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Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions at Ten Years

Reflections on a Movement on the Rise

Max Ajl is a doctoral student in development sociology at Cornell University and is active in the Palestine solidarity movement. He is also an editor at Jacobin and Jadaliyya.
Rich Wiles, editor, Generation Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 2013), 256 pages, $24, paperback.

When in March 2012, Barack Obama paused briefly from approving orders for drone killings of Pakistani and Yemeni villagers, in order to reassure the attendees at the annual gala of the AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) that, “when there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them,”1 the real target of his declaration was elsewhere: the myriad grassroots organizers across the world who have made the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns unignorable. Their mounting influence has provoked efforts to declare them anti-Semitic or illegal from London to Long Beach.2 In fact, the series of victories across the University of California system has so annoyed its managers that they have hauled in the Caesar of domestic repression, Janet Napolitano, to deal with campus activists.3 Obama’s declaration of support for Israeli colonialism had a simple message to those many activists: back down, because Washington will not.

And now, after close to a decade of waxing campaigns and some high-profile victories, a few book-length reflections on BDS have appeared from leftist presses. The most recent is Generation Palestine, edited by Rich Wiles—a collection of articles from organizers working across four continents. This small book is a well-executed movement document: useful, thoughtful, readable, and reflective. It represents a range of voices, most of them organizers directly involved in various civil society campaigns, who are able to speak from grounded knowledge of what works and what does not. Wiles strikes a skilled balance between historical reflection on boycotts in India, the U.S. South, and the global Palestinian campaign, while effectively bringing in critical Israeli voices and deftly coordinating perspectives from outside organizers and Palestinians themselves.

The book includes an excellent narrative by Ramzy Baroud: informed, graceful, synthetic, and soaked in history. Baroud begins by discussing the Beit Sahour boycott at the time of the First Intifada (this 1987–1991 uprising in the Occupied Territories was confronted with incredible Israeli violence, during which 120,000 Palestinians were imprisoned). He reminds readers that Palestinian boycotts have a very long and important history—indeed, back to 1936. The current BDS campaign is an extension of earlier indigenous forms of struggle, and not merely a copy of the South African anti-apartheid movement. He suggests that BDS has worked in a “practical” way to internationalize the struggle, overcoming the “sense of despair” that had suffused efforts with neither a banner around which to rally, nor realistic steps forward (15). But Baroud does not allow this renewed sense of initiative and purpose to blot out the long history of Palestinian resistance. He repeatedly refers to the long arc of Palestinian mobilization as a “revolution”—a verbal and political touchstone other chapters pick up on, too. This word works as a clear reminder not merely of what Baroud thinks is at stake, but also of a classical Palestinian conception of the struggle itself. Coming in the opening chapter, the word is also a framing device for what comes next, a reminder that what is at stake is not this or that bit of tinkering with the machinery of oppression but its full-scale demolition. Liberation is revolutionary.

The chapters on the history of the South African and Indian campaigns against colonialism are likewise strong. In his contribution, Ronnie Kasrils summarizes the four pillars of the South African anti-apartheid struggle: mass internal mobilization, underground political network, armed resistance, and international boycott and solidarity. He introduces the last pillar by way of the 1959 call from socialist Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s future president, to support the boycott. The tidbit of history is a poignant reminder. As Kasrils makes clear, South African liberation occurred amidst the fight for freedom in Namibia. There was an effervescent international anti-colonialism that sustained the South African struggle, and indeed, Cuban assistance to Angola may have been key to shattering apartheid.4 But that regional support has not yet found its parallel in a span of Arab change that seems stuck in an ever-darkening winter—a reminder that there is no Palestinian freedom without an Arab revolution. Kasrils also clarifies through his emphasis on the multiple and braided tactical and strategic components of the South African movement that BDS was merely one component of the national program, and that even the limited gains of the South African movement were unthinkable without the working-class masses who were its beating heart. Still, an opportunity is missed here to reflect on the failures of the South African movement, as Kasrils did in his recently reissued memoir, Armed and Dangerous, in which he identifies the dropping of the Freedom Charter and its plan for socioeconomic transformation as one of the great tragedies of South African liberation.5 He loses the chance to discuss how this choice was linked to the separation between the leadership and the mass struggle as well as the South African Communist Party’s abandonment of an independent leftist position—both, of course, were tied to the leadership’s lack of accountability to the base.

