the Russian vodka,” rights advocate Nikolai Alekseev told Gay Star News. “It will not impact anyone except the companies involved a little bit. The effect will die out very fast, it will not last forever.” In similar vein, Hudson Taylor, the director of a non-profit organization promoting tolerance in sport, told ESPN, “[T]he intent of an Olympic boycott is understood, but the outcome doesn’t create the necessary change… We are advocating that people speak out, not sit out.”

Speaking out is exactly the right strategy. Inasmuch as the boycott calls highlight Russia’s grotesque violations of the human rights of gay people, they are welcome. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that feeling good about ourselves is a substitute for meaningful action.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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  • lighthorse16

    Daily Express 1933 “Judea declares War against Germany”

    Do you have short memories ? Incidentally the German Jews opposed the Boycott because it would reflect badly on them, but Samuel Untermeyer had other considerations.

    When Hitler had been soundly established, Samuel Untermeyer, a New York Jewish Lawyer, called for war on Germany. The call was made through radio station WABC on 8-7-33. He had just returned from a world conference of Jews at The Hague. In the broadcast, he said he was calling for a “holy war”, and described the Jews as “the aristocrats of the world”. This same gentleman was connected with the Foreign Policy Association of New York and the worldwide organisation to move Jews out of Germany, not only into the United States, but to Palestine and other countries. These activities were tied in with the organisation known as the “International Boycott on German Goods”, of which Untermeyer was the head!

  • chaim

    I do not know about Putin, but jews should certainly BDS anybody who has anything to do with J-Street.

  • I dislike boycotts of any kind and in the case of Russia, they are ludicrous because Russia’s natural reserves of oil, minerals, etc. means that it is one of the most powerful countries in the world so a boycott is pointless and meaningless. Why anyone should be surprised at Russia’s foreign policy beats me, there is nothing “Communist” about it, this was the foreign policy of Czarist Russia which the Communists merely continued unchanged. So is Russian antisemitism. My daughter studied in Russia at the time of Chernobyl and was frequently insulted for being Jewish. The Russians have been kept in complete ignorance of the Holocaust and know nothing about Jews except that they are “alien”, there is also deep prejudice against black people (in spite of Pushkin).

  • I am upset about the prisoner release by Netanyahu much more than the injustices that Putin is committing. When we freed a kidnapped soldier I felt the prisoner release had validity. But now – I think we should boycott Israel if they keep releasing terrorists without just cause. And if it is boycott that Netanyahu thinks he will avoid by releasing terrorists, then we will show him that the boycott will increase, because the boycotters will not be impressed by the release, they will keep boycotting, and we will add to it until Netanyahu gets the message. Worrying about Putin is a distraction from our own problems.
    And I wish the fanatics who have so much energy to protest graves, would care as much about the living and they do about the dead – and protest the release of murderers.
    Or is it hopeless? Do we care more about gay rights in Russia than murderers being released?

  • Polly T.

    Yes, by all mean boycott all Russian exports–starting with Avigdor Lieberman!