The ad in the Guardian
Today’s Guardian carries a full page advertisement, signed by 343 academics, calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and conferences. The signatories also pledge to refuse to “act as referees in any of their processes.”
It follows pro-boycott motions being passed by a number of trade unions and student unions.
The mood for boycott reflects strong feelings of indignation and outrage against Israel, and a powerful sentiment that something –anything – must be done to help the Palestinians.
However the main forces behind the “boycott Israel” movement, and several of the signatories of the Guardian ad, want to go further than a just (probably “two state”) resolution to the plight of the Palestinians and an end to the illegal Israeli settlements and occupation of Palestinian lands: they are committed to the destruction of Israel and its replacement by an Arab state in which those Jews who survive the military conflict and its immediate aftermath would have religious but not national rights. (Or, if the destruction is accomplished by Islamist movements like Hamas and Hezbollah and their allies, and “victory” means an Islamic state, maybe not even religious rights).
The equation between Israel and apartheid South Africa is frequently made by supporters of the boycott movement — on two levels. The precedent of the South African boycott is invoked to give an emotional appeal and “respectable” gloss to the campaign. And Israel is said to be identical to, or travelling fast to being identical to, apartheid South Africa.
The equation is a false and unhelpful one (see also the section below, on use of the term “apartheid”):
An international boycott lasted from the beginning of 1960 to the end of apartheid in 1994 — that is, for 34 years of the 46 year life of full-blown apartheid. A campaign that lasted so long, without any change in what it was campaigning against until the very end, was self-evidently limited in its effect! In fact change came in South Africa not from the boycott, but from the struggles of the new black-majority unions which grew up in South Africa in the 1970s and 80s and of the populations of the townships.
The boycott was a very limited tactic, and not without problems. The boycott “principle” was used by the ANC to oppose direct links between British unions and the emerging black majority unions in South Africa.
A boycott of Israel will have very little, if any, effect in putting pressure on the Israeli government to concede relief to the Palestinians. And it will have big downsides. It will boost the Israeli right by strengthening the “siege mentality” among Israeli Jews which that right wing feeds on.
The Israeli unions, though their policies on Palestinian rights are not all that we we would wish, are genuine workers’ unions, that (contrary to what some people in the anti-Israel movement claim) include Palestinian and Arab members, and are not comparable to the whites-only unions in South Africa. There are many pro-peace organisations in Israel with which we can and should work. Boycotting all Israeli institutions cuts off the channels for working with such forces.
There are at least four specific objections to the idea of boycotting Israel and Israeli institutions:
1. History tells us that the response in Israel to such actions is a heightening of the siege mentality, and a consolidation of the majority of Israeli society around the chauvinist right wing, rather than an opening-up.
2. Although some supporters of the boycott back a “two-states” solution such as advocated by the main secular Palestinian movements, the groups most active in the boycott/BDS campaign (and several of the Guardian ad’s signatories) do not. They do not want Israeli politics opened up so that advocates of “two states” can win a majority there. They want Israel conquered and subsumed in a broader Arab-ruled state.
3. The boycott/BDS movement defines the aim as “to target apartheid Israel, just as apartheid South Africa was targeted”. The boycott of apartheid South Africa was universally understood as a move to isolate and stigmatise the ruling elite in South Africa and its particular laws, to be coupled with extending links to the majority of the population in South Africa. The “apartheid Israel” trope is an attempt to isolate and stigmatise the whole of Israel, and to equate it with the ruling white minority in apartheid South Africa, as an enemy to be subdued and overthrown.
4. Although the boycotters claim to be targetting the Israeli state and/or government, and the Guardian ad states “We will, however, continue to work with our Israeli colleagues in their individual capacities”, inevitably such a campaign will single out “Zionists” – ie the vast majority of Jews worldwide. An extension of the boycott movement could not but become a movement against everything Israeli and everything pertaining to that huge majority of Jewish communities worldwide who instinctively identify (though maybe critically) with Israel. Whatever the original intentions of the boycotters, it could not but become an anti-semitic movement.
