Mamma Mia That’s a Spicy Boycott

by Brian on June 29, 2007

in In the News

When does something as innocuous and pleasurable as going to the theater become a political statement? When you’re seeing the British touring company of Mama Mia in Israel, that’s when.

The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot ran a story last week headlined “ABBA musical boycotted in Israel?” which reports a claim in the U.K.-based London Times that Israel is boycotting the extravaganza of 70s pop hits that’s been playing Israel over the last two weeks.

“The ABBA musical Mamma Mia could be the first casualty of a growing Israeli backlash against the British academic boycott of Israeli universities,” the article blustered. The boycott being referred to, of course, was the one approved last month by Britain’s University and College Union (UCU) refusing cooperation with Israeli academic institutions and academics. Last week, Britain’s largest labor union, UNISON, joined in the anti-Israeli jamboree, voting to boycott not only Israeli goods, but cultural, academic and sporting activities.

To which I say: balderdash. Not about the British boycotts but the Israeli response. My wife Jody and thirteen-year-old daughter Merav attended an evening performance of Mamma Mia in Tel Aviv last week, and I can report that while the hall wasn’t 100% sold out, many thousands of Israelis came out to the Nokia Sports Arena, more typically the home to the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team than musical comedy, to enjoy what is essentially a lightly scripted excuse to string together 20 or so of the Swedish pop group’s kitschy classics from “Chiquitita” and “SOS,” to “Dancing Queen” and, of course, the show’s signature song “Mamma Mia.”

Good times aside, the whole Mamma Mia boycott issue nevertheless raises some important questions of why Israel is being boycotted…and how Israelis should respond to these actions which have roundly been condemned as myopic, biased and discriminatory.

Bradley Burston, writing in Haaretz, does an excellent job of pointing out the absurdity of the British academic boycott. “Just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that you’re a British academic,” Burston wrote. “You believe strongly that the occupation must end, that the Palestinians should have an independent state, that Israel’s military and diplomatic policies are wrongheaded…What to do? Simple. Find the one group within Israeli society which has consistently campaigned against the occupation since its inception. Then attack them. Single them out for professional ruin. Do your best to get as many of their colleagues around the world to shun them.”

Thomas Friedman similarly supports Israeli academia in an article in last week’s New York Times where he commented on how he attended a graduation ceremony at Hebrew University two weeks ago and was struck by how many Ph.D. students were Arabs. One woman even received her degree while wearing a tight veil over her head, something Friedman pointed out would be banned in public schools in France.

“How crazy is this,” Friedman wrote, that “Israel’s premier university is giving Ph.D.’s to Arab students, two of whom were from East Jerusalem…all while some far left British academics are calling for a boycott of Israeli universities….singling out Israeli universities,” Friedman concluded, “in the face of all the other madness in the Middle East” is nothing less than anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is also how the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League labeled the UCU boycott. In one of the most effective series of advertisements I’ve seen lately, running as quarter pagers in several publications including The New York Times, the ADL stated the facts in black and white: “400,000 murdered in Darfur…700 human rights activists detained and tortured last year in Zimbabwe…38 reporters arrested last year in Iran…and British academics are boycotting Israel?”

Harsh words were also conferred by the British press. The Guardian called the academics’ boycott “bad and one sided”; The Financial Times labeled it just “stupid.” Uriel Lynn, President of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, additionally referred to the UNISON labor union’s boycott  as “scandalous and completely one sided.” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mark Regev added neither boycotts “help the Palestinians, the Israelis or peace.

But how should ordinary Israelis respond? The report in The London Times suggested that several Israeli politicians are now lobbying to enact laws that would launch an Israeli consumer “counter boycott” of British imports. Hit them where it hurts, the thinking goes, by cutting sales of Schweppes soda water and Cadbury chocolate in Israel. Jeremy Newmark of the U.K.’s Jewish Leadership Council also feared a “tit for tat boycott of British goods.”

Even if it were effective, though, is that really what we should do?

I think the answer must involve two elements: fighting back – not the kind of cat fight of a counter boycott that sounds more like a playground brawl between seven-year-olds than the actions of a mature country with one of the world’s most robust economies – but identifying the boycotts for what they really are and speaking up, like Columbia University President Lee Bollinger did when he wrote in a letter to Tel Aviv University President Zvi Galil:

“If the British UCU is intent on pursuing its deeply misguided policy,” Bollinger said, “then it should add Columbia to its boycott list, for we do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish. Boycott us, then, for we gladly stand together with our many colleagues in British, American and Israeli universities against such intellectually shoddy and politically biased attempts.”

Concurrent with fighting, we must also ignore these boycotts. Yes, that’s right – pretend they don’t exist. That’s perhaps the most Israeli thing to do, to go on with our normal life treating the actions of a few immoral activists in the U.K. as the trivialities that they are. The opposite approach – giving the boycotts too much credence – would only encourage more.

Ultimately, we must talk tough and at the same time keep enjoying British products and imports as always. That includes singing along to “Take a Chance on Me” and “Souper Trouper” at the Mamma Mia show when it comes to Tel Aviv.

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