Why the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement Cannot Work Now

It has become a sort of knee jerk reaction by Leftists concerned about the Israel-Palestine issue to compare the issue to South Africa and say how “we need a BDS program along the lines of South Africa.” Let me preface the following article that I believe what Israel does within the Occupied Territories and even within its own state are Apartheid by the internationally recognized definition. The definition is as follows “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” There are many similarities between the two cases but they are not the same case and comparing them as absolutes, in addition to being academically lazy, is factually incorrect and hurts the Palestinian cause. There are some ways that apartheid was worse than what is happening in Palestine and in some ways what is happening in Palestine is far worse than what happened in South Africa. In addition the South African whites had a very different relationship with the indigenous population than the Israelis currently have with the Palestinians. The Whites (13% of the population)needed the local population for labor as opposed to the Israelis (50% of the population of Historic Palestine, not including refugees of course) do not. They got themselves off of this dependency following the First Intifada and Oslo and rely on foreign workers for the labor that Palestinians used to do.

It seems to me, a student, reader and blogger on Israel-Palestine, that the BDS movement attempting to garner support for a replication of South Africa is going to fail miserably. As Finkelstein states (in the question and answer portion) when a gentleman generically asks about the BDS movement and his support or non-support of the movement, he, being the gentleman, of course prefaces and tries to bring in the South African Apartheid as a movement to be replicated. It seems to be lack of originality and/or academic discourse that leads to this framing. Supporters of the Palestinian cause seem to try and bring as much connections and theories as possible, some better than others, in explaining the conflict and trying to get converts to the cause. I personally feel this is the wrong way to go about it. As Finkelstein notes (paraphrasing from this video and others of his latest ones) “facts are on our side, there is no reason to make all these large theories about Zionism or other terms…you simply ask people ‘do you support ethnic cleansing? do you support the demolition of homes? do you support housing for Jews only?’ If you get them to answer no to these three you already have gotten  them further than you would telling them all the ills of Zionism from 1881-2011. It is a game of mutual consensus and patience. There is an international consensus on how to deal with the issue, so let us go by it.” I do not disagree with the overall message on a practical level and think it is very befitting…but on an ideal level I disagree with the latter pieces.

It seems to me that BDS wishes to more of less snub its nose at the international consensus Finkelstein talks about, and fill the uncertainty with slogans, rhetorics, and analogies. From the BDS publications I have read they do not even have a coherent argument of whether they support 1 state or 2 states which I feel is very relevant to the debate. If BDS fully pledges to the 1 state it will, in addition to fighting Israel and its supporters, have to fight against the international consensus which is already on the Palestinian side. If it favors 2 states then its purpose gets watered down into nothingness once that second state came about. The BDS movement would have a better time achieving two states (pending that was their goal) by going another approach, such as organizing against US arms shipments to Israel which are illegal under international and domestic US law (such as those used in Operation Cast Lead). They would organize against settlement products in Europe, and weapons from the US, plain and simple. Yet the BDS movement covers so many aspects which do not fall under these categories it would seem they are taking the one state solution on their back and going against the world. If this is their case, I applaud them for trying, but think there are better ways to go about it. In addition to Europe, Israel’s huge importer of goods happens to be the Occupied Palestinian Territories themselves. So they would have to come here to make the basic most fundamental change to Israeli economic prowess, those of which who are essentially forced to buy the products. Most of the people in BDS are not Palestinian (in the sense of being born and growing up here) and have most likely visited the Occupied Territories. Which means they flew into Israel or crossed a border and had to spend money in these places, hence negating/watering down their message, or possibly have never been which takes away from their possible knowledge (books can do a great job about the subject, but first hand knowledge always supersedes it). I personally fell into this latter category until I decided to take a heavily subsidized scholarship to study at Hebrew University in the Middle East department. I felt that if they knew my politics (which they did) and were still offering me money to come to their university and use their resources against them, then why not?

This is the problem of the BDS movement essentially, too many absolutes, too little proof. They effectively separate themselves from dissent of their point of view and simple sit in agreement circles complaining about Israel. If you ever wish to change the minds of people, especially ones who have no vested interest in the subject, you can not do it in a leftist academic circle. You can talk to people in these circles and get facts and figures to help your case, but doing just that will help solve nothing except artificially making you feel better about yourself. You do not have to boycott any and all things of an entity to make a change, but strategic boycotts can be very effective and garner more support. There are many Israeli academics who are non-Zionist, anti-Zionist, or Post-Zionist and do extensive research and writings to pursue these goals, but an organization like BDS would boycott these people because they have Israeli citizenship, this is wrong to me (although I am sure Ilan Pappe is not on the list of boycotted persons, rightfully). BDS movements talk about academic boycotts and divestments from pension reforms and these seem to be mostly symbolic or feel good manuevers. How will some Norwegian pensioner not getting a piece of his pension from an Israeli company suddenly end the occupation or make one less child’s life less oppressed?


