Salim Vally: The campaign to isolate apartheid Israel -- lessons from South Africa

By Salim Vally

[Salim Vally, a leading member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee in South Africa and a veteran anti-apartheid activist, will be a featured guest at the World at a Crossroads conference, to be held in Sydney, Australia, on April 10-12, 2009, organised by the Democratic Socialist Perspective, Resistance and Green Left Weekly. Visit for full agenda and to book your tickets.] 

There are moments in modern history when particular struggles galvanise millions around the world to act in solidarity. This occurred during the Spanish Civil War, the struggle of the Vietnamese people against US imperialism and the liberation struggles of Southern Africa. The time has now come for progressive humanity to cut through the obfuscations, canards and calumnies and meaningfully support the resistance of the Palestinian people.

For more than 60 years Palestinians have alerted us to one outrage after another, injustices piled upon injustices without the commensurate scale of global solidarity required to make a significant difference to their lives. It is now in our hands to change this unconscionable situation. Not by appealing to the ruling classes of the world and their institutions -- which remain, in the face of abundant evidence, unmoved, callous and hypocritical. Which in fact sustain and provide succour to Israel’s apartheid and terror. It is rather by applying the most potent weapon we have learnt to rely on, forged and steeled through the tried and tested struggles of workers and oppressed people spanning time and space: solidarity. International solidarity in this sense in the words of the late Mozambican revolutionary, Samora Machel is “not an act of charity but an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives”.

Acts of defiance and determination against overwhelming odds continue to drive the will of Palestinians. Global solidarity activists need to be inspired and strengthened by this unleashing of creative energies; the fact that obstacles can be surmounted and the debilitating wastefulness of internecine and sectarian conflicts exposed.

Israel: a fundamentalist and militarised warrior state

The Palestinian struggle does not only exert a visceral tug on many around the world. A reading of imperialism shows that apartheid Israel is needed as a fundamentalist and militarised warrior state not only to quell the undefeated and unbowed Palestinians but also as a rapid response fount of reaction in concert with despotic Arab regimes to do the Empire’s bidding in the Middle East and beyond.

Over the years this has included support for the mass terror waged against the people of Central and South America and facilitating the evasion of international sanctions against South Africa. Besides providing a ready supply of mercenaries to terrorise a populace -- whether in Guatemala, Iraq or New Orleans -- Israel also lends its expertise of collective punishment and mass terror. We have to recognise that the foundation of the Israeli economy was founded on the special political and military role which Zionism then and today fulfils for Western imperialism. While playing its role to ensure that the region is safe for oil companies it has also carved out today a niche market producing high-tech security essential for the day-to-day functioning of New Imperialism.

The unrestrained hand of US imperialism and its support for barbarism whether in Iraq or Palestine should hasten our actions. In Gaza, 80 per cent of the population live in poverty and close to a million people have no access to fresh water, electricity and other essential services. Close to 70,000 workers have lost their jobs in the siege of Gaza. The killing of Palestinians continues on a ferocious basis -- daily missiles are launched from US-made helicopters and fighter jets. These cowardly war crimes are carried out with impunity -- no longer even meriting a mention in the mainstream press.

In the light of these killings and the slow starvation of the inhabitants of Gaza, as well as the frequent “incursions” into the West Bank, the obsequiousness of the Abbas regime becomes all the more abject. The fanfare and din surrounding the Annapolis “breakthrough” is one more hoax designed to assuage the conscience and lull the “international community” to slumber. Karma Nabulsi wrote at the time of this spectacle:

The tarnished trickery of those tired catchphrases “last chance for peace”, “painful compromises”, “moderates against extremists” is now worn so thin a child would not be deceived. It is a meeting to legitimise the status quo. There is an intense defeatism pervading the mainstream media and tired politicians without valour everywhere. But there is a hopeful reality: many ordinary citizens all over the world have not given up and the Palestinians have not given up on themselves.

