Why the left should support the boycott of Israel -- a reply to the US Socialist Workers Party

South African workers support boycotts and sanctions against Israel's apartheid state.

By Art Young

August 6, 2010 -- Socialist Voice -- When Israeli commandos attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters on May 31, 2010, murdered nine humanitarian aid workers and seized the cargo of badly needed supplies for Gaza, they touched off an international storm of outrage that continues to this day. The widespread anger has galvanised the international movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people, drawing in new forces and producing new initiatives.

Following the attack on the flotilla, Palestinian civil society issued an appeal to progressive forces around the world to redouble their solidarity efforts and to strengthen the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel. On June 7 the major Palestinian trade union federations appealed to dock workers to refuse to handle Israeli cargo. They said:

Gaza today has become the test of our universal morality and our common humanity. During the South African anti-apartheid struggle, the world was inspired by the brave and principled actions of dockworkers unions who refused to handle South African cargo, contributing significantly to the ultimate fall of apartheid. Today, we call on you, dockworkers unions of the world, to do the same against Israel’s occupation and apartheid. This is the most effective form of solidarity to end injustice and uphold universal human rights.[1]

Workers in a number of countries responded to this call.

The Swedish Dockers’ Union, which had supported the Freedom Flotilla, declared a one-week blockade on Israeli goods and ships beginning on June 23. The union also called for “a general blockade of Israeli goods until the rights of the Palestinian people are guaranteed and the blockade of Gaza is lifted.”[2]

On June 3 the Congress of South African Trade Unions called for “greater support for the international boycott, divestment and sanction campaign against Israel, which is proving again to be violent and ruthless in attacking and murdering those who stand in its way. We urge all South Africans to refuse to buy or handle any goods from Israel or have any dealings with Israeli businesses.”[3]

In a statement issued the same day, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, a COSATU affiliate, said, “we salute the Swedish dock workers for their blockade of all Israeli ships. We call for an escalation of the boycott of Israeli goods and call upon our fellow trade unionists not to handle them. We call upon our members not to allow any Israeli ship to dock or unload in any South African port.”[4] In February 2009, following the Israeli assault on Gaza, members of SATWU refused to unload cargo from an Israeli ship in Durban.

The South African Municipal Workers’ Union, another COSATU affiliate, declared that it would “immediately work towards (making) every municipality in South Africa … an Apartheid Israel free zone”. It said that it would “engage every single municipality to ensure that there are no commercial, academic, cultural, sporting or other linkages whatsoever with the Israeli regime".[5]

In Turkey, the dock workers’ union declared that it would “boycott ships from Israel, which has become a machine of death and torture. In this framework, no member of our union will give service to Israel in any docks where we are organized. The Liman-Is union invites all unions and NGO’s organized in our country and throughout the world to join this boycott and protest campaign.”[6] Unions in the Port of Kochi (Cochin) in India also refused to handle Israeli cargo.

In the first action of its kind in the United States, on June 20 more than 700 unionists and community activists picketed at several entrances to the Port of Oakland, California, protesting the arrival of an Israeli-owned vessel. Two shifts of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union refused to cross the picket line. The cargo was unloaded only 24 hours later, after the picket lines were lifted.

The protest was organised by the Labor/Community Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian People, an ad-hoc coalition of local labour, Palestine solidarity and social justice groups. Several hundred unionists responded to the call of the San Francisco and Alameda County labour councils and other unionists to support the action.[7] Statements of support for the action were issued by the Oakland Education Association, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and the Cuban labour federation, the Cuban Workers Central, among others.[8]

Opposing the boycott

One group that did not support the action in Oakland was the United States Socialist Workers Party. The SWP is opposed to boycotting Israel. It reaffirmed this stand at its national conference a few days before the picket in Oakland.

The group first elaborated its position on the Palestinian struggle in a series of articles that appeared during the first half of 2009 in The Militant, a weekly newspaper that expresses its views. These articles argued that:

  1. There is no Zionist movement today.

  2. Anti-Zionism is a cover for anti-Semitism.

  3. Israel’s rulers plan to give up control of most of the West Bank and Gaza.

  4. Israel is not an apartheid state.

  5. The BDS campaign is not only wrong. It is anti-Semitic.

  6. The democratic, secular Palestine that the SWP envisages must grant a special right of immigration to the Jews of the world.[9]

This line of argument places the SWP in the Zionist camp. To be sure, the SWP opposes Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, but the thrust of its argument is directed against the solidarity movement. It endorses the slanders advanced by Israel’s supporters that anti-Zionism in general and the BDS movement in particular are anti-Semitic. The group also supports a privileged position for Jews in Palestine.[10]

A complete reversal on Zionism

These positions represent a breathtaking turnabout for a group that for decades unconditionally supported the Palestinian people and thoroughly opposed Zionism.

The SWP’s previous position on these questions was explained in a resolution it adopted at its 1971 convention. The opening paragraphs of that resolution read:

The Socialist Workers Party gives unconditional support to the national liberation struggles of the Arab peoples against imperialism, that is, we support all these struggles regardless of their current leaderships. Our foremost task in implementing such support is to educate and mobilize the American people against U.S. imperialist actions in the Mideast.

Israel, created in accordance with the Zionist goal of establishing a Jewish state, could be set up in the Arab East only at the expense of the indigenous peoples of the area. Such a state could come into existence and maintain itself only by relying upon imperialism. Israel is a settler-colonialist and expansionist capitalist state maintained principally by American imperialism, hostile to the surrounding Arab peoples….

