a communist case against boycotting israel

Adam Ford responds to a debate in our paper.

In issue 15 of The Commune, Greg Brown made his case for supporting the boycott of Israeli goods, as well as the campaign for divestment and sanctions against the Zionist state. I decided to take up the challenge and sketch a counter-argument, partly because I’d long felt ‘instinctively’ opposed to it, and wanted to work out exactly why.

After pondering the comrade’s article for a while, I realised the fundamental reason I’m not in Greg’s camp on this one. For me, an essential part of being a communist is the belief that working class unity is the only way to finally overcome the special oppressions suffered by many around the world. Women are generally more oppressed than men, for example, and dark skinned people are generally more oppressed than light skinned people, but patriarchal and racist structures are the products of material conditions – i.e. they exist because they benefit the ruling class. The character of gender oppression has changed as ruling classes has adapted to economic changes, and the same can be said of race oppression.

What about this concrete example then, the genocidal treatment meted out to Palestinians in what was once their homeland? Supporters of a boycott want us to use our power as consumers to make the special oppression of Palestinians less profitable for the Israeli ruling class, by refusing to buy products originating in the occupied territories. It is presumed that this consumer pressure could reach a kind of critical mass, at which point the Israeli authorities would make significant concessions, or perhaps the state of Israel itself would collapse. Generations of Palestinians would be able to return to the place they call home, without fear of economic blockades and bombardment. Peace – and maybe even prosperity – would reign. I have many problems with this premise, and I will try to explain what they are in the rest of this article.

‘Why just Israel?’ is an important question. Certainly, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the economic blockade of Gaza are examples of vile, disgusting brutality, which were highlighted by the murderous attacks on the Gaza aid flotilla. But there are countless other examples of vile, disgusting brutality going on around the world. Such brutality is built into the capitalist system – in a sense it is the basis of all economic growth. So why not boycott China, where so many of the products we consume are now made, in horrific sweatshop conditions? Why not boycott mobile phones and computers, because they contain coltan, which is mined in civil war-torn areas of Congo? For that matter, why not boycott the USA, which currently runs the world’s biggest empire, and provides massive aid to Israel?

Perhaps you might think I am overstating this case, but in my view, boycotts take us down the road to the lifestylist ghetto, which is streets away from where communism can be built. This is because we tend to isolate ourselves when we make boycotting things a big part of our politics. To boycott is to withdraw into one’s self, not to meaningfully engage with others who could be our allies. It is a passive call for a nicer capitalism, and so a call the powers that be can generally tolerate.

Let’s return to the USA’s support of Israel – which runs into the billions of dollars per year in purely financial terms, not including the diplomatic support at the United Nations and elsewhere. This truly special relationship dates back to President Truman, who described Israeli statehood as “an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization”. He backed the first forced expulsion of Palestinians because the United States capitalist class needed – and still needs – a powerful guard dog in the Middle East, to stand in watch over oil, gas and trade routes. If there were to be a massive boycott of Israeli goods, the USA government would surely step in to fill the gap, rather than risk losing its valuable partner.

The example of the South Africa is often raised in relation to the Israel boycott question, though the comparison doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. As we all know, the apartheid system did eventually fall after a relatively widespread western boycott, but correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and it certainly doesn’t in this case. It would be foolish to claim that the cultural and economic boycott played no role in the white elite’s decision to free Nelson Mandela and allow blacks an equal vote. But it would be even more wrongheaded to claim – as 1970s student campaigner turned Labour Cabinet member Peter Hain frequently does – that the boycott won the day, almost on behalf of the black population. This seems like an inverted ‘white man’s burden’ philosophy.

There were other important factors. A series of uprisings by the impoverished black working class put great pressure on the apartheid government from 1985 onwards. But hypothetically, the white leaders might have been able to ride this out if they’d retained the support of the international financial institutions. However, in the brave new era of hyper-globalisation, the South African system was seen as being too nepotistic. Apartheid was now an anachronism, and even the United States imposed sanctions.

