BDS Background Papers – Paper 2/2
THE CASE FOR A NEW JFJFP BOYCOTT STRATEGY
By Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Deborah Fink
THE BDS CALL – BACKGROUND
Events in Gaza at the turn of the year have given a new impetus to the campaign for boycott actions directed at Israel.
The campaign is founded upon calls from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Palestinian National Committee for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
They urge BDS actions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights; broad boycotts and divestment initiatives similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era; and pressure on states to impose embargoes and sanctions.
Many new activists entering the Palestine solidarity movement, among them many Muslims, are drawn to boycott actions. Groups and individuals concerned about Palestinian human rights are shifting their positions on a continuum which ranges from taking a personal decision to avoid buying herbs from an illegal settlement, to organising disruption of cultural events sponsored by Israel.
To date, our involvement as JfJfP has included challenging the trade in weapons that enforce the occupation, targeting companies such as Caterpillar that profit from it and challenging supermarkets to label herbs, fruit and vegetables so that customers can boycott goods from the settlements. We have targeted the Occupation or companies that help sustain it.
However, as accusations of war crimes gather strength, along with awareness of the brutality and illegality of Israel’s actions, distinguishing between settlement goods and other Israeli produce – or between the Occupation and the Israeli state – becomes harder to justify.
As the most visible Jewish force within the movement, we in JfJfP need to review how we relate to the increasingly vocal boycott campaign. Our engagement with it needs to be consistent with our aims, and at the same time in tune with the broader movement. We sign up to JfJfP because it gives us a platform to contribute, as Jews, to a just peace. Insofar as the boycott movement is working for the same goal, surely we should maximise our specific contribution to it.
WHY A FULL BOYCOTT?
1. An effective campaign needs a clear message. The message of a full BDS campaign is unequivocal: A state which defies international law, breaches human rights and commits war crimes with impunity cannot expect to do “business as usual” with the rest of the world.
2. In Israel’s case this message needs to be especially clear because, thanks to the support it receives from the US and Europe, there are no other constraints on its behaviour.
3. Deliberate manipulation of weak or contradictory regulatory systems – such as rules for labelling produce on sale in supermarkets – allows Israel to blur the distinction between the state and the occupied territories. While we may, as individual consumers, decide specifically to boycott settlement goods, a campaign which tries to separate them from other Israeli produce lacks clarity and is confusing for uninformed members of the public. Economically, the impact of a consumer goods boycott may not be great, but the political message it carries is powerful.
4. Boycotting agricultural produce – fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers – is particularly appropriate because of the destruction Israel has wrought upon the mainly agricultural Palestinian economy. It is also a consumer sector relevant to virtually everyone in the UK.
5. As JfJfP we stand for equality between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. We recognise that Palestinians face daily sanctions in every sphere of life – economic and financial, in housing, healthcare and education, in the arts and in sport. This is even without referring to the siege of Gaza. There must be a price to pay for the privileges associated with Israeli hegemony. If our campaigns are to give a clear message to those whose attitudes we wish to change, the many cultural and sporting events supported by the Israeli state should also be targeted.
6. Israeli universities actively aid and abet the state in perpetrating the injustices JfJfP was formed to challenge. The College of Judea and Samaria is established in Ariel in the OPT and Tel Aviv University is built on the site of a Palestinian village. Most universities take government money for military research; they offer accelerated courses for Shin Bet and the IDF and they provide elaborate rationales for wars of ‘deterrence’, war crimes and crimes against humanity. As long as this continues, Israeli academic institutions cannot expect to escape the censure of their counterparts elsewhere.
7. Palestinians are continually exhorted to abandon armed struggle and work to achieve their ends by peaceful means. Boycott is, par excellence, the non-violent weapon of resistance employed by the weak and powerless.
8. As campaigners based in Britain, linked to Israel by its colonial history, and as members of a Jewish community presumed to back Israel, we can offer powerful support to the Palestinian call for BDS. To do so only partially – to support sanctions against the occupation but not against the occupier – implies less than wholehearted support for the victims of the occupation.
IMPACT OF BDS ON ISRAELIS
Israeli writer and peace activist Rela Mazali argued in a recent contribution to Jewish Peace News that Israel will not change its policies and practices as long as ‘the world’—i.e. the U.S. and Europe – exacts no price for Israel’s violent enforcement of the occupation, and in fact encourages its actions.
Israelis do suffer because of militarisation, occupation and aggression, but they are not aware of the cost.
“Boycott, on the other hand, or even intensified international discussion of the very possibility of boycott, does reach mainstream public consciousness,” she says, explicitly referring to an academic and cultural boycott as well as a boycott covering all Israeli products and services.
To those who argue that supporting the boycott movement will somehow make things worse, she argues that they already are, “much worse”.
“Over the decades of my own activist involvement, the levels of Israeli violence and oppression have spiralled enormously. In addition, no turning point, generated by changes in internal Israeli consciousness and politics, seems to be in sight.”
The same is true of mainstream Zionism in the UK, whose leaders have shown no inclination to soften their hardline defence of the Israeli establishment. Boycott campaigns leave Israel’s core support untouched but may prick the conscience of those who are open to argument.
The British Committee for the Universities for Palestine (BRICUP), the main UK group supporting PACBI’s call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, numbers many JfJfP signatories among its members.
The academic boycott campaign does not single out individuals for discrimination or attempt to judge the degree of their complicity in Israel’s policies. It encourages academics to decline invitations to speak at Israeli universities or attend their conferences, to refuse to referee papers for their journals or to act as external examiners for their courses and programmes.
