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Choosing dialogue over boycotts
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Choosing dialogue over boycotts

Make no mistake: J.K. Rowling is not a hawkish Zionist, any more than her famous creation, Harry Potter, is a full-blood wizard. But that only makes her powerful defense of cultural engagement with Israel — and opposition to a cultural boycott — all the more significant.

Rowling was one of more than 150 British writers and artists who signed an open letter last week opposing efforts to boycott Israel. “Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory, and will not further peace,” they wrote. “Open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance, and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made toward a resolution of the conflict.” The signatories are supporting “Culture for Coexistence,” an initiative that intends to “inform and encourage dialogue about Israel and the Palestinians in the wider cultural and creative community.”

In a letter to fans, Rowling further clarified why she signed the letter. “Speaking purely for myself, I have deplored most of Mr. Netanyahu’s actions in office,” she wrote. “However, I do not believe that a cultural boycott will force Mr. Netanyahu from power, nor have I ever heard of a cultural boycott ending a bloody and prolonged conflict.”

In some pro-Israel circles, Rowling’s blunt criticism of Israel’s prime minister might put her in the “enemies” camp. But such thinking is as short-sighted as a boycott. Israel is not demanding loyalty to its governing party. It is seeking a sense of fairness from a world that too often singles it out for criticism, and cares not at all about the hopes, fears, or dilemmas of ordinary Israelis. Rowling acknowledges this, saying such Israelis “will be right to ask why cultural boycotts are not also being proposed against — to take random examples — North Korea and Zimbabwe, whose leaders are not generally considered paragons by the international community.”

Rowling (like many liberal Zionists, we might add) may not stand up for Netanyahu — but she does stand up for the power of dialogue between both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Isolation only serves the extremes on both sides — confirming one side’s deepest fears, emboldening the other side to forego compromise. Artists, writers, and academics — supportive or critical, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian — can create a climate in which Jews and Arabs must face truths about themselves and their adversaries. By contrast, cultural boycotts are “divisive, discriminatory, and counter-productive,” as Rowling reiterated.

Coming from one of the world’s most famous and influential authors, that is a powerful — dare we say magical — endorsement.

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