The contrast between two recent boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns – one in Barcelona, Spain, the other in Portland, Oregon – shows why constantly keeping the focus on Palestine is necessary for activists working to end their communities’ investments in Israel’s human rights abuses.
The city council of Barcelona voted in April this year to “condemn the Israeli occupation and policies of colonization of Palestinian territories,” capping a three-year-long campaign that also resulted in nearly 70 other local authorities in Spain and its autonomous regions declaring themselves “apartheid-free zones.” A key aim of the Barcelona campaign was to ensure that city procurement policies reject contracts with any corporations profiting from Israel’s settlement activities or other abuses of Palestinian rights.
These municipalities and a few others elsewhere in Europe, such as cities in the United Kingdom and France, set a new standard for the international Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Similar efforts are underway in the United States, focusing on bringing human rights investment or procurement screens to municipalities. These screens can then be used to raise awareness of Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights, with the aim of divestment or bans on procurement contracts with corporations profiting from Israel’s settlements and other war crimes.
If these campaigns become a trend, what implications could they have for the future of the BDS movement?
City governments are at the forefront of resistance to the domestic agenda of President Donald Trump. Several major cities and dozens of others have declared themselves sanctuaries for all immigrants, even at the risk of losing federal funds.
Seattle, Washington, and Davis and Santa Monica, California, responded to Trump’s green light for the Dakota Access Pipeline by taking steps to cut all business and investment ties with Wells Fargo, a major financer of the pipeline planned to run through Standing Rock Sioux land and the Missouri River, the tribe’s natural water supply. The city of Portland recently suspended all investments in corporate securities in response to several divestment campaigns, including a campaign to end investments in Caterpillar due to its role in the Israeli occupation.
Political consensus before economic pressure
Boycott, divestment and sanctions are tactics to apply economic pressure on Israel, urging consumers not to buy Israeli and settlement goods and encouraging corporations to end their complicity with Israeli apartheid. The BDS movement is modeled after the campaign that helped end white minority rule in South Africa.
During the South African anti-apartheid campaign, what came first was not economic pressure but a political understanding and consensus behind the need for economic pressure. An overwhelming international political consensus eventually led to the economic sanctions that helped topple the apartheid regime.
That pressure was one of the four pillars of struggle that led to a democratic solution in South Africa, according to Ronnie Kasrils of the African National Congress, the body at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The movement had a major impact in the United States, where a bipartisan political consensus in Congress, including 31 Senate Republicans, overrode a veto by President Ronald Reagan and imposed sanctions on South Africa through the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. The declining usefulness of apartheid South Africa as a strategic US ally also played a role in shaping this bipartisan consensus.
The Palestinian-led BDS movement faces a challenge its South African counterpart did not: the formidable grip of the Israel lobby on the US Congress and the Democratic and Republican parties. Palestinians are up against not just an Israeli occupation but a joint US-Israeli occupation financed and maintained by the US government.
How can the BDS movement begin to loosen this grip?
As Israel increasingly becomes a niche right-wing issue , a growing split between the Democratic Party base and leadership over support for Israel’s occupation offers some hope.
A recent Brookings Institute poll showed that 60 percent of Democrats “supported imposing some economic sanctions or taking more serious action” in response to Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights, built in violation of international law. A May 2017 poll conducted by Nielsen Scarborough confirmed the Brookings survey, finding 56 percent of Democrats supported economic sanctions. A Gallup poll in 2014 found that a majority of young people, aged 18-29, and a plurality of women and people of color disapproved of Israel’s bombing of Gaza that year, agreeing that Israel’s actions were “unjustified.”
Even in traditionally Republican states, urban areas are overwhelmingly Democratic, populated by workers and communities of color – those most likely to sympathize with the Palestinian struggle. As a result, campaigns targeting city governments could be national in scope, carrying the potential to further widen the growing split over Palestine in the Democratic Party.
Progressive Except for Palestine
One of the chief impediments to the BDS movement, however, is the failure of liberals to champion Palestinian rights. The paradigm is known as Progressive Except for Palestine (PEP), though the phrase is inaccurate. It applies a label of “progressivism” to a phenomenon that actually reflects national chauvinism, anti-Arab racism, selective application of human rights standards and ultimately a defense of an ethno-nationalist ideology – political Zionism.
This type of alleged “progressivism” is merely a liberal cover for maintaining the status quo of oppression, exploitation and discrimination.
City divestment campaigns have the potential to break the paradigm known as PEP. Local government is at the center of many progressive struggles, ranging from housing and homelessness to police brutality, immigrant rights and environmental concerns.
