On the ‘Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions’ Campaign

Strategies for Palestinian Liberation

The Israeli ruling class and its international allies are increasingly apprehensive about the growing “delegitimation” of the Zionist state due to widespread revulsion at its bloody crimes. From the construction of an Apartheid Wall (aka “separation barrier”) cutting off the occupied West Bank, to the December 2008/January 2009 massacre in Gaza, to the murder of nine activists aboard the Gaza relief flotilla on 31 May 2010: the depravity of the Zionists has drained whatever sympathy still existed for “poor little Israel.”

Amnesty International has been advocating an arms embargo on Israel since January 2009. In a recent report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch concluded that “there appears to be no legal justification for Israel’s differential treatment of Palestinians, which breaches Israel’s obligations under international law, violating the prohibition against discrimination as well as a host of associated rights” and proposed that the U.S. “consider suspending financing to Israel in an amount equivalent to the costs of the Israeli government’s spending in support of settlements” in the West Bank. The group also suggested that Washington look more closely at tax breaks for donations to Israeli settlement construction projects to see if they “are consistent with governmental obligations to ensure respect for international law, including human rights prohibitions against discrimination” (“Separate and Unequal,” 19 December 2010).

Appealing to the imperialist predators, who have aided and abetted Israeli crimes at every turn for decades, to suddenly “ensure respect for international law” is delusional. But the very fact that such appeals are being made within the bourgeois human-rights establishment is worrisome to the Zionists. A related, but even greater, concern is the recent growth of the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) campaign on campuses in North America and elsewhere.

The origins of the BDS initiative can be traced to a 2004 opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which noted that Israel’s infamous “separation barrier” in the West Bank is “contrary to international law,” and proposed that the parts of the wall built inside the Occupied Territories should be dismantled and that Palestinians negatively affected by it be compensated. The ruling was initially greeted with enthusiasm by activists for Palestinian national rights, who hoped that it might force Tel Aviv to change its policy. But, predictably enough, both Israel and its supporters in the “international community” were completely indifferent to the judgment. On 9 July 2005—a year after the ICJ opinion—170 organizations of “Palestinian civil society” called for a new political strategy explicitly “inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid”:

“We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.
“These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:
“1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
“2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
“3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

The three interlinked tactics (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) were aimed at achieving three goals: ending Israeli occupation and colonization, securing equality for Israeli Arabs and winning the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The BDS National Committee (a loose coordinating body) has not formally endorsed either a “two state” or “one state” solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the right of return and the demand for full equality for Palestinians within Israel are widely recognized as incompatible with the maintenance of a ”Jewish state.” Consequently, most BDS activists favor some variant of a “single, democratic, secular” state embracing the entire territory of what is today Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The BDS strategy appeals to students, academics and liberals who hope that global “civil society” can exert sufficient pressure to wring important concessions from the Zionist ruling class. According to Mustafa Barghouthi, head of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees: “Boycott is the best way of changing the balance of forces. Military force will not work, because of the imbalance of forces, but also because it is not right. I don’t think Israel will change its policy unless it hurts, and BDS will hurt it” (The Nation, 28 June 2010). Noura Erakat, a human-rights attorney, explains:

“The tripartite strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions is rooted in economic logic: Israel must comply with international law because non-compliance is too politically and economically costly to maintain. Divestment pressures institutions with stakes in Israeli companies, or in companies that sustain Israeli human rights abuses, to drop their holdings. Boycotts encourage consumers to ‘let the market decide’ upon justice by refusing to buy goods made by companies that benefit from the occupation or inequality in Israel. Sanctions, on the other hand, are trade restrictions imposed by governments upon others.”
Middle East Report, Summer 2010

Each element of the BDS strategy, by itself, is simply utopian; taken together, they express and reinforce the debilitating illusion that the institutions of monopoly capitalism and global imperialism can be employed as tools of liberation for the oppressed.

For many, the appeal of consumer boycotts—beyond the immediate gratification they offer to those who want to do something “concrete”—lies in the notion of using the market to modify the behavior of individual capitalists, who, though indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians, are very attentive to their own bottom line. Yet consumer boycotts are notoriously ineffective in achieving even very modest objectives. Agitation aimed at persuading an undifferentiated and atomized “buying public” to make political statements through everyday purchases may resonate with socially progressive middle-class elements, but such appeals rarely gain traction among those who do not have the luxury to scrutinize labels or pay upmarket prices for household necessities. In any case, the internationalization of production makes it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to precisely discern which corporations or products have an Israeli connection and which are untainted. Another problem is that in isolating particular corporations for moral opprobrium, boycott campaigns implicitly endorse their “better” corporate rivals and thus obscure the fact that social oppression derives from the entire system of production for profit.

