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BDS victories in 2018 reflect a growing movement

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Most people date the global boycott campaign to end South African apartheid to the 1980s.  By then, many student governments in the US were asking their university administration to divest from South African companies, activists were calling upon artists not to perform in South Africa, and most conscientious shoppers knew to avoid South African oranges.  The 1980s were the decade of mass concerts for progressive causes (“We are the world,” “Do They Know it’s Christmas,” etc.) and none other than Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt organized the performance of “Sun City,” with its star-studded cast that included Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, George Clinton, and many, many more, vowing they will participate in the cultural boycott of South Africa by refusing to perform there. One would think, looking back at the stellar line-up of 58 artists, that everyone who was anyone was on board.  But of course, this was never the case. Paul Simon, for example, crossed the picket line, as he insisted on performing in the pariah state.

And of course, the powerful Western governments, from the US’s Reagan administration to  the UK’s Margaret Thatcher, insisted that boycotts were not the way to bring justice to South Africa.  Reagan insisted on “constructive criticism,” engaging with “moderates” in South Africa, so they could bring about some reform in their country, and even vetoed a bill to impose sanctions on South Africa, only to be overruled by Congress.  But the official embrace of the hateful racist system did not detract the grassroots activists, who persisted in their campaign, and ultimately won, despite the ongoing political and diplomatic immunity the US and UK offered South Africa, until the very eve of the official abolition of this violent system.  Indeed, as Steven Van Zandt put it, after visiting South Africa twice before organizing “Sun City,” you can’t reform apartheid, you need to abolish it completely.

What is frequently omitted from a discussion of the South African boycott campaign is that, while it picked up most in the 1980s, as people everywhere, catalyzed by the global rise against colonialism and segregation, sided with the oppressed, against the oppressor regimes, the call for boycotts was not issued in the 1980s, but in 1959.  Between 1959 and the 1980s, when most people were finally aware of the magnitude of state-sanctioned oppression in South Africa, the more committed activists were doing the non-glamorous work of educating, educating, and educating some more. A change in the narrative was needed, and it took decades to bring it about. But then, in the 1980s, a critical mass had finally been achieved:  Hampshire College was the first college to vote in favor of divestment, in 1977, by 1984, 53 schools had voted for divestment, inching up to 128 in 1987, and 155 in 1989.  Just as with the cultural boycott, some heavyweights refused to be on the side of justice: Harvard University, for example, only very reluctantly agreed to a partial divestment.  Nevertheless, there was no denying the domino effect.

Today, we are witnessing a similar grassroots phenomenon, as throughout the country, acts of resistance are bubbling up to the surface. Prof. John Cheney-Lippold, and graduate student Lucy Peterson, both at the University of Michigan, refused to write recommendation letters for students wishing to participate in a Study Abroad in Israel program.  The student government at Pitzer College voted to end their Study Abroad program in Haifa, citing Israel’s official discriminatory policies as the reason for their vote.   And the entire state of Vermont, as well as the city of Northampton, in Massachusetts, both  just voted to end their police training exchange program with Israel.  It is as if the boycott movement were a pot of water that has been heating up on a stove, and is now approaching boiling point, and one watches with anticipation, looking for the next bubble…

However, even as we list “BDS victories” over 2018, we must note that this is not your “average roundup.” Indeed, one of the more encouraging aspects of these breakthroughs—for that is what they are—is that most were accomplished by local individuals, groups, and coalitions with no direct involvement from the “leaders” of the BDS movement, the steering collectives of various groups focused on BDS.  Pitzer’s decision to cancel its Study Abroad program, while fully in compliance with USACBI’s national campaign, launched earlier this year, was taken independently of USACBI. Vermont’s decision to cancel a training trip in Israel, a victory for JVP’s Deadly Exchange campaign, was the outcome of a community effort that involved a coalition of Jews, Muslims, Christians, veterans, immigrants, and lawyers who, according to JVP deputy director, Stefanie Fox, “came together practically overnight” to express their collective rejection of the program.  Of course, they could not have come together “practically overnight” without all of the behind-the-scenes work by hundreds of activists and organizers.  Indeed, some of the earlier discussions around BDS focused on the identity of its “leaders,” and I recall explaining that it is not a leader-less movement, but a leader-full movement, as every single individual can not only engage in boycotts, but can initiate a boycott campaign–so long as it complies with the BDS call’s principles, grounded in human rights and anti-racism.  This is the spontaneity we are now witnessing, which must be celebrated as the most irrefutable proof of the change in progressive activist scenes.

Each of these victories is extremely  significant on its own terms, but also illustrates that the many years of political discussion that were catalyzed by the 2005 Palestinian call for BDS against Israel—a call that itself came after decades of diligent education–are bearing fruit.  The greater political context, the rise of fascism, is not to be ignored, and also corresponds with the climate of the 1980s, when Reagan was US president, and Margaret Thatcher prime minister in the UK. If we must make lemonade out of lemons, if we must look for the silver lining of the otherwise stormy days we live in, where a respected political commentator is fired for stating that Palestinians deserve human rights,  then we can indeed appreciate the resistance to fascism, racism, xenophobia that is rising amongst the grassroots, as more coalitions form to confront the hatred.  And we can celebrate our grasp that we, the people, have agency, and can bring about change.