Palestinians remain steadfast and courageous. Despite the complexities of the Palestinian resistance and the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, and without discouraging criticism, we outside the Israeli dungeons and the rubble of the Israeli war machine have a responsibility to support the Palestinian struggle. I believe this can be accomplished through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) proposed by a wide array of Palestinian trade unions, and academic, student and political organisations representing the vast majority of the Palestinian people (see Other writings have justified the need for this strategy, so it will suffice here to quote an American currently residing in South Africa, Virginia Tilley, who in the aftermath of the cluster bombing by Israel of Lebanon wrote:

It is finally time. After years of internal arguments, confusion, and dithering, the time has come for a full-fledged international boycott of Israel. Good cause for a boycott has, of course, been in place for decades, as a raft of initiatives already attests. But Israel's war crimes are now so shocking, its extremism so clear, the suffering so great, the UN so helpless, and the international community's need to contain Israel's behavior so urgent and compelling, that the time for global action has matured. A coordinated movement of divestment, sanctions, and boycotts against Israel must convene to contain not only Israel's aggressive acts and crimes against humanitarian law but also, as in South Africa, its founding racist logics that inspired and still drive the entire Palestinian problem.

Lessons from the campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa

It will be helpful to draw activists’ attention to some of the egregious lessons from the campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa, bearing in mind Amilcar Cabral’s “tell no lies, claim no easy victories” advice to revolutionaries.

First, it took a few decades of hard work before the boycott campaign made an impact. Despite the impression given by many governments, unions and faith-based groups that they supported the isolation of the apartheid state from the outset this is just not true. Besides the infamous words of Dick Cheney, when as a senator he called for the continued incarceration of Nelson Mandela because he was a “terrorist” quite late in the day, and the support given by US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher, together with regimes like dictator Pinochet’s Chile, Israel and others, most powerful institutions, multilateral organisations and unions were hesitant for many years to fully support the campaign. The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was formed in 1959 and the first significant breakthrough came in 1963 when Danish dock workers refused to off-load South African goods.

The rise of the AAM must be seen in the general effervescence of liberation struggles and social movements in the turbulent 1960s/early 1970s and in the context of, whatever our opinion was of the USSR and its motivations, acounterweight to the US hegemon. This, together with the viciousness of the pro-Israeli lobby, its opportunistic reference to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and the post-9/11 climate of fear, silencing dissent and Islamophobia, makes the task of isolating apartheid Israel more difficult. Despite these seemingly daunting obstacles the movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel is gaining momentum and already some significant gains have been made. Gains which would’ve been difficult to imagine just a few years ago.

Second, arguments opposed to the boycott related to the harm it would cause black South African themselves and the need for dialogue and “constructive engagement” were easily rebuffed by lucid and knowledgeable arguments. The South African regime, like the Israeli regime today, used ``homeland’’ leaders and an assortment of collaborators to argue the case for them. Careful research played an important role in exposing the economic, cultural and the armaments trade links with South Africa to make our actions more effective as well as to “name and shame” those who benefited from the apartheid regime.

Third, sectarianism is a danger that we must be vigilant about and principled unity must be our lodestar. Some in the AAM favoured supporting only one liberation movement as the authentic voice of the oppressed in South Africa. They also aspired to work largely with “respectable” organisations, governments and multilateral organisations and shunned the much harder and patient linking of struggles with grassroots organisations. In the UK for instance as elsewhere this sectarian attitude resulted in debilitating splits. The biggest chapter of the AAM in London, which supported the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland and was part of the ``Troops Out Movement’’, were ostracised by the official AAM. The latter was also keen not to annoy the British government by taking a stronger stance against racism in Britain.

The healthy linking of struggles against racism, in support of the indigenous people and workers in North America with the Palestinian struggle that I have witnessed must be lauded. At a huge Palestinian solidarity rally in South Africa recently members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee were asked by officials from the Palestinian ambassador’s office to pull down the flag of the WesternSahrawiRepublic because they feared this would alienate the ambassador of Morocco. We refused this request much to the glee of Polisario Front supporters present.

Fourth, the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions must be in concert with supporting grassroots organisations in Palestine as a whole and in the Palestinian diaspora. This can take many forms and shapes including ``twinning’’ arrangements, speaking tours, targeted actions in support of specific struggles and concrete support.

