Palestine: BDS movement recalls anti-apartheid tactics, responsibilities and controversies

Apartheid Wall, near Jerusalem. Photo by Patrick Bond.

By Patrick Bond, Ramallah

October 13, 2010 -- On a full-day drive through the Jordan Valley late last month, we skirted the Earth’s oldest city and lowest inhabited point, 400 metres below sea level. For 10,000 years, people have lived along the river that separates the present-day West Bank and Jordan.

Since 1967 the river has been augmented by Palestinian blood, sweat and tears, ending in the Dead Sea, from which no water flows; it only evaporates. Conditions degenerated during Israel’s land-grab, when from a peak of more than 300,000 people living on the west side of the river, displacements shoved Palestinian refugees across into Jordan and other parts of the West Bank. The valley has fewer than 60,000 Palestinians today.

But they’re hanging in. “To exist is to resist”, insisted Fathi Ikdeirat, the Save the Jordan Valley ( network’s most visible advocate (and compiler of an exquisite new book of the same name, free for internet download at At top speed on the bumpy dirt roads, Ikdeirat maneuvered between Israeli checkpoints and through Bedouin outposts in the dusty semi-desert, where oppressed communities eke out a living from the dry soil.

Just a few hundred metres away from such villages, like plush white South African suburbs drawing on cheap black township labour, stand some of the 120 Israeli settlements that since the early 1970s have pocked the West Bank. The most debilitating theft is of Palestinian water, for where once peasants gathered enough from local springs and a mountain aquifer to supply ponds that fed their modest crops, today pipe diversions by the Israelis’ agro-export plantations leave the indigenous people’s land scorched.

From the invaders’ fine houses, amid groves of trees with green lawns, untreated sewage is flushed into the Palestinian areas. The most aggressive Israeli settlers launch unpunished physical attacks on the Palestinians, destroying their homes and farm buildings – and last week even a mosque at Beit Fajjar, near Bethlehem was attacked.

The Gaza Strip has suffered far worse: Israel’s "Operation Cast Lead" bombing and invasion in early 2009, the 1400 mainly civilian deaths, the use of white phosphorous, political assassinations and the relentless siege are responsible for untold misery. International solidarity activists – including a Jewish delegation last month – are lethally attacked (nine Turkish aid activists were killed in May) or arrested while trying to sail ships to Gaza with emergency relief supplies.

As Ikdeirat pointed out, the Jordan Valley’s oppression appears as durable, for Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed in February this year "never" to cede this space to the land’s rightful owners. On our way back to Ramallah for an academic conference, Ikdeirat looked down on his homeland from the western mountains and outlined the larger struggle against geopolitical manipulation, land grabbing, minority rule, Palestinian child labour on Israeli farms and other profound historical injustices.

Given the debilitating weaknesses within Palestine’s competing political blocs – Hamas in besieged Gaza and Fatah in the Occupied West Bank, as well as the US-Israeli-Fatah-backed unelected government in Ramallah led by the neoliberal prime minister (and former World Bank/IMF official) Salam Fayyad – this is a struggle that only progressive civil society appears equipped to fight properly.

Anti-apartheid inspires boycott, divest, sanction campaign

To illustrate the potential, 170 Palestinian organisations initiated the "boycott, divest, sanction" (BDS) campaign five years ago, insisting on the retraction of illegal Israeli settlements (a demand won in the Gaza Strip in 2005), the end of the West Bank occupation and Gaza siege, cessation of racially discriminatory policies towards the million and a half Palestinians living within Israel, and a recognition of Palestinians’ right to return to residences dating to the 1948 ethnic cleansing when the Israeli state was established.

The BDS movement draws inspiration from the way South Africans and their international supporters toppled apartheid: an internal intifada from townships and trade unions, combined with financial sanctions that in mid-1985 peaked because of an incident at the Durban City Hall. On August 15 that year, apartheid boss PW Botha addressed the Natal National Party – and an internationally televised audience of 200 million – with his belligerent "Rubicon Speech" featuring the famous finger-wagging command, “Don’t push us too far.”

It was the brightest red flag to our anti-apartheid bull. Immediately as protests resumed, Pretoria’s frightened international creditors – subject to intense activist pressure during prior months – began calling in loans early. Facing a run on the South African Reserve Bank’s hard currency, Botha defaulted on US$13 billion of debt payments coming due, shut the stock market and imposed exchange controls in early September.

