Lessons from Marrickville for BDS Activists
On April 19th, the Marrickville Council in Sydney’s inner west, Australia, met to debate and eventually overturn its four months old motion supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Campaign against apartheid Israel. The experience of the Marrickville Council provides revealing insights into the state of the Palestine solidarity movement in Australia and important lessons for ongoing BDS campaigns locally and internationally.
The BDS motion initially passed in Marrickville reflected a genuine expression of support for the people of Palestine and was based on the experiences of a number of councillors who had recently visited the Occupied Territories, Israel and the Palestinian refugee camps in neighbouring countries. It also reflects many of the councillors’ sincere commitment to defending basic Palestinian human rights. Conversely, the strength and ferocity of the backlash reflected the decades old complicity of Australia’s political elite. Apartheid Israel is reportedly the most visited state by Australian politicians and trade groups such as the Australia – Israel Chamber of Commerce, which claims to be one of the most prestigious and active national business organisations in the country.
Although this motion was one of the first by a local council in a country with its own settler-colonial history, such BDS motions are becoming a common feature in European councils. The intensity of the campaign against the Marrickville council waged by mainstream political parties and the mainstream media, along with the lack of support for the motion from the Federal Greens (whose own Marrickville councilors put forth the motion in the first place), exposed the entrenched complicity of the Australian political elite in supporting Israel’s apartheid policies against the Palestinian people.
This orchestrated attack is not surprising to anyone familiar with the official discourse in Australia around Palestine/Israel and, unfortunately, Australia is not unique in this regard. Most Western governments treat Israel as a close ally and the mainstream media in most cases is hostile to BDS discussions. In Canada a country very similar to Australia, councils have debated whether or not to condemn the annual Israeli Apartheid week activities and community organizations have been defunded for their support for Palestinian human rights . In France BDS activists are facing criminal charges and fines for simply putting an End Apartheid sticker in a supermarket or filming BDS actions .
It is instructive that where the BDS movement is strong, activists have managed to build sustained and creative BDS campaigns despite the repression. That is the task ahead of us here in Australia now. Rather than getting drawn into a long discussion about the strength of the pro-apartheid lobby and how closed off the media is to our views, we should use this time to critically assess our own strengths and weaknesses and situate our movement here as part of a broader global movement.
How we prepared for and defended the Marrickville motion demands more serious analysis and self-reflection that will guide our BDS work in the future. Below is an attempt at moving in that direction.
Apartheid Analysis and BDS Strategies
To begin with, it’s important to ground our work here in the BDS call signed by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement. The strategy of BDS is based on an analysis of Israel as a settler-colonial state, violating international law. BDS also puts the onus on people of conscience around the world to build a mass grassroots movement to challenge Israeli apartheid because the so-called international community has failed at the task.
The reason Israel is able to continue its military occupation of the West Bank, its siege on Gaza, and the denial of the right of return to Palestinian refugees is that it receives unconditional support from Western powers, especially the United States, but others like Australia, Canada and EU play a significant part as well. Israel, as a settler-colonial project, built on the dispossession of the Palestinian people, is fully dependent on external support (mainly US military and diplomatic support), in turn it serves Western interests in the region. Israel receives the highest proportion of U.S. economic and military aid of any state in the world. Canada has a free trade agreement with Israel. The EU and Israel maintain a strong trading relationship; the EU is Israel’s first trading partner with total trade amounting to approximately €20.2 billion in 2009. The value of Australia-Israel bilateral trade in 1970 was $10 million. This relationship has grown exponentially since then, and stood at over $600 million last year (Israel Ministry of Industry and Trade). Besides trade relations, there are of course institutional, cultural and academic exchanges which serve to whitewash Israel’s crimes and normalize its image.
Israel is not supported by the Australian state (and Western powers) because of strong Israel lobbies in these countries or because politicians simply are misinformed and can do with a bit more reading. Unfortunately, they are informed all too-well and choose to support Israel regardless of its human rights violations. Israel serves a fundamental role as a pillar of support for western hegemony over the Middle East. Understanding this allows us to shift our longer-term Palestine solidarity organizing from lobbying politicians on an individual basis and writing letters to the media, to actually taking on the harder work of building a mass movement that targets the very economic and political connections that allow apartheid to continue. The strategic demands of boycott, divestment, and sanctions that we put forward target the powerful economic and ideological ties between North American, European, and Australian capital and apartheid Israel.
