Israeli Citizens for a Boycott of Israel

Over the past few months, a working group has been meeting and discussing how to build the BDS campaign by citizens of Israel. The group itself is composed of a small group of Israeli citizens who object to the daily apartheid policies towards Palestinians everywhere, many of whom are already active in challenging Israeli oppression in different political, intellectual and cultural arenas. Much of the group's work so far has focused on discussing amongst itself, and with the Palestinian initiators of the campaign, on the ways in which this campaign can be built within Israeli society. This article describes some of the results of these discussions.

Haifa, the city in which the campaign is based, is a 'mixed' city. Palestinians and Israeli-Jews reside in it, and there are some advanced political projects in the city that helped in choosing it as the group's center of action. Many of Haifa's Palestinians and some Jews participate in anti-Zionist activity on different occasions, such as Nakba day (May 14-15) and Land day (March 30), and there are regular vigils against Israeli war crimes, as well as various forms of direct action against the occupation and the Zionist regime.

 Through the various discussions, it was found that there is broad agreement that support by Israeli citizens, particularly Jewish-Israelis could be very useful to the international BDS campaign. In addition to helping counter the crude characterization of Israel's critics as anti-Semites, the usefulness of organized Jewish-Israeli endorsement for the campaign helps respond to the charge that progressive Israelis, or the Israeli left, do not support BDS. Less clear are the prospects or opportunities for such a movement to exist in a meaningful way.

 An important unresolved issue is the legitimate reluctance of many anti-Zionists in Palestine to identify as Israelis. In a movement dedicated to the principle of full equality, the wishes of those who oppose such a label should not be taken lightly. As such, an internal debate has arisen over the simple, but fundamental, question of what to name the group. Does the usefulness of externally projecting ourselves as Jewish-Israeli settlers in Palestine who oppose the settler colonial project outweigh the principled objection to internally and externally identifying one-self as being part of the Zionist enterprise through the use of the 'Israeli' label? Even on the domestic front, while the Jewish society in Palestine will undoubtedly see BDS demands as extreme, identifying as Israelis may help in getting others to listen to our arguments as members of the same society, rather than further alienating BDS campaigners as a foreign body within that society. This is a long-standing question for the Jewish anti-Zionist movement in Palestine, and while it is an unresolved issue, it should not be allowed to become an obstacle to mounting an effective struggle against the apartheid regime.

 The first obstacle to the campaign is the fact that support for BDS is very marginalized within Jewish-Israeli society and some of the prominent advocates of the campaign, such as Ilan Pappe and the late Tanya Reinhart, had to endure a great deal of pressure in response to their position. This official and societal pressure is successful in intimidating many potential supporters of the campaign. Secondly, even amongst potential supporters of BDS the discussion is at a pretty early stage. One indication is that people commonly respond to the proposed campaign with the idea that Israeli citizens (including Palestinian citizens of Israel) can not call for a boycott since they can not avoid participating in the Israeli economy.

 In addition to potential usefulness for the global campaign, the main reason for wanting to launch the campaign within Jewish-Israeli society is a principled one that stems from a deep opposition to the colonial Zionist project. While some parts of the Israeli left may have called for selective boycotts, notably of settlement products, there currently exists no agent within this society that operates within the framework of the 9 July 2005 Palestinian civil society call for BDS. Thus, it is felt that it is important to join the Palestinians in their call for boycott, accepting their role as the original initiators, accepting the Palestinian call for boycott as it is, focusing on all three demands of ending occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and implementation of the Palestinian refugees' right to return. Participants see BDS as an essential campaign, potentially the most powerful nonviolent campaign possible to stop the ongoing war crimes committed in the name of Jewish people.

 The group is now at a stage of planning activities in Israel and abroad. At first, efforts will be focused on educating potential supporters. In the mean time, the group has already been involved in several initiatives. The first action was simply to translate and endorse the Palestinian civil society call for BDS as Israelis. The direct support of Israeli citizens in the BDS call is an important declaration, and one that will hopefully inspire other Israelis to join the campaign. Recently, the group also took part in a march commemorating 41 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. During the march, BDS activists carried signs that read “Boycott Israel” in Hebrew and English, chanting this slogan loudly. After the march, about 30 Israelis held a meeting that lasted about an hour-and-a-half and discussed the idea of boycotting Israel among themselves. The responses were encouraging and it will be important to have such discussions again at other political events. The group also participated in the panel dealing specifically with the boycott campaign at the 21 June 2008 Haifa Conference on the Secular Democratic State. Since then it issued open letters to high profile artists planning to perform in Israel, such as Snoop Doggy Dog and Cypress Hill, calling on them to cancel their visits and to take public positions against the Israeli apartheid regime.

 While discussions have produced the preliminary steps already mentioned, there are larger issues that have emerged as requiring more discussion and need to be thought through with the Palestinian initiators of the campaign. For instance, one way in which Hebrew speakers can clearly be of use to the campaign is research into the corporations and institutions supporting and legitimizing Israel's apartheid system. Such research should not be done in an arbitrary fashion, but would be much more useful if done in coordination with the needs of the global campaign and the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the main reference point of the global campaign. Translation of BDS resources and news from other languages to Hebrew will also be an important part of our work, in order to facilitate outreach in the Hebrew-speaking community.

 Another question that has come up in discussions is that of how to relate to groups operating within the framework of a selective boycott. Gush Shalom, for example, calls solely for a boycott of settlement products, but not of Zionist-Israeli institutions in general. The practical aspect of how to relate to such groups creates a dilemma: are supporters of BDS based on the Palestinian civil society call to join forces with those who only support part of the call, and after some gains are made on that front, to go on to advocate a wide boycott and further demands; or should they not cooperate with boycott initiatives which do not follow the call issued by Palestinians. The reason for considering the first option is the potential of reaching a much larger audience and increasing the legitimacy of the idea of the boycott campaign within Israeli society. The reason for considering the second option is that given the disproportionate weight that actors within the international community give to Jewish and Israeli voices, Israeli boycott calls might end up setting the agenda for international initiatives. For example, European groups who might want Israeli support for their boycott policies might follow Gush Shalom's policy of only boycotting settlement products while Palestinian organizations have clearly called for support for a wider boycott. By joining forces, even temporarily with those who offer only partial support for the Palestinian call, one may inadvertently give credibility to Israeli decision-making power in what is and should continue to be a Palestinian-led campaign.

 A pivotal issue is that of the role and relationship vis-à-vis Palestinian citizens of Israel who are central to the campaign. For instance, does the usefulness of having a Jewish-Israeli group calling for boycott, outweigh the potential perpetuation of 'apartness' and 'separation' characteristic of Israeli apartheid by having an exclusively Jewish group? These questions cannot be answered without a longer process of discussion with Palestinian BDS activists on both sides of the green line.

 Overall, the feeling in the group is quite positive. Many feel certain that partners in the struggle against the apartheid regime will be found, and that together they can make a strong and effective contribution to the global BDS movement and the Palestinian struggle for freedom.