Within days, leading English-speaking businessmen Gavin Relly, Zac de Beer and Tony Bloom began dismantling their decades-old practical alliance with the Pretoria racists, met African National Congress (ANC) leaders in Lusaka, and initiated a transition that would free South Africa from racial (albeit not class) apartheid less than nine years later.

Recall that over the prior eight years, futile efforts to seduce change were made by Rev. Leon Sullivan, the Philadelphia preacher and General Motors board member whose "Sullivan Principles" aimed to allow multinationals in apartheid South Africa to remain so long as they were non-racist in employment practices.

But the firms paid taxes to apartheid and supplied crucial logistical support and trade relationships. Hence Sullivan’s effort merely amounted, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, to polishing apartheid’s chains.

Across the world, taking a cue from the internal United Democratic Front, activists wisely ignored attempts by Sullivan as well as by ANC foreign relations bureaucrat (later to be president) Thabo Mbeki to shut down the sanctions movement way too early.

Civil society ratcheted up anti-apartheid BDS even when FW De Klerk offered reforms, such as freeing Nelson Mandela and unbanning political parties in February 1990. New bank loans to Pretoria for ostensibly "developmental" purposes were rejected by activists, and threats were made: a future ANC government would default.

It was only by fusing bottom-up pressure with top-down international delegitimisation of white rule that the final barriers were cleared for the first free vote in South Africa, on April 27 1994.

Palestine: upsurge in BDS campaign

Something similar has begun in the Middle East, as long-overdue international solidarity with the Palestinians gathers momentum, while Benjamin Netanyahu’s bad-faith peace talks with collaborationist Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas go nowhere. Yet if another sell-out soon looms, tracking the 1993 Oslo deal, we can anticipate an upsurge in BDS activity, drawing more attention to the three core liberatory demands: first, respecting, protecting and promoting the right of return of all Palestinian refugees; second, ending the occupation of all Palestinian and Arab lands; and third, recognising full equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Abbas and Fayyad are sure to fold on all of these principles, so civil society is already picking up the slack. Boycotting Israeli institutions is the primary non-violent resistance strategy.

BDS, says Omar Barghouti of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, “remains the most morally sound, non-violent form of struggle that can rid the oppressor of his oppression, thereby allowing true coexistence, equality, justice and sustainable peace to prevail. South Africa attests to the potency and potential of this type of civil resistance.”

For more than 250 South African academics (plus Tutu) who signed a BDS petition last month, the immediate target was the Ben Gurion University (BGU). During apartheid, the University of Johannesburg (UJ, then called Rand Afrikaans University) established a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for scientific exchanges with BGU, which came up for renewal at the UJ Senate on September 29 (details are at

Perhaps influenced by Mandela’s ill-advised acceptance of an honorary doctorate from BGU, the UJ Senate statement was not entirely pro-Palestinian, for it promoted a fantasy: reform of Israeli-Palestinian relations could be induced by "engagement". Shades of Sullivan empowering himself, to try negotiating between the forces of apartheid and democracy.

On the one hand, the UJ Senate acknowledged that BGU “supports the military and armed forces of Israel, in particular in its occupation of Gaza” – by offering money to students who went into the military reserve so as to support Operation Cast Lead, for example. To its credit, the UJ Senate recognised that “we should take leadership on this matter from peer institutions among the Palestinian population”.

On the other hand, in an arrogant display of constructive-engagement mentality, the UJ Senate academics – many of whom are holdovers from the apartheid era – resolved to “amend the MOU to include one or more Palestinian universities chosen on the basis of agreement between BGU and UJ”.

Fat chance. The UJ statement forgets that Palestinian universities are today promoters of BDS. Even Al Quds University, which historically had the closest ties (and which until Operation Cast Lead actually encouraged Palestine-Israel collaboration), broke the chains in early 2009, because, “Ending academic cooperation is aimed at, first of all, pressuring Israel to abide by a solution that ends the occupation, a solution that has been needed for far too long and that the international community has stopped demanding.”

The man tasked with reconciling UJ’s Senate resolution with Middle East realpolitik is UJ deputy vice-chancellor Adam Habib. In 2001 he founded the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, and led substantial research projects nurturing progressive social change. Habib was banned from entering the United States between 2006-10, for his crimes of being Muslim and speaking at a 2003 anti-war protest, and he is probably the most eloquent and highest-profile political analyst in South Africa today.

