The horrific war carried out by Israel against the people of Gaza last January marked a turning point in world opinion with regard to the Zionist state. The devastation led even some of its apologists to question the motives and nature of the Israeli state, and strengthened the resolve of many sympathisers with the Palestinians to continue their efforts.
A recent focus for these efforts has been the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign which aims to isolate the Israeli state in a similar way that apartheid South Africa was in the decades leading up to its eventual collapse in 1994.
The campaign has so far attracted the support of the British Trade Union Council as well as numerous unions and academic organisations around the world. In response to the war on Gaza, Greek and South African dockworkers refused to service ships bound for or originating from Israel, and numerous universities have been forced to break ties with Israeli institutions under pressure from campus campaigns.
Unsurprisingly, supporters of Israel and the Western imperialist interests it represents have been quick to condemn the campaign (while happily watching on as Israel continues to blockade Gaza). Unfortunately, so too have some critics of Israel, such as the prominent Gush Shalom (Peace Now) activist Uri Avnery.
A key argument advanced in defence of this position is that the Israeli and white South African states differ in certain respects, and it is therefore not appropriate to apply similar tactics to both.
This is wrong as well as being beside the point. Both states are or were characterised by the separation of two sections of the population in order to discriminate against one of them (whether within the state or through expulsion) and by systematic racism towards those dispossessed of their rights. And both enjoy(ed) the steadfast backing of the major Western powers.
They therefore both deserve the harshest sanctions international solidarity can muster. And regardless of the precedent set by white South Africa, the genocidal policies of the Israeli government against the Palestinians would warrant such measures in their own right.
Another objection to the BDS campaign is that it will alienate Israelis, in part by evoking images of the “Don’t buy from Jews” campaign in Nazi Germany. But showing solidarity with those suffering ongoing genocide by boycotting the highly militarised, Western-backed state that is responsible for it has nothing in common whatsoever with Nazism. In reality this objection represents nothing more than a recasting of the argument made by every defender of Western imperialism in the Middle East: that to oppose Israel is anti-Semitic. This argument serves only to intimidate supporters of Palestine out of taking a stand.
Furthermore, a boycott is not primarily aimed at winning over the Israeli population, but at creating international pressure on the Israeli government to cease its persecution of the Palestinian people. There is no reason why supporters of justice in Israel should not welcome such a development.
Other critics of the BDS campaign have suggested that imposing a boycott only on Israel, when other states carry out similarly objectionable policies, is selective and hypocritical. But the boycott is not just a moral statement against Israel or its policies – it is part of an ongoing movement for liberation in Palestine. It is something that Palestinian activists themselves have called for in order to give practical expression to the widespread sympathy for their plight that exists around the world. The BDS campaign therefore represents a contribution we in the West can make to strengthening the struggle, not simply a means to demonstrate our disapproval.
The BDS campaign provides activists around the world with a focus for solidarity action, and has the potential to turn Israel into a pariah, like the campaign against apartheid South African regime did in the 1980s. Divestment and sanctions against South Africa in the late 1980s gave inspiration and encouragement to those directly challenging the regime to continue their struggle.
Insofar as this can be achieved in the case of one of the most racist and undemocratic states in the world today, it is something to be celebrated.