Initially, the dominant liberation movement and its allies did not support the independent trade union movement in South Africa, which played a pivotal role in bringing down the apartheid regime. Fifteen years after the first democratic election in South Africa the present neoliberal government is privatising municipal services. The poor who cannot pay their rent are being evicted and failure to pay water and electricity bills mean frequent disconnections. The government often calls the inability to pay user fees the “culture of non-payment and entitlement”. A few years back we were horrified to see officials from the municipality of Cape Town present to a visiting Palestinian delegation, including a proud Saeeb Erekart, prepaid water meters. This is not and should not be the solidarity we are talking about! As a postscript an article in Haaertz written by Amira Hass in February 2008, about a workers’ strike in the West Bank, reads:

The workers have three main demands: adjusting wages to match the steep increase in the cost of living; a realistic addition to the "travel expenses" component of salaries (which has not risen since 1999, in spite of the doubling and tripling of the cost of travel because of roadblocks and the increase in fuel prices), and overturning a new regulation that demands every resident procure a certificate of honesty based on "confirmation of debt payment."…Government spokesmen, headed by Fayyad, have often spoken against a "culture of non-payment of bills," thus portraying the general Palestinian public as prone to being debt offenders…

Familiar language for us in South Africa and resistance to this neoliberalism is growing. For Palestinians it is happening even before ``liberation’’. Hass writes:

The strike, and all the public and internal discussions accompanying it, is a fascinating lesson of how Palestinians still acknowledge the power of the collective; how they oppose a liberal economic policy under occupation and colonization, and nurture a democratic suspicion as to the motives of the leading class.

Finally, the sanctions campaign in South Africa did produce gatekeepers, sectarians and commissars but they were also challenged. Writing in support of the academic boycott a colleague, Shireen Hassim does not gloss over the problems:

Some academics who actively opposed apartheid had invitations to international conferences withdrawn; it was not always possible to target the supporters of the apartheid regime; and South African academics’ understanding of global issues was certainly weakened. It is in the nature of such weapons that they are double-edged. But, as part of a battery of sanctions, the academic boycott undoubtedly had an impact on both the apartheid state and on white academics and university administrations. The boycott, together with the more successful sports boycott and economic divestment campaigns, helped to strengthen the struggle of black people for justice. The Afrikaner elite, very proud of its European roots and of the legacy of Jan Smuts as a global representative in the post-war system, and convinced that there would be support for its policies abroad, was rudely shaken. University administrations could no longer hide behind an excuse of neutrality but had to issue statements on their opposition to apartheid and introduce programs of redress. Academic associations (some more than others) examined the nature and conditions of research in their disciplines, and faculty unions became part of broader struggles for justice rather than bodies protecting narrow professional interests. Universities became sites of intense debate, and, indeed, intellectuals became critically involved in debates about the nature of current and future South African societies. In the wake of the boycott, there was not a curtailing of academic freedom, then, but a flourishing of intellectual thought that was rich, varied, and exciting.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 04/01/2009 - 11:18


Press Release:

March 30 2009

U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

In solidarity with the International Global Day of Action for Palestine, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel announce the endorsement of over 300 US academics and cultural workers, and the affiliation of over 20 organizations. 

The newly formed Advisory Board consists of internationally known scholars, artists and human rights activists:

Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town

Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Bill Fletcher, Jr., Executive Editor, The Black Commentator and immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum

Glen Ford, Executive Editor, Black Agenda Report

Mark Gonzales, Educator, Poet, Human Writes Project

Marilyn Hacker, poet

Edward S. Herman, Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, Wesleyan University

Robin D. G. Kelley, Professor of History, University of Southern California

Ilan Pappé, Chair in the Department of History, the University of Exeter and co-director of the Exeter Center for Ethno-Political Studies.