However, Habib made a serious mistake, when recently remarking: “We believe in reconciliation... We’d like to bring BGU and Palestinian universities together to produce a collective engagement that benefits everyone.”

Even Habib’s enormous persuasive capacity will fail, if he expects liberal Zionists to recognise the right of Palestinians to self-determination and Israel’s obligation to comply with international law. Writing in the newspaper Haaretz in early October, BGU official David Newman celebrated Habib’s remark and simultaneously argued, point blank (with no acknowledgement of the South African case): “Boycotts do nothing to promote the interests of peace, human rights or – in the case of Israel – the end of occupation.”

(Yet even Israel’s reactionary Reut Institute recognises the power of BDS, arguing in February 2010 that a “Delegitimization Network aims to supersede the Zionist model with a state that is based on the ‘one person, one vote’ principle by turning Israel into a pariah state” and that “the Goldstone report that investigated Operation Cast Lead” caused “a crisis in Israel's national security doctrine… Israel lacks an effective response.”)

Habib deserves far better than a role as a latter-day Leon Sullivan uniting with the likes of Newman, and I hope he changes his mind about "engagement" with Zionism.

Afterall, last year I witnessed an attempt to do something similar, also involving Habib and BGU. At the time of Operation Cast Lead and the imposition of the siege, Habib, anti-apartheid poet activist Dennis Brutus, Walden Bello, Alan Fowler and I (unsuccessfully) tried persuading two academic colleagues – Jan Aart Scholte of Warwick University and Jackie Smith of Notre Dame – to respect BDS and decline keynote speaking invitations to an Israeli "third sector" conference (

BGU refused to add Palestinian perspectives (a suggestion from Habib), and the lesson I quickly learned was not to attempt engagement, but instead promote a principled institutional boycott. Today as then, what Habib forgets is Barghouti’s clear assessment of power relations: “Any relationship between intellectuals across the oppression divide must be aimed, one way or another, at ending oppression, not ignoring it or escaping from it. Only then can true dialogue evolve, and thus the possibility for sincere collaboration through dialogue.”

The growing support for Palestinian liberation via BDS reminds of small but sure steps towards the full-fledged anti-apartheid sports, cultural, academic and economic boycotts catalysed by Brutus against racist South African Olympics teams more than 40 years ago. Today, these are just the first nails we’re hammering into the coffin of Zionist domination – in solidarity with a people who have every reason to fight back with tools that we in South Africa proudly sharpened: non-violently but with formidable force.

[Patrick Bond, a Durban-based political economist, was a recent visitor to Palestine at the invitation of Birzeit University in Ramallah.]


