The “South Africa moment”: Palestine, Israel and the boycott
This article was originally published in International Socialism.
This article was originally published in International Socialism.
Israel faces a new challenge—one the country’s leading strategists consider increasingly effective. This does not come mainly from the towns and refugee camps of the West Bank or Gaza, but from an energetic global movement of solidarity with the Palestinians. Since its launch in 2004 the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has stimulated a host of collective actions across five continents, demanding an end to military rule and to Israel’s occupation, and raising important questions about the Zionist movement and imperial power in the Middle East.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 refocused attention on imperialist interests in the region, highlighting the complex web of relationships through which the US and its allies maintain access to oil and strategic territory. With support from Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf States, the US mobilised overwhelming military force against Iraq’s Ba’athist regime. At the same time it made enormous efforts to exclude Israel from the confrontation. Even the most strident neoconservatives among advisers of President George W Bush were aware of the danger to US allies of direct Israeli engagement in the Arab world.
Bush renewed his commitments to the Israeli government, therefore, supporting its policy of colonisation of the West Bank and increasing military aid that was already at historically high levels. The quid pro quo was an Israeli assurance to stay out of the war zone, at least publicly.1 It nonetheless dramatised the historic links between the US and Israel: one result was that protests over the invasion worldwide made Palestine a central anti-imperialist issue. Everywhere the keffiyeh—the Palestinian headscarf—was worn on demonstrations as a symbol of resistance and as a statement of solidarity with both Iraqis and Palestinians.
This support was timely for Palestinian activists, who faced acute difficulties. Successive Israeli governments had ensured there could be no meaningful “peace” agreement in which Palestinians would control even a fraction of the land to which they had a historic claim. At the same time the Israeli government pursued aggressive settlement of the West Bank, the ghettoisation of Gaza and discrimination against Israel’s Arab population. It was aided by a Palestinian national leadership determined to contain mass activism and increasingly reliant on a CIA-trained security force.2 The national movement was weaker than at any time since the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964.
In 2004, aware of new possibilities on the international scene, a small group of academics and writers launched the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (Pacbi). This enjoyed immediate success and the following year a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign national committee (BNC) was established, calling for a
worldwide boycott of Israeli products and firms and for action against companies trading with or investing in Israel. It also called for governments and international bodies to impose economic sanctions directly on Israel. The new movement focused on human rights and international law, pointing to Israel’s discrimination against Arab citizens, its illegal settlements, the military regime in the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. It asked governments, including Israel’s closest allies, to require the same conduct on the part of Israel as that expected from other states.
The BNC has called on trade unions and student unions, NGOs and organisations of civil society to organise boycotts and campaigns for divestment, and to apply pressure for official sanctions. It encourages collective action that can be organised in the workplace, on campuses, in trade union branches and in communities. The movement has mushroomed, providing Palestinian activists with an opportunity to build coalitions of solidarity worldwide. The BNC now embraces almost 200 Palestinian organisations—marking unprecedented unity across a society in which there have been extremes of factionalism and conflict—and has won tangible support in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and North America. This article examines the background to these developments, the lessons from previous campaigns for boycotts and sanctions, and the implications for the Palestinian movement.
The call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has emerged in the context of a historic crisis of the Palestinian national movement in which the key issue is the ability of Palestinians to act as sole agents of their liberation. For decades leaders of the movement insisted that national liberation was a matter exclusively for Palestinians. They expressed scepticism about external involvement and often actively opposed the participation of those who wished to engage alongside them. While they requested solidarity in principle they opposed concrete action, especially when this involved collective activity in the Arab states. This had the effect of isolating the Palestinians and containing the radicalising impacts of Palestinian struggle, notably the intifadas of 1987 and 2000. The BDS campaign has reversed this trend, promoting collective action which links those involved both with the Palestinians and with others engaged in solidarity worldwide. One index of the effectiveness of the new approach is the furious reaction in Israel, where the campaign has engaged much media attention and where, in July 2010, members of the Knesset (parliament) introduced a bill to penalise Israelis and others deemed to have endorsed calls for BDS.3
According to the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, BDS has become an important element in what it calls the global “delegitimisation” of Israel:
The effectiveness of Israel’s delegitimisers, who represent a relatively marginal political and societal force in Europe and North America, stems from their ability to engage and mobilise others by blurring the lines with Israel’s critics. They do so by branding Israel as a pariah and “apartheid” state; rallying coalitions around “outstanding issues” such as the “Gaza blockade”; making pro-Palestinian activity trendy; and promoting grassroots activities such as boycotts, divestments and sanctions as a way to “correct Israel’s ways”.4
For Reut, the “Delegitimisation Network tarnishes Israel’s reputation, constrains its military capabilities, and advances the one-state solution”.5 It views the BDS campaign as an important part of networks with potential to pose an “existential threat” to Israel—”a systemic, systematic, and increasingly effective assault on its political and economic model”.6
This assessment is important: Reut is a “national security” policy group close to the state that expresses the views of leading Israeli politicians and strategists. It recognises, in effect, that BDS raises issues about occupation, dispossession, racist exclusion and persecution of the Palestinians which are not only subversive of Israeli policy but of the histories that sustain it. Reut also notes, “Israel has been successfully branded by its adversaries as a violent country that violates international law and human rights”.7 The BDS campaign has highlighted Israel’s double standards and those of governments which present themselves as guardians of freedom and rule of law, but ignore the judgements of their own courts in relation to Israel.8
The Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg, a historian of the post-1967 settlement process, sees occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 as Israel’s acquisition of “an empire”.9 By the end of 2008 the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) contained 121 settlements viewed by Israel’s Interior Ministry as official “communities”, plus 12 other large settlements and small settlement points on land annexed by Israel in 1967 and made part of Jerusalem. There were, in addition, some 100 unrecognised settlements usually described in the Israeli media as “outposts”.10 The number of settlers in the West Bank stood at 479,500.11 They have been part of a long-term plan, says Gorenberg, “to create facts that would determine the final status of the land, to sculpt the political reality”.12
In one respect the project has been successful—Israel has implanted communities that are forward bases in areas many Zionist leaders long wished to annex outright. These have been integrated into Israeli territory “proper”. They are connected administratively and physically to Israel’s major cities, with many effectively forming suburban commuter zones. But settlement has not achieved all the aims set out by its architects, among whom expansionist zealots hoped to incorporate swathes of territory by establishing colonies which would populate “Eretz Israel” (“the Land of Israel” or “the Whole Land of Israel”) and evict its existing inhabitants.13 Jewish communities of the West Bank have remained a small minority among the wider Palestinian population, reliant upon an army of occupation to facilitate land grabs and the seizure of water resources, and to suppress local resistance.
