Should Jews support a boycott of Vladimir Putin-led Russia?

By Ben Cohen

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. 

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.