Israel and BDS

Letter by Jonathan Rosenhead

ImageThe Peace News editorial comment on ‘Antisemitism, Zionism, BDS and PN’ (PN 2552-3) was thoughtful, informed and principled on the first two. That’s what makes its cack-footedness on boycott, divestment and sanctions so surprising. 

There are things the editorial simply got factually wrong. And then there are issues of political principle and practice. The incorrect facts are used to support the, in my view, wrong conclusions. Let’s start with the errors:

l The boycott call from Palestine is not for a ‘blanket’ ban. In the key areas of academic and cultural boycott it is targeted only at Israeli institutions, rather than individuals. The South African boycott (so often cited with approval) was far more stringent.

l The editorial cites Norman Finkelstein (a highly-principled but utterly unrepresentative figure) on BDS as a ‘cult’, and then treats that assertion as a fact.

l Finkelstein says that the BDS movement ‘takes no position on the legitimacy of Israel’. No – what we take no position on is the final status agreement (eg one state/two states). We cannot tell the Israelis and Palestinians what solution they should, eventually, converge on.

There are more, but I have little space.

So, what is the justification of a boycott (and divestment; sanctions of course can only be applied by governments)? It is, as the editorial states, a tactic. But it is not, at least in the medium term, a tactic to persuade Israelis that they may be mistaken. It is a tactic to educate and mobilise civil society across the world, and to put pressure on commercial firms, financial institutions and governments to desist from propping up an Israeli state that oppresses human rights. Academic and cultural boycott complements this by insisting that Israel not be treated as a ‘normal’ state since it violates so many norms.

So – the editorial says it is still too early to implement this boycott policy, because the public is not ready to accept it. This is upside down. Firstly, the BBC’s regular poll shows that the public across the world already views Israel as the state it most disapproves of, along with Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.

Secondly, the role of boycott is to focus and concentrate that view towards action, not wait for views somehow to shift by themselves. We are engaged in an educational as well as an agitational process. The international South African boycott movement was launched in London on 26 June 1959. Apartheid came to an end in stages between 1990 and 1994. Boycott was a principal engine. If not now, when? If not us, who?

Thank you, Jonathan. We also don’t have space to respond properly! Briefly: if you go back, you will see that we didn’t claim that ‘the boycott call from Palestine’ was for a blanket boycott; and we did not treat Norman Finkelstein’s view (which is more nuanced than you suggest) as fact – we merely noted it. 

We both agree that properly-chosen boycott campaigns can help to put pressure on British institutions that support the occupation. Perhaps we also agree that there are forms of boycott that are unhelpful to the cause of the Palestinians. Do we also agree that we must judge our tactics by what is actually useful to the Palestinians, rather than what feels righteous to us here, or appears ‘right’ in the abstract? – eds