A bluffer’s guide to boycotting Israel

The protests against Israel’s latest attack on Gaza have been some of the biggest ever with more than a million on the streets across the world. When BDS first started to gain traction after 2005 it was highly controversial, whereas for many activists today it seems an obvious strategy for solidarity.  Estelle Cooch presents a bluffer’s guide to BDS.

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So, what is BDS? It sounds like it could be on some kind of dubious late-night program on channel 5.

BDS stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions. It refers to a global campaign that was launched on 9 July 2005 to ask individuals to boycott Israeli goods, to demand companies divest from Israeli businesses and to force governments to sanction Israel for their continued crimes against the Palestinians. Since its launch in 2005 the BDS campaign has gone from strength to strength, often growing as a result of Israel’s rampages through Gaza.

Hang on, so isn’t this just another example of white westerners telling Palestinians what they should do?

No – the opposite actually. The call for BDS came from 171 Palestinian civil society organisations including trade unions, women’s rights and environmental groups.

They are represented in the Boycott National Committee – or BNC – which is the broadest coalition of Palestinian groups, representing the largest number of Palestinians, in the world. It is worth reminding people of this when they insist that Palestinians should continue to take part in so-called peace talks with Israel.

Neither Fatah, nor Hamas have as much legitimacy as the BNC, but Israel would never agree to negotiate with such a democratic body. The BDS movement doesn’t take a position on the one-state or two-state solution. Activists within it have different stances and anyway, that is something the Palestinians have a right to decide themselves. The call makes three straightforward demands:

  • The first is for the end of the occupation and colonisation of Palestine including the dismantling of the illegal 700km wall that has annexed another 10 percent of land.
  • The second demand is full rights for Palestinians within Israel. They are 20 percent of the Israeli population and face institutional discrimination in all aspects of public life.
  • The final demand is the right of return for the 6.5 million Palestinian refugees scattered across the world. They are the largest and longest suffering refugee population in the world and have been denied the right of return, as stipulated by UN resolution 194, since 1948.


That’s that’s all well and good but I don’t hear you kicking off about Burma or the Congo. Why this obsession with Israel?

First of all Congolese and Burmese activists haven’t called for a worldwide boycott campaign of their governments – Palestinians have. But actually lots of BDS activists are involved in different campaigns about all kinds of injustice. Caring about these is often what leads them to care about Palestine in the first place. However, Israel is also unique in several ways.

First of all, Britain played a central role in the creation of the state of Israel. In 1917 the British foreign minister Arthur Balfour confirmed support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, even though he was well aware that a thriving population already lived there. This was known as the Balfour declaration.

To this day the British government gives enormous support to Israel. David Cameron said in March his support for Israel was “unbreakable” and in the last five years the UK has awarded £50 million worth of military licenses to Israel. Some of the bombs falling on Gaza now were no doubt built much closer to home.

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So campaigning against what Israel is doing isn’t just about politics thousands of miles away; it’s also challenging the status quo here. Why does David Cameron give his defence ministry £1billion to spend on a contract with Israeli arms company Elbit, but then claim he can’t fund NHS nurses?

A second reason that makes the campaign against Israeli apartheid so important is to do with the United States. Much of America’s power in the middle east is facilitated by Israel – and has been since its creation. In 1951 Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wrote “Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states if this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US.” Today the US gives Israel $8.5 million per day in military aid.

The collapse of the apartheid state would be such a big blow to American power in the world that it would have repercussions everywhere. It would inspire movements for freedom and justice that we can only dream of.

So challenging Israel is also about challenging what the US has done in Iraq, Afghanistan and countless countries in the region. Throwing your all into supporting the fight for Palestinian freedom could help other struggles more than you ever expected.

What’s this about an academic boycott though? Do you not believe in free speech?

Of course BDS activists agree with free speech, but they believe in it for Palestinians too.

Time and again the Israeli state prevents Palestinian academics and students from getting an education. Academics in Gaza are not allowed to leave and there are 400 checkpoints in the West Bank that stop students getting to school. The Islamic University of Gaza is bombed every time Israel attacks Gaza.

This lack of respect for free speech also applies to anti-Zionist Israeli academics who oppose government policy. Take Ilan Pappe who was hounded out of Haifa University after publishing his seminal book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Pappe was forced to find a job elsewhere and now works in the UK.

Supporters of Israel who cite free speech as an argument against BDS seem to be unusually quiet when it comes to these examples.

Furthermore the academic boycott doesn’t apply to individual Israeli academics – it only applies to academics representing Israeli institutions.

These academics are not neutral lecturers standing innocently on the sidelines. They are not philosophising while Gaza burns – they are in Israeli labs researching the white phosphorus that burns it. Take Technion university in Haifa – the proud producer of a bulldozer specifically designed to more effectively demolish Palestinian homes.