By joining these progressive forces, BDS activists have an opportunity to educate about Palestine and explain why local and state tax dollars should not be invested in corporations complicit in human rights violations, climate change, mass incarceration and other key social problems. This intersectionality recognizes that what appear to be single-issue struggles are united by a common enemy: a political economic system that places corporate profits above human rights and needs.
But what does it mean to raise Palestine in an intersectional way with other groups that are largely fighting around domestic issues?
When the militarized police forces in Ferguson, Missouri, brutally cracked down on Black protesters at the same time Israel was raining down bombs on Gaza, people spontaneously drew the connection between an occupying white supremacist police force and Israeli terrorism.
When a corporation like Caterpillar’s equipment is used to demolish homes in Palestine and build Israel’s apartheid wall and its settlements, an obvious symbolic unity is apparent with Caterpillar’s role as Trump’s handpicked contractor for the border wall with Mexico and with the use of its bulldozers to destroy sacred sites on Standing Rock Sioux tribal land while building the Dakota Access Pipeline. While Palestinians were trying to block Caterpillar bulldozers from destroying homes, Sioux activists were chaining themselves to Caterpillar earth excavators to protect their water and land.
For this type of intersectionality to occur, however, boycott, divestment and sanctions activists need to totally break with PEPism. Just as racism permeates our cultural, social and economic structures, making it difficult for anyone to escape its influence, the pervasive PEP paradigm invariably infiltrates our thinking, even unconsciously. PEPism is yet another form of chauvinism.
Palestine takes a back seat
The PEP paradigm was a point of contention during the divestment campaign in Portland, Oregon, in which this writer was involved. It is an example BDS activists should learn from.
An example of how PEPism unconsciously crept into strategic decisions regarding the campaign occurred when one organizer suggested that because Palestine is “controversial,” it might be necessary for “Palestine to take a back seat” during efforts to forge intersectional alliances.
During a national conference call of BDS campaigners, one participant even suggested that working with strategic allies might mean not mentioning Palestine at all. As the campaign approached the final vote with the city council, one supporter recommended, “Let’s not bring up Israel.” And a national Palestine solidarity campaign advisor suggested that Palestine should be “de-centered” in final presentations to the council.
In the event, that did not happen, particularly because religious groups within the coalition kept Palestinian rights front and center. Nevertheless, the campaign failed to persuade a single council member to speak out openly against violations of Palestinian rights.
One councilor rejected the opposition’s characterization of Jewish Voice for Peace, part of the Occupation-Free Portland coalition, as “fringe Jews” and remarked that the group just wants “to make Israel a better country.” Otherwise, councilors failed to make a single public statement in relation to Caterpillar’s role in violating Palestinian rights while coming to a decision to stop investing in corporate securities.
Palestine must be a key issue in the wider struggle against human rights abuses. Discrediting the PEP paradigm is the first step to building solidarity with the Palestinian civil society call for BDS.
This task takes on added urgency as Zionist groups identify intersectional solidarity efforts as a primary challenge to defending Israel’s “legitimacy.” BDS activists engaged in alliance building will undoubtedly begin to encounter Israel apologists deliberately working in alliances that touch on environmental, immigration and indigenous rights issues in order to ensure that solidarity with Palestine is absent and Israeli apartheid doesn’t get mentioned at all.
The Portland city council decision to stop investing in corporate securities reflects the importance of alliance building on a principled basis. Several campaigns came together, including longstanding efforts to get the city to divest from fossil fuel companies, from Wells Fargo and other banks financing the private prison industry, from Wells Fargo and Caterpillar for financing and building the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Occupation-Free Portland campaign to divest from Caterpillar for its role in the Israeli occupation.
In terms of political significance what transpired in Portland was a partial victory compared to what happened in Barcelona. It was a partial victory because one of the campaign’s goals was to get the city to stop investing in Caterpillar, and in that it succeeded. The campaign brought so much community pressure that the city council could not ignore it and had to respond in some way. It opted to get out of all corporate securities.
The public record, however, will always show that two key city advisory committees, the Human Rights Commission and the Socially Responsible Investments Committee, agreed in public sessions that Caterpillar was violating Palestinian rights.
The council itself failed to issue an unequivocal vote against the Israeli occupation, like that made in Barcelona. But popular pressure in Portland was clearly in support of Palestinian rights, and Palestine solidarity activists need to keep up this pressure until the PEP bubble bursts.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.