Concessions had to be made if South African capitalism was to be saved, and so they were. Black working people had won the right to vote for the party of frustrated black business – the African National Congress, whose leaders gained riches for implementing International Monetary Fund diktats. Today, the divisions are arguably bigger than in F.W. de Klerk’s day, but drawn firmly along class lines (see my April article, Terre’Blanche, ‘Black Boers’ and Class War).

So perhaps the absolute best that boycott supporters can hope for is to play a small role in Hamas gaining power, and wielding it in a poverty-stricken country, within whatever boundaries it could conquer. And even this surely depends on a withdrawal of support for Israel from the USA and European Union, a situation that seems far less likely in the strategically vital Middle East than it was in South Africa.

I find Greg’s suggestion that Israeli workers who support the occupation are “worthy of contempt” to be deeply troubling. Contempt – if we are to make use of it all – must be held in reserve for parasitical rulers who steal and trick their way to ever greater riches, and not a misled section of their victims. To suggest otherwise seems like the worst kind of ultra-leftism, and Greg writes off millions of toilers in a purer-than-thou passage that doesn’t even try to examine why they would hold such beliefs.

And so why would they? Well, there are many reasons why workers from a given nation might support domination of others, not least of which is the wall-to-wall, cradle-to-grave propaganda system which exists everywhere in some form or another. In North Korea and Northern Ireland, Israel and Ipswich, the schooling system and media conflate the interests of ‘the nation’ – actually the interests of the ruling elite – with the interests of the population as a whole.

In one paragraph, Greg correctly asserts that: “We must not believe that seeing the working class as the class of potential revolution means a cult of the worker…Our attitude should be critical.” However, in the very next, he claims that the backing of Palestinian trade unions for the boycott means we should also support it. No reformist trade unions – not even Palestinian ones – will call for true proletarian internationalism, because to do so is to call for their own irrelevance. But as communists, that must be our call.

The Israeli working class is yet to make an independent intervention into the economy, but when it does, we must unhesitatingly act in solidarity with it, no matter what attitudes individuals take to the occupation of Palestine. Active solidarity is the only way that racist ideologies will be broken down, because it’s the only force that will show them up for what they are – tools of the ruling class. Though the slogan may sometimes seem trite, only when workers of all nations unite will we be able to transcend the barbaric horror of capitalism.

27 thoughts on “a communist case against boycotting israel

  1. Oh my god! Is this the commune’s consensus opinion? This seems a re-write of the old Militant position. Just at the time when international solidarity with the Palestinians is reachinga significant level on the basis of Boycott, Disinvestment and and Sanctions (BDS) the white left comes up with this! Still the Palestinians are used to be lectured by the white British left and thank god there are many of us who are building the BDS.


  2. Raphie, does nothing in the description of the article or the link to a prior article with a different position not tell you something about whether it is ‘consensus’?

    You could at least attempt to refute some of the arguments made, as both Greg and Adam have.


  3. Its not hard to make an argument against it.
    Israel oppose the boycott.
    The USA oppose the boycott.
    The UK oppose the boycott.
    The AWL oppose the boycott.
    My enemies enemy is my friend is not a bad rule of thumb.


  4. Just another thought, its noticeable that many leftists who oppose national rights ending up supporting the oppressor nation, almost without noticing it.
    Curious huh?


  5. “My enemies enemy is my friend is not a bad rule of thumb.”

    it is a terrible rule of thumb. it would have led, during the entire Cold War, to support for the USSR.


  6. Its not a terrible rule of thumb.
    It means that you don’t oppose the boycott on Israel for example, which is to do what? Side with the imperialist oppressors against the oppressed.


  7. Well for starters.. all of those people who claim that boycotting Israel will help the PalArabs are wrong simply because the PalArabs are the first to get fired from the workforce when these moves occurs.


  8. Bill, so if we work by your rule of thumb should we also be supporting the militarist gangsters of North Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Mullah Omar’s Taliban?


