In defence of the boycott: A response to Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin has an impressive record of defending Palestine solidarity activism. He is usually one of the few voices of reason that one would be thankful to hear. Take for example his defence of Israeli Apartheid Week at a time when the government, the opposition and the pro-Israel lobby groups were raising hell against what is merely a series of lectures.

From reading Salutin’s recent article, one gets the impression that his criticism of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the recent cancelation of Leonard Cohen’s show in Ramallah, do not come from a pro-Israel position, but rather comes from a genuine desire to move the struggle for Palestinian rights forward. He approaches the matter from a critical point of view, and raises some questions about BDS.

The BDS movement, which is a global movement that has been in existence for about four years now, can provide answers to all of the questions and concerns raised. I see this as an opportunity to engage with Salutin and challenge some of his claims about the campaign in hope of winning his and his readers’ support for this important movement.

Salutin begins with expressing antipathy towards boycotts. I concur. Boycotts are, to put it simply, “not nice.” They are a pressure tactic. They are not meant to be gestures of politeness. “Not nice” as they may be, the question that should be asked here is to what ends are boycotts used? Are they used as ends in and of themselves or as means? Are they part of a coordinated and planned movement or just the passing wishes of a few?

What is the BDS movement?


Answers to these questions can be found in the foundational document, the 2005 call for boycott signed by over 170 civil society organizations representing all sectors of Palestinian society -- those living within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as well as Palestinians throughout the Diaspora, most of whom are refugees. The call explicitly shows that boycotts are not an end, and are only meant to be used until Israel complies with international law. The call states three demands: That Israel dismantle the Apartheid Wall and return occupied Arab lands, grant full equality for all its citizens regardless of religion and ethnicity and that Palestinian refugees be allowed to exercise their right to return. It is modeled on the BDS campaign that was instrumental in overthrowing the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

In the past four years, the BDS movement has gained strength and momentum around the world including here in Canada and Quebec, where several trade unions including CUPE Ontario, CUPW and CSN have adopted BDS resolutions. Recently, Independent Jewish Voices in Canada became the first national Jewish organization in the world to endorse the BDS call. There is also now a growing movement inside Israel calling for ‘a boycott from within.’

BDS: An effective strategy that has gained popular support

Salutin argues that boycotts are largely ineffective. Talking specifically about the Palestinian campaign, he writes that BDS may be counterproductive in mobilizing support for the Palestinian cause because it can result in raising ‘fears about renewed anti-Semitism.’ The argument that BDS raises fears of anti-Semitism ignores the well-documented fact that any and all discussions of Palestinian human rights -- including, but definitely not limited to BDS -- provoke spurious accusations of anti-Semitism from Israel’s supporters who hope to suppress all criticism of Israel by labeling it anti-Semitic.

The BDS call invokes fear among Israel supporters not because it is anti-Semitic or will lead to anti-Semitism, but for quite the opposite reason. They are afraid because they have seen that BDS is an effective strategy that has gained popular support precisely because it is rooted in the principles of social justice, international law and human rights and can therefore not so easily be falsely dismissed as anti-Semitic.

Salutin goes on to argue that BDS is ineffective because it can lead to “countermobilizations, such as supporters of Israel buying up all the tickets to a boycotted exhibit of the Dead Sea scrolls in Toronto.” Focusing on this particular campaign, Salutin does not mention the many victories of the BDS campaign, including the recent decision by Veolia to pull out of the Jerusalem Light Rail transit project because of intense, worldwide pressure on the company, the refusal of the South African dock workers to offload a ship carrying Israeli goods and reports indicating that Israeli exports to Europe are declining due to boycott campaigns.

The characterization of the Dead Sea Scrolls campaign as a failure also ignores the major strength of the BDS movement -- its power to raise awareness about the Palestinian struggle. Yes, the campaign against the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit did result in Israel supporters buying up tickets to the event -- which likely would have happened regardless of the campaign -- but more importantly, it created public awareness that the Scrolls are looted Palestinian artifacts, stolen when Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.

The ultimate goal of the BDS campaign is to put economic and political pressure on Israel, but a key step in achieving this goal is education and raising the profile of Palestinian issues. In this sense, the Dead Sea Scrolls campaign can actually be seen as a success.
 
Salutin’s final argument is a condemnation of what he calls “the self-righteous language on each side.” While he rightly criticize Israel’s recent decision to ban the term ‘Nakba’ (Arabic for catastrophe, used to describe the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948) from textbooks, he compares that to descriptions of Israel as a colonial, apartheid by those within the BDS movement.

Calling Israel a colonial apartheid regime is not a hyperbolic, moralistic overstatement, but rather an accurate portrayal of Israel and a characterization that was recently supported by a comprehensive, 300-page report by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. This report, written by a number of respected researchers under the supervision of Professor John Dugard, who is a leading authority on international law, systematically explains and analyzes Israeli policies and shows how they fit the definition of colonialism and apartheid.  

Salutin’s invocation of Edward Said is a bit out of place. Said died in 2003, two years before the beginning of the BDS campaign. But since Said was very supportive of the boycotts campaign against apartheid South Africa, one would expect that he would be supportive of the Palestinians BDS campaign which is putting forward demands that he spent many years calling for.

It is healthy to debate tactics and strategy, not just with our opponents, but also with allies. Engaging in such discussions further increases the profile of the BDS campaign and also provides an opportunity to educate people who support the Palestinian cause, but may still have reservations about joining in this campaign.

That’s why I want to encourage Salutin to reconsider his dismissal of BDS -- a tactic chosen and supported by the large majority of Palestinians and their allies worldwide. Statements of support are important, but the best way to support an oppressed group of people in their struggle is to take your cues from them. They know better.

The Palestinians have spoken, and have done so almost unanimously and unequivocally. They have indicated to us that BDS is the best way to help them. We can choose to follow it, or ignore it and continue with ineffective support that will never effect any change.


Jenny Peto is active with the Toronto based Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA).

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