The support Israel receives has allowed it to continue isolating the Palestinian people into isolated ghettos, while becoming a world leader in surveillance and weapons technologies (as well as gaining consultations contracts for the building of walls across various borders where states seek to ‘control migration’). In The Shock Doctrine (2008), Naomi Klein explained how the post 9/11 increase in racial profiling of Arabs was a boost to the Israeli military industrial complex . Israel can claim local knowledge and experience where they test equipment on the Palestinian population before it is marketed internationally. Well known, Israeli scholar Neve Gordon (2009) explains:
“…[T]he Israeli experience in fighting terror is attractive not only because Israelis manage to kill ‘terrorists’ (the militaristic worldview), but also because killing terrorists is not necessarily adverse to neoliberal economic objectives, and actually advances them….This attraction stems from the sense (real or perceived) that fighting terrorism through methods of homeland security, that include suspending due process in many areas of the criminal justice system, including torture, the right to a speedy trial, the freedom from arbitrary police searches, and the prohibition against indefinite incarceration and incognito detentions (to mention a few methods) does not conflict with democratic values” .
If we understand Israel as an apartheid state, playing a specific role in the region, and understand its role in the global economy as leader in military technologies (honed to perfection on the bodies of Palestinians), then we begin to unravel the true reasons that our politicians support Israel and we start to imagine strategies that target specifically the economic backbone of Israel’s apartheid system.
Moving Forward with BDS
Most agree that the passing of the Marrickville BDS motion in the first place and the debate to rescind it has truly put BDS on the map in Australia, shifting it beyond small activist circles into the mainstream. While there have been active consumer boycott campaigns and several union motions passed, nothing had garnered this much mainstream attention up to this point.
Moving forward, however, we must consider the need to be prepared for such motions and to have done the necessary educational and campaigning work in the community to gain support for them locally. We need also to see ourselves as part of a larger global movement.
We were all heartened when the messages of support from European councils were read during debate proceedings in Marrickville, the statement signed by international figures was much appreciated and did manage to gain limited media attention. One important lesson to draw from these statements is the importance of working with groups outside Australia and coordinating with the Palestinian National Boycott Committee (BNC) and other organizations supporting BDS internationally to build support for our efforts and to be ready to defend any gains we do make.
If we had started this process of coordination earlier, we could have received these statements as congratulatory notes when the motion was first passed.
It is difficult when facing a media smear campaign to think of connections outside the immediate circles, however if anything the Marrickville vote showed that the BDS movement is a truly international one and we will have support if we seek it in an organized way.
In other countries the BDS movement is five or six years old and similar motions are usually the culmination of years of grass roots education work by local activists working in unions, churches, universities and local councils. This type of steady longer-term campaigning requires us to strategize together to choose appropriate BDS targets that can engage local communities.
We are lucky to be able to look to the BDS movement in other areas to seek and study examples of creative and successful campaigns. One good example is the “Derail Veolia and Alstom Campaign’. Veolia and Alstom are two French multinational companies helping to build and operate the Jerusalem Light Rail which links illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory with Israel. As a result of the campaign to “Derail Veolia and Alstom”, financial institutions across Europe have sold their shares in the two companies and public authorities in the UK, France, Sweden, and beyond have excluded them from bidding on public contracts. More councils are dumping their contracts with Veolia, not based on letter writing campaigns (though that is part of it), but rather because activists engaged the local community, going door to door speaking to people, organizing public meetings, collecting petitions and organizing creative actions at Veolia offices in various countries.
Building Grassroots Support for BDS
In terms of the specifics of defending the motion, while the email campaigns targeting councillors were necessary, and the constant attempts to present our point of view in the media are commendable, they cannot be the fixation of our BDS campaigns, but must be integrated into a longer term strategy that mobilizes grassroots support. Letters to newspapers and the lobbying of councils no matter how powerfully expressed and succinctly argued, clearly have little impact if they do not have the grassroots support to back them up.
If we are to look at successful BDS campaigns internationally, it is easy to see that creative actions have been the key to gaining access to media. For example, just recently hundreds of students shut down the meeting of the university senate in Carleton University (Ottawa) for refusing to consider a debate on ethical investment that would lead to divestment from corporations profiting from Israel’s military occupation. This action made the news across Canada . Students worked on this campaign for over a year, first presenting the proper research connecting their university’s investments to corporations that profit from the occupation. They produced short videos that explained their campaign to the student body and used cultural events to explain their demands. They also slowly did the outreach work to build a coalition with other progressive students on campus. It was after all these steps that they had built the necessary momentum to shut down a board of directors meeting.
These types of actions have a much bigger impact than sporadic events and speak outs that do not pose a direct challenge to the institutional, economic and academic ties between Western universities and Israeli ones.
Media strategies have to be developed around our longer term actions and campaigns to actually work. It is to be expected that the mainstream media will be closed to us, so we have to determine how much of our efforts go into convincing them to publish us as opposed to how much time we spend developing our own ways of messaging using alternative media and thus assuring our voices are present with the means at our disposal. It is important that we constantly point out that they are refusing to show the BDS perspective and that various media outlets are constantly rehashing Israeli state arguments. However, there is a multitude of ways for us to organize actions and to reach ordinary people without having to rely on the mainstream media. Once again we can look to BDS actions internationally for inspiration: the BDS flash dance in New York Grand Central Station had 33,000 youtube views in the first day it was posted and organizers managed to leaflet the crowds at the station reaching hundreds of people.
One positive development that came out of the defence campaign around the Marrickville motion is that people who have been involved in various Palestine solidarity groups came together to support the motion. However we need to move quickly to this being the norm – not only our mode of operation at times of crisis. The BDS movement will only grow in Australia if we work together and attract more people to work with us.
More people are questioning Israel’s apartheid policies than ever before, so there must be a space for new people to enter the structures of the BDS movement in Australia on an equal footing and have campaigns to participate in once they are involved. The concept of closed groups is not conducive to building mass grassroots support. Present in the Marrickville Council building when the motion was overturned were activists who can trace their history back to the solidarity campaigns of the 70s and 80s before the Oslo process began. There were also people who have been recently mobilized after Israel’s most recent war; these people are inspired by the BDS campaign and feel they can be part of something dynamic. This necessitates that we organize in a dynamic way that is not reactive and not sectarian.
So the message from Marrickville is that we must now begin the slow and strategic work of building a campaign that reflects the power of the thousands of Australians who reject apartheid and support breaking ties with the state of Israel. The true strength of BDS is its ability to reframe the agenda beyond the mainstream discourse that helped smash the motion in Marrickville. That is why they hate BDS so much and were prepared to spend so much money to defeat it while dismissing it as irrelevant at the same time.
We need to realize the power of the BDS call to generate grassroots support just as the earlier call from apartheid era South Africa did.
Each point in history requires us to reflect on changes and opportunities presented to us. We have an opportunity after Marrickville to join the international BDS movement in a decisive and strategic way. We must take the time to consider seriously new and creative ways of working to promote BDS in Australia. Established solidarity groups need to open their doors to the idea of BDS mobilizations that both harness the experience of the past and the energies and possibilities of the new era.
As with all campaigns the focus should be on collective action, people coming together to set the agenda openly and creatively.
Phil Monsour is a musician, songwriter and union activist based in Brisbane.
 On repression in Canada see Palestinian Boycott National Committee statement: http://usacbi.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/palestinian-boycott-national-committee-statement-on-repression-in-canada/
 On the cases against French BDS activists see BNC statement at: http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1420
 Klein, Naomi (2008). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador.
 Gordon, Neve (2009). “The Political Economy of Israel’s Homeland Security/Surveillance Industry,” Working Paper III, The New Transparency: Surveillance and Social Sorting.
 Video of Carleton students shut down of Board of Governors meeting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PGgmXvVQI8