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Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”

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This July, Palestinians around the world and those standing in solidarity remembered two poignant anniversaries. The first was the one-year anniversary of the brutal Israeli incursion into Gaza termed, in proper Orwellian fashion, “Operation Protective Edge.” This slaughter, claiming the lives of 2,300 civilians was not the first of its kind and certainly will not be the last. At the same time, the BDS National Committee (BNC) celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the call from Palestinian civil society to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

One could argue that this past year has been the most successful year for the BDS campaign in its history, in a large part due to the tragedy of last summer which thrust the full-scale of Israeli state violence into the public eye. Unlike the daily horrors of occupation, both in the West Bank and even more prominently so in Gaza, that operate through a manic labyrinth of Kafka-esque bureaucracy—expropriated property deeds, denied travel permits, unwarranted arrests and detentions—it took the mangled bodies of four Gazan boys upon the beach to catapult the horrors of Israeli policy onto the world stage.

In turn, BDS, which holds visibility and awareness of the Palestinian struggle for justice as a central tenet of its strategy, came to the forefront both during the onslaught and more prominently after the smoke had cleared. The key tenet of the BDS campaign is to both elucidate and attack the politico-economic implications of such an occupation: who is profiting? how are they profiting? what can be done?

In a political environment in which the battle is fought particularly intensely on the ideological plane, BDS presents a critical, calculated attempt to betray and attack the material motivations at the heart of the occupation. It enfranchises Palestinians throughout the world with economic leverage against a settler-colony that is based—unlike South Africa, which required black labor—on the exclusion and denial of any economic enfranchisement for Palestinians.

And these past few months have shown that the tactics are working.

Direct foreign investments in Israel dropped by an astonishing 50% last year, much to the chagrin of the Israeli government who has recently referred to BDS as an existential threat far greater than the one supposedly posed by Iran. And just this June, the RAND Corporation published a report stating that if BDS could maintain an aggressive campaign as it is now, Israel’s economy could suffer losses anywhere from 5 to 15 billion dollars each year, for the next ten years.

This is primarily a result of the fact that the corporations targeted by the BDS campaign compose a substantial core of Israel’s military-industrial complex. And like any advanced industrial society, Israel’s military-industrial complex is not a distinct or isolated sphere but the very basis upon which the Israeli economy thrives.

To be exceedingly clear: the systems of violent control enabled by weapons technology, surveillance, strategic architecture, etc. not only benefit defense companies and the like but directly contribute to the success of Israeli manufacturers. The control of labor flows is dependent upon all the facets of military occupation, ensuring that no competitive Palestinian market may develop, which allows for Israel to exploit both labor and resources. Second, violent impositions such as the blockade on Gaza ensure that any goods going in or out of the Strip must be purchased from Israeli producers guaranteeing that any aid pledged to rebuild Gaza stimulates the Israeli economy; Israel is quite literally being paid to bombard Gaza. Welcome to neoliberalism.

Cultural and Academic Boycott

The cultural and academic boycott of Israel is the other central aspect of the BDS rallying cry. They are particularly important for effacing the myth—so ardently presented by fundamentalist and liberal Zionists alike—that the sphere of civil society is apolitical and in no way complicit in its state’s policies. The Israeli public has demonstrated a striking shift to the right since last summer’s Operation, evidenced both by the re-election of Netanyahu’s Likud and the rise of such far-Right parties as “Bait Yehudi” whose most senior members, such as current Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, openly called for the genocide of Palestinians last summer. Max Blumenthal meticulously documented this trend in Israeli society in his book “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel” which, upon its publication a mere matter of months before the bombardment of Gaza, eerily presaged many racist tendencies seen during last summer’s military operation. 92% of Jewish-Israelis felt the slaughter justified last summer and Netanyahu’s election was contingent upon a barrage of racist remarks in the eleventh hour.