For 20 years after Israel’s invasion of the West Bank and Gaza, colonisation continued as “slow-motion annexation” supported by intensive repression: mass arrests, collective punishments, assassinations, curfews, closures, demolitions and military invasions of villages, colleges and university campuses.14 In 1987 there was a national uprising—a remarkable movement in which every Palestinian community was involved in mass action which echoed the first intifada against British rule and Zionist settlement in the 1930s. But neither this movement nor a further intifada in 2000 slowed the pace of colonisation. Settlement of the West Bank accelerated. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, between 2000 and 2008 the number of settlers in the West Bank increased at a rate of 12,000 a year. By the end of the decade several “settlements” had populations of more than 30,000.15 Jewish-only zones encircled East Jerusalem, while other large population centres were strategically placed to render impractical the plans of Palestinian leaders who held out hopes for a West Bank state. Israel was committed to what Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel calls “creeping apartheid…uncompromising attempts to Judaise the entire Israel/Palestine space”.16 The Palestinians were to be confined to Gaza and to fractions of territory in the West Bank in the expectation that poverty and despair would finally exhaust their resistance.
These developments slowly produced a reassessment by Palestinian activists of how to address issues of national independence in general and international solidarity in particular. It necessitated a sharp move away from strategic principles that had dominated Palestinian national politics for more than 40 years. In 1964 President Nasser of Egypt prompted conservative Palestinian leaders to establish the PLO—an attempt at containment and management of those impatient with his record vis-à-vis Israel. The organisation quickly came under the influence of Palestinians who had a different agenda. Yasser Arafat and his organisation Al-Fatah had begun armed attacks on Israeli forces, attracting thousands of young activists to their guerrilla strategy. When Fatah joined the PLO it soon took control and set out to lead the movement along the lines of conventional nationalism, aiming to establish a Palestinian state that would enjoy parity with other Arab states of the post-colonial era.
The mass of PLO activists came from refugee camps and from impoverished urban areas of the Palestinian diaspora. Arafat and his colleagues, however, represented the Palestinian elite. Almost without exception they were businessmen or professionals, among whom a number had become wealthy as a result of their role in the development of the Gulf States during the 1950s and 1960s. This produced a strategic difficulty: although Palestinians were scattered across the states of the Arab east and the Gulf, where their economic and political weight was considerable, PLO leaders were determined not to alienate the region’s rulers, with whom they believed they had much in common. The PLO leadership therefore resolved to maintain a policy of “non-interference”, giving undertakings that Palestinian struggles would not affect politics within the states of the region. The organisation intended to use financial and military support from the Arab regimes to sustain armed struggle against Israel along the lines of the Algerian resistance, which had recently succeeded in ending French rule. Following the 1967 war, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and other Arab territories, key figures in Fatah proposed that they could emulate the Algerian and Chinese models of guerrilla warfare:
The fact that there were now nearly one million Palestinians under Israeli occupation suggested that conditions were right for a popular war of liberation. Those who entertained this idea believed they could now apply Mao Zedong’s thoughts about revolutionary armed struggle. The one million Palestinians under Israeli occupation would be the revolutionary sea in which Mao’s fish—in this case Palestinian guerrillas—would swim.17
The idea was implausible. Palestine was a tiny country in which rural warfare had little chance of success and where the Zionist movement had long been able to call on a large and efficient military machine. In 1967 Fatah attempted to lead an armed uprising in the West Bank. It was a costly failure: the guerrillas lost hundreds of fighters and Arafat barely escaped with his life. The PLO was now locked into a dual strategy certain to cause problems. It was committed both to the principle of “non-interference” in the Arab states and simultaneously to armed struggle against Israel—a conflict in which its fedayeen would fight against overwhelming odds.
In 1969 Fatah leaders convinced King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to provide more arms and financial support, including by means of a “liberation tax” of 5 percent on the earnings of the many Palestinians working in the kingdom. The quid pro quo was a renewed assurance not to intervene in domestic affairs of the Arab states. Arafat biographer Alan Hart comments, “The significance of Saudi Arabia’s support for Fatah cannot be exaggerated. As time proved, with Saudi Arabia on its side, Fatah was indestructible—as long as it was pursuing policies the Saudis could endorse”.18
Fatah was heading towards the first of several tragic confrontations, not just with Israel but with the Arab rulers. Thousands of young activists had joined Fatah or the radical “fronts” of the Palestinian left.19 In Jordan, where some two thirds of the population consisted of displaced Palestinians, they were confronted by the forces of King Hussein. After a long standoff during which Arafat’s anxiety about “interference” in Arab domestic politics in effect kept the king in power, Hussein brutally attacked the movement in 1970—an act of repression that came to be known as “Black September”. The PLO as a whole retreated to Lebanon but never recovered. For the next ten years it was harassed by Lebanese forces and by the Syrian state. Israel also attacked savagely, notably during its invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982.