In Prabir Purkayastha and Ayesha Kidwai’s piece on India’s push for freedom, they incisively discuss how textile boycotts were undertaken amidst a conscious campaign to build up Indian local capacity. Those tactics were locked into a larger strategy that refused a separation between the political demand for decolonization and the material reality—for shorthand, the economy—of the people living within that territory. The boycott of British cloth was linked to a plan for a resurgence of indigenous textile manufacturing capacity. The authors also highlight that up until the early 1990s, Indians generally understood the Israeli project in Palestine as a colonial one. That view reflected India’s broad support for decolonization and its policy of non-alignment—neither with the Soviet-led “actually existing socialist” Second World nor the U.S.-led capitalist First World. It was only amidst the end of the Cold War and the brutal advance of U.S. power in its aftermath—through the so-called “globalization” project as well as the advance of neoliberalism—that Indian elites were able to enter full alliance with Israel. As the Indian state gave up on national developmentalism, it also built more direct political links with Israel’s armorer—the United States. Perhaps for lack of space, this rich seam of insight about the nature of the boycott in India is only partly mined; hopefully others will take up the task. Much more needs to be said about how global South countries’ alliances with Israeli militarism are part and parcel of a turn away from economic development at home. Most centrally, such a perspective suggests that the attempt to break the political and economic alliance with Israel will be more successful the deeper it is embedded within campaigns for progressive domestic social transformation.

The chapter by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé offers a useful analysis of Israeli settler-colonialism. Using that framework, he effectively criticizes the peace process as a technocratic-diplomatic tool for conflict management. He then moves on to survey options within Israeli society from whence a real peace camp—one taking genuine stock of the colonial basis of the Israeli state—might emerge. As he notes, opponents to colonialism within the dominant Jewish caste are a tiny minority, albeit one which might “form the nucleus” for a future peace camp (131). He calls Israeli dissidents the “option from within,” able to offer important “moral” support to the BDS campaigns (133, 130). But it is unclear in what sense the miniscule Israeli anti-Zionist groups are an “option,” or in what sense they could develop into one. Pappé is right that the “millions of Jews in Israel are a fact to reckon with,” but he does not expand upon the implications of this fact for solidarity work (133). Groups like Boycott from Within do play a critical role in various BDS efforts, giving the moral support he praises, as well as doing important analytical work. Unfortunately, they have next to no resonance within Israeli society, and the reasons for that weakness remain unexplained. The chapter offers an important corrective to narratives that insist on breaking Israeli colonialism up into its many manifestations—internal apartheid here, the occupation there. However, it is much weaker when it comes to strategic perspective from or for the internal Israeli Jewish left, analysis of why the occupation continues, or the social basis of Israeli colonialism. Some of these issues could have been addressed if, for example, the editor had chosen to include an on-the-ground BDS activist within Israel who could have spoken more directly to these difficulties from a position of constant involvement in day-to-day organizing, or an anti-Zionist from the Israeli periphery who could have discussed the difficulties of braiding socioeconomic efforts with anti-occupation or anti-colonial politics.

The other Israeli contribution, by the economist Shir Hever, is excellent. Hever first situates BDS with respect to both the lapsing Arab boycotts as well as previous Palestinian-led boycott campaigns, such as during the Great Revolt, the massive peasant-led resistance from 1936–1939 against British colonialism and Zionism, and the First Intifada. He reminds us that once again that boycotts have a long indigenous history. He then explains how the occupation economy is inseparable from Israel, given unceasing flows of commodities and capital from within the pre-1967 armistice lines, to the settlements in the West Bank, and then back to the “economy” within the pre-’67 boundaries. His case for a comprehensive—as opposed to merely settlement—boycott is overwhelming. Hever argues that the most likely lever for social change is through the damage BDS may cause to Israeli exports, “enough to make Israelis realize that their country’s apartheid policies are no longer sustainable” (115). And he concludes by noting that BDS is “most likely to affect the elites in Israel first,” chiefly the “large exporting corporations” and their managers and beneficiaries, who are “most likely to be able to bring about a change in government policy” (117).

Perhaps the most unexpected gem in this book is the chapter by Kali Akuno, of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, on the use of BDS tactics by the Black Liberation Movement in the United States. His knowledge of the history and effectiveness of these tactics is encyclopedic. As he emphasizes, they depended critically on the “strength of the black masses themselves,” and his point is clear: without the active and self-conscious involvement of the most affected parties, no struggle would have been possible in the U.S. South (53). Relatedly, he makes an important contribution about accountability and self-determination, writing of the need for “direction and education from within Palestine,” although not to the exclusion of exile communities in the United States (53). And he pays crucial attention to the matrix of power within which the Palestine/Israel conflict is nested, focusing on both international and national dimensions, and noting that possibilities for change are necessarily limited when the international movement is in ebb. To that end, he critically situates the boycott campaigns in a political economy of Palestine/Israel, reminding readers of “Palestinian labor’s limited ability to disrupt the Israeli economy,” and illuminating the regional dimension of the conflict (54). Akuno’s points are well-taken, highlighting how the South Africa analogy breaks down in important ways.