The struggle of the Palestinian people against their oppression and for self-determination has taken the form of a struggle to destroy the state of Israel. The currently expressed goal of this struggle is the establishment of a democratic, secular Palestine. We give unconditional support to this struggle of the Palestinians for self-determination….

Our revolutionary socialist opposition to Zionism and the Israeli state has nothing in common with anti-Semitism, as the pro-Zionist propagandists maliciously and falsely assert. Anti-Semitism is anti-Jewish racism used to justify and reinforce oppression of the Jewish people….

Zionism is not, as it claims, a national liberation movement. Zionism is a political movement that developed for the purpose of establishing a settler-colonialist state in Palestine and that rules the bourgeois society headed by the Israeli state today in alliance with world imperialism. [11]

It is immediately apparent that what the SWP says today is the polar opposite of these positions. Contrary to Marxist practice, the SWP has neither acknowledged the reversal nor explained why in its view it is necessary.

Zionism and anti-Zionism

The first indication that the SWP had changed its position on these questions came in an article in the March 2, 2009 issue of The Militant. The article quoted SWP leader Norton Sandler as follows:

“Class-conscious workers should drop the term Zionism," in the current context, Sandler added. "There is no Zionist movement today. The reality is, it has become an epithet, not a scientific description; a synonym for ‘Jew’ that helps fuel Jew-hatred, which will rise as the capitalist crisis deepens.”[12]

Sandler’s claim that the Zionist movement had vanished from the face of the Earth was so at odds with current reality and with the SWP’s previous position that it was challenged by some readers of the paper. Sandler’s reply appeared in the April 13 issue.

I made these remarks at a January 31 public meeting in London. I was not addressing the history of the Zionist movement, or how the state of Israel came into being as an expansionist colonial-settler state. Zionism in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was a bourgeois political current contending with the communist movement for the allegiance of workers who were Jewish. Israel was established in 1948, more than six decades ago. There is no Zionist movement today and there hasn’t been for a long time.[13]

Sandler’s historical survey evades the challenge posed by the readers. He merely repeats his assertion of the non-existence of Zionism today and “for a long time”, as though the repetition is proof enough.

This claim is simply ludicrous.

Zionism — promoting the existence of an exclusive Jewish state — is a political movement that transcends religious or ethnic factors.

As the SWP’s 1971 resolution states, Zionism is the ruling ideology of the Israeli state. The founding principles of that state proclaim that it is a Jewish state — meaning that it is a state that claims to be the homeland for the Jews of the world and whose Jewish citizens enjoy privileges denied to other inhabitants. Israel is the dominant military power by far in the Middle East, thanks in no small measure to the support it receives from Washington. Israel’s ruling Zionists command an arsenal that includes between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads.[14]

Ever since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Western powers have favoured the dispossession of the Palestinian people, first through massive Jewish immigration to Palestine and subsequently through their support of the Jewish settler state. They have maintained this policy for nearly a hundred years because it was — and is — in the interests of these powers to promote the existence of an ethnically defined Jewish state, with special privileges for Jews, as a divisive force in opposition to the national liberation struggles of the peoples of the Middle East. That’s why US President Barack Obama and prime ministers Stephen Harper of Canada and David Cameron of Britain are as committed to Zionism as Benjamin Netanyahu.

Zionism is also a highly organised and influential international movement.

North America is home to many prominent Zionist organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, B’nai B’rith, the Zionist Organization of America, the Canada-Israel Committee and the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy. Right-wing Christian Zionists also actively advocate and raise funds for Israel. Supporters of human rights for Palestinians confront organised Zionist opposition every step of the way, from charges of anti-Semitism to hostile picket lines outside public meetings and disruptions during meetings, often organised by the vigilante Jewish Defence League.

In all these cases, Israel advocacy and support is based on Zionism — the idea that Israel must remain a Jewish state.

In the March 2, 2009, article quoted above, Sandler and the SWP allege that it is anti-Semitic to oppose Zionism. Their logic is rather peculiar since it hinges on the SWP’s denial that Zionism exists. But the conclusion is all too familiar. It is the common coin of most defenders of Israel and its policies. Here the SWP finds itself in the company of openly reactionary forces.

To be sure, Holocaust deniers, rightist politicians and others — actual Jew haters — cloak their anti-Semitism in the garb of opposition to Zionism. The crimes of the Israeli state, which claims to represent all Jews, facilitate the propaganda of these hate mongers.

But it is a reactionary slander to tar all opponents of Zionism as anti-Semites. It is a slander first and foremost against the Palestinian people who understand only too well what Zionism means and what it has done to them. For decades they have struggled heroically to overturn Zionism, and their struggle continues today. The vast majority of the world’s oppressed and exploited support them.

It is also a slander against the anti-Zionist wing of the Palestine solidarity movement, including the small but growing number of Jews who oppose Zionism. Forces far more powerful than the SWP have laboured mightily to make this label stick, but they have failed.

An end to Israeli expansionism?

In his April 13 article Sandler also expresses the view that the expansion of Israel’s borders is drawing to a close. “The majority of the Israeli ruling class has given up the dream of a ‘Greater Israel.’ They are forced to opt for what they consider the only pragmatic solution — maintaining a majority Jewish state within borders of their own choosing. This is hardly the Zionist movement’s dream of an Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.” (Other articles published between February and June 2009 make the same claim.)

