When I was a teenager, I believed that the boycott of South Africa was the wrong way to oppose apartheid. I thought it would hurt the wrong people, close down dialogue and result in a siege mentality that would prolong the conflict. My mind changed, in good part, after hitch-hiking around the country in 1984, meeting a wide array of people, and experiencing the inhumanity of the system first-hand. The day a very tired and elderly African lady coming home from a long day at work was ordered by the bus driver to vacate her seat for me, a young man perfectly capable of standing, was a potent experience. Ashamed of how I benefited from the system (and simultaneously harmed another) simply by virtue of looking Caucasian was a transformative, radicalizing moment. Hearing from activists and ordinary Africans that they supported the boycott, even though they knew they would suffer for it, as well as listening to government officials assert that they would never give into the ANC, was also very important. I knew then that sustained nonviolent action was required to try and bring about real change and pressure the Afrikaner government to negotiate a just settlement for all people in the country. A couple of years later, I was in the manager’s office at Barclays Bank closing down my account and writing on the form that it was in protest at their investment in South Africa. A few years after that, Nelson Mandela was released.
I have been on a similar transformative journey in regards to the current Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Initially skeptical for very similar reasons to my youthful opposition to the apartheid regime, I have come to realize that every one of my objections is no longer defensible and the campaign represents arguably the best option – morally and pragmatically – for promoting a genuine peace process.
For example, it is simply not the case that such a campaign would have the effect of closing down debate and dialogue. In fact, it is my own (and many other’s) experience that even suggesting or mentioning the boycott generates a great deal more debate and discussion about Israel and the peace process than has occurred for many years now. As a consequence of this proposed campaign, there is now a whole series of new conversations taking place across a great many different domains. It is also the case that the Israeli state has gradually been making dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis more and more difficult through travel restrictions, restrictions on free speech, and the building of the separation wall. It is today increasingly difficult to get Israelis and Palestinians to meet together in Israel or the Occupied Territories, even when they want to come together to discuss peace and reconciliation. In other words, dialogue and discussion has been declining and diminishing anyway for years. The boycott is actually a way to reignite and facilitate a more engaged and intensive dialogue that brings in a wide array of groups and actors around the world.
The BDS campaign is also supported fully by the Palestinians themselves, and by a great many peace groups working within Israel. To me, this is a powerful argument: if Palestinians and Israeli peace activists support this campaign and are asking for it (as Africans were in South Africa in the 1980s), then their wishes should be respected. In a sense, the BDS campaign is a way for those of us on the outside working for peace and justice to join in their struggle, rather than to continue to impose our own strategies and tactics on them from the outside. Too often, activists outside of the Occupied Territories have assumed that they know what is best for the Palestinians, rather than carefully listening to what they want.
I also feel that it is one of the last remaining options in the face of a failed peace process in which, as the Wikileak Palestinian Papers showed, the Palestinian Authority made tremendous concessions to no avail. If Israel is simply unwilling to make any real concessions or to stop its settlement programme aimed at creating future non-negotiable ‘facts on the ground’, then what else is there apart from violent struggle? The point is, those who argue against the BDS campaign must provide an alternative strategy which will make Israel concede and negotiate honestly. I, for one, cannot see what else will make Israel engage seriously in the peace process – apart, perhaps, from massive US pressure in the form of withdrawal of military, diplomatic and economic support (which is highly unlikely given domestic politics in the US). The BDS campaign therefore represents the only real alternative to violence or doing nothing that I can perceive at the present time.
The BDS campaign is one of the last nonviolent methods left to us that may be really effective in putting pressure on Israel for a just settlement. Certainly, sixty years of violence and diplomatic initiatives have failed; the Palestinians are today in a worse situation than at any time in their history and a real peace settlement is as far off as it ever was. Israel continues to swallow up Palestinian land, extend its settlements and strangle the lives and movements of Palestinians, and its American and EU backers continue to provide military, diplomatic and economic support for its relentless land-grabbing policies, rather than pressure for meaningful negotiations.
Moreover, there is no longer any real argument that to all intents and purposes, Israel operates a colonial system akin to apartheid in which Palestinians, particularly those in the Occupied Territories, live under a separate system of laws, are subject to a permit system, and face discrimination based on their identity in employment, education, housing, travel, resource allocation, justice, civil liberties, and numerous other areas. The US, EU and Israel keep haranguing the Palestinians for not using nonviolent means in their struggle, but then when they do – as in the BDS campaign, the UN bid for statehood, and many other nonviolent actions – they are nonetheless still condemned for it. This sends the message to Palestinians that there is nothing they can do except to accept their subordinate position and oppression, and let the annexation of East Jerusalem and the gradual settlement of all their land continue unopposed. The BDS campaign represents a nonviolent, ethically-based response within a limited set of options to an increasingly unbearable and unjust situation.
Unlike the UN bid for statehood which will most likely benefit Israel more than the Palestinians, which has both pros and cons, and which may or may not lead to more fruitful talks, the BDS campaign has the genuine possibility of actually being effective, as the Israeli state is so fearful of a boycott that it has made even the discussion of a boycott a crime within Israel. Israel really wants to be accepted as a democratic liberal nation. The BDS campaign threatens this carefully maintained image and could therefore exert real pressure on Israel’s political class to negotiate meaningfully.
In the end, as with the apartheid situation twenty years ago, I believe that Israel will never be safe, never be free from living behind its self-imprisoning wall, never get the respect it wants from other nations, and never enjoy the security it really desires, until it has settled justly with the Palestinians and learned to live peacefully together with them. Peace and justice cannot be separated, as without real justice there can be no real peace. The BDS campaign may be our best hope for helping Israel and Palestine take a small step towards a more peaceful future. I support it because I want to see both Israel and Palestine living in peace.
Check out the following site for more information on the BDS campaign and consider supporting it.