by Art Young
The movement to call Israel to account for its crimes against the Palestinian people is growing. It could eventually threaten the existence of the Zionist state by undermining support from its strongest backer, the US government.
That is the message from Howard Kohr, American Israel Public Affairs Committee executive director. AIPAC is one of the principal organisations lobbying publicly on behalf of Israel in the United States, where it is an important influence on foreign policy. In May Kohr told AIPAC’s policy conference that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement was “invading the mainstream discourse, becoming part of the constant and unrelenting drumbeat against Israel.”
Kohr pointed to a series of recent actions and statements in a number of countries protesting Israel’s onslaught on Palestinians in Gaza, including demonstrations in Spain and Germany. ‘Incredibly’, he added, ‘there now is even an Israel Apartheid Week conducted in cities across the globe.’ Most troubling for him was the progress of the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States, “where Israel stands accused of apartheid and genocide, where Zionism equals racism, where a former president of the United States can publicly accuse Israel of apartheid.”
To win support for Israel from the rulers in the US, Kohr argued, friends of Israel must address the fact that Israel is a Western outpost in the Middle East, the only democratic country in the region that looked West, and with Western values and vision. If that foundation of shared values was shaken, the rationale for the policies pursued today would be stripped away.
Kohr stressed that “the reasons the United States would continue to invest nearly US$3 billion [annually] in Israel’s security, the willingness to stand with Israel, even alone if need be [and its] readiness to defend Israel’s very existence” would all be “undermined and undone if Israel was seen to be unjust and unworthy.”
The argument that Israel is a garrison state – the front line of the defence of imperialist interests in the region – is not often stated in such forthright terms. But it is quite accurate, and speaks to the source of the conflict in the region.
Palestine appeals – students respond
The unprecedented growth of the international solidarity movement is a grassroots response to the crimes committed by Israel during its murderous 22-day assault on Gaza mounted in December 2008, and the tight siege of the territory that it maintains to this day.
Solidarity with Palestine is being expressed in many different ways. One of these is the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Support for BDS has grown considerably in recent months, which is why the AIPAC leader highlighted it as a cause for particular concern.
The BDS movement responds to an appeal for solidarity issued by Palestinian civil society in July 2005. More than 170 bodies, including trade unions, political and social organisations, and women’s and youth groups, issued the appeal. The signatories represent all three components of the divided Palestinian nation: refugees, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Students have been in the forefront of the solidarity movement with Palestine. The attack on Gaza spurred student solidarity to new heights – with some notable results.
In what one newspaper described as “the biggest student revolt for 20 years,” students in the UK organised occupations at 34 universities. They held meetings and showed films promoting awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians.
Many occupations demanded that their universities provide practical aid to Palestinian universities and students. Others called for an end to all ties to arms manufacturers, the university-military connection being particularly strong in the UK. The universities promote research that benefits the merchants of death and invest in those companies.
Israeli Apartheid Week
In his speech to the AIPAC conference, Howard Kohr twice referred to Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual series of presentations and film showings that focus on the Israeli apartheid system and the need for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Initiated at the University of Toronto in 2005, IAW events took place in March this year on five continents in more than 40 cities and towns, 11 of them in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
Organisers of IAW in Canada, one of the centres of the movement, were bombarded with attacks and threats from Zionist organisations backed up by the federal government. In February Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, decried the “anti-Zionist version of anti-Semitism” which maintains that “the Jews alone have no right to a homeland.” A few weeks later Kenny took aim directly at IAW in a speech to the House of Commons saying: ‘We condemn these efforts to single out and attack the Jewish people and their homeland.’
University administrators on a number of campuses followed the government’s lead, attempting to disrupt Israeli Apartheid Week. But IAW the daily events unfolded as planned, with audiences of up to 500 in Toronto and Ottawa and 400 in Montreal.
Company and consumer boycotts make their mark
Campus-based activities in solidarity with Palestine are one facet of a broader international campaign, which includes targeted boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is urging consumers to “Hang up on Motorola” until the company stops selling communications and surveillance equipment to the Israeli military and to Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. The group organised a protest outside Motorola’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Chicago in May.
In Canada, the Committee Against Israeli Apartheid and other solidarity activists have organised a boycott of Indigo Books and Music. They demand that the majority shareholders of the bookstore chain, Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz, publicly end their support of Heseg, the Foundation for Lone Soldiers. Reisman and Schwartz created the foundation in 2005 to reward “lone soldiers,” volunteers who travel to Israel to serve in the Israeli military. Every year, Heseg grants scholarships to a hundred or more of these zealots to help them remain in Israel after they complete their military service.
Solidarity campaigns in a number of countries have proven costly to French multinationals Veolia and Alstrom. The companies became targets of a major corporate boycott because of their involvement in building the railway link between occupied Jerusalem to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In Europe, consumer boycotts of Israeli products, particularly agricultural produce, are gaining momentum. The UK Guardian reported that “Israeli companies are feeling the impact of boycott moves in Europe … amid growing concern within the Israeli business sector over organised campaigns following the recent attack on Gaza.” The article also cited the Israeli financial daily, The Marker, which said that “the horrific images on TV and the statements of politicians in Europe and Turkey are changing the behavior of consumers, businessmen and potential investors. Many European consumers boycott Israeli products in practice.”
Labour solidarity with Palestine
Israel’s bloody assault on Gaza earlier this year has also led to new initiatives by organised labour in solidarity with Palestine.