Throughout this long period Arafat clung to “non-interference” as a key organising principle. He also insisted that national liberation was a matter for Palestinians alone: others should endorse the liberation struggle but must not engage in any action that might disturb the political agenda of their own rulers. This approach amounted to an obsession. Although the presence of Israel affected the population of the whole region, Arafat and his colleagues continually discouraged the mass of the people in Arab states from linking their predicaments with those of the Palestinians. The Fatah leaders were determined to maintain relations with the region’s rulers, with whom they believed they enjoyed social and political parity. They acted in effect as a bourgeoisie without a state, confining their “own” population to a strictly nationalist agenda. This was congenial to the kings, emirs and presidents of the region, who used formal backing for the PLO as part of a chorus of rhetorical opposition to Israel, the better to maintain their own privilege.
Tabitha Petran comments on the impact in Saudi Arabia, where Palestinians contributed a significant proportion of the labour force and had led historic oilfield strikes in the 1950s: “Aid to al-Fatah [was] a means of preserving social peace at home… A by-product of al-Fatah’s organisation of Palestinians in the Gulf could be a ‘well-behaved’ labour force”.20 Determined to integrate the PLO into the state system of the Arab world, Arafat and his friends succeeded in isolating the Palestinian movement from those who identified most closely with it: the mass of people in neighbouring states and, most importantly, the workers whose struggles against their own rulers were suppressed by those calling for “national unity” in the face of Israel and imperialism.
This policy reached a further disastrous conclusion in the late 1980s. Expelled from its base in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, the PLO had been reduced to a shadow of the movement that galvanised young activists a generation earlier. Israel meanwhile stepped up colonisation of the territories occupied in 1967, integrating the Palestinian population into its economy. The West Bank and Gaza had become bantustans on the South African model—reservoirs of cheap labour from which workers commuted daily to Israeli factories and farms under conditions that recalled the pass laws of the apartheid system. When an uprising began in 1987 it engaged the mass of Palestinians in all manner of collective actions. There was an immediate response across the region. Millions of people identified with the youth of the intifada, contrasting their courage with the empty promises of the Arab rulers. Demonstrations were organised in the Gulf, in Turkey and in North Africa. In Sudan there was a brief general strike. The regimes took fright. In Kuwait police were ordered to attack a large march, with a local newspaper declaring such events “could be exploited by those who fish in troubled waters to create disturbances”.21
In Egypt there was a national work stoppage followed by demonstrations in the key industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra. Here workers not only backed the Palestinians but attacked the Egyptian regime and its servitude to the US and the International Monetary Fund. The interior minister accused demonstrators of “sabotage and incitement”.22 But the movement spread, with mobilisations of students and professional syndicates in Cairo and Alexandria—developing the kind of momentum regimes throughout the region feared, in which identification with the Palestinians stimulated confidence to address poverty, inequality and repression. The Egyptian government warned that its forces would “sever any foot that attempts to march in demonstrations”.23 Its reaction found support among PLO leaders, Arafat making a symbolic visit to the Gulf to embrace Kuwaiti leaders and declare local demonstrations “a tactical mistake”.24 Within weeks, an Arab summit in Algiers had backed Arafat with high rhetoric and a pledge to the PLO to provide $1 million a day.25
Palestinians were again at the centre of regional politics, their struggles stimulating solidarity and a desire to emulate the resistance. But PLO leaders rushed to put out the flames, protecting regimes which connived in Israel’s repression or which undertook their own offensives against the movement, isolating Palestinians from those most eager to support them.
By 1994 Arafat was back in Palestine as leader of a statelet in Gaza and the West Bank. He soon concentrated power in the hands of leaders who would become a byword for corruption. Using aid from the Gulf regimes and training from the CIA, he created a security apparatus committed to the suppression of the young people who had energised and directed the intifada. Fatah succeeded in isolating and demobilising the most effective mass movement in Palestinian history, setting the scene for the emergence of Hamas as the first mass Islamist organisation in Palestine, and encouraging Israel to accelerate its policy of colonisation.