The divestment tactic has similar problems. Rather than seeking to influence corporate behavior by indirect consumer pressure, divestment involves direct appeals to shareholders, both private and public. Capitalist investment tends to seek the highest rate of return, and profit-making is, in the final analysis, supreme. Even if a few companies divest from Israel, others will soon step in if there is money to be made. A recent example was the 2009 sale by Motorola of an Israeli subsidiary which produced bomb fuses for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) where the purchaser turned out to be an Israeli weapons manufacturer. BDS activists hailed the transaction as a victory, while Motorola denied that it had been influenced by the divestment campaign. Today the IDF is still getting bomb fuses from the same facility—the only difference is that the owners are now less susceptible to pressure from Western liberals.

The third element of the BDS campaign is the call for major capitalist powers to impose “sanctions” on Israel. This presumes that state policy in these countries can be pushed into benefitting the downtrodden. Marxists view the bourgeois state as a machine of repression and exploitation—a proposition amply confirmed by the historical record. Sanctions, much like foreign “aid,” are never anything but a weapon of bourgeois diplomacy and power projection (humanitarian and other rhetoric notwithstanding). Sanctions, like those imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or more recently on Iran, are intended to bring recalcitrant neocolonies to heel. In Iraq, the UN-imposed sanctions resulted in the death of over a million civilians, mostly people from working-class and poor neighborhoods.

On those rare occasions when the U.S. threatened Israel with various sorts of sanctions, it did so to advance its own interests (see accompanying article). In the 1940s and 50s, the object was to ensure political stability in the region. In the early 1990s, the aim was to launch a fraudulent “peace process.” Palestinian national rights have never been a priority for Washington (or any other imperialist power), nor are they likely to be in the future. Yet as America’s grip on the Middle East weakens, it is possible to foresee the European imperialists distancing themselves from Tel Aviv in order to pursue new diplomatic openings. Such maneuvering would represent a significant sharpening of inter-imperial rivalry, but would be unlikely to deliver much besides rhetorical support for the Palestinians.

BDS & the Left

The overtly reformist premises of the BDS campaign have not deterred many ostensibly revolutionary organizations from signing on. Their enthusiasm is directly proportional to their willingness to embrace non-proletarian forces as potential agents of social emancipation. Among the larger formations that promote BDS is the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP—the flagship of the International Socialist Tendency founded by the late Tony Cliff). While occasionally making pro forma references to the desirability of socialism and formally subscribing to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (which holds that in the imperialist epoch national liberation and other tasks historically associated with the bourgeois revolution can only be achieved through proletarian power), the SWP has advocated an openly two-stage strategy in both South Africa and Palestine. In 1994, the SWP rationalized its call for a vote to the bourgeois African National Congress as a means to consolidate the gains of the anti-apartheid struggle. And for years the Cliffites echoed the PLO’s calls for a “secular, democratic” (i.e., capitalist) state in Palestine/Israel. Today the SWP promotes BDS as a way to achieve a “meaningful compromise” with the Zionist oppressors:

“Whatever the differences between struggles against South African and Israeli versions of apartheid, the similarities loom large. Outright military victory was and is not a viable aim in either case, and negotiations could not take place or have any prospect of progress until those with power foresaw that the cost of stonewalling would exceed the cost of meaningful compromise. In South Africa the mutually reinforcing factors of internal mass mobilisation and external solidarity pressure for divestment and boycott produced a change in the balance of forces. Without external pressure on companies and governments internationally, the risings might now be remembered as heroic but not regime changing. Without mass struggle internally, and the repression it exposed, the external BDS movement would not have been able to develop widespread support among trade unions, students, activists and eventually growing numbers of politicians.”
International Socialism, Autumn 2010

The same article speculates that a BDS campaign might not have as much impact as its South African antecedent did in the 1980s:

“Can BDS be applied to Israel much as the AAM [Anti-Apartheid Movement] directed its strategy towards South Africa—and can it have a similar impact? A consumer boycott is unlikely to bring crisis to the Israeli economy, a socio-economic system supported by massive US aid. It will, however, bring to worldwide public attention the circumstances of the Palestinians—which have been obscured by decades of ideologically distorted reporting and by the efforts by partisans of Israel to dismiss the Palestinian case.”

