The BDS movement in Scotland
This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.
Immediately after the Palestinians issued their call for a boycott, Scottish PSC began to refocus its attention towards BDS. As the solution to the question of how we can influence events in Israel/Palestine from a position of strength and where popular support for Israel has long been evaporating. Even before Operation Cast Lead or more recent massacres.
Any solidarity campaign taking up BDS must insist that humanitarian aid is not a substitute to support for the BDS call, and that our audience in building BDS is the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation and siege, and the Israeli supporters of the Zionist project. To the former we offer concrete acts of solidarity; to the latter we exemplify the rising international anger and isolation that will help to end their crimes.
Even before the Palestinian appeal for BDS, as far back as 2002, more than 600 protesters disrupted a Scottish-Israel international football game in Hamilton, Scotland. When the Scottish Football Association ignored calls for the cancellation of the game, the resulting protests were reported by a Zionist insider in the Glasgow News:
“The protesters made themselves well heard both in the stadium and outside . . . (A)ll attempts to drown them out were in vain . . . A stunned Israeli team manager Eli Rozen told me: 'We came here to play football. We have to put up with these problems from the Palestinians in Israel, but why should we have to put up with it here in Scotland?' "
Why indeed? Because the majority of people are opposed to what you are doing and sufficient numbers are outraged enough to make Scotland a place where no representatives of the Israeli State go unchallenged.
In 2006, vigorous and sustained protests led to an Israeli cricket team having to play games scheduled for Glasgow at an RAF base in the far north of the Scottish Highlands. According to the BBC, “A spokesperson for RAF Lossiemouth said it was asked to help because it could provide a secure area for the match”. It is a small compensation for Palestinians confined into walled ghettoes by Israel that it is Palestinians who are welcomed all over the world while it is Israelis on holiday from their role as jailers who sometimes have to retreat behind barbed wire in the face of mounting public hostility.
The Scottish Region of the Fire Brigades Union has been to the fore in campaigning to secure the unanimous 2009 Scottish TUC vote to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. It is significant that the FBU’s commitment to BDS has gone hand in hand with other practical forms of solidarity: they invited a team of Nablus firefighters over to Scotland in 2009 for professional training and a solidarity cargo of sets of breathing apparatus from the FBU for Nablus was part of the Mavi Marmara cargo that was hijacked by the Israelis following the massacre. While some others counterpose humanitarian aid or even twinning to boycott, the FBU and others have synthesized the two.
Boycott has become thoroughly mainstream since the big battalions of the trade union movement have committed to boycott, and the Scottish Government First Minister called publicly for a review of trade relations with Israel after the murder in Dubai. Alex Salmond declared on prime time television that Israeli crimes made it impossible to “treat Israel like a normal state”.
Solidarity Campaign activists have also notched up other successes. For the second time, the Edinburgh International Film Festival was forced to return sponsorship money to the Israeli Embassy.
In 2009, in a virtual re-run of events in 2006, the organisers of the EIFF initially rebuffed the call for a boycott of all Israeli State-sponsored cultural institutions. This despite the EIFF Director describing to SPSC members a beating he had once suffered from Israeli soldiers. Pressure was needed to force the return of the money after reasoned argument failed, and that pressure took the form mass letter writing followed up by a double threat.
Filmmaker Ken Loach publicly announced his intention to withdraw his support from the Festival if the Israeli money wasn’t returned, concentrating the organisers’ minds wonderfully. Equally important was the SPSC ultimatum that we would begin to mobilise across Scotland and beyond for a protest outside every film showing of the entire festival unless the Israeli embassy sponsorship money was returned publicly. Though they were kicking and screaming the organisers were forced to announce they were returning the tainted money. Even then the announcement was only made shortly before the end of office hours on the Friday before the Festival was due to begin.
In 2009 and 2010 one event did not take place - the annual fund-raising for the racist Jewish National Fund at the Glasgow Hilton failed to materialise after earlier debacles. In 2004, immediately after sizeable protests greeted popular entertainer Ruby Wax’s appearance at the Glasgow Hilton JNF fundraiser, Zionist Federation President Eric Moonman announced that, “Miss Wax had a bad experience at a JNF function and after that she was thinking of pulling out” of the Israeli Independence celebrations in London a few weeks later. In the event, Wax refused to appear at the event where she had been advertised as the star appearance.
2010 also saw a victory for the right to boycott Israel, seeing off officially inspired attempts to criminalise boycott of Israel as “racist”. The “SPSC 5” won their court case in April after a two-year process when the Sheriff ridiculed the racism charges they faced for disrupting a performance by an Israeli musical quartet at the 2008 Edinburgh International Festival. The Sheriff satirised the charges, suggesting that the effect would be to make us carry placards reading “Boycott an un-named Middle Eastern State”.
The trial outcome means that the BDS campaign in Scotland, and elsewhere, can build on what The Herald newspaper called an important safeguard for legitimate protest and free speech. The only other public JNF event in Scotland, an annual golf game held in Eaglesham, a small village near Glasgow, is also in poor shape due to determined anti-JNF protests each time it is held. The fairways were empty for much of the time on June 22nd, this year. Numbers participating in the JNF fundraiser were substantially down on previous years, with thirty two teams participating this year compared to forty seven in 2009.
Swedish, Norwegian and Californian dockers have just raised the standard expected of solidarity activists, and we will have to raise our game in the coming year. We build in Scotland, however, on a solid basis of public support.
Mick Napier is the Chair of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign