Why is boycott a dirty word?

October 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

(first posted on Political Dynamite, 10/10/2010)

It seems that the very concept of boycott, sanctions and divestment in relation to Israel makes people back off. Why? We know that boycotts can work. We know it takes time for change to happen – the struggle against apartheid in South Africa took decades. But it succeeded.

Boycotts are a non-violent form of grassroots resistance, something small that anyone can participate in, that can make everyone feel capable of making a difference. And they hit the place where it hurts the hardest – the economy. Surely BDS should then be something that would appeal to people campaigning for peace? In any case, surely calling it an illegitimate tactic is unfair?

Caterpillar protest London, copyright Stop The Wall

I’m not by any means suggesting that all concerns about the BDS movement are baseless. Certainly, I don’t think representatives have always been clear in their aims – there is a strain in the Palestine Solidarity movement that makes a lot more noise than it does sense. The problem, as with anything, is that those who shout the loudest tend to get more coverage. In fact, I completely understand some of the criticisms of BDS. For example, I am sceptical of the wisdom behind saying that Israeli politicians shouldn’t be allowed into Britain. I believe that everyone should have a chance to make their point – no matter how unsavoury their arguments might be. I am equally sceptical of the arguments that Ahmadinejad should be banned or the BNP prevented from participating in public debate. I also think that the fear that boycott may isolate Israelis and stifle debate is legitimate, at least in the short-term. I am well aware that several (not all) Israeli and Jewish groups pushing for an end to occupation consider BDS to be a hindrance rather than a help and, again, in the short term, I think their concerns are right. However, I think that in the long-term, the BDS movement is the only real opportunity we as campaigners have to push for a peaceful resolution. I also think the BDS movement needs to be clearer about WHAT it is boycotting.

By divesting from/boycotting those institutions, organisations and businesses that either publically support, prop-up (financially or otherwise) or profit from the occupation, we make an explicit statement that we won’t accept the continuation of the situation as it stands. The academic and cultural boycott – though not unproblematic – aims to make a stand against the continued stifling of Palestinian academia, culture and sport, the restrictions on movement which all Palestinians, including academics, artists and athletes, are subject to.

Sanctions are a tool which the international community has used repeatedly as a means of pushing individual states to respect international law – why are they never used in relation to Israel? Given the recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza, surely an arms embargo would be sensible? We, the international community, have spent too long trying to pacify Israel. We say “stop building the settlements”, “the wall is illegal”, “don’t use white phosphorous” – but when Israel ignores us, we don’t back up our words with actions. That’s why the BDS movement is important. It means that the international community no longer has to rely on its leaders to do something. We can use this active, non-violent tactic to make a point.

None of the aspects of BDS have anything to do with delegitimizing Israel’s ‘right to exist’*. Rather, the movement is about refusing to accept that it is legitimate for Israel to claim that, in order for it to exist as a state, it has to maintain the occupation and continue to restrict Palestinians in all aspects of their daily lives. Of course BDS won’t work on its own, but it does play a significant role in putting pressure on Israel to work towards peace.

Far from cutting links with Israeli society as a whole, the BDS movement should be a way for Palestinian and international anti-occupation/ peace campaigners to build links with their Israeli counterparts, thus enabling us to create a stronger, more cohesive movement for peace. We need to work on making this happen, but it should be one of the core aims. Israeli and Palestinian campaigners need the support of international activist groups in order to strengthen their calls for change. I don’t think we all need to agree on whether BDS works in order to work together – we simply need to agree that we are all, in different ways, working towards a just, practical solution for all involved.

Many people argue that it’s hypocritical to target Israel. What about all the other countries committing human rights abuses around the world? This is one argument I can’t countenance. I find the “but everyone else is doing it too!” argument unforgivably childish. So what? If everyone else is in the wrong does that make it justifiable? Should we just all sit back and let everyone get on with doing whatever they want because we can’t “single out” any one of them? I’m tired of hearing “Why Israel? What about Iran/Egypt/Saudi Arabia?”(it’s always the same list of countries…), and to be completely honest, I just don’t understand the logic. Demanding Israel abides by its obligations under international law is not the same as turning a blind eye to violations committed in China or Iran or Sudan or Saudi. I would hope the majority of campaigners can see this and are able to speak out against injustice regardless of who the perpetrators are.

It’s late, and I fear I might start getting more and more long-winded. Let me leave you with the transcript of this highly articulate roundtable discussion on BDS led by Rabbi Michael Lerner and the Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, Rebecca Vilkomerson.

* I use inverted commas because I’m not sure any state has a ‘right to exist’. I believe people have the right to self-determination, but that’s not necessarily the same thing.

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