12 thoughts on “Why the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement Cannot Work Now

  1. Having been involved in the South African anti-apartheid banking sanctions campaign during the 1980s and again now in the BDS movement, the parallels between the two are glaring. Both apartheid SA and Israel were/are highly militarised societies which both corrupted and bankrupted their economies, thus making them vulnerable to international financial sanctions. In the 1980s the leverage point was New York. Twenty-five years later the leverage is the SWIFT system in Belgium, and thus outside US control. Banking is the lifeblood of any economy, and the Israeli economy is highly dependent on international trade. All that is now required to bring the Israeli banking system and economy to collapse within weeks is a court order in Belgium requiring SWIFT to reprogramme its computers to suspend IL transactions to and from Israeli banks until certain specified conditions are met: eg 1) The Israeli government agrees to end its occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and that it will dismantle the apartheid wall; 2) The Israeli government recognises the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinians to full equality in Israel-Palestine and 3) the Israeli government acknowledges the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
    “They” laughed at us when in 1985 we began the banking sanctions campaign against apartheid SA. By 1989 “they” realised it was serious. By 1990 “they” released Nelson Mandela. And by 1994 South Africa was free! And as with apartheid SA, sanctions were driven by civil society not governments, which likewise were part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

    1. Perhaps I am not as optimistic as you about the banking system. I think the issue is bigger than banks and although it sounds great to somehow “liberate” the occupied territories through this I do not see it. Israel has invested tens of billions in them, let alone the ideological settlers aspect. Unless I am missing something over the years, when the International Community (minus the US) tries to do something against Israel, they only get more irrational, more violent, and more sheltered. If this was the magic solution, I feel it already would have been done, why it would take 44 years etc to do it seems to make this theory a tid lofty, but again that could be me. If you think Israel can be held to “your demands” by withholding money, I think you highly underestimate the power of Israel with the support of the US. The US may have no power in the bank, but they have power over everyone at these banks you are mentioning.

  2. Chris: You miss the point, but also overestimate Israel’s hold over the international community, including its banks. Money laundering is a crime especially in the US which rightly regards it as a “security issue.” International banks (both willingly and unwillingly) are complicit in massive war profiteering by Israeli banks in the illegal military occupation of Palestine. Corruption and human rights abuses are invariably interconnected, whether in Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan or Israel-Palestine. Banks don’t smell too good these days, as it is. They certainly don’t want to be associated with Israeli war crimes. Just as the banks dumped apartheid South Africa, so they will dump apartheid Israel when their Israeli connections become “just too much hassle.” It is not the loans that matter, but the SWIFT payment system. In short, “no get paid, no trade.”
    You also overestimate apartheid SA’s dependence on black labour, important though it was, and ignore the reality that 50% of the black population living in rural areas were not even in the money economy. The other 50% were at the bottom of the economic ladder and most certainly had no economic or political clout. Besides, they had their families to feed

    1. It is not my overestimation of Israel’s hold on the international community, it is correct estimation how much Israel has a hold with the United States. Ultimately with the vast majority of decisions in the world, it comes down to what the US wants and the US does not want Israel isolated or turned into another South Africa. Transferring arms to a state that uses them for offense and occupation is illegal in the US too, but that does not deter Israel from doing it or the US from giving them more arms every year. Banks, at least US ones, have had no problem with the “bad smell” of war crimes in Israel/Palestine and do not see anything happening about it anytime soon, as they are busy with what they see as bigger issues.
      My point about the black labor is they were necessary for the SA regime, not that 100% were employeed, it was about the dependency issue. SA needed the black and Indian labor, while Israel does not need the Palestinian labor. THey have made many attempts to get themselves off of it the past 25 years and if magically every Palestinian did not work in Israel, which is impossible, Israel would be just fine. This is as opposed to the black/Indian population in SA where if they 100% (also impossible, but for arguments sake) boycotted working for the Whites the regime would’ve been in trouble.
      Although we may wish to paint Israel as Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan, or South Africa it is simply not true. There is a vast amount of connections sure, as well as human rights violations, but you ignore the power of Israel in the US and the image Israel has in the world (specifically the EU, which is the 2nd most important player in the world and not willing to be called the ‘first and second perpetuaters of the holocaust’) of at least being an illiberal democracy. This can not be ignored, let alone the total number of dead. Israel does a great PR job in the world and will continue to do so. Until public opinion in the US changes which results in some institutional change, this will not change much of anything. Do not get me wrong, I wish your SWIFT attempt all the power in the world, I would just not put all my chips in one basket and assume it is somehow the killswitch to everything.