  9. Its a rule of thumb. That means an approximation in case you’re unaware.
    In the case of israel/Palestine it would certainly be an advance on the case advocated above, which essentially amounts to repeating arguments against the boycott that emanate from US imperialism and their Israeli stooges.
    In Britain the job of translating chauvinism into Marxese usually goes to the AWL, but its by no means limited to them alone. The CPGB after all advocate the “democratic” racial segregation in Israel/Palestine don’t they?
    So yes it does tell us something when imperialism wants something and elements of the left unwittingly parrot their arguments, which is why my enemies enemy is my friend is a good rule of thumb.


  10. Developing an an analysis of the world through the prism of left groups is a hallmark of a great deal that is wrong with the left and a sure guarantee of not getting out of the gulley the are stuck in.


  11. A lot of confusion here.


    “My enemies enemy is my friend is not a bad rule of thumb.”

    For what end exactly? For a strategic alliance? Without being given some content this position dissolves into utter banality and kneejerk reaction.


    “so if we work by your rule of thumb should we also be supporting the militarist gangsters of North Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Mullah Omar’s Taliban?”

    More confusion. Who is the enemy of who here? The US has not always been hostile to the Taliban, and likely will not be in the future. The Chinese are not all that hostile to N Korea. How are these all ‘gangsters’? How are they even comparable?


  12. To what end – to providing a rough guide about issues like the boycott of Israel. It is absolutely no accident that the boycott is opposed by all of the world’s major imperialist powers, therefore when someone joins the chorus opposing the boycott, one obvious question they should ask themselves is why are they lining up with world imperialism?
    Its not uncommon for those who deny national oppression, the distinction between oppressed nations and oppressor nations, to end up supporting the oppression of the oppressed through their neutrality. Marx had to deal with this way back in the First International, where the British trade union leaders took exactly this line over Ireland.
    A nation that oppresses another can never be free, is a pretty good rule of thumb too.
    Which nation is oppressing which in Palestine/Israel?
    I guessing everyone knows that its Israel.
    Once that has been established then whether one supports tactics designed to end that oppression is pretty well answered in advance.
    So the rule of thumb is, certainly in this instance, spot on.


  13. The BDS campaign as a blanket boycott will have less of an effect than a targetted one which seeks to expose the fault lines that already exist within Israeli society, especially when looking at academia? Dave Isaacson wrote for a targetted boycott in CS3: http://tinyurl.com/333ufm6


    “Its a rule of thumb. That means an approximation in case you’re unaware.”

    Thanks, it is also something you can use in more or less every situation, which is why you are wrong to call liken it to the ‘rule of thumb’, the idea that ‘my enemies enemy is my friend’ as a useful way to approach the majority of the remaining national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles is nonsense. What groups or regimes that oppose the USA or Israeli would PR place as a friend? Iran? Hezbollah? DPRK?

    You do know that there is a difference between nations and race don’t you? So why not show where the Weekly Worker has published an article for racial segregation in Palestine/Israel. If you fail to grasp the difference between nations and race then there is very little hope for you in understanding the CPGB’s majority position at all.


  14. The ins and outs of the CPGBs position don’t really interest me. But you do support the forced segregation of populations in the Middle East. That’s just true. Calling it National Segregation is hardly an improvement now is it?
    Given that the Nations will be segregated according to their Race.
    Either way its a racist/chauvinist/nationalist undemocratic non-solution dreamt up in someone’s living room in London, what’s more to understand?
    I don’t agree that a targeted boycott will be less effective than a blanket boycott. There you go.
    Why would I want to boycott Morocco? As far as I’m aware Morocco is not a stooge state of the USA, which has ethnically cleansed an entire population from its land. But if it is then please inform.


