The movement to call Israel to account for its crimes against the Palestinian people is growing. It could eventually threaten the existence of the Zionist state by undermining support from its strongest backer, the U.S. government.
That is the message from Howard Kohr, American Israel Public Affairs Committee executive director. AIPAC is one of the principal organizations lobbying publicly on behalf of Israel in the United States, where it is an important influence on foreign policy. In May Kohr told AIPAC’s policy conference that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement was “invading the mainstream discourse, becoming part of the constant and unrelenting drumbeat against Israel.”
Kohr pointed to a series of recent actions and statements in a number of countries protesting Israel’s onslaught on Palestinians in Gaza, including demonstrations in Spain and Germany. “Incredibly,” he added, “there now is even an Israel Apartheid Week conducted in cities across the globe.” Most troubling for him was the progress of the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States, “where Israel stands accused of apartheid and genocide, where Zionism equals racism, where a former president of the United States can publicly accuse Israel of apartheid.”
To win support for Israel from the rulers in the U.S., Kohr argued, friends of Israel must address the fact that Israel is a Western outpost in the Middle East, the only democratic country in the region that looked West, and with Western values and vision. If that foundation of shared values was shaken, the rationale for the policies pursued today would be stripped away.
Kohr stressed that “the reasons the United States would continue to invest nearly US$3 billion [annually] in Israel’s security, the willingness to stand with Israel, even alone if need be [and its] readiness to defend Israel’s very existence” would all be “undermined and undone if Israel was seen to be unjust and unworthy.”
The argument that Israel is a garrison state — the front line of the defence of imperialist interests in the region — is not often stated in such forthright terms. But it is quite accurate, and speaks to the source of the conflict in the region.
Palestine appeals, students respond
The unprecedented growth of the international solidarity movement is a grassroots response to the crimes committed by Israel during its murderous 22-day assault on Gaza mounted in December 2008, and the tight siege of the territory that it maintains to this day.
Solidarity with Palestine is being expressed in many different ways. One of these is the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Support for BDS has grown considerably in recent months, which is why the AIPAC leader highlighted it as a cause for particular concern.
The BDS movement responds to an appeal for solidarity issued by Palestinian civil society in July 2005. More than 170 bodies, including trade unions, political and social organisations, and women’s and youth groups, issued the appeal. The signatories represent all three components of the divided Palestinian nation: refugees, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Students have been in the forefront of the solidarity movement with Palestine. The attack on Gaza spurred student solidarity to new heights — with some notable results.
In what one newspaper described as “the biggest student revolt for 20 years,” students in the UK organised occupations at 34 universities. They held meetings and showed films promoting awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians.
Many occupations demanded that their universities provide practical aid to Palestinian universities and students. Others called for an end to all ties to arms manufacturers, the university-military connection being particularly strong in the UK. The universities promote research that benefits the merchants of death and invest in those companies.
Israeli Apartheid Week
In his speech to the AIPAC conference, Howard Kohr twice referred to Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual series of presentations and film showings that focus on the Israeli apartheid system and the need for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Initiated at the University of Toronto in 2005, IAW events took place in March this year on five continents in more than 40 cities and towns, 11 of them in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
Organisers of IAW in Canada, one of the centres of the movement, were bombarded with attacks and threats from Zionist organisations backed up by the federal government. In February Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, decried the “anti-Zionist version of anti-Semitism” which maintains that “the Jews alone have no right to a homeland.” A few weeks later Kenny took aim directly at IAW in a speech to the House of Commons saying: “We condemn these efforts to single out and attack the Jewish people and their homeland.”
University administrators on a number of campuses followed the government’s lead, attempting to disrupt Israeli Apartheid Week. But IAW the daily events unfolded as planned, with audiences of up to 500 in Toronto and Ottawa and 400 in Montreal.
Company and consumer boycotts make their mark
Campus-based activities in solidarity with Palestine are one facet of a broader international campaign, which includes targeted boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is urging consumers to “Hang up on Motorola” until the company stops selling communications and surveillance equipment to the Israeli military and to Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. The group organised a protest outside Motorola’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Chicago in May. The company Caterpillar is another target of the international divestment campaign.
In Canada, the Committee Against Israeli Apartheid and other solidarity activists have organised a boycott of Indigo Books and Music. They demand that the majority shareholders of the bookstore chain, Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz, publicly end their support of Heseg, the Foundation for Lone Soldiers. Reisman and Schwartz created the foundation in 2005 to reward “lone soldiers,” volunteers who travel to Israel to serve in the Israeli military. Every year, Heseg grants scholarships to a hundred or more of these zealots to help them remain in Israel after they complete their military service.
Solidarity campaigns in a number of countries have proven costly to French multinationals Veolia and Alstrom. The companies became targets of a major corporate boycott because of their involvement in building the railway link between occupied Jerusalem to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In Europe, consumer boycotts of Israeli products, particularly agricultural produce, are gaining momentum. The UK Guardian reported that “Israeli companies are feeling the impact of boycott moves in Europe … amid growing concern within the Israeli business sector over organized campaigns following the recent attack on Gaza.” The article also cited the Israeli financial daily, The Marker, which said that “the horrific images on TV and the statements of politicians in Europe and Turkey are changing the behavior of consumers, businessmen and potential investors. Many European consumers boycott Israeli products in practice.”
Part II of this feature article will look at the growth of the BDS campaign in the labour movement, and will be published later this week at rabble.ca. A version of this article will also appear in the magazine Socialist Resistance.
Art Young is a member of CAIA in Toronto.