The first demonstration I participated in was in 1985 against the South African apartheid. The racist regime seemed, at the time, stronger than ever and passersby mocked the demonstrators for wasting their time on an issue that would never change. Five-six year later the apartheid regime collapsed. Not by invasion of foreign forces, nor by a coup orchestrated by the black majority, rather by a series of decisions made by a white government led by a man raised on the ideology of racial segregation, and who supported it most of his life.
Why did the apartheid regime fall, and why at that point in time?
An internal struggle for equality was ongoing for several decades. But in the ten years preceding the collapse of apartheid the international economic boycott gradually closed in. The cynics dismissed the efforts, saying politicians were just doing the minimum. Others noted that illicit trade continues uninterrupted under the unwatchful noses of customs officials around the world. Still others pointed out that it was the black workers who were bearing the brunt of the boycott. Many argued that the boycott entrenched the “Afrikaners” further, increasing their hatred for the blacks.
And history? It tells a different story. Gold and precious stones, the main South African export, cannot be eaten. If you sell them – you’re rich, if you don’t – you’re bankrupt.
When the mine-owners and the wealthy realized that their losses due to the boycott were greater than their profits from exploiting disenfranchised black workers (which still continues today) – the apartheid, as we knew it, came to an end.
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The thought process of occupying nations, and of the Israeli people specifically, alternates between two contradictory emotions: superiority and persecution.
“I’m strong, therefore there is no reason to end the occupation.’
“I’m hated and ostracized, if I don’t trample on my neighbor he will trample on me.”
The armed resistance to the occupation, especially when the victims are children and civilians, reinforces that latter sentiment. “If they are capable of harming us now, when they have their own independent state it will, undoubtedly, be worse.”
A struggle based solely on preaching and moralizing reinforces the first sentiment: “If they are so wretched, there’s no reason to stop trampling on them.”
An economic boycott demonstrates to the occupier a fact that it is easy to ignore, the existence of a third perspective – neither of the occupier nor of the occupied.
Those drunk with power learn that morality is an integral part of power. Domination depends on the dominator adhering to a moral code. The persecuted utilize “the power of weakness”, which lies at the other end of the continuum.
An economic boycott causes controlled damage. Unlike suicide bombers or Qassam rockets – it doesn’t corner the victim.
An armed struggle, especially when targeting civilians, evokes the most primeval of instincts: retaliate. Recognizing that retaliation is not a solution requires rational thought, mostly absent in the atmosphere after an attack.
However, in the context of non-violent resistance, rational thinking prevails. Non-violent struggle is not merely marching towards the separation wall to be assailed by tear gas. Such action is only effective when it is coupled with worldwide awareness of the plight of the victims, and retribution towards the aggressor by expressing contempt for his actions and hurting his pocketbook.
What if a kibbutz on perimeter of the Gaza Strip is in financial straits due to lack of demand for its produce in Britain. What will its members do – conquer London? Attack Oxford?
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It is true that the weak bear the brunt of an economic boycott. The following arguments address this point:
- This was true in South Africa, the people most hurt by the boycott were the black workers.
- This is also true of strikes: “Perhaps you can afford this!” yelled an anguished student, barred from entering the campus during the student strike.
- So what? Support of labour struggles, and pro-labour legislation, have not increased support for strikes. (A friend of mine once said – “It doesn’t matter how much you support the Jews, as long as you are not against the Arabs”). Perhaps there is a better way?
- Terrorism and rocket attacks also hurt the weak. On the other hand, a widespread boycott harms the wealthy, the stock-market moguls, the bankers, and treasury officials. In short, the social-economic class that (unfortunately) no government will ever deny any of its wishes.
Israel does not have gold and diamonds like its late sister in the South of the African continent. But in the wake of neo-liberal reforms and rapid integration into capitalist globalization the Israeli economy, like that of the old South Africa, relies heavily on the export of products and services designed for foreign markets. Software cannot be eaten, and its value depends on a consumer market willing to pay high prices for these products. This industry accounts for much of the recent “success” of the Israel’s economy and its impressive growth in recent years (that large portions of Israeli society do not share).
The fact that Israel’s status in the corridors of international economic power is rising only encourages it to maintain apartheid, which in the territories occupied since ’67 is significantly worse than the apartheid practiced by its fraternal twin – expressed as illegal settlements, starvation, stealing of land, restriction of movement, and the imprisonment of whole villages within walls.
U.S. and European governments are not neutral bystanders. They are an integral part of the conflict, and Israeli policies are implemented not only with their support but often at their behest.
But grassroot movements in these countries, especially those with more liberal and progressive agendas, can potentially instigate a popular boycott of anything – social or commercial – with the name of Israel associated with it, as long as Israel continues its current policies.
Israeli peace activists will be exempt from this “collective punishment” when giving lectures or participating in conferences or demonstrations and other activities aimed at resolving the issue addressed by the boycott. Similarly, a ban on visiting Israel would not include participating in demonstrations against the separation wall, or helping with the olive harvest (requiring participants to land in Ben Gurion Airport un route to their destinations in the occupied territories).
After 40 years of occupation with no end in sight, it is inconceivable that the Israeli peace camp dismisses out of hand, or raises an eyebrow, whenever a “new” (actually ancient) method is proposed to achieve its own goal, when further delay in achieving peace comes at a heavy price to both peoples.
A few days ago the United Kingdom’s academic union tried again to encourage its members to step out of their ivory tower and break their professional routine for a higher cause. Following this, Britain’s biggest journalists’ union, the National Union of Journalists, voted narrowly in favor of a boycott of Israeli goods.
Instead of mumbling and leaving the stage open for Israeli propaganda (a web of lies and blatant deception from school of Tzipi Livni’s fast-talking boys) – it is time to stand together with these allies, true friends of Israelis and Palestinians, and say –
“Yes” to the boycott!