Critics allege that boycott in any form is contrary to the most fundamental principles of the university: freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas. But all of these are denied to Palestinian academics without any opposition from their Israeli counterparts.
Some individual Israeli academics may be discomfited when their institutions are boycotted, but this falls far short of silencing them.
In a recent paper, Robert Boyce of BRICUP wrote: “Israeli academics are keen to be thought of as part of the world of learning. They are extremely sensitive to the idea that foreign academics would not turn up to their conferences or accept invitations to lecture at their universities. If they suffer this embarrassment, this shock to their sense of worth, we can expect that they – or many of them – will begin to question the acceptability of their national policies.”
It is no coincidence that since the boycott movement began, more opposition voices have been heard within Israeli academia than ever before, though these are still shamefully muted.
This was evident 18 months ago when boycott talk surfaced within the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK. It moved 1,400 Israeli academics to sign a petition on the right to education in the OPT (though only two of them were prepared to openly criticise their government for restricting that right). Since then, every sign of progress towards a boycott has been front-page news in Israel.
Most importantly, since 2004, every single lecturers’ union in Palestine has appealed for an international BDS strategy, including a boycott of Israeli universities. It is difficult to see how JfJfP signatories in the academic community can fail to heed their plea, especially when it is twinned with many positive strategies for directly assisting the Palestinian universities.
SPORT AND CULTURE
The Israeli government vigorously promotes performances abroad by loyal sportsmen and women, musicians, dancers and other artists, because they see them as good PR for the Israeli state.
Critics of boycott argue that such performances help to foster understanding, but they also serve to bolster Israel’s unwarranted image as a peace-loving, civilised and democratic state.
They do nothing to “foster understanding” of the victims of Israel’s policies – policies which prevent the development of Palestinian culture and place obstacles in the way of Palestinian artists and sportsmen wanting to perform, exhibit or play abroad.
In the case of football, the Israel military has bombarded and destroyed the stadium in Gaza and killed Palestinian boys playing the game.
Similarly to the academic boycott, the campaign targets events formally supported by Israel or Zionist organisations. Artists and sportsmen and women are asked not to perform, exhibit, play or compete in Israel.
At the same time cultural and sporting links with Palestinians and the Israeli opposition are actively promoted – work which is already firmly on JfJfP’s agenda.
JEWISH SUPPORT FOR BDS
Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG) was formed two years ago by JfJfP signatories who wanted to have a visible Jewish presence within the BIG campaign of the Palestine solidarity movement. Its presence has been widely welcomed in the movement generally, and by Palestinian activists in particular.
But JfJfP remains the largest and most influential Jewish organisation working for Palestinian human rights. For JfJfP to lend its support to PACBI and increase its involvement in BDS would make a far greater impact that J-BIG’s single issue approach.
One or our most valuable contributions to the solidarity movement is to give the lie to the charge that opposing Israel’s policies is racist. JfJfP can assist the BDS campaign in the same way. “Koshering” BDS gives reassurance to non-Jews who may be hesitant about participating.
As a lobbying organisation, JfJfP could put pressure on politicians and other public figures, supermarkets and other institutions, and eventually make boycotts more respectable within the Jewish community.
The many academics and cultural figures among JfJfP signatories could give a significant boost to the academic and cultural boycott campaigns.
In general, it would show the Palestinians that JfJfP is prepared to go that extra mile for justice and would increase our credibility within the movement.
There is no reason for JfJfP to shrink from supporting boycott actions organised under the umbrella of the BDS campaign. Most are consistent with JfJfP’s aims and can usually be matched with positive actions in support of Palestinian or Israeli opposition initiatives.
A boycott movement with high-profile Jewish involvement has the potential to attract the attention of politicians, involve the public and combat widespread and persistent ignorance about the plight of the Palestinian people and the relationship between Jews and Israel.
It challenges our government’s failure to “exact a price” (in Rela Mazali’s words) from Israel and confront’s Israel’s supporters with the reality that they cannot expect “business as usual” (to quote PACBI) after the slaughter in Gaza.
The outrage directed against the boycott indicates not that it is a wrong tactic but that it is one feared by those who prefer to see Israel pursue its self-destructive policies unhindered.
The oft-repeated charges of anti-semitism and unfairly “picking on Israel” are applied to every criticism of Zionist policies, not solely to boycott campaigns. JfJfP is accustomed to dealing with these unjustified slurs, ably rebutted by Richard Kuper in his contribution to the IJV publication “Time to Speak Out”.
Insofar as there is a danger of anti-Jewish racism emerging among politically unsophisticated new entrants, including many Muslims, attracted to the Palestine solidarity movement by boycott campaigns, we are best placed to combat it if we are active participants.
Economic boycotts empower people as consumers, tourists and investors to withdraw support from an oppressive regime and support its victims.
Public bodies and organisations can be mobilised to endorse positive initiatives and apply sanctions against those who support the status quo.
Campaigns targeting specific companies or sectors raise awareness of the realities of house demolitions, settlement-building and Israeli militarism.
Cultural, academic and sports boycott actions challenge Israel’s self-image as a moral, civilised society – “a light unto nations”.
Actions JfJfP should support:
- Consumer campaigns challenging the sale of products produced in Israel and the occupied territories; link to promoting Palestinian produce
- Divestment from companies implicated in the occupation and Israel’s military apparatus, or profiting from the occupation
- Campaigns to isolate Israeli academic institutions financed by the state
- Campaigns against the supply of weapons to Israel
- Campaigns against holidays in Israel; encourage study visits to the OPT
- Protests at cultural or sporting events sponsored by the Israeli government or Zionist organisations; sponsor Palestinian and joint Israeli-Palestinian events