Over the last three years, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has been gaining stride. Individuals around the world have been joining this call, from organizing actions in supermarkets in France and Great Britain protesting Israeli products made in settlements, to filmmakers withdrawing movies from film festivals, to prominent Israelis making a public stand with the BDS movement. Only recently, a multi-billion dollar Norwegian wealth fund divested from the Israeli arms company Elbit, while other companies, like Veolia, a French conglomerate involved in building and managing the Jerusalem light-rail, have suffered setbacks due to the bad publicity the boycott movement has generated.
The list of successful BDS actions has now become too long to list, yet, there are still many out there who do not believe in this movement and have reservations on a number of grounds, offering two main concerns that are rarely tackled, and when they are it is only cursory. The first is the criticism of why a boycott movement against Israel and not countries like China, Sudan or the US. This claim often gets tagged on with the idea that this is due to an inherent anti-Semitism. The second concerns the argument that boycott is against dialogue, which often comes along with accusations that it promotes censorship and is a form of collective punishment.
Boycotting other countries
Two recent open statements on boycott over the summer, by Naomi Klein and Neve Gordon, both anticipated the first criticism, but neither went far enough in explaining why it is necessary to boycott Israel and why we don’t boycott other countries. Gordon asked the question only to almost completely ignore it, while Klein has provided two explanations that when combined begin to form a coherent response. In her article published by The Nation on 8 January 2009, in response to the question of why we do not boycott other western countries that are also human rights abusers, Klein wrote that “Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the BDS strategy should be tried against Israel is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work.” While this is true it does not fully respond to the critics.
There are several other reasons why we do not boycott some of the other countries mentioned above. By far the most important of these, outlined by Klein in an interview with Cecille Surasky for Alternet on 1 September 2009, is that individuals around the world are not boycotting, but rather, they are responding to a call for boycott coming from Palestinian civil society. Klein is not the first to say this; veterans of the South Africa anti-apartheid campaign who led a successful boycott have also stressed the need to stand with indigenous communities. Boycott is a move to heed the voice of an oppressed group and follow its lead. The idea is that there are no movements out of Tibet, in the case of Chinese oppression, or Iraq in the case of the American occupation, that are calling for boycott and for the international community to respond to that call. This is important! The BDS movement comes from within Palestinian society and it is this factor that makes it so powerful and effective. If there were calls for the boycott of places like the US, China or North Korea coming from those the governments oppress, then it would be worthwhile to listen to such calls.
Naomi Klein’s original comment that BDS is not dogmatic but tactical is crucial, in that the movement does not claim that BDS can successfully be used in fighting all oppression wherever it is, but that in certain cases of apartheid and colonial oppression, this tool is highly effective. The case of Israel proves very salient here because it receives an almost surreal amount of aid and foreign investment from around the world, most notably the US, with which it enjoys a special status. This makes the daily operations of the Israeli state and its institutions far more accountable to the international community than a place like Sudan, frequently brought up by boycott critics because of the violence in Darfur. It also means, in the case of economic boycott and divestment, that the international community is withdrawing its gifts and support, rather than allowing it to enjoy its special status — hardly a punishment. It is the high level of support that Israel enjoys that makes it susceptible to BDS, whereas in some of the other countries that are often promoted in debates for boycott, as Klein says, “there are [already] very clear state sanctions against these countries.”
In the same September article, Yael Lerer, an Israeli publisher interviewed alongside Klein, echoed this position: “these countries don’t have these film festivals and Madonna is not going to have a concert in North Korea. The problem here is that the international community treats Israel like it was a normal, European, Western state. And this is the basis of the boycott call: the special relationship that Israeli universities have with European universities and with universities in the United States, which universities in Zimbabwe don’t have. I do believe that Israel could not continue the occupation for one single day without the support of the United States and the European Union.”
Critics of BDS must keep in mind the tactical aspect of the movement. We cannot boycott all countries in the world, but this does not mean that BDS against Israel cannot be applied as a tool to force a restructuring of relations between Palestinians and Israelis. This leads into the next criticism regarding boycott as being anti-dialogue.
Boycott is dialogue
Since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1994, many have walked down the path of dialogue — I tried it for several years — and found this to be a strategy to stall for time while the Israeli government was building facts on the ground. We saw dialogue become the slogan for former criminals to clean their bloody hands and appear as peaceful while they continued their strategies of oppression; Israeli President Shimon Peres has been the master of such tactics. I found on college campuses in the US where I studied that dialogue was a way to neutralize confrontation and sanitize a dirty conflict. But avoiding confrontation favors the status quo, and the status quo has been, until BDS, in favor of occupation.
The boycott movement is, to be sure, against this dialogue, but not dialogue in an absolute sense. In fact, at its very core, BDS is a movement that is premised on dialogue and of re-appropriating the meaning of dialogue to its rightful place — one that sees a communication between two equal partners and not one where the occupier can force demands and dictate terms to the occupied. BDS is supposed to foster dialogue by locating those who are committed to real and consistent struggle against Zionism — and this is most appropriately seen not in economic forms of boycott but in cultural and academic boycott where artists, musicians, filmmakers, academics and other cultural figures are able to come together, converse and build networks in the face of oppressive institutions that are the real target of these boycotts. Where economic boycott creates economic pressure, cultural boycott fosters dialogue and communication precisely because it shames and shuns those that directly collaborate with the Israeli government and its institutions.
The power of all these forms of BDS is in their recognition that true justice can only be achieved when Israelis and Palestinians work together for a common cause, when they realize that their struggle is shared, and when Israelis understand that they must sacrifice alongside Palestinians if they want true peace. The power of BDS is that it offers an alternative to the national struggles of Hamas and Fatah, and calls on Israelis to join Palestinians in their struggle, and to move beyond the comfort zone of preaching peace, and into the realm of action that requires a “no business as usual” attitude. Indeed, BDS provides the means to generate a new movement that can respond to the main Palestinian political parties that have made a mockery of a people’s right to resist, despite their achievements of the past. A significant part of this is that BDS enables a discourse that moves beyond “ending the occupation” to place demands for the right of return and equal rights for Palestinians in Israel as top priorities.
If Israelis and Palestinians can build a movement together, can struggle together, then this movement will embody the world they wish to create, one that is shared. Thus, BDS is not a tactic for a national movement; as it gains strength it will prove to have foes on both sides of the nationalist divide. Its power as a tactic lies in its ability to foster a movement that challenges nationalist discourse. It can create the conditions to make possible a movement that recognizes that while national self-determination remains a central element in a world ruled by antagonistic nationalisms, it should not be constrained by traditional notions of nationalism based on superiority and ethnic exclusion, or by the force of current political parties. In this way, BDS is not anti-dialogue, on the contrary, it is a call out to Israelis to be partners in struggle. It is a call out to Israelis to take a step forward towards envisioning collectively an alternative relationship in the land of Israel-Palestine.
It is time to step out of our comfort zones, to confront, to not be satisfied in talking about tolerance and dialogue for the sake of dialogue. It is time to realize that people already recognize the humanity of the other, but that politics intervene to ensure “we” do not grant “them” this humanity. It is time to realize that it is not the Israeli who is targeted by BDS, but the Israeli government and Israeli institutions that collaborate in the occupation of the Palestinians, and degrade and demonize them. Finally, it is time to realize that BDS is a winnable, nonviolent strategy precisely because it works on slowly changing attitudes and building bridges towards a common vision of justice and equality, and because it creates a real feeling of loss, therefore real pressure, on Israeli governments and institutions, that go beyond the lip service of the “peace process.”
Sami Hermez is a doctoral candidate of anthropology at Princeton University working on questions of violence and nonviolence.