At bottom, the Cliffites champion the BDS strategy not because they think it can bring the Zionists to their knees, but because it is popular. It also provides their members with practical activity, while distracting them from the fact that their leadership has no idea how the utopian formula of a “secular, democratic” Palestine can possibly be realized.

Other, more leftist, proponents of BDS at least talk about the necessity of a socialist solution to the national question in Israel/Palestine. In a recent speech, Marcus Halaby, who has emerged as a leading spokesperson on Middle East affairs for Workers Power (WP—British section of the League for the Fifth International [L5I]), called for “a bi-national, workers’ state, which would have to be brought about in the context of a regional workers’ revolution, which would lead to a federation with equality of rights and autonomy for all, including the Jewish-Israeli nation” (“Palestine and Israel: two states or one state and the right of return?,” 15 July 2010). Elsewhere, Workers Power has noted that:

“The Arab leaders—the so-called ‘nationalist’ or ‘progressive’ one[s] as well as the ‘pragmatic’ and ‘conservative’ ones, act objectively as the agents of imperialism in the region. They represent a major obstacle to the liberation of the Palestinian people, as well as their own citizens.”
—“A programme of liberation for Palestine,” 27 December 2008

This would seem to point in the direction of applying the program of permanent revolution in the Middle East. Yet, as is frequently the case with Workers Power, formally correct premises are followed by starkly revisionist conclusions.

In a lengthy theoretical document on Israel-Palestine, published in 1989, which, to our knowledge, the L5I still stands on, its forerunner (the League for a Revolutionary Communist International [LRCI]) addressed the character of Israel’s Jewish population and the Zionist state’s relationship to U.S. imperialism:

“The Israeli Jews, while they have forged a national consciousness in the last forty years which is distinct from their sense of themselves as part of world Jewry, are part of an oppressor nation; their national consciousness has been forged only by a simultaneous denial of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to self-determination. Consequently Israel is an oppressor nation and as such we do not recognize its right to exist as a nation state.”
.     .     .
“…since the 1967 war and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip the oriental Jews [Sephardim] have experienced a degree of social/class mobility which has both further stratified them and consolidated the whole Jewish population of Israel into a shared common oppressive and exploitative relationship to the Palestinian Arabs.”
.     .     .
“The starting point for a revolutionary party’s programme in Palestine and the surrounding countries must be the struggle against imperialism and its wide variety of local agents. The world-hegemonic imperialist power—the USA with its fleets in the Mediterranean and the Gulf defends ‘its’ oil and the semi-feudal rentier regimes it props up in the Arabian peninsula with a limitless arsenal. Yet as its ignominious fiasco in Iran and its inglorious retreat from Lebanon shows it is far from invincible when the masses are roused against it even under the most appalling leadership. This ‘leadership’ whether Stalinist, bourgeois nationalist or clerical reactionary can however only score partial and limited victories against the USA and its agents.”
.     .     .
“So essential to the USA is the existence of the Zionist state that it is repeatedly forced to adapt its overall strategy and tactics for controlling the region to the wishes of its Israeli ally. Most frequently undermined and sabotaged are its relations with its Arab clients (Mubarak, Hussein and the Saudi rulers) who it is repeatedly obliged to abandon and swindle.”
— “Theses on Zionism, Israel, Palestine and Arab nationalism,” Trotskyist International No.2, Winter 1989

Confusion abounds in these “theses.” To begin with, there is the petulant petty-bourgeois declaration that “Israel is an oppressor nation and as such we do not recognize its right to exist as a nation state.” Does WP recognize the right of other “oppressor nations” like the Han Chinese, Great Russians or Americans to exist as nation states?

While Israeli Jews constitute a nation, Marxists do not consider the existing state of Israel to be a legitimate expression of their national right to self-determination (since it is premised upon the subjugation of the Palestinians). But all nations have a right “to exist” and to self-determination, and Marxists defend those rights while opposing any attempt to exercise them at the expense of another people. It is simply liberal moralism to suggest that “the whole Jewish population” shares in the oppression of the Palestinians. Jewish workers are not responsible for the crimes of their rulers, and few derive any tangible benefits from them (even if they are fooled into solidarizing with their exploiters by Zionist ideology).

Finally, while Workers Power correctly observes that the Arab states function as agents of imperialism, the suggestion is also made that they are somehow qualitatively different from Israel, which is why WP sides with the Arab regimes in the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 (see Trotskyist Bulletin No.3). In its April 2007 “Programme of action for Palestine,” the L5I issued a blank check for the future, declaring: “For an active defeatist position towards the Zionist state in any conflict with an Arab bourgeois regime” and “Critical support to even bourgeois Arab states in economic or military conflict with imperialism and Israel!”

In his July 2010 speech, Halaby distinguished between the Israeli state and the Israeli-Jewish nation: “If I recognise that they are a nation, then it follows that I have to recognise that they have the right to a state. I don’t advocate it, though, and I can’t recognise their actually-existing nation-state as a legitimate expression of that right.” Halaby also clearly rejects any blanket condemnation of the Jewish working class: “Despite the reactionary colonisation policy most of the Jewish population are workers and farmers with no ulterior motive beyond seeking to work and bring up their families” (op. cit., 27 December 2008). But he remains deeply pessimistic about the possibility of breaking Israeli workers from their Zionist masters:

“the liberation struggle should encourage all and any developments within Israeli society that might fracture the bloc between the Jewish-Israeli proletariat and the Zionist bourgeoisie. Given the strong material basis and historic durability of this reactionary alliance, it would be a mistake to make the liberation struggle strategically dependent on this occurring first.”

In his 2010 remarks, Halaby advanced the same prognosis:

“I think it will take a series of defeats for Israel to shake the confidence of Israel’s working class in Zionism’s ability to provide them with security, with prosperity, with continued democratic rights, and with peace and normality....
“Now, we might be lucky. They could learn from their defeats quickly enough that they avoid a complete catastrophe for themselves. They could even learn quickly enough that a section of them provide useful allies to the struggle. But one thing I’m not willing to do is to advise the Palestinians to make their struggle strategically dependent on winning over the Israeli working class.”

If it is not realistic to hope to win over a chunk of the Israeli-Jewish working class as a strategic ally in the struggle to shatter the Zionist state, then what forces does WP expect will administer the “defeats” its strategy hinges on? Instead of attempting to propose a revolutionary solution, Workers Power advocates pushing the trade-union bureaucracy to embrace the BDS program and bring pressure to bear on the imperialist rulers:

“Small-scale practical actions can be used to place pressure on the official workers’ organisations in the West and elsewhere, to promote trade and academic boycotts of Israel, to block arms sales, military aid and loan guarantees, and to isolate Israel in the way that the South African apartheid regime was isolated….
“At the same time we must fight worldwide for workers’ sanctions and an academic boycott of Israel, the apartheid state. Any international campaign must target the US and EU governments, which have economic and military ties to Israel, forcing them to break the link and stop funding the racist, settler state of Israel.”
op. cit., 27 December 2008

WP reiterated this a few weeks later: “we need to go on the offensive and must demand that our governments sever all diplomatic contacts, expelling Israeli ambassadors/withdrawing ambassadors from Israel, cutting all cultural and educational links” (“Build a Mass Movement to aid the Gaza Resistance,” 13 January 2009).

The keystone of WP’s approach is the “anti-imperialist united front,” recently rechristened the “anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist united front.” This formula conflates, rather than distinguishes between, political and military support—although at times WP seeks to give the impression that its proposed bloc is strictly limited to practical cooperation and excludes any political support:

“Thus we are advocates of an anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist united front against each and every attack of these plunderers, including in its ranks socialists, Islamic and secular nationalists. All we ask from our partners in struggle is mutual respect for each other’s democratic rights and freedom of expression for our differing views. Naturally we will never give political support to our united front partners on their different end goals for society (an Islamic or a secular capitalist republic).”
op. cit., 27 December 2008

Yet after baptizing this hypothetical alliance a “united front,” the political chameleons of Workers Power proceed to anoint their projected bourgeois partners as anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists who may end up playing a role in “the insurrection itself”:

“We should organise against any attempt to subordinate the working class to their oppressors or to non-proletarian ideologies. However, in the united front, we support joint action with all forces fighting imperialism and capitalism wherever possible to maximise its chance of success of the struggle, irrespective of the ideology of those forces. This goes from strikes, military action up to the insurrection itself.”

This absurdity—postulating a bloc with bourgeois forces not only to “fight” capitalism but also to carry out the proletarian revolution—can only be characterized as “left”-utopian popular frontism. Its underlying logic meshes nicely with WP’s policy of blanket support to imperialism’s Arab clients in any military conflict with their Zionist rivals.

Having virtually written off the Jewish-Israeli working class as a potential ally on the grounds that its bond with the Zionist exploiters is too strong, WP proposes instead to pressure imperialism to sever economic, diplomatic and military ties to Israel while advocating cross-class blocs with “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Zionist” Arab bourgeois forces. This amounts to a repudiation of Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution.

For Labor Strikes Against Israeli Apartheid!