Here Sandler and the SWP merely echo the Israeli rulers who never tire of claiming that their only aim is an Israel with defensible borders living in peace next to a Palestinian state. This has been Tel Aviv’s mantra ever since it occupied Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 war. Israel’s actions reveal a different plan. Seen from the Palestinian perspective, history since 1967 has been one of unrelenting Israeli expansion onto Palestinian land and continual ethnic cleansing by the Zionist state. Approximately half a million Israeli settlers now live in the occupied West Bank, some 9 per cent of the Jewish Israeli population. The settlements, the wall, the Jewish-only road network, the draining of the water resources — these and many other features of the occupation are turning the West Bank into a series of isolated and dependent cantons. The settlement enterprise has not halted for a moment, not even during the recent phony temporary “settlement freeze” declared by Netanyahu under pressure from Obama. Meanwhile Israel maintains an iron grip on the Gaza Strip.

“Greater Israel”, Israeli rule from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, has been the reality for more than 40 years — that is, for more than two-thirds of Israel’s existence. During this period Israel has steadily strengthened its hold on the conquered territories (although the Palestinians have resisted tenaciously and scored some successes along the way).

The reality of “Greater Israel” that Palestinians face every day is documented in countless reports from the United Nations and many other organisations, including Israeli human rights groups. But Zionist propaganda appears to carry more weight with the SWP.

No Israeli apartheid?

Another major article appeared in the April 6, 2009, issue of The Militant. “Israel boycotts and divestment serve as cover for anti-Semitism” was written by Paul Pederson, a member of the paper’s staff. He stated:

There are sweeping differences between the apartheid regime in South Africa and the capitalist regime in Israel—in terms of organization of labor, the character of the regimes, and the historical conditions under which they emerged. The attempt to paint them as the same simply obfuscates the real social and class relations in Israel and the tasks facing the toilers there to chart a revolutionary course forward. Applied to Israel the term “apartheid” is simply an epithet, rather than a scientific description of a social structure.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the fight for Palestinian national rights today is the existence of a revolutionary organization—the ANC under Nelson Mandela—in the case of South Africa.[15]

The first sentence asserts that “there are sweeping differences between” South Africa and Israel. This is an empty platitude. There are also sweeping differences between capitalist rule in the US, Canada and Great Britain. But there are also fundamental similarities, just as there are in the case of apartheid-era South Africa and Israel.

The second sentence is another platitude, asserting that the false comparison leads to false conclusions.

The third sentence states the SWP’s political position — Israel is not an apartheid state.

This is a straightforward question of fact: is the Israeli system of rule fundamentally similar to the apartheid system in South Africa? Does it meet the commonsense or legal understanding of the term?

Israel was established in 1948 by the massacre and expulsion of most of the native inhabitants, who generations later still cannot return to their homes. It practices systematic discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and structural discrimination against these Palestinians is enshrined in its laws and the entire legal apparatus. In addition, Israel rules over millions of other Palestinians in the occupied territories through a combination of measures that ultimately rest on its military control. These inhabitants are systematically deprived of their land, their water and other resources, to the benefit of Jewish Israelis. The Jewish settlers who live on Palestinian land enjoy full rights of citizenship while Palestinians are denied basic human rights.

This, in a nutshell, is the Israeli system of rule over the Palestinians. It bears a striking similarity to the system of apartheid in South Africa even if it differs in many particulars. (For a more detailed analysis see “Not an analogy: Israel and the crime of apartheid” by Hazem Jamjoum.[16])

In the course of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, large numbers of people around the world came to understand that apartheid is a crime against humanity that must be eradicated wherever it might appear. In 1973 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which specifies that a regime commits apartheid when it institutionalises discrimination to create and maintain the domination of one racial group over another. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court also defines apartheid as a crime. This statute came into effect in 2002, long after the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Of course the experts on what is apartheid, and what it is not, live in South Africa. It is no accident that many unions and solidarity organisations in South Africa have endorsed the idea that Israel is an apartheid state.[17]

One of the most thorough and authoritative studies of Israeli apartheid in the occupied territories was published by the South African Human Rights Council in May 2009. The 302-page report by an international panel of experts concluded “that Israel, since 1967, has been the belligerent Occupying Power in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories], and that its occupation of these territories has become a colonial enterprise which implements a system of apartheid”.[18]

Today’s solidarity activists draw strength from this understanding of the crime of apartheid. They look at Israel in light of the experience gained in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and they are inspired by the victory that was won there. Their explanations of the Israeli apartheid system have been convincing and have helped to build the movement.

Returning to the article cited above, only one element of the argument remains. Israel is not an apartheid state, Pederson states, because the Palestinian leadership is not revolutionary.

It is, to say the least, rather bizarre to assert that the nature of the Palestinian leadership determines the nature of the Israeli state. Nevertheless, the assertion is revealing. It expresses how the SWP has come to condition its support for struggles against imperialism on its view of the leadership of such struggles. This provides a handy excuse for refusing to support them. In 2003 the SWP refused to support the large demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Its Canadian sister organization expelled supporters who argued that Marxists had a duty to defend the Iraqi people against imperialism by taking concrete action against the war. The SWP justified its abstention from the struggle by pointing to the bloody and reactionary record of the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Over the last few years the SWP has adopted a similar approach toward the Palestinian struggle.

Suffice it to say that this has more in common with dead-end sectarianism than it does with Marxism. The SWP used to understand this quite well. The 1971 resolution cited earlier begins with these words:

The Socialist Workers Party gives unconditional support to the national liberation struggles of the Arab peoples against imperialism, that is, we support all these struggles regardless of their current leaderships.

Israel boycott, a growing and dynamic movement

As noted earlier, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel (BDS) has made great strides in the past few years. BDS is now one of the most dynamic and fastest growing components of the international movement in solidarity with Palestine.[19]

Israel’s rulers recognise the power and potential of the boycott movement.

