Why socialists should support the boycott of Israel


On April 19, the same day that Marrickville Council met to reconsider its vote in support of the Palestinian-initiated boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian human rights and against Israel, the Socialist Party of Australia issued a statement opposing the BDS campaign.

The statement, posted on the web site of Stephen Jolly, one of two Socialist Party councillors elected to the Yarra City Council in Melbourne, said “The “Socialist Party has been asked by a number of groups and individuals if our Councillors ... would consider supporting the campaign”. No doubt many of these inquiries would have been occasioned by the concerted campaign by the capitalist media against the NSW Greens and the Marrickville Council, both of which had voted to support the BDS campaign in December 2010. The media campaign, led by Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing pro-Zionist Australian newspaper, sought to cast the Marrickville Council as fiscally irresponsible and the NSW Greens as “nutters” and to pressure them into rescinding their support for BDS.

On April 19, the 12-member council voted to rescind its support for the international boycott of Israel, which had been adopted by a 10-2 vote on December 14. The April 19 motion, bizarrely, reaffirmed the three key planks of the BDS campaign, while at the same time resolving not to pursue BDS against Israel. The three BDS planks are an end to Israel’s occupation of all Arab lands, the dismantling of the apartheid wall and the right of Palestinians living in Israel to full equality and the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.

In its statement, the Socialist Party argued that, while a call for the “boycott of Israeli goods and institutions is understandable and usually well-intentioned”, it would not aid the Palestinian struggle. This was because “a boycott is unlikely to have a significant economic impact, not least because it will attract only partial participation” and because “it would play into the hands of the worst right-wing warmongers in Israel, and alienate Israeli workers, who are the only force capable of removing the brutal Israeli regime and participating in a lasting settlement with the Palestinian people”.

The Socialist Party of Australia sought to justify its position by saying, “Unlike several other groups on the left we understand that there is a class divide within Israel”. The statement went on: “... we are concerned that the BDS campaign has already been used by Israeli capitalist politicians to launch a propaganda offensive aimed at Israeli workers, driving those workers into the arms of the Israeli right. They argue that it shows that Israeli Jews are under siege and need to stick together against what they portray as an anti-Semitic stance.”

South African example

The statement notes that the South African BDS campaign, which the Palestinian BDS campaign is modelled on, did mobilise support for the struggle against the South African apartheid regime. While correctly noting that the key to ending apartheid was the mass movement of black South African workers, the Socialist Party downplays the contribution of the international BDS campaign to the overthrow of apartheid. The South African BDS campaign, launched in the 1950s after calls by black South Africans for an international boycott, significantly boosted internal resistance to the regime. In addition, the economic boycott and sanctions made it difficult for the regime to maintain internal cohesion among the capitalist class, whose profits were being impacted. As South African anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted in a 2008 speech to participants in the sporting boycott, “Refusal to kow-tow to racism was the sanction that hurt the supporters of apartheid the most”. Tutu went on to explain that the boycott campaign had aided the internal struggle by showing black South African workers that people outside South Africa stood with them in their struggle.

Challenging accepted ideas

The Socialist Party and others who hold a similar position ignore the fact that the BDS campaign has never been solely about making an economic impact. While this is an important objective, one of the primary aims of BDS has been to challenge the dominant discourse around the “question of Palestine”.

The Towards a Global Movement report issued by the Palestinian Stop the Wall campaign in 2007 notes: “... turning the tide within popular discourse and the media – building an acknowledgment of Palestinian rights – is a core objective of the campaign and goes hand-in-hand with activities on the ground attempting to implement the BDS appeal”. In particular, BDS, which is consciously shaped as an anti-colonial campaign, seeks to highlight Israel’s policies of occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing and to counter the reduction of the “question of Palestine” to being merely a dispute over “contested land”. In particular, it counters attempts to exclude and ignore the rights under international law of the majority of Palestinians who are scattered around the world. While there is still a long way to go, in just six years the BDS campaign has dented the once unassailable discourse about the “Palestine question” in the corporate media and popular discussion. Today, discourse about Israel is peppered with words such as “apartheid”, “boycott”, “right of return”, something barely heard six years ago, when Palestinian civil society launched the BDS campaign.

