Why Boycotting Apartheid Israel Matters

Owen Holland makes the case for the boycott of Israel

Back at the beginning of the year, over thirty UK universities went into occupation in response to Israel’s brutal, unremitting assault on Gaza. At some of these universities, the movement is now beginning to crystallise and gather enough strength – as well as political will – to turn into an organised campaign to boycott Apartheid Israel. The campaign is supported by numerous organisations: Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Action Palestine and PSC to name but a few. And that’s just UK-based groups. The Global BDS Movement website carries up-to-date information on the international context.

A matter of weeks ago, Sussex University joined Essex, Goldsmiths and SOAS in voting to tell its students’ union to boycott Israeli goods on campus. Despite the sour jibes of the inevitable reactionary backlash, the decision was not the result of a core of politically-minded activists having seized control of the union in order to manipulate it to their own shadowy and malign ends: it was the result of a free and fair referendum, the biggest in the union’s history. It was Democracy, you know, a bit like Irish ‘No’ vote on the Lisbon Treaty (Wrong Answer Irish: Vote Again) or the population of Gaza electing Hamas.

The call to boycott originates, crucially, in Palestinian civil society and trades unions. This immediately deflates the claim, heard sometimes from the ‘Vote No’ campaign that a boycott would hurt the very people it aims to help. Rather, the tactic stands in a long tradition of mass resistance to oppression, of standing in solidarity with the oppressed: the name originates with a certain Captain C. C. Boycott, an Irish land agent who died in 1897. Small wonder, then, that the Falls Road Murals in Belfast paint pictures of solidarity with Palestinian suffering.

We also have a historical precedent of success on our side: Apartheid South Africa is no longer with us. Ben White’s recent book Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide does an excellent job of drawing out the parallels between the two cases.

Even if one were able, for a moment, to suspend Israel’s criminal incursion into Gaza and its ongoing annexation of the West Bank and look at Israel on its own terms: it is an apartheid state. One need only consider the 20% Arab-Israeli minority who live within Israel and look at their exclusion from the full rights of citizenship to see the hypocrisy of the frequently touted idea that Israel is a ‘beacon of democracy’ in the Middle East. One could then draw a link to the millions of Palestinian refugees who are denied the right of return to their historic homeland. Indeed, one might go say so far as to say that it is the Palestinian Diaspora – truly global in its reach – that has inherited the real legacy of Jewish universalism: the legacy of an enforced statelessness and consequent universality. In Babylon, however, there was no such thing as white phosphorous.

There is something curiously hypocritical about the view which responds to the seemingly intractable situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories by saying: we want debate, as a bridge towards peace, but then simultaneously asserts that such debate stirs up division and unnecessarily imports the conflicts of another part of the world onto, say, a university campus. In other words, ‘debate’ is allowed, provided it does not interrupt the discourse of the dominant power. In this instance, such an interruption would call into question the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, which Israel’s Euro-US sponsors conveniently overlook – over and over again. This is what was behind the attempted suppression of the Goldstone report on the Gaza assault.

The apologists for Israel seek to foreclose debate by stating which terms can and cannot be used: ethnic cleansing, apartheid, Zionism are all definitely out. This restrains consciousness within a cocoon of inertia, allowing the Israeli state to continue its policy of drip-drip ethnic cleansing safe in the knowledge that mass passivity will be the only response. But universities are not ivory towers, they cannot pretend to be unaffected by the struggles of the world or hold themselves aloof from its antagonisms and conflicts. There are, needless to say, some people who cannot bring themselves to avert their gaze in such a manner. The imperative to turn one’s eyes away speaks of nothing more than the guilt of the complicit. So not only will we refuse to turn our eyes away, we will actively promote consciousness of Palestinian suffering.

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