In 1998 Israeli foreign minister (soon to be prime minister) Ariel Sharon broadcast on national radio, encouraging the Jewish settler movement to seize the initiative before peace talks which might give Arafat notional authority in limited areas of the West Bank. He told them, “Grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that is grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands”.26 Between 1997 and 2001 the settler population in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) increased by about 50,000 people as “creeping apartheid” increased its grip.27
This is the context in which a new generation of Palestinian activists addressed questions of international solidarity. They were encouraged by discussions at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, organised by Unesco in Durban in 2001, at which a draft statement opposed “movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas, in particular the Zionist movement, which is based on racial superiority”.28
In debate veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle identified parallels between Israeli practice and that of the racist South African state, recommending BDS campaigns similar to those that played a key role in their international strategy. For the first time in 50 years Palestinians engaged directly with activists committed to solidarity organised from below and which could deliver concrete outcomes. The reaction from Israel gave testimony to the impact of the Durban debates. Foreign minister Shimon Peres described the conference as a “bizarre show”, “a farce” and a “bomb…not made of explosives, but made of hatred, of extreme anti-Israeli expressions”.29
For Palestinians, the new relationships were of great importance. At home the Arafat administration was disintegrating. In one sense Fatah had achieved its goal—authority over territories in which it exercised formal control. But Palestinian society was being suffocated by fresh seizures of land and water, restrictions on economic activity and comprehensive controls on movement. By 2002 hundreds of military checkpoints divided the West Bank into separate areas, making meaningless the idea of progress to a state with territorial integrity. Israel had also begun to construct its “Separation Wall”, planned to run for 680 kilometres through the West Bank, involving the largest single annexation of land since the 1967 occupation, and leaving less than 12 percent of historic Palestine to the indigenous population.30 Some 95,000 people—4.5 percent of the population—were to be isolated from the West Bank, and 200,000 in East Jerusalem would be entirely separated from Palestinian territory.31
For South Africans, the conclusions were obvious: Palestinians were being confined to enclaves in a process familiar from the apartheid years. Following the Durban conference, Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky—leading figures in the anti-apartheid struggle—asked Jewish South Africans to join them in a declaration of support for Palestine. Their statement, “Not in My Name”, made the similarity of apartheid and Israeli policies explicit. In 2002 Archbishop Desmond Tutu told a conference in the US about his visit to the Occupied Territories:
I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.32
Tutu also issued a call for an international boycott. He argued:
The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century, but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure—in particular the divestment movement of the 1980s. Over the past six months a similar movement has taken shape, this time aiming at an end to the Israeli occupation… If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary move in that direction.33
For a younger generation of Palestinians, parallels with apartheid and calls for BDS made much sense. They had been deeply affected by Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza, witnesses to the most recent phase in construction of what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé terms “Fortress Israel”—an attempt “to construct and then defend a ‘white’ [Western] fortress in a ‘black’ [Arab] world”.34 Encouraged by the South Africans, in 2003 Palestinian academics called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In 2004 Pacbi was launched formally in Ramallah. In 2005 the BNC brought together 170 organisations in Palestine and the diaspora with commitments to raise active support for BDS worldwide, including—significantly—in the Arab states.35
Gaza and after
International initiatives directed at academic and consumer boycotts grew steadily. In December 2005 the regional council of Sør-Trøndelag in Norway declared for a comprehensive boycott of Israeli goods. In February 2006 an Anglican parish in Britain divested from the Church of England’s Central Board of Finance over ownership of shares in Caterpillar—a company profiting from the illegal occupation. In May 2006 the conference of Natfhe, the lecturers’ union in Britain (a predecessor of the University and College Union, UCU), voted for action against Israeli academic institutions, and the Ontario section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) condemned Israel’s “apartheid wall” and announced its own BDS policy. Willie Madisha, president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) applauded CUPE, declaring the issue of Palestine had finally entered the arena of workers’ internationalism:
It is time for the global workers’ movement to stand firm and principled against hypocrisy and double standards. We cannot remain silent any longer. It is time to stand in word and in deed with the peoples of the Middle East and heed their call to support the struggle against occupation. There will be no peace in this region and in the world, without justice.36
In August 2006 the Dublin Festival of World Cultures ended its sponsorship by the Israeli embassy, Venezuela withdrew its ambassador in Israel, the Locarno International Film Festival renounced support from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Greek governing body for film pulled out of the Haifa International Film Festival. In September 2006 61 Irish academics from a variety of disciplines wrote to the Irish Timescalling for a moratorium on European Union support for Israeli academic institutions until Israel abided by United Nations resolutions and ended occupation of Palestinian territories. In October 2006 the University of Michigan Student Government demanded the university divest from Israel, and the Belgian hi-tech company U2U ceased cooperation with its Israeli partners because of Israeli war crimes.
In 2007 a series of British trade unions including the National Union of Journalists, Unison, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (now part of Unite) adopted policies on BDS. The Congress of UCU voted overwhelmingly to circulate its members with the Palestinian boycott call, encouraging them to examine the moral implications of links with Israeli academic institutions.37 Weeks later the Irish Congress of Trade Unions voted for BDS.
The invasion of Gaza in December 2008 changed the pace of events. For weeks a formidable armed force pounded Palestinian towns and refugee camps, razing industrial, commercial and residential areas. The population was defenceless: already strangled by an Israeli boycott imposed when Hamas won an election victory in January 2006, it was now blitzed from the air, land and sea. The BNC issued an emergency statement:
[We call] upon international civil society not just to protest and condemn in diverse forms Israel’s massacre in Gaza, but also to join and intensify the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel to end its impunity and to hold it accountable for its persistent violation of international law and Palestinian rights.38
BDS campaigns proliferated. Social workers in Mauritius; city councillors in Birmingham; the Maritime Union of Australia; the World Council of Churches; Galway City Council in Ireland; the Scottish Trades Union Congress; the Edinburgh International Film Festival; the Norwegian Government Pension Fund; the Municipal Council for Cooperation of Bilbao, Spain; Danske Bank in Denmark; the Dutch pension fund ABP; and Italian supermarket chains COOP and Conad, all adopted boycott positions or began the process of divestment.
In a significant development, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, part of Cosatu, resolved that its members would not unload an Israeli ship due to dock at Durban. Shortly afterwards the Western Australia branch of the Maritime Union of Australia resolved to boycott all Israeli vessels and all vessels bearing goods arriving from or going to Israel. The BNC identified a shift from “traditional, mostly symbolic, solidarity” to “a new, qualitatively advanced phase of BDS”.39 Initiatives were under way, it said, in Norway, Sweden, Britain, Ireland, Turkey, Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, Spain, the US, Brazil and New Zealand. The committee declared, “Our ‘South Africa’ moment has arrived”.40
Boycott—a short history
For those engaged in building solidarity in the form of BDS, questions arise about how such campaigns have been organised and targeted, and what lessons can be learnt from their long history.
