Why calls for an boycott of Israel do a disservice to Palestinians


Noam Chomsky is not a household name in the United Kingdom. He is an expert in abstruse linguistic theory and has produced well-regarded academic works in cognitive science and artificial intelligence.

Among  international left-wing activists he is admired as a trenchant critic of the foreign policies of the United States and Israel.

In July, he published a surprising essay in The Nation magazine in which he took issue with the tactics of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. He believes comparisons between Israel and the apartheid state of South Africa are misleading and self-defeating.

He wrote: “Failed initiatives harm the victims doubly—by shifting attention from their plight to irrelevant issues (anti-Semitism at Harvard, academic freedom, etc.), and by wasting current opportunities to do something meaningful.”

It is doubtful that Professor Chomsky has heard of Councillor Ben Duncan who represents the Queen’s Park area in Brighton, but his words are a perfect description of Cll Duncan’s call for the city council to join the international boycott of Israeli firms.

Council officials moved quickly to thwart any debate of his motion but Cllr Duncan has vowed to fight back. It is difficult to see this as anything other than gesture politics.

According to a reply to my Freedom of |Information request, which I received this week, Brighton and Hove City Council keeps no record of where the firms it does business with are headquartered.

The leader of the Green Party administration at the council, Cllr Jason Kitcat, said:”Ownership is fluid, complex and can change. Our ethical and sustainable procurement policies do put stringent requirements on bidders though.”

A spokesman for the city council said: “As far as I’m aware, the vast  majority of our council contracts are with British firms. The question of whether any of them ‘have links and affiliations with companies in Israel’ does not arise during a tender process or as part of our financial checks. Therefore we have no information on this.”

A list of the city’s contracts and  contractors can be seen here


Bologna – a city on the edge

Bologna's main square

Bologna’s main square

At bus stops across Bologna, posters for the latest news magazines featured the gap-toothed grin of a bespectacled middle-aged man alongside the valediction “Ciao Maurizio”.

The face, I was told, belonged to the city’s popular councillor and former mayoral candidate Maurizio Cevenini, who killed himself last month by throwing himself from a balcony of the civic offices on Via Fioravanti.

According to the Bolognese daily, Il Resto del Carlino, Cevenini’s suicide was due to illness and thwarted political ambition rather than the financial crisis. But in the days following his death, the widows of Italian businessmen who killed themselves because they had been ruined by the recession made their grief public. The women waved white flags and marched from the city’s hospital where Giuseppe Campaniello, 58, died after he torched himself in his car in front of the tax building.

To these signs of the economic fault lines running through Emilia-Romagna was added a vivid reminder that its topographic nature is also unstable. During my four-day visit, the walls of the Hotel Corona d’Oro, our group’s elegantly appointed hotel in the historic heart of the city, were shaken by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake. No damage was done in the main towns and cities, but in the countryside six people were killed and thousands of homes were evacuated.

A stone-hearted ironist might note that our claim to heritage and continuity rests on flimsy foundations.

Proof of human persistence in the face of fickle history was provided at Acetaia Villa San Donnino, near Modena. Here Davide Leonardi, a wiry, dapper man, showed our group around his traditional balsamic vinegar house and explained how the product is derived from cooked grapes, aged at least 12 years. The best stuff is aged for a quarter of a century or more. It has a kick like a dirty martini but proved surprisingly tasty on ice cream, a bitter streak balancing the sweet vanilla.

A talent for culinary eclecticism, of course, runs in the Bolognese veins. At Cantina Bentivoglio we tried the famous ragu with tagliatelle and learned that the search for the typical Bolognese sauce is as quixotic as the hunting of the snark. Every mother worth her salt has her own version and the reputations of chefs have been made or lost on combinations of bacon, sausage, carrot, celery, onions and tomato puree.

The crown prince of post-modern molecular gastronomy is Massimo Bottura and his court is Osteria Francescana hidden down an unprepossessing alley in Modena. The place has become something of a temple for foodies and has received three Michelin stars. A meal for two with wine won’t give you much change from €400.

We were treated to a tour de force of flavorsome legerdemain by the much-lauded chef.

One course, entitled ‘Five ages of Parmigian Reggiano in different textures and temperature’, was Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch revisited.

A 24-month-old Parmesan was beaten into mousse, a 30-month-aged came as a foam, the 36-month was a sauce, while the oldest, at 50 months, was presented as a burst of Parmesan air.

Treating ingredients as bric-a-brac to be light-heartedly jumbled in the same pot seemed an apt approach in Emilia-Romagna, where the architecture also exhibits a mongrel heterogeneity. In Ferrara, we puzzled over a cathedral that combines Romanesque frescoes and Gothic statues on its exterior with a unabashed Baroque interior. At Azienda Hombre, a vintage Maserati collection nestled within a working farm. Commachio, a tiny town linked by 13 bridges in a lagoon where the Reno meets the Adriatic, bears the scars and signs of sackings by Goths, Lombards and Venetians. The region is nothing if not contrary.