In another important contribution, Hazem Jamjoum writes of the successes of Israeli Apartheid Week, which has helped the movement cohere in both messaging and politics on an international level. Jamjoum structures the chapter to highlight how the space within which Israeli colonialism can be criticized has been widened precisely through struggle itself. He uses Israeli Apartheid Week to present some important developments, emphasizing its global reach as well as the way in which it “provides a space for activists to present and discuss issues of local concern”—for example, efforts to build a joint struggle, amidst “a resurgence of internationalism: the globalisation of peoples’ intifadas” (210, 213). He also notes that some of the most important Canadian campaigns have been built through the interweaving of resistance to Canadian settler colonialism and Israeli settler colonialism.

In turn, Raji Sourani, writing from the besieged Gaza Strip, is searing on its sustained social and economic breakdown. It is from that perspective, “living through the worst period in the history of the occupation,” that Sourani demands we keep in mind that BDS is a “tool” and that activists ought to keep their eyes on the prize: “the endof Israeli occupation,” which has reduced the Strip in which he makes his home to politically enforced penury (66, 69, 70). The reminder, that BDS is ultimately an instrument in a material effort to remove oppression from people’s lives, and not an end in itself, devastatingly grounds the reader in the brutal infrastructural violence that is the face of occupation in the Gaza Strip.

Rafeef Ziadah’s chapter on worker-to-worker solidarity within the trade union movement is also a very important contribution. Ziadah emphasizes the centrality of worker’s voices and actions in practical day-to-day solidarity work, not under the rubric of charity, but that of joint struggle—that “an injury to one is an injury to all” (180). She also makes clear that worker-to-worker solidarity on the Palestine question rises and falls on the strength of worker movements generally. For example, she rightfully highlights the Brazilian Trade Union Confederation’s decision to support the BDS call and its demand to suspend “Israeli-Brazilian economic agreements and military ties” (182). But this suspension is unlikely within the current context of just-moderate levels of Brazilian mobilization. Although the Brazilian workers’ movement refuses to scab on its Palestinian counterparts, it cannot yet force its stance upon the Worker’s Party (the PT). Indeed, the PT controls the Brazilian government, which is a major purchaser of Israeli security technology, highlighting fissures within the party. But the clarity is crucial. The gains of the class struggle in Brazil will be the gains of the Palestinian national movement—as Ziadah writes, “an effective fight back against neo-liberal policies” means that “unions must also stand with workers struggling against oppression internationally” (190). A related but distinct point is her insistence on the need to reverse the current arrangement within the Arab world within which free trade agreements between the United States and Arab states include provisions for the normalization of economic and political arrangements with Israel. The Qualified Industrial Zones in Egypt and Jordan are one such example, and the clearest symptom of how U.S.-allied dictatorships work in concert with Israeli colonialism to secure U.S. dominance over the region. Here she clearly brings out the need for a regional analysis, and indicates how the U.S. project in the region is not limited to Palestine.

So in summary, the book is excellent, and a very useful political tool. It makes clear several things about previous BDS campaigns. One, they were always organically linked to a mass movement. Two, they were always accountable. And three, they were always linked to a carefully charted strategy for decolonization, one which had mapped the landscape of political and social power, both within the geographic confines of the colony as well as outside its borders.

The chapters by Pappé and Hever implicitly and explicitly raise this question of strategy. For example, the former asserts that the Jews in Israel are “a living organism that will remain part of any future solution,” but does not clarify the implications of what it means that they will remain (133). Hever is far clearer and more explicit in calling for direct pressure on the Israeli corporate elite in order to get it to change its policies. The BDS call certainly allows for such a strategy. And it is similar to what happened in South Africa, with the economic elites coming to a pact with the African National Congress to give up on political apartheid. But is such an outcome what Palestinians want, especially the Palestinians in Israel who are the crucial lever for any such South Africa-style transformation? In the absence of a unified Palestinian-made liberation strategy, we do not know.