      1. Chris, I’m glad we’re on the same side on this, but you overplay the role of labour in SA’s transition. On mining for instance, which was crucial for exports and foreign exchange earnings, the majority of the mine workers were foreigners from Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, and the remainder were migrant labour from the bantustans — ie all in Israeli parlance “guestworkers” with no political clout. SA is the only instance where sanctions have worked, and banking sanctions were the tipping point because of the role of the seven major New York banks, and the pressure on them from churches, trade unions and New York City Council — who told them to make a choice, apartheid or our pension fund business!
        Otherwise, President Ronald Reagan and British PM Maggie Thatcher were 100% behind the apartheid government, just as President Obama and 85% of US Senators are in AIPAC’s pocket.
        Just as SA and Israel assume that they were/are military impregnable, so the US still also believes in military solutions for political problems. They didn’t work in Vietnam, and have not worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Libya. Nor could the Obama administration save Mubarak in Egypt.
        The US dollar is on the verge of collapse because of the bankruptcy inflicted by those military misadventures, and when that happens Israel will be abandoned.
        As for comparing Israeli apartheid with SA apartheid: it’s even worse. The West Bank and Gaza are bantustans, even less economically viable than were SA’s bantustans. Consequently, like apartheid SA, the two-state solution is a non-starter. Apartheid did not work in SA, and it will not work in Israel-Palestine.

      2. Terry and Chris, interesting debate guys. I have some thoughts that could be completely baseless (if they are, please correct):

        Generally, I agree with Chris that the situation in Israel is different than in SA – for many reasons, but mostly because of the links between Israel and the United States. While the debate about indigenous workers in both countries is certainly worth having, I think it is missing the point here. Terry, you say that Reagan and Thatcher were 100% behind Apartheid SA, which was true and the sanctions clearly played a role in changing that tune. The political, financial, social… support Israel receives from the people of the United States is deeper than in South Africa. We are far from the point of banks needing to choose between “apartheid or our pension funds.”For the moment – and the near (and unfortunately, probably far) future, the American people either do not care about the issue or support Israel completely. Of course, this could change, but it seems to me that Israel supporters in the US are more pro-active in maintaining immense support for Israel in the US than SA was.

        While the US certainly does prefer military solutions without regard for the economic consequences of such ventures – the dollar is far from collapse. While the government is spending more it does not have on foolish military excursions, the US private sector remains immensely powerful globally. Moreover, if the dollar were to crash there is not another power waiting to step in as the global hegemon politically. It certainly does not seem as though any of the BRIC countries are ready or willing to take over. Indeed, for the US to lose power politically, the global governmental structures (UN, IMF, WB…) would need to be upended, revolutionized or eliminated. There are a million different reasons why apartheid (and 2 states) will not work in Israel-Palestine, but the collapse of the US is not one of them. (For the record, I believe that the US is on its predictable downhill slope, but that does not mean it will stop supporting Israel.)

  3. Again, Terry we can go issue by issue and show how Israel practices Apartheid less or more in each instance. I feel I have made this point enough, and it seems you are trying to be the bigger leftist in the debate instead of dealing with the point. I will say one last time, Israel systematically practices apartheid in the State itself, and in the occupied territories. It does NOT however practice apartheid action by action as South Africa did. Hence why the word apartheid was dealt with in the various IGOs of the world. So that it is NOT specific to South Africa. As I said, there are COMPARISONS, some places better than others. THere are things that are much worse than SA, and things that are not there. Hence why the word Apartheid is appropriate, but not always the adjective usage of South Africa. Not that it is that important, but I would say more than 85% of the Senate is in the pro-Israel lobby’s pocket. You can say what you want about America’s military power not working in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan but I would beg to differ in each case. Which one of those countries has a leader and a parliament that is not in our pocket in one way or another? All these wars combined have killed over 5.000 Americans, not to belittle their life, but that is hardly the 60,000 we saw in Vietnam over a similar period. To say that we somehow lost these wars politically is deceiving at best. If you judgement for winning a war is we had 100% control of everything, minimal loss of life, and the locals loving us, than sure, we lost. But I think a quick examination shows that the US has won these wars, especially politically, considering the vast majority of the population of these countries is ignored and suppressed, which is what the US wants.
    In regards to your statements about the US falling and the dollar withering away I will have to disagree completely again. As a person with a degree in International Political Economy, I can tell you flat out you are grossly exaggerating for whatever reason your belief in the downfall of the United States. If the US were falling as much as you are suggesting, its puppets would be propping it up throughout the world considering there is no other alternative. In addition they would fear the “destabling” effect this would have on their situation. THe US is over 25% of the world economy and has strong control over an ever higher number. THis may be lower than the 50% it had in 1945, but that does not turn into a coming downfall anywhere near our lifetimes. The US is over 50% of world military spending and has bases in almost every country in the world, this will not go away if the dollar depreciates. I am a leftist, I am sure much loftier than you, but that does not mean I am willing to ignore truths and practical circumstances. I can wish for these days to come, but to hyperinflate current circumstances to predict things is just not my way nor I believe the way of any academic or student on the subject.