What is a boycott? The term encompasses all manner of actions in which there is collective abstention from relations with individuals or institutions: most boycotts from below are organised on such a basis but can be differentiated in respect of the nature of the target, those who are its specific focus and the operation of the campaign. Boycotts may be primary or secondary, targeting producer or consumer; they may be direct or indirect; they may target inputs, products or the whole process of production and distribution.41 While a primary boycott targets the offending firm, organisation, institution or country, a secondary boycott attempts to ostracise or isolate those who trade or otherwise associate with the target. A direct boycott targets the offender explicitly, while an indirect boycott lists conditions for legitimate and illegitimate trade or association. A consumer boycott aims to hamper the sales of goods by the offender through dissuasion. An input or material boycott aims to impede the production process by interfering with the acquisition of inputs to the production process.
The idea of boycott first became important in the late 18th century as part of efforts by British abolitionists to discourage use of slave-produced sugar.42 When in 1791 parliament rejected a bill to abolish slavery, abolitionists argued to abstain from use of slave-produced sugar and rum from the West Indies. The campaign involved some 300,000 people against products “soaked in the blood of slaves”.43 In 1824 the radical abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick wrote a pamphlet addressed to the elite abolitionists of the Society for Effecting the Gradual Abolition of Slavery (the “Anti-Slavery Society”), arguing that gradualism was a hypocrisy that played into the hands of the planters.44 She argued for immediate abolition and for a popular sugar boycott—a call which proved important to the momentum of the emancipation movement. Similar campaigns emerged in the US as slave-produced commodities were targeted by Quaker and Free Black abolitionists. At the same time, however, Northern merchandise was boycotted by Southern supporters of slavery—an example of retaliatory abstention that often developed in this period.
The term “boycott” emerged in rural Ireland in 1880. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was land agent and manager of the estate of Lord Erne in County Mayo. Taking advantage of the dearth of alternative employment, Boycott reduced the wages of tenant farmers who, organised by the Irish Land League, withdrew their labour. When he attempted to undermine the strike the local community imposed a campaign of isolation—no one spoke to him or served him in shops, and his mail was not delivered. Boycotts have since developed as a tactic deployed by a host of political parties, trade unions, pressure groups and campaigning movements.45 Formalised as state policy, they may take the form of legal or quasi-legal embargoes sanctioned by statute and enforced by state power or international bodies. When organised from below boycotts are typically initiated by those who lack other means to secure their aims, usually because of an extreme disproportion in power between the contending parties and/or particular difficulties in implementing alternative forms of action.
The boycott became a familiar tactic in North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part through the efforts of James Redpath, an American journalist who had observed the Mayo campaign. It was deployed widely in the US by labour movement organisations which distributed “unfair lists”, identifying firms from which consumers should refuse to buy. One of the most successful consumer boycotts took place in 1902, when the price of kosher meat on the Lower East Side of New York rose sharply as wholesalers cornered the market. Fanny Levy, wife of a unionised cloth worker, and Sarah Edelson, proprietor of a small restaurant, mobilised for a consumer “strike” targeting butchers’ shops and were joined by 20,000 women. Meat already purchased was confiscated and destroyed. The New York Times called for the repression of this “dangerous class [of] women…[who] mostly speak a foreign language”.46The boycott spread to Brooklyn, Harlem, Newark, Boston and Philadelphia. Small butchers joined the protest and refused to sell. Prices eventually fell. The American Jewish Historical Society notes the tactic was used in rent strikes in 1904, 1907-8, and in food boycotts in 1907, 1912 and 1917.47 Participants formed a National Consumers’ League, awarding a “white label” or “union label” to firms complying with their conditions, and campaigned over conditions in textile sweatshops, domestic manufacture and the use of child labour.48
During the inter-war period the tactic was adopted by opposing forces. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan organised boycotts of Jewish and Roman Catholic businesses.49 At the same time labour unions and consumer boycotts targeted “over-priced” goods in “buyers’ strikes”. The League of Women Shoppers (LWS), founded in 1935, provided information about the wages and conditions of workers producing goods and identified stores trading with Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Imperial Japan.50 It developed a “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign aimed at African-American consumers. The LWS and the American Federation of Hosiery Workers campaigned against Japanese and German goods and services. By 1940 their efforts were supported by prominent individuals. Albert Einstein became an enthusiastic supporter. The six largest chain stores in the US eventually undertook not to buy Japanese manufactured goods. These campaigns were supported abroad by the Indian National Congress, the CGT in France and the TUC in Britain.51
Similar developments were under way in Europe. In 1890 brewery workers in Berlin organised a beer boycott as part of a labour dispute. Their success led employers to form a brewers’ consortium. In 1894 a further dispute erupted, with brewery workers supported by the Social Democratic Party.52 Political tensions around use of the law to curtail boycotts led the German Imperial Court to recognise the legitimacy of the tactic in 1906.53 In 1901 the Amsterdam water transport leagues tried to organise an international boycott of British shipping in an attempt to end the Boer War, and to protest at British use of concentration camps in South Africa.54
Beyond Europe, the most dramatic use of the boycott was in the Swardeshi movement, part of the Indian movement for independence. Initiated in Bengal in 1905 in protest at partition of the province, the campaign aimed to convince consumers to use Indian products rather than British imports. It was already a popular and developing movement when the boycott was adopted by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, which targeted British products and urged Indians not to use British schools or courts and not to work for the colonial administration or use official British titles. It was also used successfully against the colonial administration’s salt tax, mobilising huge numbers of people in demonstrations.
