solidarity, not silence; the israel boycott debate

Here we publish one activist’s contribution to the ongoing left debate over the proposed academic boycott of Israel. We welcome further letters and articles: on this topic: email us at or comment online.

by Greg Brown

Following the recent assault by the IDF on the Free Gaza Flotilla carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid to Gaza, people have been reminded that the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” has continued while our concentration drifted elsewhere.

Thus re-emerges a debate among activists as to how the “left” should respond – should we support the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions?

Among students in the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts this is centring around whether or not to officially back the academic boycott of Israel. Trotskyist student factions from Workers Power/Revolution have been the most vocal in favour, while the AWL has stood firmly against.

It is Revolution which has taken the correct stance here. To show you why, let’s consider three enduring truths about the “conflict” that the recent events have reminded us of:

«First, that the Palestinians of course continue to suffer an especially violent military occupation by Israel, and that Gaza is still under siege. In other words, Palestine is still colonised by Israel.

«Second, that Israel acts as it pleases, especially in order to maintain the IDF’s military “deterrence”, and is not only indifferent but committed (when deemed “necessary”) to killing unarmed and innocent civilians in the process – the nine murdered flotilla activists as a case in point.

Third, that Israeli opposition to the state’s brutality is very limited. Despite some public outcry, the most damning popular reaction that could be heard coming from Israel amounted to: “How very stupid to attack and kill the protesters! The ships should have been peacefully intercepted instead. Now our whole security programme against Gaza will be undermined!”

There seems to be fortunately very little disagreement about these simple facts among the student activists. However, it is in spite of these facts, and not because of them, that the AWL has taken the stance that it has. They argue that the Israeli left is “small and weak” and “needs support and solidarity”, and that furthermore: “Boycotts will certainly weaken the left, internationalist, pro-Palestinian wing inside Israel, and strengthen the right, by making Israelis feel as if a hostile world is pressing down on them.” And, importantly: “Boycotts will harm, not help, the Palestinians.”

Of course there can be no refuting their rightful concern and consideration for Israeli workers as well as for oppressed Palestinians, but the belief that boycotts can in any respect hinder the Israeli left seems like inverted optimism. Sure enough, there are of course two possible effects successful boycotts may have on the Israeli political dynamic.

The first is the one AWL imagines, where the bulk of Israeli society (and workers in particular) rally behind the government in the face of international adversity. As mentioned above, this is already fundamentally the case (see my third point).

The second scenario is one where critical Israelis draw additional support (“If only we had listened to the likes of Gideon Levy, Ilan Pappé or even Matzpen sooner then we wouldn’t be in this situation!”) which would of course only be a step in the right direction.

So between the two scenarios we should understand that, politically, things can hardly get worse as a direct result of a boycott alone. If the Israeli “left” is to suffer, it will be due to reinvigorated state repression – something for which it would be frightful to blame BDS activists rather than Israeli ruling élites.

Arguments in favour of an academic boycott are barely disturbed by concern for Israeli workers. Even if we are to say that university lecturers and senior researchers are workers, their sheer complicity in the occupation cannot be ignored.

That a substantial proportion of Israeli academics double up as commanding officers in the IDF is telling enough; that racist and colonial ideas of how to deal with Israel’s “demographic problem” (that Israeli Jews will soon be outnumbered by Palestinian Arabs inside Israel and the Occupied Territories within a few years) come from some of Israel’s leading academicians further proves the point.

In light of the situation it seems disastrous to place a concern for the Israeli working class above that of the Palestinian people. I agree completely that it is incumbent on the Israeli working class to champion a progressive solution to the conflict. But the idea that this can happen while a blind eye is turned to those who actively support that colonial oppression is backward.

Would we or would we not have boycotted Italian beneficiaries from the occupation of Ethiopia in 1936 onward? If Italian workers had chosen to throw their support behind that colonisation then they too would rightly have been seen as worthy of contempt, not unconditional support.

We must not believe that seeing the working class as the class of potential revolution means a cult of the worker, a worshipful belief that the class can do no wrong. It can and it does. Our attitude should be critical.

Anything less equates workers with children, incapable of making decisions. On this point it is important to note that the call for BDS has been backed very loudly by Palestinian workers and trade unions (including the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions) – they are well aware of all the implications, and have decided it to be the best tool for international solidarity.

We must put the question very clearly to Israeli workers: whose side are you on? The side of peace and justice, or the side of your reactionary rulers and bosses? To boycott Israel is the firmest way to pose this question.

7 thoughts on “solidarity, not silence; the israel boycott debate

  1. Often pro-boycotters are portrayed by e.g. AWL as indulging in ‘left anti-semitism’ and say Israel is uniquely targeted – ‘why not boycott China?’ too – where stop?

    I think such an argument is disingenuous and tends/seeks to distract attention from Israel’s crimes by saying it is unfairly singled out – just as response to criticisms of the Chinese regime in Tibet, the CPB etc. just say ‘yeah, but what about Israel?’

    However, the shortcoming I see in Greg’s article is – how effective is any boycott? ‘Workers of the world unite’ is not a sufficient solution to the conflict, but I am dubious as to what tactical or strategic value the boycott has, except insofar as it is a gesture of solidarity/response to the call for a boycott by Palestinian activists.

    People often refer to the success of various boycotts of South Africa, but we also must remember the great significance of the movement from below within that country (strikes, mass protests etc) as opposed to the liberal idea that western consumers brought down apartheid.


  2. there are good reasons to boycott most states in the world (especially all white settler states) but this is far harder for a consumer than to boycott one “rogue state”


  3. I agree with the article and think a boycott is effective – that’s shown in a negative way by how hard the Israeli state try and stop it – because of Israel’s unique dependence on US financial and military assistance.
    Without the support the US subventions then Israel as currently constituted could not exist, in that respect, therefore the boycott campaign is even more important than was the case with apartheid South Africa for example, as it can potentially undermine the entire legitimacy and therefore existence of the state itself.


  4. I agree with the article and think a boycott is effective . . . because of Israel’s unique dependence on US financial and military assistance.

    Yeah, that would be great if we could only enlist the US state in our boycott campaign…


  5. Well indeed. But surely one of the objectives is to make it politically unacceptable for the US to support Israel? Just as in the end the imperialists abandoned South African apartheid?


  6. Politically unacceptable to who? The population of the US? The “international community”?

    Did public opinion in any of these spheres compel imperialism to abandon the Boer bourgeoisie? Has public opinion in any of these spheres ever had any influence on the US state over anything, independent of some concrete threat?

    And anyway, didn’t Boer nationalism occupy a much more minor role than Zionism does today for the US ruling class?


  7. I think you know the answer to those questions. Certainly Zionism is a key strategy for the US imperialists at present. But that can change. In the next decade major challenges to US world hegemony will arise, not least from China amongst others. That will help fracture the power of US imperialism and make it easier for the working class to resist it.


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