On July 14, 2010,  the Israeli Knesset (parliament) approved the initial reading of a bill designed to punish residents of Israel who promote boycotts of the state or Israeli products. If enacted into law it will allow punitive fines to be levied against such persons. The bill is primarily aimed at Palestinians living in the West Bank and the small but growing number of Israeli citizens, Jewish and Palestinian, who form the “Boycott From Within” movement supporting the international boycott. In a speech to the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the Boycott From Within movement as a “national scandal”. Neve Gordon, a professor at Ben Gurion University who endorsed an academic boycott of Israel last year, has received death threats. Gideon Sa’ar, the minister of education, has threatened to punish any lecturer or institution that supports a boycott of Israel.

In February, the REUT Institute, one of Israel’s most influential think tanks, published a report in which it warned of a dangerous decline in Israel’s international support. It urged the government to take more effective action against the forces promoting the “delegitimization” of the state of Israel, including the international BDS movement.[20] The institute devoted the June 10 issue of its magazine to a detailed analysis of the movement, noting that:

the damage caused by the BDS Movement lies in its promotion of delegitimization towards Israel through creating the comparison — whether implicit or explicit — between Israel and the former apartheid South African regime. Therefore, BDS should be viewed first and foremost as a tool to brand Israel as a ‘pariah state’ with the ultimate aim of undermining the legitimacy of its political structure.[21]

Although only five years old, the BDS movement has scored some notable successes, winning increasing support in many quarters. National trade union federations in South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, Quebec and elsewhere have endorsed the boycott, as have numerous unions in various countries. On July 22 the annual conference of Unite, the largest union in Britain, with 2 million members, voted unanimously in favour of a complete boycott of Israeli goods and services. Earlier this year Israeli Apartheid Week, an educational activity promoting BDS, took place on more than 50 campuses worldwide. The number of participating campuses has grown steadily from year to year.

Grassroots organising has been particularly effective in Europe, where a divestment campaign forced the French multinational Veolia to withdraw from a major transportation project in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israeli businesses have acknowledged a decline in their sales because European consumers are boycotting Israeli agricultural products.

In the United States and elsewhere, the movement is increasing its pressure on pension funds and university endowments to divest from companies such as Lockheed Martin, ITT, United Technologies, General Electric, Caterpillar and Motorola that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands while helping it carry out its war crimes. On June 2 students at Evergreen State College in Washington state voted by a large majority to demand that the college’s foundation divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation and that the college ban the use of Caterpillar equipment on campus. Rachel Corrie, an Evergreen student, was killed by a weaponised Caterpillar bulldozer as she attempted to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip in 2003.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has been a particularly vocal supporter of the college divestment campaigns in the United States.

An appeal from Palestine

The BDS movement responds to an appeal for solidarity issued on July 9, 2005, by more than 170 Palestinian organisations, including trade unions, political and social organisations, and women’s and youth groups. The signatories represent the three components of the Palestinian nation — refugees, Palestinians living under in the occupied territories and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The appeal from Palestine said:

We, representatives 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 non-violent 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 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 U.N. resolution 194.[22]

The BDS call does not advocate a particular political solution to the conflict. Its approach is to develop a grassroots mass political campaign in favour of these three basic pillars of human rights for the Palestinian people. This approach serves not only to overcome divisions among the Palestinians, it also stands on the universal principles of human rights that have animated the struggle against racism in South Africa, the United States and elsewhere.

The movement took another step forward in 2008 with the formation of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, a broadly representative group of Palestinians that serves as the leadership of the international BDS campaign.

The rapid growth of the movement can be attributed to a number of factors: its origin in Palestine; the unity among Palestinians that it expresses; its new, rights-based approach to the struggle; its consistent anti-racism (which includes opposing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism); and the movement’s Palestinian leadership. The movement also offers many opportunities for grassroots organising of boycott and divestment campaigns as well as educational activities. As it has grown the movement has acquired experience and developed an increasing number of local leaders. It has also become more diverse, developing targeted academic and cultural boycotts of Israel similar to those used in the struggle against South African apartheid.

Israel boycott, ‘a cover for anti-Semitism’?

These developments have not gone unnoticed at the SWP’s headquarters. The group has taken up the cudgels against the boycott movement, waging a sustained campaign against it in the pages of its newspaper. Leaders of the group have denounced BDS in meetings organised to build the solidarity movement, from Israeli Apartheid Week to the recent US Social Forum.

The SWP’s campaign is fundamentally dishonest. The Militant has not reported any of the basic facts about the boycott movement. The SWP has also chosen to ignore the appeal of Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, who wrote in a recent article that: “genuine solidarity movements recognize and follow the lead of the oppressed, who are not passive objects but active, rational subjects that are asserting their aspirations and rights as well as their strategy to realize them.”[23]

In the SWP’s eyes BDS is “a cover for anti-Semitism”. The article by Paul Pederson cited previously said this:

In the absence of any revolutionary perspective, campaigns such as the anti-Israel boycott can appear to be a radical substitute. But, as the crisis of capitalism deepens, the “anti-Israel” character of these campaigns is simply a modern form of Jew-hatred. All who genuinely support the battle for Palestinian national rights must oppose it.

Not to be outdone, in his reply to critical readers in the next issue of The Militant, Norton Sandler compared advocates of BDS to the Nazis:

In London earlier this year the Marks & Spencer department stores and Starbucks coffee shops were targets of protests over the Israeli assault on Gaza. These businesses are supposedly Jewish-owned. … Jewish businesses were a prime target of the Nazis in Germany after 1933. Why aren’t U.S.-owned businesses targets during protests against Washington’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars?[24]

The SWP’s allegation that the boycott movement is anti-Semitic and akin to Hitler’s targeting of Jews in Germany is beneath contempt. It assumes that readers of The Militant will not try to ascertain the facts for themselves. But facts are more powerful than such slanders, and the facts about the BDS movement are readily available.