    1. Hi Chris: Did you pick up this week’s report by the Eisenhower Research Project at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University that the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have now cost up to US$4 trillion? That’s before interest of another US$1 trillion by the year 2020. In addition, the medical and other expenses of wounded soldiers will be between US$600 and US$900 billion. America’s war business is simply unsustainable, and the rest of the world is increasingly unwilling to foot those bills. The US has gotten away with military domination until now because of the unique role of the dollar, but the end is nigh. And without US military and financial support, it’s curtains for Israel as “the Jewish State” in the Arab world.
      And don’t think I am ultra “leftie” or anti-American. I went to university in Minnesota, even spent three years in the US army, and worked in the States before returning to SA. Like most people around the world, I have a lot of respect and admiration for America’s “soft power.” Sadly, as Eisenhower warned, the American war business is out-of-control, with devastating domestic as well as international consequences.
      As regards apartheid Israel, it is now well established that Israel (both within Israel itself as well as Palestine) meets the definitions of apartheid in terms of the Convention Against Apartheid As A Crime Against Humanity and, to this end, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine will meet here in Cape Town in November.
      interesting incidentally, that the sting operation on Dominique Strauss-Kahn unravelled…

      1. I saw the report and again reitterate my points. THe US economy is by itself 15 trillion a year, minimum, not including its proxy aspects of economic benefit. Afghanistan started in 2001, so 10 years, we are talking at least 150 trillion dollars of US economic power and you are trying to overemphasize the $4 trillion impact. THe US has the ability to pay it off, with debt since it gets cheap debt payments. I agree it is unsustainable only if the public does something about it. The US faced a much harder situation in the 1970s and came back stronger through arms sales and computer technology. I didn’t say anything about anti-American, I just said you were trying to, through slogans, to out leftist me. I am a Marxist who has a degree in International Political Economy and is getting a MA in Middle Eastern Politics. I just think it is academically lazy to say “Israel is like SOuth Africa and we should fight it the same way.” It is different. I have no qualms with saying it is an apartheid state in and out of the territories, but using that important adjective SOuth Africa to me waters down the articulation of the case. I said this in my original article and will say it again and again. The issue of Israel practicing apartheid is not in question, it is the framing and the adjectives people wish to include which in addition to being unnecessary, weaken the case.

  4. Hi Chris: There is your fallacy — that US military spending is sustainable and, even worse, that it is profitable. Agreed, the US GDP is about US$15 trillion, but military spending (direct and indirect) is about US$1.5 trillion — ie 10 percent. As a benchmark, any economy that exceeds 2 percent over an extended period will collapse. And the US has long ago reached that tipping point. The US has only gotten away with it until now because the rest of the world — NOT AMERICANS — were prepared to fund it because of the unique role of the US dollar. That’s coming to an end. Were China or Saudi Arabia to pull the financial plug, the US would be in deep fertiliser. And don’t kid yourself that US arms exports are profitable — they are for the chief executives of Lockheed Martin etc, but the US economy and taxpayers are being fleeced by massive subsidies to the US war business that is out-of-control. And even arms exports of US$35 billion a year are peanuts in a US$15 trillion economy.
    Obviously, 20 years after the struggle against apartheid in SA, the instruments in the struggle against apartheid in Israel-Palestine will be different. Computerisation is the most obvious. And why Israel is even more vulnerable to sanctions pressure than apartheid SA. And as I began, a Belgian court order requiring SWIFT to reprogramme its computers to exclude international payments to and from Israeli banks — and Israel’s economy would implode within weeks. All its 300 nuclear weapons would be utterly useless.
    Even in SA, there are people who would prefer to “reserve” the term apartheid to SA (as though “our” apartheid was worse than anyone else’s apartheid)! The reality however, is that the Covenant Against Apartheid As A Crime Against Humanity provides the instrument in international law to take international legal action against apartheid in Israel. And the situation in Israel-Palestine meets all the definitions.
    PS. I would not attempt to out-Marx you — I’m a pacifist, not a Marxist. I have however, in 2009/2010 spent six months in Jerusalem and Bethlehem as a peace monitor at the checkpoints and villages. No doubt, very different insights from your time at Hebrew University and perceptions amongst Israeli students fresh out of the army that Israel is militarily invincible.

