The Israeli security minister, Gilad Erdan, whose job it is to battle the BDS movement, alleges antisemitism near the Corbyn leadership. Corbyn has been invited to sack her, or discipline her, and to express his agreement, or disagreement with "blanket boycotts".
Corbyn's spokesperson reassured the press that he didn't agree with blanket boycotts: a clever line since he knows, and the press doesn't, that BDS is not a blanket boycott. You can agree or disagree with specific forms of targeting. You can argue with Roger Waters. You can complain about academic boycotts. What you will. But the campaign has always been very clear that it aims at targeting Israeli institutions and corporations that are complicit in the forms of occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism that oppress Palestinians.
II. Inevitably, when this issue comes up, some people say, "why Israel?" And it's true, boycotts are always in some basic sense selective, and therefore hypocritical. You oppose South African apartheid? What about communist tyranny? You're against the Israeli occupation? What about the Chinese occupation of Tibet? Boycotting Ben-Gurion University because of its role in the occupation? You think Harvard has clean hands? What could lurk behind this curious ethical double book-keeping of yours? Gosh, one would almost think there was some sort of... prejudice at work? And so on.
If boycotts were about cleanliness of hand, purity of heart, and all of that, the challenge would have a point. If it was about the doomed idea that we can somehow not be involved in exploitation and oppression, then boycotting would be useless. But that is exactly why boycotting has to be selective, and it has to be based on a strategic consideration above all: will it, or will it not, help to reduce or end oppression?
I'm not going to settle that argument here, but I am going to set out in simple terms what BDS is about. The campaign for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions strategy targeting Israeli institutions began with an appeal by over 170 organisations of Palestinian civil society in 2005. This was in the context of a still mass, still global antiwar movement, and in the wake of the palpable failure of the Oslo process.
But it also arguably reflected a turn away from the disastrous military strategy of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, and the PFLP. Prior to 2001, suicide attacks had occurred in very small numbers, and was exclusively a tactic of jihadist groups. The Second Intifada that began in 2000 was initially a mass protest movement, not primarily a military struggle. The response, as Amnesty pointed out, was extremely brutal. Eighty percent of the Palestinians killed in the early days by Israeli troops, were protesters.
There was a sudden, sharp spike in suicide attacks the following year, a disastrous detour into targeting civilians. It was short-lived. By 2004, Hamas (the main organisation using the tactic) had declared a ceasefire. By 2005-6, the numbers of such attacks were trailing off into the ones and twos and then zeroes. Israel's apologists have often claimed that this was entirely because of their 'separation wall'. The chronology doesn't reflect this. The tactic had been completely exhausted, and Hamas's ceasefire declared, well before even half of the wall was built. Had there been a desire to bypass the barrier, it would have been bypassed, as Israeli security forces know very well. The political impetus for the wall preceded the Second Intifada, and the rationale was primarily to do with the "demographic problem" -- viz. the growing Palestinian population, and the question of how to rule over them without letting them 'return' to Israel. As with all segregationist fantasies, it constitutes the racialised Other as a pollutant -- recalling Mary Douglas's definition of dirt as "matter out of place".
Nonetheless, whatever admixture of powerlessness, calculation, ideology, fantasy, despair and fury produced the turn to suicide attacks, it was clearly a political and moral disaster. By situating the struggle on a terrain where Israel had a massive material advantage, it guaranteed bloody defeat, and it was exceedingly bloody and brutal.
Yet, the Oslo process had also failed, and so had the existing political leadership. Fatah, grounded in a capitalist class dependent on the Israeli economy, was implicated in the political structures of oppression. The settlements in the West Bank were expanding every year, not diminishing. The withdrawal of settlements from Gaza was not about abandoning political control over the territory, which remains tight; it was openly advertised by the Israeli Prime Minister's spokesperson as an effort to freeze the so-called 'peace process', and prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state.
III. So, what do you call it when you rule over millions of people who have no citizenship rights? Whose movement is severely restricted? Who can't travel on certain roads? Who can't access or exploit natural resources, even water, because you have taken them over militarily and given them to colonists representing your own state? Where you kidnap, torture and murder their children with impunity?