Gandhi’s strategies strongly influenced Martin Luther King, who visited India in 1959, declaring that “non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom”.55 King had already mobilised sustained campaigns in the US, notably through a bus boycott which began in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, and which launched the Civil Rights Movement. After almost a year, and following police intimidation and bombings by white segregationists, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the Federal Court that transport segregation was unconstitutional, reasserting the boycott as a key weapon of the oppressed.
Boycotts could be mobilised for other purposes, however. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in the late 19th century produced a series of campaigns against Jewish businesses and products. In Warsaw, Jewish businesses were boycotted in 1912 after the Jews of the city supported the election of a socialist deputy to the Russian Duma. Jewish-owned commercial operations were also targeted after German military withdrawal from Poland in 1918.56 In 1936 a boycott of Jewish businesses was backed by both the Polish government and the Catholic Church. In 1928 the Nazis initiated regional boycotts against Jewish shops in Germany, and from 1933 they coordinated nationwide campaigns in which Jewish businesses were targeted for attacks soon sanctioned by state policy. In the US a boycott of German goods and services met a counter-boycott of Jewish-owned stores. From 1938 until the US entered the Second World War, the pro-Nazi Christian Front, a Catholic organisation, boycotted Jewish businesses in Irish neighbourhoods of the American north east.57
Apartheid, boycott and sanctions
Boycotts are not ends in themselves—and they are not always the appropriate means to achieve specific objectives. The relevance of a boycott depends on the nature of the objective, the balance of forces and the feasibility of particular tactics. In addition, the effect of a boycott is typically not the attainment of the overall objective but rather a contribution to the latter. These issues are illustrated in the most important of recent boycott campaigns—that against apartheid South Africa.
After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when 69 people were shot dead by police, anti-apartheid campaigners called for UN sanctions against the South African regime, a demand opposed by successive British and US governments. In 1976 state-sponsored killings during the uprising in Soweto stimulated further international condemnation of apartheid, intensifying the boycott campaign. In 1977 the UN finally adopted Resolution 418, imposing a mandatory arms embargo on South Africa. Piecemeal economic sanctions followed until in 1994, following the formal end of the apartheid regime, the UN lifted its arms embargo and South Africa was readmitted to the General Assembly.
These were formal actions of states and international bodies—but the boycott campaign was driven by grassroots activism. In Britain the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) initiated consumer and sports boycotts as well as pressuring the government for formal economic sanctions.58 The AAM initiated the “secondary” boycott against British companies
operating in South Africa, notably Barclays Bank and Shell/BP. It also targeted sport, with striking success: there were high-profile mobilisations against South African teams visiting Britain, with pitch invasions, destruction of cricket squares and many clashes with police.
In the trade union movement it was slower going—it was easy to pass resolutions against apartheid but more difficult to commit union branches to a ban on South African goods or contacts. Union leaders were reluctant to support formal consumer boycotts, arguing that this would affect jobs in the UK, and employment possibilities and working conditions for black South Africans. It was 15 years from the commencement of the campaign to boycott and isolate South Africa before the TUC supported mandatory economic sanctions and an effective boycott of goods.
In the case of South Africa, campaigns for boycott moved gradually from consumer boycotts to producer boycotts, and from the primary boycotts of goods, artists and sporting ties to secondary boycotts of companies trading with, investing in or otherwise profiting from the apartheid system. In addition, activists encouraged campaigns calling for official government economic and financial sanctions on the South African regime. There were several outcomes:
l increased public awareness, particularly in Europe and the US, of the realities of the racist regime;
l reassurance for South Africans engaged in the struggle that their predicament and sacrifices were not invisible, together with concrete demonstrations of solidarity;
l growing sensitivity in the circles of global capital that long-term risks of association with the apartheid state might outweigh short-term financial advantages;
l growing anxiety among senior agents of apartheid that a crisis would intensify as long as the structures of their system remained in place.
Those in struggle were strengthened and emboldened industrially and politically. Millions of people worldwide embraced the South African cause through practical actions that also strengthened their own resolve to resist exploitation and oppression.
The pivotal moment in the fight against apartheid did not come until the mid-1980s. It was closely tied to risings in the townships between 1984 and 1986 and attempts at the repression of the movement that were broadcast worldwide. Internal struggle, in the form of a popular mass movement rather than armed resistance or sabotage, insistently registered not only the oppression but also the courage and dignity of those engaged in resistance. This growing international awareness transformed the boycott into a serious political issue, notably in the US where the Democratic Party organised pickets outside the South African embassy and a massive divestment campaign spread across American universities. In August 1985 South African president PW Botha made his notorious “Rubicon” speech, refusing to make reforms or to free African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela. The result was a massive flight of capital from South Africa, partial default by the regime on its foreign loans, and a sharp fall in the value of the rand.
Renewed access to capital markets—a necessity for the South African economy—came to depend on attainment of a political settlement. Although the township risings were eventually defeated by the apartheid state, they had fundamentally altered the strategic situation. Sections of the South African ruling class, realising that the apartheid system could not survive, began to reflect on how a transition could be accomplished with the least loss of their wealth and power. It was against this background that the “Boycott Barclays” campaign finally succeeded. The most high-profile international financial partner of the apartheid system sold off its South African subsidiary in 1986.