On the academic boycott (again)
By Ran Greenstein
October 13, 2010 -- As calls for boycotts and sanctions campaigns against Israeli institutions and practices become common, so do counter-voices seeking to shield Israel from criticism. Official Israeli efforts are usually organized through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its affiliates
(such as the South African Zionist Federation) and are easily identified and refuted as sheer apologetics for oppressive practices. Less official attempts in the same vein are sometimes disguised as liberal progressive efforts to enhance the struggle against the occupation by ridding it of particularly ‘offensive’ associations. An example of this strategy is the concerted attempt to deny the similarity between Israeli practices vis-a-vis Palestinians and the South Africa practices of apartheid before 1994 (I dealt with one practitioner of this approach, Benjamin Pogrund, in…).
Frequently presented as a contribution to debate, this strategy aims to discourage exploration of ‘forbidden’ territories and to prevent critical discussion. Wittingly or not, those operating from this perspective serve as ‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda.
One site of this campaign is the UK group of academics operating under the label of Engage, self-styled as “The anti-racist campaign against anti-Semitism” ( They present themselves as concerned with anti-Semitism in the UK academic world, operating from a universal cosmopolitan perspective, but in fact have become a tool in the hands of those who reject all criticism of Israeli policies and practices as tainted with anti-Semitism. Two recent items from their site serve to illustrate the role they have undertaken, and the fallacies that inform their approach.
In a response to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who expressed support for a campaign to discontinue institutional relationship between the University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Robert Fine argues: “the question of why he singles out Israel and Israeli academic institutions is not explained. Why not a host of other countries that repress their own inhabitants or occupy foreign lands, or a host of other universities that are equally implicated in policies of state? My own country, Britain, has after all been engaged in two bloody wars with casualties that far outnumber anything that has involved Israel. Why not boycott British academics? The academic boycott campaign he supports looks to the exclusion of Israeli Jews — and only Israeli Jews — from the scholarly life of humanity. This seems to me discriminatory.” And further: “This campaign opens the door to the deployment of ever wilder claims to justify the special treatment of Israeli Jewish academics — for example, that Israel is inherently ethnic cleansing, genocidal or akin to Nazism. To justify discrimination against certain academics by virtue of their nationality, there is a tangible risk of slippage from political criticism to the vilification of a whole people.”
Why indeed single Israel out? First, we must recognize that Israeli state institutions are in fact not singled out at all. Can Fine really be unaware that his country and its allies have been boycotting the Hamas government in Gaza (and for decades had boycotted the PLO), have collaborated with sanctions campaigns at various times against Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Serbia, North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe and various other ‘hostile’ countries, have invoked international human rights legislation to prosecute political leaders and have used military force on a massive scale against some of these countries? None of these steps have been used against Israel. With the exception of few feeble legal enquiries, almost always opposed by the UK and the USA, Israeli war crimes and violations of human rights have gone unpunished. If Israel has been ‘singled out’ in this respect, it has been for a privileged treatment.
But wait, Fine is a political theorist and would tell us – correctly – that state is different from civil society, and his concern is with the latter, not with the action of states. Let’s examine the issue. It is true indeed that the academic boycott (though not other kinds of boycott) as an issue has been raised by human rights and solidarity organizations in relation to Israel but not to other oppressive countries. Why is that the case?
To understand this, we have to go back to the anti-apartheid movement. It argued that one cannot lead a normal life in an abnormal society. The movement set out to disrupt the comfortable lives of white South Africans, in order to force them to understand that change was necessary. One tactic chosen in this regard was boycotts and sanctions. Other campaigns against oppressive regimes have used similar tactics, selecting targets in order to maximize strategic advantage. The closer the target was to the core identity of oppressive groups, the more likely it was to be effective. Thus, it made sense to boycott South African cricket and rugby teams to disrupt the sense of normality of sports-mad white South Africans. This tactic would not work in, say, Burma or Sudan, whose oppressive elites have limited interest in sports. Using the same logic, it made sense to boycott Chilean wine and football in Argentina (respectively sources of great national pride), when both countries were under military rule, but not the other way around.
When we consider the campaign against the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, a careful choice of targets must guide action. While Israeli Jews are not the only ones who violate human rights, as the stronger side they are the chief culprits today. Their greatest source of vulnerability is the obsessive need to feel an integral part of the West and the global community. This feeling is particularly strong among the elites, including academics. It is central to their professional identity and it contributes to a sense of political complacency. With their eyes firmly turned to the West, they have become blind to Palestinians living under conditions of military occupation and suffering from massive violation of human rights. This is the challenge, then: how to use the quest for normality and legitimacy in order to force ordinary people to move against extraordinary circumstances?
The academic boycott may become a successful strategy of political mobilization against Israeli oppressive practices to the extent that it manages to highlight what is wrong with the current situation and put pressure on elite sectors in Israeli society to oppose their government’s policies. In this vein, the petition that Desmond Tutu signed did not call for a total boycott but specifically for suspending relations with BGU until it took a stand against the occupation, in the same way that South African universities were expected to – and many did – issue statements against apartheid. Whether such a strategy could or should be used against the UK, USA or any other country is entirely irrelevant. No one ever demanded of the anti-apartheid movement to act against all other oppressive regimes before it could justify its specific claims to action; no one except for PW Botha and his supporters, that is.