Economic impact

Despite the claims of detractors such as the Socialist Party, BDS has also started to have an economic impact on the Zionist state. In April 2009, the Israeli manufacturers’ association reported that 21% of its 90 local exporters who were questioned had felt a drop in demand due to boycotts, mostly from the UK and Scandinavian countries. In recent months, as a result of BDS campaigns by solidarity activists, an increasing number of international contractors have pulled out of Israeli projects. For example, in May, the German state-owned company Deutsche Bahn, which was part of an Israeli rail project cutting through the occupied West Bank, pulled out because of potential breaches of international law.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli former prime minister and current defence minister, in a May 5 interview with the Hebrew edition of the Tel Aviv Haaretz newspaper, acknowledged the impact that BDS was having. According to an English translation of the interview by Israeli activist Ofer Neiman from Boycott from Within (the Israeli campaign in support of BDS), Barak said that BDS was more “dangerous than what the [Israeli] public perceives at the moment”. According to Barak, BDS is uniting trade unions, academics, consumers, green political parties and others in a movement to do to Israel “what was done to South Africa”. He noted: “... there are people in the European Council that deal with export and import; they are capable, without any government decision, of inflicting significant damage on the Israeli economy”.

Workers’ views

One of the arguments of the Socialist Party against BDS is that, unlike in South Africa, where “a majority of black workers supported international sanctions against the ruling white elite, Israeli workers are not in agreement with sanctions against Israel”. It is because of this, according to the Socialist Party, that a boycott would be “a gift to the Israeli right”.

It is clear from the Socialist Party’s statement that when it speaks about Israeli workers, it is in fact speaking predominantly about Jewish Israeli workers. Rather than challenging Zionism, a reactionary and racist ideology, which the majority of Jewish Israeli workers have adopted, the Socialist Party chooses to pander to it. Prior to the Oslo Accords, the majority of Jewish Israeli workers opposed talks with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and opposed even a two state-solution, something that the Socialist Party supports. Is the Socialist Party saying that because these positions were held by the majority of the Jewish Israeli working class, it would never have have put forward demands that countered such positions?

This amounts to acting as the rearguard of the working class rather than its vanguard. As Lenin noted in his 1903 polemic What is to be done?, the role of revolutionary socialists, whether in the trade unions or in social movements, is not to tail-end the working class but to raise its political consciousness. Lenin pointed out: “Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic [revolutionary socialist] point of view and no other”.

Unfortunately, in opposing BDS on the basis it does, the Socialist Party fails to seek to raise the political consciousness of Jewish Israeli workers. By failing to challenge politically the dominant ideology of Zionism, the Socialist Party leaves open the door for the Israeli ruling class to continue to exploit the Jewish Israeli working class.

‘Into the sea’

The Socialist Party’s pandering to Zionism is most evident in its argument that “The Palestinians and the Israeli Jews have a right to their own separate states”. Rather than calling for a democratic secular state for all, which would afford equal rights for all its citizens, the Socialist Party supports the creation of a Jewish-only (socialist) state for Israeli Jews.

When challenged about their reasons for supporting a Jewish-only state, albeit a socialist one, members of the Australian Socialist Party cited a 2002 article by Lynn Walsh, a leader of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), based in Great Britain, as offering a more in-depth explanation. In his article on the Palestine-Israel conflict, Walsh makes it clear that the CWI sees the Zionist movement as a national liberation movement of the Jewish people. The Socialist Party fails to understand that, far from being a movement of national liberation, the Zionist movement from its inception was, and continues to be today, a settler-colonial movement that seeks to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian people from their land.