The history of the South African struggle is not simply an inspiration or an example of the kind of contribution to liberation that can be made by international solidarity movements. It also contains important lessons about relationships between internal resistance to oppression by the oppressed and external solidarity that can be organised in support of that resistance. Whatever the differences between struggles against South African and Israeli versions of apartheid, the similarities loom large. Outright military victory was and is not a viable aim in either case, and negotiations could not take place or have any prospect of progress until those with power foresaw that the cost of stonewalling would exceed the cost of meaningful compromise. In South Africa the mutually reinforcing factors of internal mass mobilisation and external solidarity pressure for divestment and boycott produced a change in the balance of forces. Without external pressure on companies and governments internationally, the risings might now be remembered as heroic but not regime changing. Without mass struggle internally, and the repression it exposed, the external BDS movement would not have been able to develop widespread support among trade unions, students, activists and eventually growing numbers of politicians.
The boycott movement was a profound expression of international solidarity, animated from below. It began as an argument about moral responsibility comparable to the anti-slavery campaigns of the 18th and 19th centuries, but came to target those who traded and associated with the apartheid regime—campaigners arguing that such activity made participants complicit in apartheid. This was a moral argument with political intent.
A boycott of Israel
Do the campaigns against apartheid South Africa provide a model for action in solidarity with the Palestinians? Veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle maintain that they do. In December 2009 an international trade union conference on BDS, organised by the UCU in London, heard from Ronnie Kasrils, for many years a key figure in the ANC. For Kasrils, the differences between South Africa and Israel—including their contrasting colonial histories—are less important than their similarities. His recent visits to Palestine, he said, were “a surreal trip into an apartheid state of emergency”. Even hardened South African activists were unprepared for what they encountered. He recalled the illegal settlements, roads reserved for the use of settlers, multiple checkpoints and a “monstrous” wall: “I can’t recall anything quite as obscene in apartheid South Africa”.59
In the same vein and at the same event Cosatu international secretary Bongani Masuko and head of campaigns George Mahlangu offered their support to the Palestinian struggle as “a global symbol of resistance against apartheid, occupation and colonialism in our age”.60 On the Cosatu website the identity and commonality of the two struggles are registered:
Their [Palestinians’] struggle is for the same cause as that heroically waged by South Africans against apartheid not so long ago. It is in this light that South Africans have always and shall continue to support these sister peoples in their quest for justice and dignity.61
Can BDS be applied to Israel much as the AAM directed its strategy towards South Africa—and can it have a similar impact? A consumer boycott is unlikely to bring crisis to the Israeli economy, a socio-economic system supported by massive US aid. It will, however, bring to worldwide public attention the circumstances of the Palestinians—which have been obscured by decades of ideologically distorted reporting and by the efforts by partisans of Israel to dismiss the Palestinian case. An academic boycott will not terminate research and development within Israel, not least because of the umbilical relationship between industrial, military and political activity on the one hand and most academic research on the other.62 It will, however, focus attention on ideological, infrastructural, technical, psychological and military support for the occupation provided by all Israeli universities, permitting scholars and scientists outside Israel to consider whether they wish to make themselves complicit with oppression at second hand by collaborating with Israeli institutions.
Cultural and sporting boycotts will not promptly make Israel a no-go area for visiting celebrities. They can, however, show that some people refuse to perform in a tortured land where millions are denied not only entertainment but land, water and basic rights. The cumulative effect can not only reinforce networks of international support around the Palestinians but also project into Israeli society an awareness of how vast numbers worldwide view the occupation. It is in this context that Israeli peace activist Udi Aloni, a supporter of BDS, argues, “It is time for clarity; who is on this side and who on that side. The other side are the ambassadors of the occupation”.63
Anti-apartheid activists point out that, in addition to mass mobilisation by the workers’ movement, their struggle required an international solidarity movement that took decades to develop. Efforts began in the late 1950s but did not become effective for almost 20 years. In the case of Palestine events have recently progressed quickly, with the formation of many local BDS campaigns, the emergence of international BDS networks, and a number of high-profile successes in the cultural arena.64 A group of Israelis has created Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within, involving “citizens of Israel, [who] join the Palestinian call for a BDS campaign against Israel, inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid”.65
Arab organisations in Israel have begun work on a boycott of 1,000 companies based on or linked with illegal settlements. In May 2010 even Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas endorsed a law banning trade in goods produced in the settlements in areas under the Palestinian Authority—a reluctant response to mass campaigns for boycott in which Palestinian youth have called for all homes and communities to be cleared of illicit Israeli products.66 The significant impact on Israeli businesses was described by hard-hit Israeli factory owners as “insufferable” and by the settlers’ Yesha Council as “economic terrorism”.67
Of these developments, the most important is the impact on the Palestinian movement at large. The establishment of the BNC is highly significant. Its website has been named Global BDS Movement, an initiative unthinkable in the 1990s when Palestinian society was controlled by leaders convinced that politics must remain local and not be projected onto agendas elsewhere.68 The BNC celebrates the fact that BDS initiatives “have been multiplying all over the world”, and calls for extensive engagement of Palestinians with transnational activists.69 Formal leadership of the Palestinian national movement still lies with Fatah, which retains shaky authority in the West Bank through control of the Palestinian Authority, and with the more stable Hamas in Gaza. But local leadership has been distributed more widely and Palestinian communities, schools, colleges, universities, workplaces, trade unions and other activist groups now have complex links abroad, including through BDS networks.