The international labor movement has both the objective interest and potential social power to effectively defend the desperately oppressed Palestinians through concrete labor actions. At the height of the campus-based divestment campaign against South African apartheid in the 1980s, Howard Keylor, a long-time union militant on the docks of San Francisco and an IBT supporter, proposed a motion that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union “hot cargo” (i.e., refuse to unload) the next ship arriving with South African freight. For 10 days, beginning on 24 November 1984, hundreds of Bay Area dockers defied the companies and their arbitrators by refusing to touch the blood-stained cargo aboard the Nedlloyd Kimberley, despite the highly ambivalent attitude of the local union bureaucrats.

This bold action electrified opponents of apartheid. Hundreds of people turned out at the pier in support and a wide variety of black organizations, community groups and other unions hailed the dockers’ initiative. On the eleventh day, when the police arrived to enforce a federal injunction, the union leadership buckled and the South African cargo was finally unloaded. Yet this powerful example, which was hailed by Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison years later, resonates internationally to this day.

In the wake of the 2008-09 assault on Gaza, dockworkers from the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union refused to load an Israeli vessel in Durban. On 20 June 2010, shortly after the flotilla raid, a mass picket of 700-800 workers and activists in Oakland, California prevented the Israeli Zim Lines ship Zim Shenzhen from being unloaded for 24 hours. The Oakland picket marked the first time an Israeli vessel was blocked at a U.S. port, as well as the first international blockade of an Israeli ship since the assault on the Marvi Marmara. On 19 June 2010, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions sent a message to Bay Area militants which included the following stirring passage:

“Dear brothers and sisters, trade unionists, workers, and people of the San Francisco Bay Area, we remember and salute your historic and massive action on the docks in 1984, when you acted to boycott the apartheid regime in South Africa.
“We look to you today from the Gaza Strip and all of Palestine, and call upon you to repeat that courageous stand today. This genuine solidarity is something we have longed for and expected.”

In the following weeks, similar actions occurred around the world. In Turkey, Western Australia, Sweden, Norway and the Indian Port of Cochin, dockworkers’ unions refused to unload Israeli cargo.

Some of these actions were promoted by their initiators, and welcomed by pro-Palestine activists, as an implementation of the BDS campaign. Yet the logic of workers’ solidarity actions is in fact counterposed to a strategy premised on the illusion that opponents of Israeli apartheid can find allies in corporate boardrooms and among the Zionists’ imperialist patrons. The reason that the international workers’ movement is a potentially powerful ally of the Palestinians is that it can deal tangible blows to the oppressors by paralyzing the means of production, communication and transportation.

More concerted labor actions against Israeli apartheid would arouse profound anxiety among the planners of the imperialist world order—not only because it would pose a threat to their profits and geopolitical calculations, but also because it would signal a rising level of class-consciousness in the labor movement. Pseudo-Marxists like Workers Power, who imagine that it is very clever to combine class-struggle tactics (e.g., labor boycotts) with class-collaborationist calls on the imperialists for self-reform, are, in Trotsky’s words, attempting to combine “fire and water”:

‘‘Most dangerous of all, however, is the Stalinist policy. The parties of the Communist International try to appeal especially to the more revolutionary workers by denouncing the League [of Nations] (a denunciation that is an apology), by asking for ‘workers’ sanctions,’ and then nevertheless saying: ‘We must use the League when it is for sanctions.’ They seek to hitch the revolutionary workers to the shafts so that they can draw the cart of the League.’’
“Once Again the ILP,” November 1935

At that time the issue was Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime’s invasion of Abyssinia (today known as Ethiopia). Trotsky’s explanation of why workers’ action is inevitably counterposed to capitalist sanctions remains entirely applicable to today’s struggle against the crimes of Zionism:

“The truth is that if the workers begin their own sanctions against Italy, their action inevitably strikes at their own capitalists, and the League would be compelled to drop all sanctions. It proposes them now just because the workers’ voices are muted in every country. Workers’ action can begin only by absolute opposition to the national bourgeoisie and its international combinations. Support of the League and support of workers’ actions are fire and water; they cannot be united.”

Unlike in 1935, the “democratic” imperialists today do not bother with verbal denunciations, much less symbolic sanctions, against Tel Aviv. In the advanced capitalist states, as well as in Israel/Palestine, only a class-struggle strategy can lay the basis for the liberation of the Palestinian people. Mobilizing the potential power of the international proletariat, however, requires a fight to forge a new, socialist leadership for the workers’ movement—one committed to uprooting the entire exploitative and oppressive system of global capitalism.