(For example, The Militant repeatedly alleges that boycott activities in the United Kingdom target the Marks & Spencer department store chain because the company’s owners are Jewish. Like virtually everything else the SWP writes about the BDS movement, this is untrue. The Boycott Israeli Goods website lists seven major retailers in the UK that sell Israeli products. Each of them has been the target of pro-Palestinian protests in recent years. According to the website, Marks & Spencer has deep historical ties to the state of Israel. Also, “in 1998, Sir Richard Greenbury, then CEO of Marks & Spencer, received the Jubilee Award from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In 2000, the Jerusalem Report stated that ‘M&S supports Israel with $233 million in trade each year.’”[25])

Supporters of the SWP might want to reflect on the fact that the group’s campaign against boycotting Israel places them to the right of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship in the US, which recently endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions, and the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which has called on its followers to boycott all products from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.[26]

A fateful leap toward Zionism

Already well on its way toward the Zionist camp, the SWP took another fateful leap at its national conference this June. The Militant reported that the conference featured a series of classes.

One on "World Capitalist Crisis, Israel, and the Roots of Jew Hatred" took up the need for a multinational, working-class leadership to fight for a democratic, secular Palestine. Communists would fight for Palestine to be a refuge for all Jews facing persecution. Conference participants discussed how the call for a boycott of Israeli products is not a road toward winning self-determination for the Palestinians, but a dangerous concession to anti-Semitism.[27]

This passage does more than repeat the familiar slander against the boycott movement. It introduces a new and far-reaching change in the SWP’s program. Its call for a democratic, secular Palestine now has a distinctly Zionist flavour — Palestine must be a homeland for world Jewry.

This has several major implications.

For one thing, what is it about Palestine that makes it the proper destination for Jews who may feel the need to emigrate? Why not the United States, Canada or Australia, much larger and wealthier countries? Religious Zionists believe that Palestine is the Holy Land and that God has granted the Jews the right to settle there. Secular Zionists advance other reasons. Both agree that the Palestinians must not obstruct Jewish immigration and colonisation. But what is the SWP’s reason for selecting Palestine for new waves of Jewish settlement?

Furthermore, the SWP appears to give little weight to the possibility that “Jews facing persecution” at some point in the future might choose to defend their rights in the countries where they reside, struggling alongside the oppressed and exploited of those countries. It is Zionism, not Marxism, that insists on the need for a sanctuary for Jews in Israel/Palestine.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the SWP’s vision for Palestine fails to mention the Palestinian refugees, victims of Israel’s wars. Many of them live in dismal refugee camps near Israel’s borders. According to Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees. One in three refugees in the world is Palestinian.[28] Any settlement that deprives them of their right to return home, to receive redress for their dispossession and to live as full citizens in the land of their choice is an unjust settlement that will not endure.[29]

While barring all Palestinian refugees, Israel accords automatic citizenship to immigrants who are Jewish. The SWP appears to want to maintain this arrangement in some form in the new state that they envisage. Whatever else one might say about it, this state would be neither democratic nor secular.

Although a logical extension of the positions first developed in early 2009, the SWP’s discovery of Palestine as a homeland for the Jews and its silence on the Palestinians’ right of return marks a fateful leap toward Zionism.

Bending to imperialist pressure

The SWP’s embrace of Zionist arguments against the Palestinian struggle are the clearest and most extreme examples of the group’s steady rightward evolution. Unfortunately they are not an isolated case. A few other examples show the pattern.

For a number of years following the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the SWP refused to support the anti-war movement. It wrote article after article criticising what it called the “middle class radicals” leading the movement while itself doing virtually nothing to oppose the war and occupation. It also repeatedly condemned acts of resistance by Iraqi fighters to the occupation of their country.

More recently the SWP refused to support the Honduran people in their struggle for democracy.

In June 2009 the Honduran army staged a coup d’état, overthrowing the elected government. President Manuel Zelaya had angered business leaders by raising the minimum wage. He had also alarmed Washington by joining the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Latin America (ALBA), an alliance initiated by Venezuela and Cuba that conducts mutually favourable trade between Latin American countries, thereby weakening the US grip on the continent. In Honduras workers, peasants, Indigenous people and other toilers mobilised in large numbers against the coup, which they understood was a blatant attack on their democratic rights. Their struggle continued for months, while Cuba, Venezuela and much of Latin America did all they could to restore constitutional rule in Honduras. The Honduran masses resisted valiantly but ultimately were defeated by the combined power of Washington, the Honduran army and the local oligarchy.

The SWP urged its followers to remain aloof from the struggle against the coup, which it characterised as “part of (the) infighting between wings of the capitalist class”. The July 20, 2010, issue of The Militant also falsely asserted that constitutional procedures had been followed after the army “arrested” the president.[30] An editorial in the next issue declared that “the interests of Honduran workers and farmers do not lie in whether Zelaya returns to the presidency”. It warned against “the false claim by middle-class radicals that Zelaya’s ouster was a ‘right-wing’ coup ‘made in USA’.” The editorial also attacked ALBA.[31]

In August 2008 Georgia provoked a war with Russia, attempting to reclaim territories then under Russian protection. Georgia was an ally of the US, which had provided it with $277 million in military aid since 1997. It had troops in Iraq serving under US command. Soon after the war with Russia broke out, the US sent additional supplies to Georgia. It also mobilised international public opinion against Russia. The Militant’s coverage echoed the imperialist propaganda. “Russian troops out of Georgia!” was the title of an editorial in the September 1, 2008, issue, which characterised the fighting as a Russian invasion and occupation.[32]

In September 2005 a Danish newspaper published blatantly anti-Islamic caricatures, provoking massive protests by Muslims in many countries. The SWP turned its back on their cry for dignity and equality and their outrage against the xenophobic intent of the cartoons’ publishers. The Militant joined in the reactionary uproar against the demonstrations, smearing them as “often violent protests”.[33] The SWP refused to recognise that the protests embodied the fight against both national oppression and imperialism.

