From Socialist Voice, November 2010

Palestine, Israel, BDS, and the left

Part 3

The final part of this series deals with some of the other important aspects of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and the opposition to it from some left and liberal circles.

Sporting and cultural boycotts

The most common refrain of argumentation in opposition to BDS is that “sport/culture and politics do not mix.” Anyone who was involved in the South African anti-apartheid campaign will know that this is nonsense. It is through sport and culture that states most often present their “acceptable face” to international audiences. Indeed the Israeli Foreign Ministry makes no bones about this and openly promotes what it calls “Brand Israel” as the liberal face of a brutal occupation that denies Palestinians space for their own cultural and sporting expression.
     At a recent dinner hosted by the Israeli Embassy before the Irish and Israeli women’s soccer teams played each other, embassy staff distributed disgusting anti-Palestinian propaganda that attempted to link Palestinian resistance to the Holocaust. As the Israeli state actively uses sport and culture to legitimise apartheid, we should have no qualms about using boycotts to highlight this apartheid.

Academic boycotts

It is sometimes argued that an academic boycott would “limit free speech and the exchange of ideas.” It does no such thing. The academic boycott is not aimed at individual academics but at Israeli academic institutions, which themselves form an important part of the matrix of oppression by maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying apartheid policies.
     Meanwhile Palestinians enjoy no semblance of academic freedom, not even the freedom to travel unhindered to school.


The opposition to campaigning for businesses to divest from Israel stems from the basic idea that it is pointless to ask capitalists to “be nice.” Actually the aim of the divestment campaign is to make it unacceptable for companies to invest in Israel. Israel craves legitimisation and to be perceived as a normal “Western” state; the divestment campaign argues that the exact opposite is true and that companies that invest there are in fact complicit in propping up an apartheid system.
     Indeed some companies—such as the Irish firm CRH, whose cement is used to build the apartheid wall and illegal colonial settlements—are directly complicit in the commission of serious violations of international law. Successful divestment campaigns serve to increase the pressure on Israel and those companies that continue to invest there. Unfortunately, at present we live in a capitalist world; but if we can make it taboo for capitalists to do business in Israel then that is a point of attack we cannot afford to dismiss. It doesn’t make one pro-capitalist to see the value in this.


“Asking capitalist governments to change their self-interested policies is pointless” is the most common claim made about campaigning for sanctions. But then what is the point of any form of social struggle that aims to win reforms from the capitalist state? Using such logic, all demands made on the state by political and protest groups are basically a waste of time.
     Of course capitalist states never grant reforms out of generosity: they are pressured into concessions by social movements. The aim of the sanctions campaign—as it was with the South African campaign—is to make it politically and socially unacceptable for any government to be seen to be pro-apartheid. Part of this campaign involves meeting politicians, and part of it involves building support on the streets and in society for the BDS campaign. The two strands are not mutually exclusive: in fact they are deeply intertwined.
     Finally, to those who maintain that the BDS campaign is “ineffective,” perhaps they should look at the Israeli state and the reaction of its international lobby groups to the growing threat of BDS. Two weeks ago pro-Zionist groups in the United states launched a $6 million anti-BDS initiative. In Israel BDS activists are being criminalised, while in February the Reut Institute, a think-tank close to the Israeli government, called on Israel to “sabotage” and “attack” the BDS movement.
     At the very least, we are doing something right: we have them worried!

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