So, here’s to more “random acts” of boycott, resistance, and joint action in 2019!

Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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3 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson on November 30, 2018, 4:07 pm

    RE: And of course, the powerful Western governments, from the US’s Reagan administration to the UK’s Margaret Thatcher, insisted that boycotts were not the way to bring justice to South Africa. Reagan insisted on “constructive criticism,” engaging with “moderates” in South Africa, so they could bring about some reform in their country . . . ~ Nada Elia

    ■ FROM “South Africa: Why Constructive Engagement Failed”, By Sanford J. Ungar and Peter Vale, Winter 1985/86

    Article Summary
    Ronald Reagan’s imposition of limited economic sanctions against the South African regime in September was a tacit admission that his policy of “constructive engagement”–encouraging change in the apartheid system through a quiet dialogue with that country’s white minority leaders–had failed. Having been offered many carrots by the United States over a period of four-and-a-half years as incentives to institute meaningful reforms, the South African authorities had simply made a carrot stew and eaten it. Under the combined pressures of the seemingly cataclysmic events in South Africa since September 1984 and the dramatic surge of anti-apartheid protest and political activism in the United States, the Reagan Administration was finally embarrassed into brandishing some small sticks as an element of American policy.


  2. Citizen on December 1, 2018, 1:37 am

    Half of America’s states now have anti-BDS legislation. Not even worthy of a brief minute on US main media news. No First Amendment issue, move along.

  3. Misterioso on December 1, 2018, 11:15 am

    As provided by Omar Barghouti and The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC)**

    Here are just a few highlights of direct and indirect BDS impact from 2018:

    Just last week, Airbnb decided it would no longer profit from most illegal Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land. This followed an international campaign led by the #StolenHomes coalition of organizations affiliated with the BDS movement for Palestinian rights and human rights organizations.

    Earlier this month, Ilhan Omar made history by becoming the first sitting Congressperson to publicly endorse BDS.

    Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress, praised the BDS movement and supported cutting U.S. military aid to Israel.

    Mobilizations across the world convinced Argentina’s national football team, led by Captain Lionel Messi, to cancel its exhibition match with Israel.

    Celebrity singer Lana Del Rey became one of 19 artists to withdraw from Israel’s Meteor Festival, after thousands of fans and activists from around the world urged her to respect the Palestinian picket line. Shakira and Lorde were among other top artists to cancel their concerts in Israel this year. More than 100 DJs and electronic music artists joined the cultural boycott of Israel under #DJsForPalestine.

    Major organizations from the Indian women’s movement, representing over 10 million women, endorsed the BDS movement and demanded the release of all Palestinian child prisoners.

    Amnesty International called for an arms embargo on Israel. It slammed the United States and the European Union for their military deals with Israel and held them responsible for “fueling mass violations” of Palestinian human rights.

    The UK Labour Party recently voted to freeze arms sales to Israel. In Ireland, a Minister of State and 50 Irish lawmakers called for Ireland to stop arming Israel. Earlier, Dublin became the first European capital to endorse BDS for Palestinian rights.

    Parliamentarians from Spain and Portugal took a stand for Palestinian rights and denounced Israel’s war crimes and racist “Jewish Nation-State Law.​” Several cities in Italy and the Spanish state called for an arms embargo on Israel.

    The Movement for Black Lives released a powerful statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people and called for the United States to end its $38 billion in annual military aid to Israel.

    40 international Jewish social justice organizations recognized that the BDS movement for Palestinian rights has a proven commitment to “fighting antisemitism and all forms of racism and bigotry.” They condemned attempts to stifle criticism of Israel’s policies.

    A 2018 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Professor George P. Smith, expressed support for the BDS movement and for cutting US military aid to Israel.

    Adidas stopped sponsoring the Israel Football Association (IFA), which includes teams based in illegal settlements built on stolen Palestinian land, after appeals from more than 130 Palestinian sports clubs.

    Trade unionists and human rights activists in Tunisia and across the Arab world forced Israel’s Zim shipping line to suspend its routes to Tunisia.

    The Canadian Federation of Students, representing more than 500,000 students, just voted at their Annual General Meeting to back the BDS movement.

    Leeds became the first UK university to divest from firms involved in Israel’s arms trade, following a BDS campaign by Palestine solidarity activists. The university has divested more than $1.2 million in holdings from corporations that trade military equipment with Israel.
    Quakers became the first church in the UK to say they “will not invest in any company profiting from [Israel’s military] occupation.” Recently, several US churches have also voted to divest from Israeli and international companies complicit in Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.

    From South Africa, Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, a member of parliament and Nelson Mandela’s grandson, has affirmed the critical role BDS is playing to end Israeli apartheid.

    **The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) is the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society. It leads and supports the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

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