While some of Fine’s points are not without merit, he distorts the essence of the solidarity campaign by claiming that it about the exclusion of Israeli Jews “from the scholarly life of humanity.” To begin with, Israeli Jews not affiliated with Israeli universities are not affected at all. In addition, Jewish academics affiliated with Israeli universities and non-Jewish academics are treated in the same way – the campaign does not target Jews in particular. Further, Israeli Jewish academics based at Israeli institutions are not affected as individuals. No one in South Africa has called for their exclusion from any academic activity whatsoever. The campaign is about institutional relations, not about individual scholars. Fine’s argument is pure fantasy as far as South Africa is concerned. There were indeed a couple of instances a few years ago in which Israeli academics were excluded in the UK as individuals, but these were isolated incidents and most supporters of the academic boycott campaign do not approve of such practices.
That criticism of Israeli practices may be turned by some into ‘a vilification of a whole people’, as Fine cautions us, is theoretically possible, but is that an argument for stopping such criticism? Criticism of apartheid frequently turned into vilification of all Afrikaners, criticism of US policies under George W Bush became vilification of all North Americans, criticism of Iran has become vilification of all Muslims, and so on. The problem of generalization is real, and should be dealt with, but why is it that only in the case of Israel this becomes an argument against criticism itself? Is that not a case of singling Israel out? This is not to deny that anti-Semitism may be a problem on the margins in some places. However, to use that to undermine a campaign against the much more clear and present danger of the Israeli state’s racist and oppressive practices, which are backed by the vast majority of Israeli Jews, betrays an agenda that has nothing to do with concern with human rights and justice.
Having said that, there is an important point implied in Fine’s article. To make the most of the potential educational value of the academic boycott campaign it must not become a punitive and externally imposed measure. Rather, it should be a step towards forging international links of solidarity and activism with Israeli and Palestinian progressive academics. Ideally it would help create a counterweight to the increasing pressure from right-wing forces that seek to silence critical voices at Israeli universities, including BGU.
This may be the most important contribution of the campaign: to side with those fighting for change from within. Local activists in Israel/Palestine are subject to enormous pressure internally, and the only way they could sustain a campaign for change is by maintaining a constant exchange of information, solidarity, and a flow of moral and material assistance from the outside. It is only through such a dialogue that the campaign can move forward.
Fine is misguided, though perhaps well-intentioned, and is respectful towards Tutu. His colleague David Hirsh, in contrast, is out to do a demolition job on one of the prominent activists and academics working against the occupation, Neve Gordon
Taking Gordon to task for changing his mind about the academic boycott without providing reasons, Hirsh repeats the standard apologetic arguments against the boycott campaign: that it opens the door to anti-Semitism, that it singles out Israel alone for boycott, that it harms the left in Israel, that it uses rhetoric like ‘fascism’ and ‘apartheid’ to portray Israel in a particularly bad light, and so on. Setting aside the inconvenient fact that Gordon never called specifically for an academic boycott, Hirsh has nothing to add to Fine’s points beyond personal vilification. Ironically, but not coincidentally, his attack on Gordon comes precisely at the moment when Israeli progressives rally against what they themselves regard as growing racist and fascist tendencies in Israel, expressed in legislation the Government has just approved (expelling foreign children, conditioning citizenship on loyalty tests, attacks on Palestinian activists and organizations inside Israel, and so on). That even some government ministers regard such trends as a threat of creeping fascism is unlikely to deter Hirsh in his campaign against Israeli dissidents...
What has changed to make Gordon support sanctions and boycotts now, when he opposed them in the past? Without presuming to speak for him, here are some possible answers: the legal and extra-legal campaign against critical Israeli voices and dissident activists – Jews and Arabs alike – has intensified dramatically in the last couple of years, irrespective of their support for the BDS campaign. The freedom of the press and of political expression in the media and public life
(including parliament) has shrunk. The space for peaceful protest and hope for change from within has become more restricted. The violence of the Israeli state has increased and the only effective – even if limited – barrier to its further expansion is pressure from the outside. Other strategies of persuasion from within have yielded meagre results. The hysterical reaction of the Israeli establishment whenever a boycott campaign achieves any measure of success indicates its vulnerability to such tactics. Faced with all this, the concern with the possible bias and double standards of the BDS movement (even if it were genuine) pales into insignificance. Whatever pro-Israeli UK academics may feel about the movement, their concerns have very limited relevance to Israeli activists standing in the line of fire. That many Israeli academics become radicalized as a result is hardly surprising. What can they be expected to do instead? Fight the occupation by spying on academic union officials’ e-mails, as Engage is prone to do?
Ultimately, the bankruptcy of the approach offered by Engage and their ilk is that they offer nothing by way of a strategy to fight the occupation and oppression. At best, they are irrelevant to the struggle. At worst, they actively side with the Israeli state and its propaganda apparatus. Either way they have nothing positive to contribute and must feel little satisfaction with their efforts: who really needs useful idiots when you can go directly to the source and serve the state directly?