This is a pattern of repeatedly bending to imperialist pressure in times of crisis. It is a disgraceful course of conduct for a group that calls itself socialist, particularly one located in the United States, the heartland of imperialism.

[This article first appeared at Socialist Voice, based in Canada. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Art Young's permission.


[1] http://bdsmovement.net/?q=node/712

[2] http://ibnkafkasobiterdicta.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/the-swedish-dockers-union-decides-on-a-blockade-against-israeli-ships-and-goods/

[3] http://www.cosatu.org.za/show.php?include=docs/pr/2010/pr0531d.html&ID=3395&cat=COSATU%20Today

[4] http://groups.google.com/group/cosatu-press/msg/a2ff0baff48201c4?pli=1

[5] http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1264

[6] http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1264

[7] http://www.laborforpalestine.net/wp/2010/07/10/blockade-dockers-respond-to-israel-flotilla-massacre-and-gaza-siege/; and http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article11348.shtml

[8] http://www.laborforpalestine.net/wp/2010/06/19/support-pours-in-for-zim-lines-picket/

[9] This position was first expressed in June 2010.

[10] A Zionist blogger welcomed the SWP’s support. “Communists Against Boycotting Israel,” http://www.thejudeosphere.com/?p=1388.

[11] http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/24thconvention/zionism.htm. Also available as a pamphlet by Gus Horowitz, Israel and the Arab Revolution, from amazon.com and pathfinderpress.com.

[12] http://www.themilitant.com/2009/7308/730857.html

[13] http://www.themilitant.com/2009/7314/731436.html

[14] Estimates vary widely. This estimate is provided by the US-based Center for Defense Information, http://www.cdi.org/program/document.cfm?documentid=2965&programID=32

[15] http://www.themilitant.com/2009/7313/731336.html

[16] http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10440.shtml

[17] See, for example, the statement by the South African Municipal Workers’ Union quoted earlier in this article. Many other examples could be cited.

[18] “Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid? A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law”, Executive Summary, p. 5. Links to Executive Summary and full report at http://www.hsrc.ac.za/Media_Release-378.phtml.

[19] For more information on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, see “BDS: A Global Movement for Freedom & Justice” by Omar Barghouti, http://al-shabaka.org/policy-brief/civil-society/bds-global-movement-freedom-justice and “Pro-Israel Lobby Alarmed by Growth of Boycott, Divestment Movement” by Art Young http://bdsmovement.net/?q=node/462.

[20] “The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall”, http://www.reut-institute.org/en/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=3769.

[21] “The BDS Movement Promotes Delegitimization of the State of Israel”, http://reut-institute.org/data/uploads/PDFVer/20100612%20ReViews%20-%20BDS%20Issue%2016_1.pdf.

[22] “Palestinian Civil Society Calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel,” http://www.stopthewall.org/downloads/pdf/BDSEnglish.pdf.

[23] Barghouti, http://al-shabaka.org/policy-brief/civil-society/bds-global-movement-freedom-justice.

[24] http://www.themilitant.com/2009/7314/731436.html. Emphasis added.

[25] http://www.bigcampaign.org/index.php?page=who_sells_israeli_goods

[26] http://epfnational.org/action-groups/epfs-executive-council-statement-on-divestment-boycott-and-economic-sanctions-as-a-means-of-nonviolent-resistance/ and http://www.methodist.org.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=opentogod.newsDetail&newsid=453.

[27] http://www.themilitant.com/2010/7426/742650.html. Emphasis added.

[28] http://www.al-awda.org/faq-refugees.html

[29] The July 26, 2010 issue of The Militant published an excerpt from a report by the SWP’s central leader, Jack Barnes, in which he states that a new, revolutionary leadership in Palestine will be built around struggles on many fronts. Barnes provides a list of such progressive causes. He does not include the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, http://www.themilitant.com/2010/7428/742853.html.

[30] http://www.themilitant.com/2009/7327/732752.html

[31] http://www.themilitant.com/2009/7328/732820.html

[32] http://www.themilitant.com/2008/7234/index.shtml

[33] “Socialists Must Oppose Anti-Muslim Bigotry” by Sandra Browne and Robert Johnson, http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=91.

Whilst I agree with most of the sentiment of this article, I do request additional caution on the use of the word 'Zionism'. This can mean the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and that is indeed the understanding of the article. However it has also meant those who support a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which is something quite different. Distinguishing between cultural Zionism ("Palestine is our homeland") and political Zionism ("a Jewish State in Palestine") is recommended.


From the US ISO's Socialist Worker


Lichi D'Amelio responds to the charge, sadly made in a left-wing newspaper, that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israeli apartheid is anti-Semitic.

"PART OF the deepening pattern of Jew-baiting and anti-Semitism in the middle-class left worldwide."

You might think that such an ugly and provocative statement had to come from a right-wing, pro-Zionist publication, where the accusation of anti-Semitism is routinely used against all expressions of opposition to Israel's war on the Palestinian people.