I will return to the question of the South African boycott movement in a future post. But the major difference with South African apartheid was and is that black South African workers were extremely necessary to the South African economy. When COSATU went on strike, it hurt. Not so in Palestine. Here, an advanced form of settler-colonialism and apartheid is configured by an ideology of exclusion and expulsion: an ideology that has a tendency to radicalise over time. The leading Israeli Labour politician, Amiram Levin, is not merely shouting in the wilderness when he says that Israel should "kick out" the Palestinians in a future war. This, what the Israeli historian Baruch Kimmerling called 'politicide', is the logical terminus of a process which is systematically destroying the economic and social fabric of Palestinian resistance. It isn't a question of one state, or two states. It is a question of the right to exist.
Palestinians can't win the struggle against occupation, apartheid and for the recognition of refugee rights alone. That is the bleak truth of the matter. They can lead the struggle, but left without international support, they are in such a weak, compromised position, that they will be slowly and grindingly and painfully defeated. However, it's also clear that Israel doesn't act alone. It relies on powerful international support, from the United States and the European Union. There are international configurations of power, law and violence backing up the apparatus of Palestinian oppression.
Israel's military position has depended for a long time, increasingly since the Six Day War, on massive US subventions. Its Gaza blockade depends on support from the European Union. The protection of its regional dominance has depended on a political settlement brokered with Israel, and on a chain of local dictatorships aligned to the American empire. The British state has armed Israel for years. Diplomatically, politically and ideologically, the protective force-field around Israel, whose actions would otherwise have begun to delegitimise its political structures long ago, has been largely supplied by these states. It is not a record of "constructive engagement" so much as enthusiastic, overt cheerleading.
So the appeal from Palestinian civil society organisations was a very simple, just and in my opinion efficacious one. It requested a campaign of transnational solidarity, based on the following tactics. First, pressure public institutions to boycott and divest from Israeli institutions and companies that are involved in the oppression of Palestinians. Second, seek to break military and free trade agreements (that's the sanctions part) that help sustain this oppression. The goals are to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, end racist oppression of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and force Israel to recognise the rights of Palestinian refugees.
The point about BDS, and precisely the reason why the Israeli state is worried about it, is that it focuses political pressure at the international infrastructure that sustains and legitimises the relentless, daily pressure of violence, deprivation and dispossession on the Palestinians.
IV. Just because there is a strategic logic to BDS does not, of course, mean there is nothing left to argue about. There is a debate on the Left about the viability of the tactic, and its goals.
Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, for example, have each separately criticised BDS, essentially for racing too far ahead of the political situation. Those on the right of US social democracy tend to take a similar view. By insisting on the rights of Palestinian refugees, they say, it steps well outside the international consensus. It tacitly challenges the existence of Israel as an ethno-state -- which is to say a Zionist state as originally conceived with a permanently secure Jewish demographic majority -- which they argue is doomed to fail. The necessary educational work has not been done, they say, to even approach this issue. Chomsky has added that the parallel with South Africa fails because the boycott of South Africa worked because international investment was already pulling out, whereas in Israel it is flowing in.
I do not think much of this argument. In fact, I consider the argument about refugees opportunistic in the old-fashioned sense that it sacrifices vital long-term objectives for perceived short-term gain. The "necessary educational work" takes place in the context of political struggle, and by no other means. Excluding the refugee issue is abdicating that educational work, and thereby weakening the Palestinian position. The refugee issue should be Israel's problem; the Israeli state should be put under pressure to come up with a solution, because it created the problem. I would also say that if investment is flowing into Israel right now, that increases its vulnerability to boycott and divestment campaigns.
Nonetheless, these are strategic and tactical debates conducted within the context of support for the Palestinian struggle, and as such they recognise the core issue. The kinds of arguments being put forward by Israel's supporters in the press (and in the Labour Party), invoking antisemitism with absolutely no foundation in this case whatsoever, are appalling in their sheer hand-waving indifference to Palestinian rights.
Aside from anything else: if your argument ignores, glosses over or merely gestures toward the fundamental issue at stake in this campaign, you aren't going to persuade anyone. And nor should you. If you really oppose BDS, then you have a duty to spell out, realistically and without recourse to euphemism or glittering generalities, how else this murder can be stopped.