On a more optimistic note the academic boycott has in some cases even built union organisation. When the American Studies Association joined the academic boycott in December 2013, despite a vicious campaign by pro-Israel activists they saw 700 new people join the ASA as a result of their stance.

American Studies Association meeting  where the discussion to boycott took place

American Studies Association meeting where the discussion to boycott took place

So even if I did agree with the academic boycott you’re not seriously asking musicians not to play in Israel? Music has nothing to do with politics.

The cultural and academic boycotts preceded the call for BDS and were launched in 2004 by an Palestinian organisation called PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott Initiative). They asked musicians and artists not to play in Israel because it helped to “normalise the abnormal”. Refusing to play would also encourage Israeli’s themselves to put pressure on their governments to change.

Music does not exist separately to politics. The musicians who refused to play in Sun City in South Africa played an important role in delegitimising the apartheid state . At the time only half of American radio stations agreed to play the anti-apartheid song Sun City, but it helped to bring together “Artists United Against Apartheid”.

Today more and more musicians are respecting the cultural boycott and refusing to play in Israel. So far Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Gil Scott Heron, Leonard Cohen and many others have all refused to play.

But you keep comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa; that sounds a bit over the top and all this talk of boycott does sound a bit antisemitic.

When activists use the phrase “apartheid” they are not being melodramatic or using the term lightly. Apartheid is a very precise definition that the United Nations came up with. Apartheid is “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group.” Israel’s policies fit this definition exactly.

But it is not just BDS activists who refer to Israel’s crimes as apartheid. In 2009 South Africa’s main research agency published a report defining what was happening in the occupied territories as “the crime of apartheid”. UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine Richard Falk has consistently spoken out against the “entrenched apartheid features” of the occupation “that can only be described in its cumulative impact as ethnic cleansing”.

When it comes to antisemitism this criticism was aimed at the BDS movement quite early on, but as BDS increasingly becomes a broader global movement it is fast losing traction. Leaving aside for a second the fact that many Jewish groups and people support BDS, the idea that opposing Israel is antisemitic springs from the idea that all Jews must think the same – and therefore support Israel. Of course, this is ridiculous.

Jewish people do not all think the same or identify with Israel’s policies. Indeed it is the idea that Jewish people are one homogeneous group that think and act the same that has led to actual antisemitism in the past.

The idea that opposing Israel is antisemitic is as absurd as suggesting that opposing Iranian or Saudi Arabian human rights violations makes you Islamophobic. There is no place in the BDS movement for intolerance of any kind.

Ok, so obviously this all sounds awful but can they not all get round a table and talk this out? More hummus and less Hamas?

Imagine for a moment that you’re sitting at home one day and suddenly another family storm into your house,  push you into the back garden tell you that this is to be your new home. You spend about twenty years living on your back patio before the new family come out with guns and say, actually, they want the patio too, but you can have a smaller piece of land near the shed. At this point your teenage son starts to get angry. Eventually he starts lighting fireworks and trying to aim them at the house. These fireworks never really do anything or harm anyone, until one day he manages to kill the new family’s pet rabbit, Fluffles. The family are livid about this and kill your son, two daughters, grandma and bulldoze the shed you were living in to avenge Fluffles’ death.

After all of this you get a message saying that Barack Obama, who has always supported the family who stole your house, would like to invite you to try talk things over on the patio.

This is how absurd the idea of peace talks seem to most Palestinians. And besides, they have been locked in peace talks pretty much non-stop since the Six Day War in 1967. The peace talks have got nowhere because they are fundamentally unequal. Israel has continued to build settlements and the US has continued to pump in the money which allows them to do so.

This is why the great thing about BDS is that it’s not about individual policies – it is about delegimising the state as a whole. It is about building a worldwide movement that demands a fairer and more equal solution that the peace talks ever could. There has been more progress for Palestinians since the launch of BDS than in over 60 years of so-called negotiation.

The Israelis know this which is why they are so scared of the isolation that BDS brings.

So when BDS activists are asked “do you want to get rid of the state of Israel?” they proudly reply “In its current racist, apartheid form? – absolutely.”

But, of course, the BDS movement is not opposed to working with Israelis. There is a BDS group called “Who Profits?” within Israel which does important research into the companies facilitating the occupation. The Palestinians just ask that work with Israelis is in the form of “co-resistance, not co-existence”. In other words if the Israelis are also resisting the occupation, rather than allowing it to continue then that’s cool. Unfortunately because of the Israeli government’s politically repressive laws (they banned the promotion of boycott in 2011) supporting the Palestinians as an Israeli is pretty much impossible to do within Israel anyway – another reason to support BDS.