  15. I think we need to return to basics on the Palestine Israel question.
    Socialists oppose Israel because its existence is predicated on the systematic discrimination and racial oppression of the Palestinian people.
    The starting point for any socialist policy has to be an end to discrimination in the region.
    That means equality of everyone, Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and everyone else before the law and in reality too.
    As a minimum first step that means the repeal of all discriminatory racist legislation.
    Problem is that once that happens Israel as currently constituted will collapse, as Palestinians racially excluded from the territory of Israel by the law of return, will return.
    People can address that in one of two ways;
    They can follow the line of the AWL, CPGB etc. (and the UK, US, European govts) who support the maintenance of racist and discriminatory legislation to protect Israel.
    Or they can oppose it.
    Simple choice in the end isn’t it?
    And once people have made that choice then the tactical consequences follow obviously. If we are against racist discrimination, that means being against Israel, which is predicated upon such discrimination, that means supporting such campaigns as the boycott to oppose such discrimination.
    Now of course some people may also say that we should boycott Morocco because of its treatment of minorities in the Western Sahara. The Wikipedia article explains that they have invaded various territories – nothing on the scale of the systematic rape, pillage and ethnic cleansing of the Israeli authorities but certainly very bad.
    I’m not opposed to a boycott of Morocco either if that’s a way of highlighting the issue as people suggest.
    But to say that we cannot have a boycott of Israel because we haven’t yet got a boycott of Morocco, is simply an argument of the Zionist Israeli authorities dressed up in leftist language.
    We don’t say that we cannot have a local strike until we’ve had a general strike and we shouldn’t say we cannot have a boycott of Israel until we’ve had a boycott of somewhere else.
    And supporting the boycott doesn’t mean counter posing it to other more effective types of class struggle action either. But Israel is more vulnerable to a boycott than South Africa was as it depends for its very existence on US aid, which is predicated on favourable public opinion in the States.


  16. When Bill talks about “my enemy’s enemy…”, remember his “enemy” includes AWL, CPGB, SWP, Workers Power, etc., etc., etc.


  17. You’re not wrong!
    All these groups have a lot in common that is antithetical to the struggle for socialism – they’re all run by an unelected apparatus/bureaucracy, they’re all deeply hierarchical, they’re all weirdy and sect like, not allowing internal discussions to mentioned outside them, they all demand adherence or defence of the “line” – meaning the orders of their unelected apparatus/bureaucracy, they all expel people for no reason whatsoever (mainly for being “disloyal”), they’re all built on gossip and bad mouthing of opponents or people who are being prepared for expulsion (for being “disloyal”), they all think they’re the “true” ones and every one is are “sinners” or “centrists” as they call them, and so on ad infinitum.
    But even I wouldn’t put these groups in the same camp as the USA and Israel – except when they want to be…


  18. ` For me, an essential part of being a communist is the belief that working class unity is the only way to finally overcome the special oppressions suffered by many around the world.’

    Ignoring the `special’ oppressions’ won’t overcome them. It will just make you a special oppressor. Working class unity will be forged on principle not pretending imperial/colonial/sexual/racial priveleges don’t exist. The writer of this article is a racist.


  19. I agree with this article, however I take issue with the author accusing the pro-BDS person of “ultra-leftism”.

    In fact, those on the ultraleft, including myself would oppose BDS like the author here as it is not a working class response


  20. this article is so full of poorly articulated impressionistic observations it could almost be a parody of an anti-boycott position.

    Then you have the frankly bizarre comparisons that can only make sense if abstracted from
    any broader social and historical context.

    I was going to write a more lengthy reply, but it pains me to even retype some of the utter rubbish in this piece, you are unable to see any qualitative difference between Israel, China or the workers of Ipswich and those exercising a “right of return”, enjoying citizenship rights excluded to displaced Palestinians and the existing Arab population of Israel.



  21. No Bob, you have misunderstood. Please read it again. My argument is that those democratic rights can only be won be class struggle organised across ethnic lines.


  22. What is the qualitative difference between Israel and China? Is it that Israel is nasty but China is nice? How about the qualitative difference between the massacres carried out by the Syrian state and the massacres carried out by the Israeli state?


Comments are closed.