Confined physically by Israel, Palestinians are emerging from the restrictive political environment associated with decades of self-imposed isolation. This goes some way to addressing the historic problem of the national movement: its inability to confront the chronic weakness of Palestinian political forces acting alone and its leadership’s unwillingness to align Palestinian struggles with those of the mass of people in the region. This opening comes at an important moment when Arab politics in general has become somewhat less introverted. Military interventions in the region, world crisis, democracy activism and the strong workers’ movement in Egypt have all had an impact, prompting Palestinian activists to look beyond traditional organisations. When the BNC held its Second National Congress in Nablus in May 2010, delegates addressed directly the challenge of “encouraging civil society worldwide to join the global BDS movement”.70 They face formidable problems but are moving fast, achieving a momentum which is alarming Israel’s strategists. To this extent they have indeed reached a “South Africa moment”.
1: There were many accounts of clandestine Israeli involvement: see, for example, Borger, 2003.
2: By the late 1990s the Palestinian Authority, which administered areas under notional PLO control, had 30,000 US-trained police at its disposal. See Hawks, 1998.
3: See Lis, 2010.
4: See report of the Reut Institute, 2010.
5: Reut Institute, 2010.
6: Reut Institute, 2010.
7: Reut Institute, 2010.
8: For example, in July 2004 the International Court of Justice found Israel’s “separation wall” and its settlements in the Occupied Territories to be contrary to international law. Western governments ignored the ruling.
9: Gorenberg, 2007, p5.
10: B’Tselem, no date a.
11: According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 285,800 settlers were living in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem. In addition, based on growth statistics for the entire population of Jerusalem, the settler population in East Jerusalem at the end of 2008 was estimated at 193,700 (B’Tselem, no date a).
12: Gorenberg, 2007, p364.
13: Eretz Israel has been defined in many ways, from an entire region encompassing all land from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, to the geographically narrower areas of today’s West Bank and Gaza.
14: Gorenberg, 2007, p369.
15: For detailed figures including statistics on each settlement see B’Tselem, no date b.
16: See Yiftachel, 2005, p128.
17: Assessment of Arafat’s biographer Alan Hart of the views of Fatah veterans who attended the organisation’s first congress in 1967. See Hart, 1984, p236.
18: Hart, 1984, p288.
19: Some, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, represented indigenous radicals opposed to Fatah’s accommodation with the Arab states. Others were the latter’s instruments within the PLO, armed groups implanted in the movement, and backed with arms and finance from Libya, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
20: Petran, 1987, p92.
21: The pro-government newspaper Al-Ra’i Al-’Am reported, “Such demonstrations could be exploited by those who fish in troubled waters to create disturbances.”-Mideast Mirror, 10 February 1988.
22: Mideast Mirror, 4 January 1988.
23: Egyptian interior minister Zaki Badr declared, “I will sever any foot that attempts to march in demonstrations…demonstrations are impermissible even if peaceful in support of the Palestinians in the occupied lands and we will meet this with all-out firmness.” Reported in Mideast Mirror, 12 January 1988.
24: See Middle East Report, 1988, p51.
25: Arab states pledged some $330 million to the PLO for the year.
26: Gorenberg, 2007, pp371-372.
27: B’Tselem, no date b.
28: Delegates from Israel and the US immediately withdrew. A milder final statement on Palestine declared, “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation” and their “inalienable right…to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent state”. See BBC World Service, no date.
29: Press briefing by Peres. See Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2001.
30: Stop the Wall, no date.
31: Parry, 2003.
32: Tutu, 2002.
33: Tutu, 2002.
34: Pappé, 2006, p253.
35: Members of the BNC are listed at BNC, no date a.
36: Cosatu, 2006.
37: UCU Congress report at UCU 2007.
38: BNC, 2008.
39: BNC, 2009.
40: BNC, 2009.
41: Wolman, 2009 .
42: Midgley, 2007; Sussman, 2000.
43: Sussman, 2000.
44: Heyrick’s arguments prefigured those developing today and which divide those for whom a boycott is aimed exclusively at the produce of illegal Israeli settlements, addressing only the issue of the Occupied Territories, and those for whom it is a tactic with a wider rationale that addresses the entirety of the oppression and dispossession that the Israeli state represents. See Heyrick, 1824.
45: For a recent literature survey from which much of this historical synopsis is drawn, see Hawkins, 2010.
46: American Jewish Historical Society, 2010.
47: American Jewish Historical Society, 2010.
48: Hawkins, 2010.
49: Hawkins, 2010.
50: Hawkins, 2010.
51: The six were FW Woolworth, SS Kresge, McCrory, SH Kress, F&W Grand Stores and the National Dollar Stores.
52: Turk, 1982.
53: Schaffner, 1910, pp23-33.
54: Hawkins, 2010.
55: King, 2000, pp135-136.
56: Heller, 1993.
57: Grover, 2003.
58: Fieldhouse, 2005.
59: Kasrils’s statement to the international trade union conference on BDS, hosted by UCU, London, December 2009.
60: Masuko, 2009.
61: Cosatu, 2009.
62: There has been a dramatic growth of compendia of evidence of the complicity of Israeli academic institutions with maintenance of the occupation and suppression of Palestinian resistance. All universities are involved in the training of military personnel, and/or military or intelligence-related research, or psychological or anthropological research that sustains the occupation and secures the founding myths of the Israeli state. See Bricup, 2007.
63: See Nieuwhof, 2010, for Aloni’s support of BDS.
64: By the time of publication a series of musicians had refused to play in Israel. The list included Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron, Carlos Santana, Faithless, Pixies and Leftfield.
65: Boycott!-Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within, 2010.
66: For a critique of Abbas’s involvement in BDS activity see Abunimah, 2010.
67: Frykberg, 2010.
69: BNC, no date b.
70: BNC, 2010b.
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