BDS’s cultural and academic boycott insists that such structural racism should be held accountable at the level of civil society and seeks to expose the oft-heard lie that but for the activities of the state, Israeli society would be a thriving, tolerant democracy. Thus, artists such as Lauryn Hill and Carlos Santana have eagerly responded to calls from PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) and have cancelled their appearances in Israel.

Eyal Sher, director of the Israeli film festival, said himself that the press during Protective Edge and the subsequent invigoration of the Cultural and Academic boycott saddled the festival with budget constraints but more significantly, an unwillingness on the part of directors and producers to partake in the affair at all.

The academic boycott in particular has made rapid progress in this past year. What was once a thwarted debate left stagnant in the backwaters of free speech arguments has now come to the point of academics reckoning amongst each other and departments partaking in critical self-inquiry, asking what specific steps might strategically aid an academic boycott.

The disagreements are still contentious, undoubtedly, but the likes of prominent intellectuals such as Rashid Khalidi, Judith Butler and Cornel West have forced the Western academy to a point of bold self-reflection and away from such red herrings as free speech and freedom of education arguments. The high-visibility of such individuals helped demonstrate that if any freedom of speech or freedom of education arguments were to be deployed, that would first and foremost be with respect to the bombed out universities in Gaza and restrictions to students’ travel in Palestine.

Most importantly however, the academic boycott has raised a serious question about the role of intellectuals and the state of knowledge production both within Israel proper and beyond.

Many of the weapons systems used to lay low entire neighborhoods in Gaza were the product of research conducted at the Technion—Israel’s Institute of Technology—and funded by the state. The Technion has paired up with Elbit Systems, one of the BDS campaign’s central targets, to spur on such research. Likewise, numerous bureaucrats, lawyers, public relations officials and international law experts emerge from the likes of Ben Gurion University, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University and go on to take up positions finding legal and moral justifications for Israeli war crimes as well as deploying clever propaganda campaigns funded by the state including the “Brand Israel” campaign.

A New Generation

But the academic boycott is not the only battle being waged on college campuses. BDS campaigns (specifically divestment campaigns) are overwhelmingly being led at the grassroots level by student organizers who are integrating BDS as part of a broader strategy of the Left upon university campuses worldwide.

SOAS, Northwestern University and seven UCal schools have voted to divest, led primarily by Students for Justice in Palestine, several of them in the past year. Most strikingly however, is the extent to which students from a range of progressive causes are supporting BDS campaigns. Likewise, student organizers rallying for Palestine are involving themselves more broadly with anti-capitalist, antiracist campaigns in turn.

For example, this January, the “Dream Defenders” a group integral in leading the Black Lives Matter campaign, sent a delegation to Palestine to witness the occupation and pledge support first-hand; they went on afterwards to echo the boycott call. SJP chapters in Florida likewise attended rallies in the wake of Ferguson and were present at the Dream Defenders’ conference. Columbia University’s historic prison divestment campaign maintained that liberation in the US for those incarcerated was inextricably bound with the liberation of illegally detained prisoners in Palestine, citing G4S as centrally complicit both here and in the West Bank.

The coalition between various leftist movements at the university level is infuriating more conservative factions across the country as they see a younger generation ardent in its support for Palestine and receptive to the divestment call. The right-wing Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, decried that “Campus politics have been hijacked by a group of students who are intent to conquer…The coalition of Arab, Muslim, Latino, Asian and gay students. They’re all oppressed minorities.”

And though he is one of the more fundamentalist and outspoken opponents, Liberal Zionists have reacted in a range of ways; but all have had to come to terms with one clear fact: despite how much they wish it was so, American Jews have never been a monolithic bloc. In fact, some estimate that up to 20% of the BDS organizers in the country are American Jews. This most recent excursion into Gaza turned the tide significantly: while many centrist Zionists became more liberal after 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, this past summer was the final straw for many liberal Zionists. Jewish Voice for Peace, which upholds BDS as one of its central pillars saw its number of chapters in the US nearly double from August 2014 until now.