James Petras, Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at SUNY Binghamton

Adrienne Rich, poet, essayist, activist

Michel Shehadeh, Executive Director, Arab Film Festival

Lisa Taraki, Associate Professor of Sociology, Birzeit University, Palestine and a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

As educators of conscience, we have been unable to stand by and watch in silence Israel’s indiscriminate assault on the Gaza Strip and its educational institutions and its ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine.   In response to the call of Palestinian civil society organizations and in solidarity with the growing international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, USACBI renews its call for the complete academic and cultural boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

A major element of the occupation and the blockade has been the destruction of Palestinian culture and of its institutions of education and the normalization of the occupation through academic business-as-usual and cultural “embassies”.   We therefore encourage our colleagues throughout the United States to join us in pursuing this non-violent means to end Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine and its apartheid system by:

 (1) Refraining from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions that do not vocally oppose Israeli state policies against Palestine;

(2) Advocating a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;

(3) Promoting divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;

(4) Working toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;

(5) Supporting Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

We believe that non-violent external pressure on Israel, in the form of an academic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel, can help bring an end to the ongoing massacres of civilians and an end the occupation of Gaza and Palestine. We therefore urge a comprehensive boycott, including divestment, political sanctions, and the immediate halt to all military aid, sales and deliveries to Israel. However, as educators of conscience, we specifically call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions as a key element in this larger action.

We urge our colleagues, nationally, regionally, and internationally, to stand up against Israel’s ongoing scholasticide and to support the non-violent call for academic boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions.

This boycott should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Details of the call, a list of endorsers, and further information can be found at:

To endorse, please e-mail with your name and institutional affiliation.


Sherna Berger Gluck,; Jess Ghannam,; David Lloyd,; and Sunaina Maira,

For further information on the campaign, see:

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 04/02/2009 - 10:53


Ma’an News Agency                                                                                                              31 / 03 / 2009
Israeli exporters forced to slash prices due to boycott

Bethlehem – Ma’an – Israeli exporters have been forced to cut prices in part because of a worldwide boycott of Israeli products in protest of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, a leading industry association reported this week.

Israeli exporters have been “losing foreign markets and customers because of the global economic crisis and a growing anti-Israel boycott of locally made products following Operation Cast Lead.”

The findings were made available by the Israel Manufacturers Association on Sunday, and published in the Jerusalem Post the following day.

According to the report, 21 percent of Israeli exporters face difficulties selling abroad, particularly to the UK and “Scandinavian countries.”

The boycott and the financial crisis were cited as the issues behind a forced price cut by 66 percent of Israeli exporters.

The report emerged as boycott campaigners announced that they are stepping up their efforts in Palestine and internationally.

On Monday in Ramallah, a press conference was held by the Palestinian National Boycott Committee (BNC) in Ramallah, which urged local and international parties to continue their boycott actions. They called the boycott a “tool to realize long-denied Palestinian national rights.”

Representative of the BNC and the Palestinian NGO network Allam Jarrar called Land Day an appropriate time to call a Boycott and Divestment Day because both events shared the same goal.

“In Palestine the boycott of Israeli products, institutions and companies is once again gaining ground. Increasing numbers of students, women and ordinary people see the boycott of Israel as an effective form of resistance and are beginning to make it a part of their daily lives,” Omar Asaf, another representative of the BNC and a member of the National Higher Committee for the Defense of the Right of Return said.

“In the last month,” he continued, “regional and local committees have been formed to promote the boycott of Israeli products and an end to ties between Palestinian organizations, and their Israeli counterparts,”

According to BNC more than 75 demonstrations, protests and festivals were held in 19 countries to promote the Global BDS day of action.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 04/06/2009 - 08:37



There is no doubt that something is moving in Australia when it comes to
boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel.  It was a long time
coming, but the momentum is definitely growing apace and is certainly buoyed
by what is happening in the rest of the world.  Nevertheless, an academic
boycott still seemed unlikely until Dr Ned Curthoys and Professor John
Docker came out with their statement and list of supporting signatories this
past week.  The list is only a beginning and they are urging other academics in
universities and institutions of higher learning around Australia and
internationally to respond to their call. Please reply to this email or
contact Dr Ned Curthoys direct at if you wish to
add your name to the list below.