NB: on use of the term “apartheid”:
To argue that socialists should not term Israel an “apartheid state” is not to deny the tremendous oppression and injustices that Israel heaps on the Palestinians.
To argue against boycotting Isaeli-linked academics and/or businesses and/or artists is not to defend the actions of the Israeli Defence Force. Like the boycotters we are for the liberation of the Palestinians. The disagreement is not that the oppression of the Palestinian people is not bad or not real — it is over the best way to end it. And the method that the boycotters offer may make them feel a bit better about themselves, but is fundamentally misguided, and can offer no hope to the Palestinians.
Israeli society is not like South African society. In Israel, Israeli bosses exploit Israeli workers. Israelis are not an exploiting caste. They are a nation, divided along class lines. The Israeli working class — including Israeli Arabs and other oppressed minorities within Israel — are right now waging big struggles against their exploiters. This working class is held back by nationalist ideas, to be sure — but it is possible and necessary to fight against those ideas, and build a working-class movement which fights not only for its own rights, but also against the oppression of the Palestinians and against the occupation — and which unites with the Palestinian workers and oppressed.
This fight is indispensable for social progress in the region. Without some element of a united movement of Israeli and Palestinian workers, just about the only agency which could force Israel out of the occupied territories would be a successful military invasion of Israel by her neighbours, an invasion which could only end in even worse horror. And because such an invasion is unlikely, the corollary of implicitly relying on it is to allow the occupation of Palestine to fester. It will continue to breed both Arab and Israeli chauvinism, and that will boost the strength of the Arab and Israeli ruling classes.
To declare Israeli an apartheid state is to say that the Israeli working class is either so privileged as not to count, or is irredeemably racist. It means accepting defeat from the outset, saying that no positive change can come from within Israeli society. It disorientates anti-occupation activists.
A boycott cuts against workers’ unity. It feeds the siege mentality that the Israeli ruling class uses to limit workers’ struggles and shore up their authority.
The boycott tactic aims only to bludgeon Israelis indiscriminately — for in the unlikely event of the boycott having any palpable economic effect, bosses will surely pass the cost onto workers. Discussion of how best to help the Palestinians is diverted into enumerating the crimes of the occupation — but the issue at hand is how to defeat the occupation! The position of at least some in the boycott/BDS campaign seems to be that anyone who disagrees with the boycott tactic must be a secret supporter of the Israeli government and not “really against” the occupation.
The best that the boycotters can say for their tactic is that it chooses its targets carefully, “based on their direct contribution to grave human rights abuses and international law violations of the Israeli state and military, or to rebranding campaigns that attempt to whitewash Israel’s crimes” (to quote the BDS campaign) and not on the nationality/ethnicity of the individual targets. But this definition is impossibly broad!
Given the penetration of the occupation throughout the Israeli economy and the fact that the IDF is a conscript army, which companies or academic institutions based in Israel – or, indeed, individual academics – could not be accused of making a “direct contribution” to the occupation?
The indiscriminate nature of the boycott tactic is in fact best demonstrated by the academic boycott of Israel advocated by the Guardian ad, which aims at driving Israeli academics out of global academia, despite the claim that “we will, however, continue to work with our Israeli colleagues in their individual capacities.” The terms the boycott as described in the Guardian ad are potentially so broad that they encompass any academic based in or linked to Israel and even those that are critical of the Israeli government or oppose the occupation.
The logic of the boycott tends towards a general hostility towards Israel as such. This is no political programme on which to build Israeli and Palestinian workers’ unity — it is a counsel of despair.
Socialists who want to see the liberation of Palestine should concentrate instead on making solidarity with workers’ struggles and social movements in Israel and Palestine, like the Israel/Palestine Workers’ Advice Centre or the Gush Shalom peace bloc — developing the forces that can really fight the occupation and achieve justice for the Palestinans by means of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and equal rights for Palestinian/Arab citizens of Israel itself.