BDS – non-violent strategy on Israel

Na'amod protesting the anti boycott bill outside Parliament

Mica Nava on why boycott and sanctions can aid change

The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement is not new. It was founded by Palestinian Omar Barghouti and others, among them UK academics and activists, in 2005. But Israel’s sophisticated and relentless international publicity operations have succeeded always in deflecting BDS policies and practices, and even criminalising them, by labelling them antisemitic.

Boycotting goods and institutions as a form of resistance by the relatively powerless has a long history. The most iconic and effective instances of the 20th century include the US Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat to a white man, which led to the desegregation of bus services, and the five-year boycott of Californian grapes in support of the strike by Hugo Chavez and Latino farm workers in the 1960s.

The best known and most celebrated for its symbolic impact and eventual political triumph was the decades-long national and international boycott of South African products, institutions, and events by opponents of the white-supremacist apartheid regime. These actions over time contributed, via the boycott, to the downfall of the government, the release of Nelson Mandela and other ANC members, and to the birth of the new South Africa.

The parallels between South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid have long been recognised, though usually ignored, despite being categorised as such by the UN and Amnesty International. One of the few good things of recent months is that people are now more informed about the history of Israel’s brutal 75-year occupation of Palestine. It is also better understood that it is not antisemitic to criticise Israeli policy, and that Jews are deeply divided about Zionism and have been so for more than a century. Following the recent ICJ report, more know that what Israel is doing in Gaza is a devastating crime against humanity and almost certainly genocide.

So, what to do to protest not only against Israel but also against those countries supplying it with arms, such as USA and UK? Since October, solidarity demonstrations in support of Palestine have taken place weekly throughout UK. Hundreds of thousands of people have participated. Yet, these huge marches are downplayed not only by our political leaders but also the mainstream media and have not, yet, persuaded Sunak or Starmer that their endorsement of Netanyahu is deeply unpopular and could lose them votes.

So all forms of opposition to the war on Gaza now need to be mobilised. This includes more focus on boycotting. Just weeks ago, Parliament, following in the footsteps of US and Germany, passed new anti-BDS legislation designed to prohibit public bodies from taking part in boycotts or divesting from foreign states. This has been strongly opposed by a range of civil society organisations.

The ban makes the actions of individuals more urgent and important than ever. Current anti-Israel boycotts in UK tend to be organised by autonomous grassroots groups and activists. Among the most developed campaigns is against Barclays Bank as a major financier of the Israeli military. How ironic that Barclays, which was such an emblematic boycott target in the South African anti-apartheid struggle 35 years ago, should now resurface in relation to Israel.

But several campaigns are succeeding. Last year there was a boycott of Puma sportswear, which resulted in the company withdrawing its endorsement of the Israeli Football Association. Smaller everyday targets include cafes and food chains. According to the FT, international boycotts of McDonald’s have led to a significant decline of profit. Another uplifting instance is the refusal of Moroccan hash growers to trade with Israeli dealers. Other targets include Israeli avocados, dates, and houmous. The origin of these is not always clear but the bar code from Israel starts with 729, so check before you buy. Some activist groups are helpfully creating small stickers to post on supermarket shelves.

As with the boycott of South African oranges and Californian grapes, the boycotting of routine items in food stores can enfranchise shoppers on a daily basis. It doesn’t require putting pressure on your local council, or closing your Barclays account, if you ever had one. It’s not about casting a vote once in four or five years. Refusing to buy Israeli avocados and houmous can be done by those too young to vote or too old to march. It’s an example of expressing your political outrage and emotional distress where you can.

All these small acts not only accumulate and damage Israel and its supporters, they also boost the confidence and courage of the besieged Palestinians. In these horrendous times, collective boycotts, like demonstrations, are what we can do. And what we should do. These are ethical as well as political obligations. BDS now!

Na’amod British Jews Against Occupation

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