Back in Bologna, our tour guide threaded us through the city’s crepuscular canyons while teasing out its knotted history. As unforgettably documented in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Bologna was bombed remorselessly by the Allied forces during the Second World War. That so much of its medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings survived is due more to capricious fortune than to the accuracy of the airmen.

If you are pushed for time, the Basilica of Santo Stefano, known to locals as the “Seven Churches” is a kind of ecclesiastical theme park, which will bring you up to speed on the most important architectural developments in one spot. The cobbled square where it sits is a lovely place to have a drink.

The city is a maze of porticos and alleyways where pools of light penetrate only periodically. But any sightseers who get lost amid the monuments can orient themselves by finding the famous Two Towers, situated at the intersection of five roads. The taller of the two at 97 metres is the Asinelli while the smaller, leaning, tower is the Garisenda.

They have survived attacks from arsonists and lightning bolts from the heavens – fitting emblems for an ancient city which seems forever to tremble on the verge of extinction


This article was first published in The Argus on July 2, 2012

How a fizzy drink landed me and Scarlett Johansson in hot water

Getting busy with the fizzy

Getting busy with the fizzy

It was Sir Henry Wotton, King James’s man in Venice, who, in 1604, nailed down the diplomat’s job description .

“An ambassador,” he said “is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

What the distinguished courtier would have made of the modern trend of brand ambassadorship is anyone’s guess, but it is a safe bet his cynicism would be undiminished.

The marriage of politics and celebrity is one fraught with risks for both sides.

As you will know, unless you have been living in a remote idyll blessedly free of an  internet connection, the latest star to get caught in the crossfire of controversial product endorsement is Scarlett Johansson.

Johansson’s gig plugging the fizzy drink brand SodaStream was judged to be at odds with her work as global ambassador for Oxfam.

SodaStream is headquartered in Tel Aviv and has a factory in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Oxfam is opposed to trade with the settlements.

The brouhaha brought back memories of my visit to the factory in 2012. I travelled to Israel and the Palestine Authority to research an article about SodaStream for The Argus newspaper in Brighton. As I made clear in the piece, my trip was at the invitation and expense of SodaStream.

The article was published in the newspaper’s business supplement and online and provoked a lively debate. An excerpt was also published on Jonathan Hoffman’s blog on the Jewish Chronicle website and that too generated an animated response.

A commenter called ‘Mary in Brighton’ wrote: “No one was surprised by what John Keenan had to say, it was known it was going to happen. After all where would his next all expenses paid jolly have come from? What Jonathan failed to mention is that Argus journalists are horrified at his sycophancy and at how cheaply he was bought. This article will come back to bite him. Further, that Sodastream feel they have to go to these lengths suggests they are not as confident as they would have us believe.”

If my colleagues at the Argus were horrified they failed to let me know me. Admittedly, life on a local daily newspaper is hectic and few reporters would have regarded  stopping by my desk for a chat on ethics as a productive use of their time. On the other hand, there are not many wallflowers on the reporters’ and news editors’ desks at Argus House and reticence rarely featured in our daily debates as we put the paper together. But maybe on this occasion my co-workers bottled up their outrage only to vent it all over Mary in Brighton. Who knows?

‘Real Real Zionist’ quoted Samuel Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an expert on media ethics: “A responsible journalist has no business taking a free trip to Israel — or to any other country, or to a Hollywood film studio’s junket at a resort, or to any other destination that is involved in the subject matter that the journalist covers or is likely to cover in the future. Period.”

Salutary stuff from the halls of academe. But there are other, equally valid, views.

David Randall is an editor at the Independent. He has been news editor and night editor of three national newspapers. In his book ‘The Universal Journalist’ (Pluto Press, 3rd edition) he writes: “Hidden advertising (which should be correctly labelled ‘advertising’ and typographically treated accordingly), is very rare in developed countries. Far more common is the acceptance by journalists of what they call freebies, that is free trips with vacation companies, free meals from restaurants or free tickets from theatres all given so that journalists can review them. The danger here is that the writer will feel obliged to write a favourable piece. This need not be so, and the dangers can be minimised and faith kept with the reader if it is made plain somewhere in the piece or in a footnote that the ticket/meal/trip or whatever was given free to the newspaper.”

So there we are: two sides of the same walnut. In the cut and thrust of UK newspapers, David Randall’s approach is more often adopted that Samuel Freedman’s.

I travelled to Israel and Palestine with an honest intention to discover and write about the situation there. I was not offered any incentive to publish anything. And I did not concoct or burnish the information.

One thing I have in common with Scarlett Johansson – it may well be the only thing – is that I know what is feels like to get an ear-bashing from an entrenched position masquerading as moral outrage.