Walsh’s article makes it clear that the Socialist Party and CWI believe the notion that Jews are constantly under threat of being “driven into the sea” and that the Jewish state is the only way to protect the human rights of the Jewish people. According to Walsh, the aim of the Arab regimes “whether blatant or thinly veiled, appear[s] to be to drive the Jews into the sea”. This claim is a longstanding piece of Zionist propaganda, which originated not in a speech by an Arab leader but in a speech given by Zionist leader David Ben Gurion to the Israeli Knesset in 1961. Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, sought to justify the ethnic cleansing of more than 1 million Palestinians in 1948 by repeating the falsehood that Palestinians had left Palestine on the instruction of Arab leaders. According to Ben Gurion, they did this willingly “under the assumption that the invasion of the Arab armies at the expiration of the Mandate will destroy the Jewish state and push all the Jews into the sea, dead or alive”. This assertion was proven to be a historical falsehood by BBC journalist Erskine Childers in May 1961, several months before Ben Gurion’s speech. That a socialist organisation should uncritically promote a historical falsehood and blatant piece of Zionist propaganda is astounding.

‘National consciousness’

In their anti-BDS statement, as well as in informal comments in social media debates about their position, members of the Socialist Party reveal that they are politically confused about the issue of “national consciousness”. Socialist Party members have argued that their support for a Jewish-only state is justified because a national consciousness regarding Israel exists amongst the Jewish people. This is concretely reflected in the Socialist Party’s April 19 anti-BDS statement, which advocates “the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own”. In advocating this position, the Socialist Party reveals that it has bought into the Zionist notion that all Jews are part of a national grouping, rather than part of a religious or ethno-cultural grouping. This is a decidedly un-Marxist and un-Leninist position.

In 1903, in opposition to the Jewish socialists in the Bund, Lenin argued that it was “absolutely untenable scientifically” to claim that the Jewish people formed a separate nation. He said that “the idea that the Jews form a separate nation is reactionary politically” and that the “the idea of a Jewish ‘nationality’ is definitely reactionary not only when expounded by its consistent advocates (the Zionists) but likewise on the lips of those who try to combine it with the ideas of Social-Democracy [revolutionary socialism] (the Bundists)”.

The Socialist Party has sought to mitigate its support for a Jewish state, which is contrary to Marxist tradition, by saying that while it did not support the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, it must now support one because there is now a national consciousness among Jewish people.

Now that a territorial entity called Israel exists, the Socialist Party argues that socialists should abandon the position advocated by Lenin and adopt the reactionary and unscientific Zionist notion that all the Jewish people of the world form a national grouping. The Socialist Party fails to distinguish between a “Jewish state” and an “Israeli nation”. This is primarily because it has adopted the reactionary Zionist position that all Jewish people form a national grouping.

Within the Zionist framework, there is no such thing as an Israeli nation or nationality; instead Israel exists as a “Jewish nation” not an “Israeli nation”. Therefore, Israel makes a distinction between Israeli citizenship and nationality. While all Israelis (both Jews and the Palestinian minority in Israel) qualify as “citizens”, the state itself is defined as a “Jewish nation”. Thus it is a nation belonging not to just the Jews in Israel but to all Jews around the world. The Israeli state lists more than 130 nationalities for Israeli citizens – the two most predominant being Jewish and Arab. The one nationality that does not exist among the 130 is “Israeli”. This is to ensure that Palestinians do not have equal status with Jewish citizens.

By adopting the formulation of a “Jewish state”, even a socialist one, the Socialist Party buys into the reactionary Zionist narrative. The party’s support for a Jewish state, far from being in the interest of the Jewish proletariat, runs counter to their interests, as Lenin noted, because it reinforces and supports the reactionary fears and racist attitudes fanned by Zionism.

As Lenin noted in his polemic against the Bund, supporting a Jewish state “is to degrade the struggle from the plane of ideas and principles to that of suspicion, incitement and fanning of historically evolved prejudices. It glaringly reveals a lack of real ideas and principles as weapons of struggle.” We can only hope that the Socialist Party will reconsider its position of support for historically evolved prejudices and decide to support real ideas and principles as weapons of struggle, namely the Palestinian-initiated BDS campaign.

Views, Discussion & Debate
Palestine & Israel