Not surprisingly, support for Palestine and the boycott movement is particularly strong in South Africa. Many South Africans see Israel’s oppression of Palestinians through the prism of their own experience under apartheid. Dock workers have led the way in labour solidarity.
Several major national labour federations have endorsed the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. COSATU in South Africa was the first to do so, followed by the labour federations in New Zealand and Ireland. On April 24 the convention of the Trade Union Congress of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of BDS after an extensive debate. A few weeks later the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, which represents more than a third of the country’s work force, urged its government to lead an international boycott of Israel if it continued to violate Palestinian rights.
Individual unions and labour organizations in many countries have also taken a stand. To cite only two, in June 2007 the national conference of UNISON, the largest union of public sector workers in the UK, with more than 1.3 million members, called for “concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.” More recently, in the wake of the assault on Gaza, the leadership of the largest teachers’ union in France, the Fédération Syndicale Unitaire, endorsed the BDS campaign and called on the European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in April 2008, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers became the first country-wide union in North America to adopt a BDS policy.
The Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, (CUPE) which represents more than 220,000 workers in the public sector, has played a key role in blazing the trail for labour solidarity in Canada. The decision of CUPE Ontario’s May 2006 convention to endorse boycott, divestment and sanctions sparked massive controversy, thereby drawing international attention to the Palestinian appeal for BDS. Supporters of Israel in various quarters including government officials, editorialists, and even leaders of other unions, directed a torrent of abuse against the union, alleging that the decision was anti-Semitic, undemocratic, and outside the union’s jurisdiction. Sid Ryan, the president of CUPE Ontario, received numerous death threats and his family was also threatened but Ryan and the union have stood firm against the pressure. Union activists organised an extensive grass-roots education campaign.
Quebec teachers, students support boycott
Various unions in Quebec have been active on the solidarity issue and have participated in delegations to Palestine.
A year after the CUPE Ontario convention, Quebec’s largest union of teachers in higher education (the FNEEQ) joined the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.
Already in October 2004 the FNEEQ had sponsored a delegation of 20 Quebec teachers who attended an international conference on Education, Globalization and Social Change in Ramallah, Palestine. It also joined forces with the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), which represents 42,000 Quebec students, in organising campus workshops on the Palestine issue.
In May 2008 the ASSÉ endorsed the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign, the first major student union in Canada to do so.
Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia: no ties with Israel
One of the aims of the international boycott-Israel movement is to induce governments to break all economic and diplomatic relations with Israel, treating the Zionist state as an international pariah. This is starting to become a reality in Latin America.
In recent years a process of transformation has been unfolding across the region as radical, popular movements have emerged in many countries. One important result has been the creation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), an alliance of seven countries that promotes fair trade and mutual aid based on principles of solidarity rather than profit. ALBA also champions respect for national sovereignty and unity of the region against US domination.
The rising tide of struggles in Latin America has been accompanied by a rise in support for the Palestinian people, including by the governments of the region. ALBA has led the way on this.
In September 2008 the ALBA countries were instrumental in securing the election of Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann as president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. D’Escoto is a well-known supporter of Palestine. As foreign minister of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s, he played a prominent role in exposing Israel’s role in the “dirty war” that Washington organized against his country.
D’Escoto told a 2008 meeting at the UN that 60 years after partition, “the failure to create a Palestinian state as promised is the single greatest failure in the history of the United Nations.” He went on to say: ‘Although different, what is being done against the Palestinian people seems to me to be a version of the hideous policy of apartheid.’ Addressing the UN General Assembly later the same day, he repeated the apartheid characterization and urged the member states to consider implementing sanctions against Israel.
Soon after Israel began its attack on Gaza, Venezuelans took to the streets in protest. Speaking to a rally in Caracas on January 9, 2009, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced that his country would send 80 tons of medicine, water, and food aid to Gaza, as well as 30 doctors and a humanitarian work brigade.
On January 14, Venezuela and Bolivia, both members of ALBA, broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. When Israel retaliated by expelling Venezuelan diplomats, president Hugo Chavez responded that “it is an honour for this socialist government and this revolutionary people to have our representatives expelled by a genocidal government such as Israel.” Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, announced that his country would formally indict Israel’s leaders for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. ‘They’ve made the world move backwards with crimes against humanity that we haven’t seen since Rwanda and Yugoslavia,’ he said.
On April 27 Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority established formal diplomatic relations and opened a Palestinian embassy in Caracas. Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said that the embassy would coordinate solidarity with Palestine across Latin America. A Palestinian embassy has functioned in Havana, Cuba for decades. (Cuba broke diplomatic relations with Israel in September 1973.)
Important struggles ahead
The BDS movement now includes its first national Jewish organization. At its first annual general meeting on June 14, the Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) overwhelmingly endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. IJV has chapters in seven Canadian cities.
Initiatives promoting an academic and cultural boycott of Israel have also won increasing support in the recent period, even in the face of fierce opposition.
Israel’s prestige and moral standing in the world has suffered a serious setback as a result of its barbaric attack on the besieged population of Gaza. The protests against Israel’s actions in many countries were unprecedented in their size and duration. New forces are joining the movement in solidarity with Palestine. As part of this process, the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is emerging as one of the most important ways to demonstrate this solidarity.
Art Young is a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto. This is an abridgement, previously published in the British magazine Socialist Resistance, of an essay that is available in full in The Bullet and on the Global BDS Movement website.