But no. It is part of an article titled "Israel Boycotts and Divestment Serve as Cover for Anti-Semitism" [1] in the April 6 edition of the Militant, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In it, writer Paul Pederson attacks other socialists and their organizations (including the International Socialist Organization, and myself in particular) for participating in the growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli apartheid.

We face the same charge of anti-Semitism from the pro-Israel side in its campaign to try to intimidate and silence anti-Zionist activists. Considering that I recently spoke on a pro-Palestine panel alongside SWP member Dan Fein, the Militant seems an unlikely source for the argument. So it's fair enough to ask just which side these socialists are on.

The growth of the global BDS movement that is helping to shine a spotlight on Israel's barbaric and racist policies towards Palestinians is perhaps the most exciting and positive development pro-Palestine activists have seen in a long time.

In a struggle that has unfortunately been artificially separated from the broader antiwar movement and has faced a number of obstacles in building solidarity--not least of which is the incessant accusation of anti-Semitism--leftists and progressives everywhere should be welcoming this urgently needed step forward.

The call for BDS against Israel comes from Palestinians themselves. More than 170 Palestinian organizations, including unions and civil society groups, were part of the July 2005 call for activists around 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.

In the wake of the Israeli assault on Gaza that began at the end of last year, the initiative gained new momentum. Students on campuses across Britain and the U.S., for example, have been organizing to put pressure on their administrations to divest from companies that profit from Israel's ongoing war on the Palestinian people. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., won this demand, making Hampshire the first college in the U.S. to divest.

It seems like a no-brainer that these students should be applauded and their efforts seen as a source of inspiration for other students that we can actually win. Instead, the SWP has chosen to condemn them as undercover anti-Semites.

In February, South African dockworkers in Durban refused to offload a ship carrying Israeli cargo and successfully blocked scab labor from doing so. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) issued a statement shortly afterward, encouraging "other workers and unions to follow suit and to do all that is necessary to ensure that they boycott all goods to and from Israel until Palestine is free." And the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) stated that "the worker victory in Durban yesterday spurs COSATU members on to more determined action in order to isolate the apartheid state of Israel."

This dockworkers' action and the South African unionists' comparison of Israel to South African apartheid are curiously missing from Pederson's article. Does he make an exception here? Or does the SWP think that these dockworkers were "Jew-baiting"?

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UNDERLYING PEDERSON'S criticism of the BDS movement is his contention that Israel is not really an apartheid state that should be compared to South Africa. He dismisses the idea that the daily suffering, humiliation and death endured by Palestinians should be compared to the apartheid system. "Applied to Israel," he writes, "the term 'apartheid' is simply an epithet, rather than a scientific description of a social structure."


Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and famed opponent of apartheid, has an entirely different take on the matter. In an article titled "Apartheid in the Holy Land," he wrote:

I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us Black people in South Africa...Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon?

I'm going with Desmond Tutu's firsthand experience on this one, rather than whatever Pederson means by "a scientific description" (incidentally, he never actually provides one). There is, in fact, quite an impressive list of people, including Jewish South African leftists Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, who agree wholeheartedly that what exists in Israel is some form of apartheid.

Today's anti-Israel BDS movement is very proudly modeled on the international campaign against South African apartheid, which played a crucial role in bringing down the system of racial separation.

But Pederson is content to ignore these voices and concentrates instead on his straw-man argument that misrepresents the comparisons activists are making between Israel and South Africa. "The attempt to paint [Israel and South Africa] as the same simply obfuscates the real social and class relations in Israel and the tasks facing the toilers there to chart a revolutionary course forward," he writes.

Now, I've been to a number of meetings in New York City recently on the topic of Israeli apartheid, and at every single one of them, the differences between the two racist states are always analyzed and discussed. Pederson is simply being dishonest.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone argue that South Africa and Israel are exactly the same--of course they are not. But the similarities are simply more overwhelming than the differences, and they certainly merit a discussion.

What would Pederson call a state whose indigenous inhabitants have been shoved into refugee camps on their own land, with the bogus promise of eventual "nationhood," only to be controlled, harassed and brutalized by an occupying force?

How does he explain the monstrous wall that tears through historical Palestine, separating Palestinians from their land, resources, livelihood and families?

How does he explain a state that has "Jewish-only" roads and settlements, is filled with checkpoints and trigger-happy soldiers, and issues ID cards that indicate whether or not someone is Jewish?

What "scientific description" would he use for a state that has a law proclaiming the right of Jews everywhere around the world to live in what is now Israel, but that explicitly denies that same right to Palestinians who were born in the Arab villages that Israel is now built upon?

If he's going to claim that Israel isn't an apartheid state, then he needs to have some good answers to these questions, beyond twisting the arguments of Palestinian solidarity activists.

There are some important differences between the particular forms of apartheid in today's Israel compared to yesterday's South Africa.

The white South African regime, for example, sought to exploit Black labor while forcing Black South Africans to live separately, in "homelands," infamously known as bantustans, or townships on the outskirts of cities and towns.

The goal of the Israeli state, however, is to exclude Palestinians from playing any active role in the economy. In fact, the concept of "Jewish land, Jewish labor, Jewish produce" was instrumental in the Zionist colonization of Palestine and was implemented through Histadrut, Israel's twisted version of a trade union. In an excellent article on ElectronicIntifada.net titled "Histadrut: Israel's racist 'trade union,'" [2] author Tony Greenstein explains "that Histadrut, an organization of the settler Jewish working class, was the key Zionist organization responsible for the formation of the Israeli state."

