This weekend at the eighth annual US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation national organizers’ conference held in Chicago, delegates from the approximately 300 member groups that make up the US Campaign voted in favor of an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The vote came on the heels of a presentation by Omar Barghouti and myself on behalf of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the US Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
The proposal that “the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation should endorse the principle of cultural and academic boycotts” passed by a landslide with one abstention and not a single objection. The quasi-unanimous vote, and the deep collective breath of relief that followed, will go down in history as the moment US-based Palestine solidarity activists overcame tactical differences that had long hindered us, to finally come together to confront Israeli apartheid.
The history of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, independence and human rights is sadly one of missed opportunities. Historically, Palestinian aspirations have not been achieved due to a corrupt and feckless leadership and petty internal divisions.
But we have also learned that change will not come from above. It will and must come from the grassroots, the people, those who have nothing to lose but their prison walls, the daily humiliation of life as a refugee, a second- or third-class citizen, or a non-citizen. Representing the broadest coalition of Palestinian society, from various parts of historic Palestine as well as the global Diaspora, these Palestinians are the ones who jointly issued the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), modeled off of the same call that helped bring apartheid in South Africa to an end, giving direction to a global movement in support of this boycott call.
Mirroring the limits of the Palestinian leadership, the history of solidarity activism is blemished by opportunities missed because of fragmentation and discord, where there should have been a shared vision for the good of the Palestinian people. However, as the participants of this weekend’s conference voted in favor of heeding the Palestinian call to join the global BDS movement, they finally set this country on the path to justice. Citizens, organizations and even government officials the world over, from Bangladesh to South Africa to Norway, have already responded to this Palestinian-led movement.
After resistance to comprehensive BDS measures at previous meetings these organizers with the US Campaign have now responded with an overwhelming “yes,” indicating that the tide has shifted in the US. This time around, these activists are not returning to their communities to tell them that the moment to heed the Palestinian boycott call is not yet right. The complicity of silence, of unwarranted self-censorship, has finally ended, and the US can join the global chorus clamoring: “no more!”
Indeed, it is past time for those in the US concerned with justice for Palestine to learn from history and acknowledge and challenge Israeli apartheid. Apartheid in South Africa was abolished through a successful global BDS campaign, and a successful BDS campaign can put an end to Israeli apartheid. Anyone who fears that ending apartheid in Israel would “destroy” that country probably believes, or logically should believe, that South Africa was “destroyed” in 1994.
This struggle will neither be quick nor easy. While the South African call for BDS was issued from a small basement apartment in London by a handful of Black South African students in 1959, apartheid wasn’t officially abolished until 1994. As the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography declared: a long walk to freedom. But history is on our side, as more and more activists are now responding to the Palestinian call.
The precedent is there, we are not reinventing the wheel, we are borrowing a model that led South Africa to freedom. Advisors from the South African BDS movement are working with the activists for Palestinian rights, because they see the similarities in the two struggles. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bill Fletcher Jr., to name but two prominent members of the South African BDS campaign, are also working with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).
USACBI’s wheels are in motion and there’s no stopping us. We are on board the freedom train and we have endorsed the Palestinian call for BDS in all its forms. Last weekend, we bridged the gap in the US solidarity movement and I’m hopeful that the call will be propelled forward by the immense grassroots support the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has garnered over the years in this country.
Our coming together at the conference is galvanizing, as we can now respond in unison to the Palestinian call to end not just the occupation, but Israeli apartheid. It is not one moment too soon. We have nothing to lose but apartheid!
Nada Elia is an organizer with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (http://www.usacbi.org), and a member of the INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence taskforce on militarism and occupation (www.incite-national.org). She and Omar Barghouti of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel led two discussion sessions on the academic and cultural boycott at the 2009 organizers’ conference of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.