The question of strategy elsewhere is brought about in Ziadah’s piece—for a strategy suggests an agent, a social force capable of carrying that strategy through. And it also implies an analysis of the landscape of power upon which people are supposed to maneuver. For example, Ziadah suggests that there is a constant temptation to see “international solidarity issues and local workers’ struggles as unrelated issues” (190). But she argues that the fight “against neo-liberal policies such as privatization” must be linked with international solidarity (190). Omar Barghouti similarly speaks of the “common interest” Western activists share with the Palestinians (227). A turn away from investment in “wars and imperial hegemony,” including the U.S.-Israeli Special Relationship, he writes, is good for “the peoples of the West,” and also “great for the world” (227). Both identify the common interest of the Palestinians with trade unionists and the poor in both the global North and the global South in opposing Israeli colonialism, and its links with Western capitalism.

But that strategy often runs aground on an analysis that is increasingly popular: a misdiagnosis of the Israel lobby as the core of the Special Relationship. According to this analysis, Zionist power in Washington is what prevents U.S. presidents from either forcing a withdrawal to the 1967 armistice lines, or entirely dropping the Special Relationship. An exaggeration of the lobby’s power in Washington seems to bring with it an inescapable urge to whitewash the history of U.S. imperialism and to erase the racism of the U.S. state. One symptom of this is that some activists continue to support U.S. imperialism in the Middle East even as they oppose aspects of the U.S. Palestine policy.

Such issues are not brought out directly in the book, perhaps because it was published by a UK-based press, but they are very real obstacles. And here the lack of clear analysis of the landscape of power causes a clear harm. In the first place, appealing to the “American exceptionalism” of liberals also means appealing to the nativism of the far right, which for its own reasons is beguiled by notions of a Jewish lobby controlling U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Furthermore, insofar as opportunistically, if inadvertently, racist messaging becomes a dominant face of the movement, it can crowd out a different basis of struggle, one which speaks more directly to the shared racism of the United States and the Israel and the collective interests of Palestinians and people in the United States and in the global South in confronting those racisms—together. For one cannot both have an anti-racist movement as well as one that actively courts racists.

A related question which the book does not directly touch upon is the tension that opens up between a strategy based on building links between struggling populations, and one based on what is often called “mainstreaming.” They imply different agents. The second, mainstreaming, tends to be directed at gathering moral support from the “lowest common denominator of potential supporters in the West—often assumed to be white, liberal, and elite,” as Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie argue in their invaluable discussion of some contemporary missteps on the Palestine question.

Such strategies need not clash. There is no reason that moving through Western civil society, including faith groups and humanist liberals, precludes a different kind of struggle. The broader law-and-rights language of BDS has not prevented campus Students for Justice in Palestine chapters from building alliances with indigenous student groups, or those working on labor issues, or focusing on anti-racist campaigns, or mobilizing against the corporate university.

However, at an organizational level, to the extent that the call to mainstream BDS—by making it visible in the public sphere—becomes not a strategic choice but an imposition, oriented towards BDS as an end in itself rather than a means to push institutions to change their behavior, this can also be potentially harmful to the struggle. But again, such an outcome is not inherent in the BDS call, but rather is a function of how solidarity chooses to organize itself.

So although the BDS framework keeps such bubbling contradictions under some control, at least for the time being, such containment comes with clear costs—which must be confronted daily. Not as a challenge to BDS, but rather as an internal question about the best way to implement the BDS strategy, and act to pursue the demands, and the vision they imply—all as a part of supporting Palestinian liberation more broadly. And such costs can only—for now, given the absence of a Palestinian national leadership capable of disciplining the solidarity movement—be confronted in the daily grind of organizing and the ever-increasing unity and clarity that such organizing can, at its best, lead to. And for those involved in that struggle outside of Palestine, this well-crafted book will provide a range of perspectives, and a wealth of lessons and organizing experiences that activists can fruitfully draw on. It is an excellent contribution that ought to be on the bookshelf of any person who has concerned themselves with supporting the Palestinian struggle for national liberation.

Notes

  1. Thanks to Remi Kanazi for finding this quotation for me, and to several people for discussion. Neither known nor unknown helpers are responsible for any interpretations. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at AIPAC Policy Conference,” March 4, 2012, http://whitehouse.gov.
  2. Relative to Anti-Semitism, HR-35, California Legislature, House, 2011–2012 Regular Session, August 6, 2012, corrected and amended, http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov.
  3. “University of California Student-Workers Union on the Recent Nomination of Janet Napolitano for UC President,” July 18, 2013, http://jadaliyya.com.
  4. Piero Gleijeses,Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976–1991(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
  5. Ronnie Kasrils,Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom (Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media, 2013).
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