Boycotts as a Legitimate Means of Resistance

As Determined by the Oppressed People

by Kim Petersen / August 29th, 2009

Prejudice does not always come with an ugly face. The same holds for Zionism and racism. It is entirely possible for well-intentioned people to hold a prejudice and, even worse, act on held prejudices.

Uri Avnery opposes the brutality inflicted on Palestinians. He campaigns for peace with Palestinians. But he also has a Zionist past. He is European born and fought for the terrorist Irgun in perpetration of a holocaust (Nakba) against Palestinans. He later renounced Irgun’s tactics. He is antiwar, but he is not anti-the fruits of war. He approves of a two state solution. In other words, Israeli Jews will keep the fruits of their dispossessing others — this while continuing to press for the return of what they were dispossessed.1

Avnery advocates selective use of tactics against Zionism. This is apparent when it comes to an international boycott of Israel. Avnery states that no one is better qualified than South African archbishop Desmond Tutu to answer this question.2

What does Tutu say? He has called on the international community to treat Israel as it treated apartheid South Africa. Tutu supports the divestment campaign against Israel.3

Avnery’s fellow Israeli, Neve Gordon, agrees that it is time for a boycott.4 Avnery laments, “I am sorry that I cannot agree with him this time – neither about the similarity with South Africa nor about the efficacy of a boycott of Israel.”

Indeed, the apartheids — while in many respects similar — are also different. Gary Zaztman pointed to a key difference:

For all its serious and undoubted evils and the numerous crimes against humanity committed in its name, including physical slaughters, South African white-racist apartheid was not premised on committing genocide. Zionism, on the other hand, has been committed to dissolving the social, cultural, political and economic integrity of the Palestinian people, i.e., genocide, from the outset, at least as early as Theodor Herzl’s injunction in his diaries that the “transfer” of the Palestinian “penniless population” elsewhere be conducted “discreetly and circumspectly.”5

Boycotts as a Tactic against Racism

Avnery says Tutu told him: “The boycott was immensely important, much more than the armed struggle.”

But it was the revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, who refused to give up the right to armed struggle, who negotiated the dismantling of South African apartheid.6

Tutu also told Avnery, “The importance of the boycott was not only economic but also moral.”

Avnery writes, “It seems to me that Tutu’s answer emphasizes the huge difference between the South African reality at the time and ours today.”

So what is Avnery saying? First he states that Tutu is best qualified person to speak to the effectiveness of boycotting as a tool in the fight against racism, then he says Tutu has it wrong. So is Avnery saying, then, that he is best qualified to speak on the effectiveness of boycotts against racism?

Avnery fears that Israeli Jews will feel “the whole world is against us.”

However, isn’t that, in a sense, what the purpose is: to show that the whole world is against Jewish racism against Palestinians? It must be emphasized that the world is not against Jews, as Israeli propaganda would choose to portray it. Although he doesn’t specifically state it, Avnery is using a version of the anti-Semitism smear: if you are against anything Israel does, then you are against Israelis. Hence, you are anti-Semitic. This grotesque perversion of morality and logic holds that to be against racism toward Palestinians makes one anti-Semitic.

Avnery admits, “In South Africa, the world-wide boycott helped in strengthening the majority and steeling [sic] it for the struggle. The impact of a boycott on Israel would be the exact opposite: it would push the large majority into the arms of the extreme right and create a fortress mentality against the ‘anti-Semitic world’. (The boycott would, of course, have a different impact on the Palestinians, but that is not the aim of those who advocate it.)”

Avnery merely states what is the current status quo. Israel is already hunkered down in an extreme right fortress mentality. The boycott is not the cause. Avnery fixates on the population dynamics. What is the relevance of majority and minority in Avnery’s reasoning? It would seem that Palestinians being in the minority – and the fact that the Palestinians support the boycott – to be even greater reason for international support of the boycott. Who and what is Avnery supporting: Palestinians from racism or Israeli Jews from the economic effects and moral stigma of an international boycott?

As for the aim of the boycott campaign: “to deny Israel the financial means to continue to kill Palestinians and occupy the lands.”7

Avnery raises “the Holocaust” arguing that Jewish suffering has imprinted itself deeply on the Jewish soul. That the Nazis rounded up Jews in concentration was a moral outrage. But what is the lesson of World War II? That suffering imposed on any identifiable group of people is evil and wrong, or that one group can appropriate a holocaust, make it their own, and use past suffering as a shield to inflict a holocaust on another people? Avnery argues that boycotting Jews will remind them of Nazism, but when Jews use Nazi-type techniques what should they be reminded of?

Avnery says it is okay to boycott of the product of the “settlements.” He draws a distinction between “settlers” (i.e., “colonisers”) and other Israeli Jews. How then does Avnery rationalize the fact that the “settlers” are in the West Bank?

Avnery asserts, “Those who call for a boycott act out of despair. And that is the root of the matter.” Indeed, despair is life for many Palestinians under occupation or in refugee camps.

Avnery states that an international boycott would be difficult to achieve, and the US would not be behind it. It was not easy to achieve against the apartheid regimes in South Africa either. Is that a reason not to try? Did not the US oppose a boycott of South Africa? Yes, it might take a long time. But times do change. The US (and its western allies’s) recalcitrance was steam rolled in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and elsewhere. Empires have risen and fallen throughout history.