    1. It is sustainable in the short term, the fact the US is still standing as the leading military and economic power by and far shows this. It is unsustainable long term, but it has lasted the US for most of the past 66 years, hence I have no conspiracy theory doomsday scenarios that is going to tumble down anytime soon. Do you have a figure or citation for the 1.5 trillion? I have only seen figures closer to 800B. Second do you have any fact or figure to prove your statement regarding this above 2% statement? I think the US has proved this wrong. China would collapse itself, same as Saudi and would deal with an economic and military problem if they even considered the option, hence I am not going to buy into conspiracy theories. France had enough gold in 1973 to buy the United States, but it would never have considered it. Just because a state has this minute power over the US does not mean they are going to commit suicide for the sake of committing suicide, this makes no sense. As I have said multiple times now (in various forms, but still has not resonated) Israel IS an apartheid state, there is no debate on this side. It seems you did not read or understand my statement about the adjective usage of SA, but it doesn’t matter. In regards to your P.S., are you somehow implying that Marxism is not pacifist? Are you saying that somehow I am living a hypocritical life because I am both a Marxist and a pacifist? As to your 6 months in checkpoints, that is fantastic, good for you. I live in the Occupied Territories (Ramallah, and one of only TWO students at HUJ that do it) and have for over a year and lived in Occupied East Jerusalem for the first 6 months of my time here, go through the checkpoint every morning with Palestinian students, teachers, workers, etc at 6am to go to class at 830. 99% of the people I hang out with are Palestinian and I was shot in the head peacefully protesting against the settlements in the West Bank. So please tell me how I am indoctrinated by Hebrew University. As to your statement about Israeli students and students at Hebrew University, the vast majority believe Israel is militarily weak and under constant threat of destruction. This goes from Israeli students just out of military service to American Jews who have never touched a gun. THis does not take much to find out, very few in Israel, minus the people who actually have information on the subject, actually understand the Israeli military power. In wars, Israel could beat most of the Arab World by itself. This is why I have said now I swear 5 times, people should focus on the Israeli military weaknesses, such as dependency on the US for arms, funding, technology, and materials. If you read what I actually write you might answer my actual points instead of misconstruing them time after time and putting statements like yours that get repeated over and over and over again. In regards to your personal comments about me, it would take 1 google search of “Christopher Whitman American Student” to debunk all your preconceived misconceptions.

  5. Hi Chris: Whoa — we are on the same side! having checked Google, I now take my hat off to you. Say hello to Jonathan Pollak for me, but also Omar Barghouti. The two percent figure is from the IMF/World Bank. US$800 billion, plus homeland security, R&D, subsidies, funded through other budgets and interest on the national debt relating to “defence” expenditures, and the figure would be well over US$1.5 trillion, ie approx 10% of US GDP, and massively over the two percent danger level. After 66 years of military overspending, the US has reached the tipping point.
    The parallels with apartheid SA — we also have some experience of what worked and what did not work. Trade sanctions on avocados or Ahava will not bring down the Israeli government. Divestment was a disaster, but it felt good for Americans. Banking sanctions did work. My point remains: civil society with support from the international community, but not governments, brought about the end of apartheid. But even the US will dump Israel when it becomes too much hassle. It was said that SA contributed one percent of corporate profits, but consumed ten percent of management time, and therefore became “too much hassle.”
    I think we are finding a meeting of the minds: you say: “people should focus on the Israeli military weakness, such as dependency on the US for arms, funding, technology and materials.” Precisely. The way to cut that funding plus payment transfers for technology and materials is to cut Israeli bank access through SWIFT, which is outside American jurisdiction. There is little point in lobbying congressmen or senators when they are all (I was willing to understate it at 85%) in AIPAC’s pockets. And a way towards that is to focus on the illegal Israeli war profiteering from the Occupation, including Caterpillar, the banks etc., and the collusion (both willing and unwilling) of the international financial system in Israeli money laundering and corruption. And it’s back to what I said, that military spending bankrupted apartheid SA, and thus ironically made it vulnerable to banking sanctions and collapsed the system.

    PS Also say hi to the new EAPPI team 40 at Qalandiya when you go through the checkpoint. I was in team 33 in Jerusalem and team 37 in Bethlehem.

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