Some liberal Zionists have begun to find various ways to combat BDS’s efficacy, including co-opting the boycott of settlement products. This measure was even affirmed as reasonable by the US State Department, who was responding to concerns over the explicit prohibition against BDS outlined in a recent free trade agreement. The US, like Israel, is becoming more and more aware of the threat that BDS poses and has attempted to co-opt and neutralize portions of the campaign as part of a broader neocolonialist two-state framework.

As BDS gains steam and gains a more steady foothold in the US where it was precariously situated for so long, the debate has now come to the forefront of the US political scene. As Netanyahu’s speech on the Iran negotiations demonstrated, Israeli interests (demands) often serve as a political football, strategically deployed in times of need.

Hillary Clinton’s burgeoning campaign made it a point to send Haim Saban, the multibillionaire who has been responsible for funding her Democratic campaign, a hand-signed letter focusing solely upon her commitment to fight BDS. On the other side of the aisle, Sheldon Adelsen, the bank account behind the Republican party, has raised upwards of 50 million dollars solely in order to fight BDS. And though BDS is a household name in Europe at this point, it is crucial that the campaign be relentless in the United States, the country most strident in its fiscal and ideological backing for Israel’s settler-colonial project.

Returning (to) the Call

So, what does it mean to support BDS today, ten years later, with Gaza having been demolished twice over and no foreseeable end to the occupation? First, it is worth keeping in mind BDS’s successes if for the sole purpose of recognizing how profound economic engagement has been after decades of symbolic protest and resistance. Undoubtedly, the latter is important but when the dominant hegemons in today’s world are so closely aligned with Israeli state violence, one must match economic force with economic force.

That is why, from the very beginning, trade unions have played a central role in the fight to support BDS. Palestinian unions were central signatories to the original call in 2005 and today have continued to remain at the forefront of the campaign, most recently when the Gaza trade union restated its call to organized labour worldwide to boycott the Histradut (Israeli Federation of Labour) which has historically participated in racist exclusionary practice against Palestinian and Mizrahi Jewish labourers and has consistently been an apologist for state-sponsored violence.

BDS and its proponents, while wholly aware of the racism underlying Israeli policy, are also aware of the extent to which profit margins trump ideological claims: racism against Palestinian laborers, for instance, is secondary justification to support the cheap wages for which they can be exploited. And insofar as BDS is a grassroots, horizontal, popular organization, it is based in the history of collective struggle and direct action associated with the history of organized labour. These tactics have been central to particular manifestations of the BDS campaign such as in the Bay Area, with the Block the Boat campaign and the Block the Factory campaign in Kent, U.K.

Second, it is worthwhile to call to mind the broad implications for a boycott, divestment, sanctions strategy in the context of US and Israeli foreign policy and their relation to world markets. In today’s world, the technological advancement of security systems being deployed in places ranging from Brazil to Baghdad to the Mexican border comes at the cost of Palestinian lives, upon whom such systems are tested and then marketed as tried and true, only to be deployed again against civilian populations worldwide.

Opposition to Israeli terror by way of BDS is thus at the same time opposition to the proliferation of world markets dependent upon the alliance of universities, militaries and private defense companies, all in service of the state. Opposition to Israeli terror by way of BDS is at the same time an act of emphatic resistance against the sort of corporate profiteering associated with the post-9/11 “War on Terror” era. This is a point echoed time and time again by the Coalition of Women for Peace, a radical feminist collective who operates the “Who Profits” project, one of the most thorough documentations of financial benefits from the occupation.

The dual movement of both extended scope and economic focus will be crucial for the future success of BDS. Undoubtedly, this past year has offered a glimpse of hope especially in the wake of last summer’s horror. But supporters of BDS must now be active in both seeking and lending solidarity as part of a broader strategy of the Left, of which BDS now appears to be a central part.

 

 

Peter Makhlouf is an undergraduate at Brown University.

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