Avnery finds that the tactic of boycotting is “an example of a faulty diagnosis leading to faulty treatment. To be precise: the mistaken assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles the South African experience leads to a mistaken choice of strategy.”

Avnery continues, “In South Africa there was total agreement between the two sides about the unity of the country. The struggle was about the regime. Both Whites and Blacks considered themselves South Africans and were determined to keep the country intact. The Whites did not want partition, and indeed could not want it, because their economy was based on the labor of the Blacks.”

Seems there is some faulty analysis going on. “Whites did not want partition”? How can Avnery state something so factually inaccurate? What were Venda, Lebowa, the Bantustans, if not sections of South Africa partitioned off by the White government? Furthermore, that Zionism is now no longer dependent on Palestinian labor does not mask that it at one time was dependent on such labor; Avnery is cherry picking in his argument. Denying Palestinians the right to work in historical Palestine is a tactic that evolved from Zionism.

Also, how is it that Avnery can argue against an international boycott of Israel when Israel maintains a crushing illegal embargo against Palestinians – a war crime? As long as Israel uses such a tactic, then resistance through boycott, certainly, is legitimate.

Avnery says Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have nothing in common. However, this same lack of commonality was true between White and Black South Africans as well. Nonetheless, I take exception with the thrust of such argumentation. It prepares the ground for racism. Israeli Jews, Palestinians, Black and White South Africans are all humans. They all eat, work, sleep, have dreams, have families. This should be reason enough to act humanely toward each other: love of humanity. It is entirely possible to embrace our shared humanity and respect diversity.

Avnery concludes, “In short: the two conflicts are fundamentally different. Therefore, the methods of struggle, too, must necessarily be different.”

This is logically flawed reasoning, much like the logical and moral flaw that being a victim of a genocide minimizes one’s own culpability in a subsequent genocide. One suspects that Avnery may well be the victim of a pained conscience and cognitive dissonance. I submit that the two “conflicts”8 are fundamentally similar. Fundamentally, colonial Israel and colonial South Africa share these hallmarks: a racially, culturally, spiritually, linguistically different group of outsiders through preponderant violence dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their homeland, and set up an apartheid system which humiliates the Indigenous peoples and privileges the occupiers.

Avnery focuses on certain “fundamentals” — which I submit are not fundamentals but nuances — that he considers different.

Avnery’s solution lies with “a comprehensive and detailed peace plan” from US president Barack Obama and “the full persuasive power of the United States” to lead to “a path of peace with Palestine.”

Avnery remembers well previous US-backed peace plans, like Oslo and the Roadmap. Why, then, does he cast his audacious hope on AIPAC appeaser Obama? Avnery hopes that Israeli Jews will realize that peace with Palestinians is the way? The peace activist touts a solution that has failed and been rejected many times. He rejects a solution that worked in South African because of the sensibilities of the oppressors.

But let us examine Avnery’s logic that fundamentally different “conflicts” demand different struggles.

Oppression is overthrown by struggle. Fundamentally different “conflicts” can succeed through similar struggles. As one example, revolutionaries overthrew an American-backed dictatorship in Cuba through armed struggle and Cuban revoluntionaries defeated South African forces in Angola through armed struggle.9

In his article’s finale, seemingly assured of his own argumentation over the person he deems the best qualified authority on boycotts as a tool to overcome apartheid, Avnery points to a prayer of Tutu’s – a prayer that would serve all of us well:

“Dear God, when I am wrong, please make me willing to see my mistake. And when I am right – please make me tolerable to live with.”

Hopefully, Avnery abides by such humbleness when he sees the error of his ways as well.

1. See Dinah Spritzer, “Last chance for Holocaust restitution?” JTA, 30 June 2009.
2. Uri Avnery, “Tutu’s Prayer,” Gush Shalom, 29 August 2009.
3. Desmond Tutu, “Israel: Time to Divest,” New Internationalist magazine, January/February 2003. Available online at Third World Traveler.
4. Neve Gordon, “Boycott Israel,” Los Angeles Times, 20 August 2009.
5. Gary Zatzman, “The Notion of the ‘Jewish State’ as an ‘Apartheid Regime’ is a Liberal-Zionist One,” Dissident Voice, 21 November 2005.
6. See Bill Keller, Tree Shaker: The Story of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Kingfisher, 2008). Mandela wanted to pursue a peaceful, non-violent settlement, but when faced with the violence of state power he felt compelled to use violence as a method of struggle. Mandela did emphasize that this violence was not terrorism: 98.
7. ”Aim of the boycott campaign,” Boycott Israel Now.
8. The word “conflict” minimizes the atrocities wreaked on Palestinians and South Africans by their oppressors.
9. Isaac Saney contends that the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was the “turning point in the struggle against apartheid. ”Isaac Saney, “The Story of How Cuba Helped to Free Africa,” Morning Star, 4 November 2005. Available at Embajada de Cuba en Egipto.

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I'm a teacher, writer, and activist based in Bangalore. I am dedicated to various issues including #BDS and Palestine, living a Zero Waste life, and putting the carbon back into the soil through composting!

Posted in Boycott, Israeli Academia
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