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FRANKLY, I don't think Pederson actually understands "the real social and class relations in Israel" that he feels so confident in schooling the rest of us about. His attempt to apply Marxism to the historical oddity that is the state of Israel is clumsy in the extreme.

Pederson's charge of anti-Semitism rests on the idea that working-class Israelis and Palestinians have a common interest in overthrowing the Israeli capitalist class--therefore, boycotts and divestment only alienate the Israeli working class, who we should be trying to win away from Zionism.

This may sound like a Marxist argument, but it isn't. In fact, by this logic, it's unclear why anyone should have supported the divestment movement against South African apartheid. Wouldn't sanctions against apartheid have alienated the white South African working class? Pederson's claims about Israel sound a lot like Ronald Reagan's explanation for opposing sanctions on South Africa--he called his policy "constructive engagement."

Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr, former members of the now-defunct Israeli Socialist Organization, provide us with a much better approach to understanding the peculiarities of the Israeli state in their 1969 article, "The class character of Israel":

The experience of classical capitalist countries has often demonstrated that internal class conflicts and interests dominate external conflicts and interests. However, this theory fails to hold in certain specific cases. For example, in a colonized country under the direct rule of a foreign power, the dynamics of the colonized society cannot be deduced simply from the internal conflicts of that society, since the conflict with the colonizing power is dominant.

Israel is neither a classic capitalist country, nor is it a classic colony. Its economic, social, and political features are so unique that any attempt to analyze it through the application of theories or analogies evolved for different societies will be a caricature. An analysis must be based rather on the specific characteristics and specific history of Israeli society.

Pederson seems to base some of his case on the fact that there are Palestinians who live inside Israel, and they are considered Israeli citizens (though it is second-class citizenship). The BDS movement, he insists, might hurt them, too. This gives the impression that Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel are in the same boat.

But what Pederson doesn't understand is that Israel is not a state of its citizens. It is explicitly a Jewish state. This means that special rights and privileges are afforded to Jewish Israelis, while Palestinian citizens of Israel are subjected to racist policies in virtually every aspect of life.

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THE REAL problem with Pederson's argument is that in his insistence that Israeli workers must not be alienated, he ends up alienating Palestinians instead. Just as socialists would not tailor our tactics so as to avoid offending the white working class under apartheid--or racist white workers in the Jim Crow South, for that matter--we shouldn't in the case of apartheid Israel either.

Pederson's rigid formulas extend to his position on the Palestinian national liberation movement.

He takes issue with me in particular over the idea that I would agree with anything said by Khaled Meshaal, a leader of Hamas, the organization that was democratically elected by Palestinians to a majority in the Palestinian Authority's legislative assembly.

Again, Pederson takes the low road by using a questionable quotation from the Hamas charter from 1988 to try to imply that I'm an anti-Semite--as if I ever said I agree with everything Hamas has ever written, and as if Hamas is the same organization today as it was in 1988.

Here's what Khaled Meshaal said in a 2006 interview, when asked if there was any truth to the claims we hear in the mainstream media that Hamas just wants to "kill the Jews":

This is not correct. Killing Jews is not our aim. For centuries, we have lived in Palestine peacefully with Jews and Christians of all kinds.

We are fighting Israel because it occupies our land and oppresses our people. We are fighting Israel to finish this occupation. We want to live freely on our land just as other nations. We want to have our own country just like other people. But the Zionist movement came from all over the world to occupy our land. And the real owner of the land has been kicked out. This is the root of the problem.

I agree with that statement. And clearly, a large number of Palestinians do, too.

Perhaps most enraging about Pederson's article is that nowhere in it will you find even a recognition that Palestinians might be suffering more than Israelis! There is no excuse for this, especially in the aftermath of Israel's most recent onslaught on Gaza that killed over 1,400 Palestinians in 22 days, leaving the already blockaded territory in ruins.

And, incidentally, Israel's Gaza assault had the support of 84 percent of Israeli Jews, according to opinion polls.

Of course, there are Israeli Jews who will become disgusted with Zionism and turn against it (Orr and Machover are clearly testament to this). But we can't ignore the fact that an overwhelming majority of Israelis support their government's violent and racist policies against Palestinians--because those policies allow Israel to continue existing on stolen land.

Marxists shouldn't ignore reality. The fact is that the Israeli working class materially benefits from the financial support the state receives from its patron, the U.S. government. (The ISO, by the way, has never argued that the "Israel lobby" controls the U.S. government, as Pederson's article disingenuously suggests--we have written many articles in our publications arguing the opposite).

As Machover and Orr explain:

Israel is not a country where foreign aid flows entirely into private pockets; it is a country where this aid subsidizes the whole of society. The Jewish worker in Israel does not get his share in cash, but he gets it in terms of new and relatively inexpensive housing, which could not have been constructed by raising capital locally; he gets it in industrial employment, which could not have been started or kept going without external subsidies; and he gets it in terms of a general standard of living which does not correspond to the output of that society.

That is the reality of the state of Israel. And that is why a movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel can play such an important role. It can help to build international working class solidarity--which we caught a glimpse of, thanks to the brave dockworkers in Durban.

How's that for "charting a revolutionary course forward"?

Pederson and the SWP need to get a grip. Rather than using half-truths and lies to slander other socialists and pro-Palestine activists (when we finally have some real momentum going!), they should take up some of the real questions facing the movement. And then they should decide which side they're on: the oppressor or the oppressed?


I think this boycott is proving to the world how effective it can truly work when enough unions participate. I hope the continuous ongoing efforts make a huge difference in how Israel treats Palestinians in the future. Justice has to ring for these poor people who have been subjected to second-class citizens.