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Even if I did start to agree with BDS in principle, who else supports it? Would I be joining some extremist fringe group?

There really is no other show in town at the moment. If you want to support Palestine, you need to support BDS, not only because it’s what the Palestinians have actually asked for, but also because it’s going mainstream.

But don’t take it from me – take it from The Economist. In 2007 The Economist (hardly a mouthpiece for the Palestinian resistance) called the boycott “flimsy and ineffective” and that it “will continue to strike outsiders as unfair”. By 2014 in a total u-turn they wrote “once derided as the scheming of crackpots [BDS] is turning mainstream in the eyes of Israelis.”

The rise of BDS began with the Second Palestinian Intifada that saw an enthusiasm for reaching out for international solidarity. By 2005 this became the “call for BDS”. BDS really started to catch the mood in 2009 with Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza which led to the largest student occupations in the UK since the early 90s. Crucially, these occupations weren’t about fees or university cuts – they were about something happening thousands of miles away.

At the same time, Israeli Apartheid Week which began in Toronto in 2005 started to pick up around the world. Labelling of Israel as apartheid, in line with the UN definition, has really helped the Palestine movement to grow. The Israeli’s hate it – not because they all reject it, but because they know it’s true.

The focus of Israeli Apartheid Week and BDS as a tactic gave lots of university groups a new lease of life. Since then, every time Israel has launched a fresh attack on the Palestinians, the movement has grown.

In terms of victories there are too many to mention, but there is a long list that has been compiled by the BNC. But what is noticeable in 2014 is how many of these successes are now cropping up in the US.

In April this year the Washington state court of appeal held up a case allowing a supermarket to divest from Israel, setting a precedent for other supermarkets to join the boycott.

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In May 2014, as a result of the huge campaign around G4S (the security company that provides security for Israeli jails), the Bill Gates foundation sold all of its shares in the company. In June the US’s largest protestant church, the United Methodist Church, followed suit selling its stock in G4S. A month later, the chief executive of G4S announced that they would not be renewing their contract in Israeli prisons.

Another important watershed this year was that 12 EU governments issued official warnings not to invest in or have financial activity with businesses working in the occupied territories that may be in breach of international law. These aren’t warnings coming from local BDS groups; they are warnings coming from EU governments. But let’s be clear they wouldn’t have happened were it not for the work BDS activists have put in.

As companies, churches, and even Bill Gates start to divest, trade unions which have always been a key part of the movement for justice have joined the BDS movement.

But I’m not a celebrity, so what can I do? Does this just mean I’m going to have to stop buying lots of the foods that I like?

Not at all. The great thing about BDS is that it’s not about individual gestures – it’s about building the biggest possible global movement. So yes, if you’re buying Israeli peppers maybe you could think about buying Spanish peppers instead, but what is even more important to BDS activists is that you get involved in a campaign.

There are Palestine campaigns in most major cities and towns in the UK. Where they exist you could encourage them to take up BDS as an issue if they haven’t already. You could organise leafleting and stalls within your town centre or even a “supermarket action” where you gather a group of people and go round a supermarket piling Israeli goods into a trolley explaining on the megaphone why you’re doing this. Film this and put it on Youtube. Some of the best supermarket actions have been in tiny towns and have got lots of publicity for BDS in the local media.

There are also things you can do in your workplace. Find out if your workplace has contracts with Israeli companies. Lots of workplaces have water coolers provided by Eden Springs for example, which gets its water from the illegally occupied Golan Heights.

Getting your work to change this contract might not even be a big deal – it might only be a question of asking someone. But speaking to people in your work about why you’re doing it is all part of building the campaign.

If you’re not yet at the point of raising boycott in your workplace, think about other ways you can bring up the issue. Could you do a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians? Could you organise a fun run to raise money? Anything that helps to start a discussion about Palestine helps to put BDS on the agenda.

Some of these things might seem a bit scary to do, but every bit contributes to making BDS mainstream and making it unusual to NOT be boycotting Israel.

It is worth saying some people think that while BDS might be a nice token gesture, it doesn’t actually do economic damage to the Israeli economy. This isn’t true. Already in 2014, BDS has cost the Israeli economy $30 million in lost contracts.

In January 2014 Yair Lapid, Israeli finance minister, warned that Israel was reaching “tipping point”. In a rather revealing admission, he acknowledged that the campaign was doing major economic damage but, more crucially, that they were close to reaching their “South Africa moment” finding themselves in opposition to the rest of the world and on the point of no return.

The most recent attack on Gaza has been another watershed. As each day has brought more news of slaughter, artists, actors and international figures are coming out in support of Palestine.

As the movement continues to go from strength to strength a decade from now you will be hard pressed to find someone who will admit that they didn’t always support BDS. This is our time and this is Israel’s “South Africa moment”.

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