The Great Debate: Is the BDS Campaign an Effective Tactic to Achieve the Liberation of Palestine?

December 20, 2012


As a response to Israel’s incessant expansionism, attacks on the Palestinian people and violations of international human rights agreements, Palestinian civil society issued a call for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) until Israel complies with international law and Palestinian rights. This call, made in 2005, was endorsed by more than 172 non-governmental and civil society organisations in Palestine, and was later endorsed by all national and Islamic Palestinian political factions. Despite this, a number of supporters of campaigns in solidarity with the liberation of Palestine have questioned the effectiveness of cultural boycott. The OT attempts to tease out the data from the inaccuracy and myth.

No – Daniel Cooper

Since Israel’s brutal invasion of Gaza in January 2009, calls for international boycotts of various aspects of Israeli society – whether academic, cultural, sporting, economic or simply thoroughgoing, root-and-branch boycotts “of Israel” – have gained prominence.

At present, unfortunately, the dominant opposing voices are supporters of the Israeli government and those who believe that student or trade unions should have nothing to do with big political issues. I am not of that political persuasion..

I have a long record of campaigning in support of the Palestinians – from demonstrating and taking part in occupations against “Operation Cast Lead” to organising a series of pro-Palestinian meetings at my former university, Royal Holloway I have also taken policy in support of the Palestinians to my Students Union. I have continued this record into my post as University of London Union Vice President: supporting London students’ actions in solidarity with the people of Gaza (and I shall be attempting to pass policy at ULU’s democratic forums) in response to the brutal bombing by the Israeli army and continued occupation of Palestinian territories.

However, I do not believe that boycotting Israel is a positive or effective way to help the Palestinians, and I am in favour of a different kind of solidarity with the Palestinians and the Israeli left. This is for the following reasons:

Boycotts are generally not very effective. Even in the case of South Africa (where I would have supported the boycott) it was not the boycott campaign but the growing strength and organisation of black workers and poor in the townships, which brought the regime to its knees. Positive solidarity with the Palestinians and with the left-wing, and anti-occupation movement in Israel is much better. One of the tragedies of the current situation is that some British trade unions have adopted the boycott – and then proceeded to do nothing else.

Insofar as it is effective a boycott will strengthen the siege mentality on which the Israeli right and ruling class rely, and weaken the Israeli radical left and anti-occupation movement. By this I mean that it is likely to hurt Israeli workers and drive them into the arms of the Israeli rulers. Thus it will hurt the Palestinian cause.

Boycotts of Israeli academics and trade unions are even worse. There are good reasons why we do not boycott American, Russian or Chinese academics, even though these states also engage in terrible crimes at home and abroad. Nor do we boycott British or American trade unions, despite their long history of collaboration with British imperialism. Rather than boycotting Israeli students, academics and workers, we should be linking up with Isreali left wing movements, to help support the Palestinians.

Ultimately, this is a disagreement about the nature of Israel. I oppose the Israeli ruling class and its government and its imperialism, but I do not write off all Israelis as irredeemable enemies. I understand why many Palestinian activists and organisations support a boycott, and I sympathise with them, but I also respectfully disagree that it is a positive way to help their cause.


Yes – Mohammed Abuabdou

In 2004 the International Court of Justice in The Hague declared that the building of the wall separating the West Bank from Israel was in breach of international law. It demanded that Israel immediately cease construction on the wall, begin its removal and compensate those harmed by its effects. Despite the importance of this international ruling, Israel didn’t pay any attention to it. It has continued to build without facing any moral or political deterrent. As a result of ongoing Israeli aggression and atrocities, expansionist practices, and inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Campaign for the Boycott of Israel declared its intent to hold Israel accountable. To this end, the campaigners formed local and international pressure tools aimed at de-legitimising the occupation, and at resisting Israel’s racist relationship with the Palestinian people.

In South Africa, the cultural boycott effectively contributed to isolating the apartheid regime and making it shameful. In Palestine, the situation is very similar, with Palestinian civil society organisations calling on artists, singers and cultural workers to refrain from taking part in any event in Israel, regarding participation in such events as a form of normalisation of the colonial attitude, apartheid policies and ongoing military occupation. The boycott’s power lies in its alternative to armed resistance. When Israeli artists respect and endorse the boycott campaigns, they support their Palestinian artist friends in Palestine. Israel is facing a wave of delegitimisation by the international community for its lack of respect for basic human rights and international law. Non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligations to recognise the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination, and until it fully complies with the precepts of international law.

Since the Gaza massacre in December 2008, in which Israel killed 1400 Palestinians – mostly children and women – and after the flotilla massacre in May 2010, many international artists, intellectuals, academics, and cultural workers have refused to take part in any Israeli cultural, academic or artistic work which could lead to a whitewash of the crimes of Israel. Among those who have endorsed the global BDS movement are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Adrienne Rich, John Berger, Ken Loach, Alice Walker, Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein.

In a pitiful attempt to show the world how modern and civilised it is, the Israeli government regularly attempts to invite renowned artists and singers to perform in Israel, often to entertain Israeli soldiers and audiences. After every assault and massacre Israel commits, the government provides the military a chance to celebrate the crimes committed against the Palestinian people.

I would argue that the BDS should be the future collective, representative body for Palestinians in their struggle with Israel. Some people claim that the cultural boycott of Israel may infringe on freedom of expression and cultural exchange, but these are exactly the same claims made against the initial proposed boycott of South Africa under apartheid, a boycott which eventually contributed to forcing South Africa to recognise its oppressed people and their equal right to exist alongside the white South African population.