Beit Midrash

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Boycotts Ours And Theirs


Rabbi Berel Wein

Wednesday, 26 Cheshvan 5768
The recent spate of boycott threats imposed on the Jewish state by certain European countries - especially leftist British academics - and the sixty year long Arab boycott against Israel by Arab and Moslem countries, brings to mind historical events associated with boycotts in which Jews participated as victims and sometimes initiators. In the Middle Ages it was common non-Jewish practice to periodically proclaim boycotts against Jewish commerce, work and professions. The Church in its heyday encouraged such boycotts as a means of encouraging Jews to convert to Christianity. No Jews were allowed to belong in the trade guilds and various forms of discrimination against Jews were instituted through legal and economic boycotts. However, in many if not most cases, the boycotts were relatively short-lived and not very effective. The Catholic prince needed his Jewish physician and financier as much as the physician and financier needed the Catholic prince so even though in theory the boycott attempts were meant to be all-inclusive in practice they were not. Many a non-Jew had his or her "good Jew" whose services and abilities were necessary for their own welfare and well-being. Jews fulfilled so many vital economic roles such as keeping stores that were open on Sunday that the general non-Jewish population after a time realized that it could not do without them. Thus, boycotts, painful and psychologically disturbing as they may have been to the Jews, were not really in the long run an effective weapon against Jewish interests. It was simply a counter productive tactic.

In the sixteenth century, after the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula, Jews scattered all over the Mediterranean basin. Jews settled especially in Italy and were active in commerce, competing now with established Christian firms and economies. In the port of Ancona prohibitive measures against Jews and Jewish concerns were proclaimed and enforced by the authorities. Dona Gracia Beatrice Mendes, the famed and pious Jewish financier and influential adviser to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, retaliated against the port of Ancona by announcing a Jewish boycott of the port, its facilities and commerce. Due to her wealth and influential standing, she felt confident that her backing of the boycott it would have its desired effect. However, in spite of her Herculean efforts to enforce the boycott, it soon proved to be ineffective. Jewish merchants, themselves more interested in their immediate financial gain, refused to abide by the boycott and it soon became obvious that Ancona had little to fear from Dona Gracia Beatrice Mendes’ boycott proclamation. Various other smaller, more local, boycotts were proclaimed by the Jewish leaders over the centuries to help ameliorate the terrible conditions under which European Jewry labored. Eventually, these boycotts failed, again because Jewish merchants themselves were unable to sacrifice their own self-interest and attempt to uphold the boycotts. Just as in the case of the Christian boycotts, the Jewish boycotters soon learned that the boycotters needed the services and wealth of the boycotted as much as did the boycotted need the boycotters. It is hard to repeal human nature.

As the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany in the 1930’s intensified, American Jewish organizations and commercial firms called for a boycott of German products and services. The boycott was not really effective, since America was then in the midst of its great economic Depression and was not really positioned to boycott anyone in the world. Nevertheless, Hitler used the excuse of the Jewish boycott initiative to further increase the persecution of German Jews. He declared it to be an act of aggression by world Jewry against Germany, thus justifying his claim that international world Jewry was at war with Germany and the Aryan Race. Jews were therefore caught in a catch 22 regarding the proposed boycott and it soon disappeared from the political and organizational scene. After the Holocaust there was a further attempt to boycott German goods and services. Many individual Jews maintain such a boycott even until today. However after the German restitution agreements were accepted by the State of Israel and the Claims Conference, no mass boycott against Germany by Jews has materialized. From all of the above, it seems that boycotts, unpleasant and frustrating as they may appear, have little effect in the long run. The Arab boycott of Israel has proven to be woefully porous on an individual basis. Again, self-interest on both sides trumps the nationalistic, ideological or religious fervor that instituted the boycott pronouncement in the first place. The English boycott of Israeli academics has also fizzled. Apparently, boycotts should not be the weapon of choice in conflicts and struggles.

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