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!