Ned Curthoys and John Docker,
Committee for the Dismantling of Zionism
Australian Academic Boycott of Israel:
Global BDS Day 30 March 2009

Responding to the CALL of Palestinian civil society to join the boycott,
divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, we are an
Australian campaign focused specifically on a boycott of Israeli academic
and cultural institutions, as delineated by PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for
the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel):

In light of Israel's persistent violations of international law, and given
that, since 1948, hundreds of UN resolutions have condemned Israel's
colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal and called for immediate,
adequate and effective remedies, and given that all forms of international
intervention and peace-making have until now failed to convince Israel to
comply with humanitarian law, to respect fundamental human rights and to end
its occupation and oppression of the people of Palestine, and

In view of the fact that people of conscience in the international community
have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as
exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through
diverse forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions:

We scholars, inspired by the wishes of Palestinian civil society, call upon
international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over
the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives
against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid
era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes
and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to
support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

These nonviolent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets
its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people's inalienable right to
self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law

1. Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Palestinian and Arab lands
and dismantling the Wall which separates Palestinians from their arable

2. Recognising the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of
Israel to full equality;

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees
to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

The principles guiding our campaign and the three goals outlined above are
also points of unity for the British, Canadian, and US Campaigns for the
Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USCACBI, this statement is a
modified version of theirs). There can be no academic freedom in
Israel/Palestine unless all academics are free and all students are free to
pursue their academic desires.

If you are committed to these principles of unity, and wish to work on a
campaign of boycotting academic and cultural institutions guided by this
approach, please join our campaign.

Gaza is but the latest incident in a series of ongoing Israeli massacres,
from Deir Yassin (1948) to Kafr Kassim (1956) to Jenin (2002) to the wars on
Lebanon (from 1980s to 2006). All demonstrate a pattern of violence by a
state that will not end its violations of international law and war crimes
on its own, without international pressure. We must act now. As academics we
wish to focus on campaigns in our universities and in institutions of higher
education to advocate for compliance with the academic and cultural boycott,
a movement that is growing internationally across all segments of global
civil society.

This call for an academic and cultural boycott parallels the call in the
non-academic world for divestment, boycott and sanctions by trade unions,
churches and other civil society organizations in countries such as the
United States, Canada, Italy, Ireland, Norway, the United Kingdom, Brazil,
South Africa and New Zealand.


Since Israeli academic institutions (mostly state-controlled) and the vast
majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed
directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the above forms
of oppression, or have been complicit in them through their silence, we call
upon our colleagues to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli
academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end
Israel's occupation, colonization and system of apartheid, by applying the

1. Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural
cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;

2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national
and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and
subsidies to these institutions;

3. Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by academic

4. Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for
resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural
associations and organizations;

5. Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without
requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or
implicit condition for such support.

As educators and scholars of conscience in Australia, we fully support this
call. We urge our colleagues, nationally, regionally, and internationally,
to stand up against Israel's ongoing attacks on the rights of Palestinians
to education, land, and human dignity, and to support the nonviolent call
for academic boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions.

Dr. Anthony Ashbolt, University of Wollongong

Jumana Bayeh, Macquarie University

Professor Ann Curthoys, The University of Sydney

Dr Ned Curthoys, Australian National University

Professor John Docker, The University of Sydney

Ann El Khoury, Macquarie University

Professor Heather Goodall, University of Technology, Sydney

Dr. Tom Griffiths, School of Education, University of Newcastle

Laila Hafez, University of Wollongong

Professor Terry Irving, University of Wollongong

Dr Evan Jones, The University of Sydney

Dr Jon Jureidini, University of Adelaide

Dr Ray Jureidini, American University in Cairo, Egypt

Professor Peter Manning, University of Technology, Sydney

Dr Roger Markwick, University of Newcastle, Australia

Dr Morris Morley, Macquarie University

Dr David Palmer, University of Adelaide

Rosemary Pringle

Professor Lyndall Ryan, University of Newcastle

Dr Ron Witton, University of Wollongong