Lessons from the BDS Campaign in Scotland

This article outlines some of the lessons learned so far in BDS campaigning in Scotland. We face some real challenges, as well as significant opportunities as we work to take the BDS campaign forward. We should be clear that the BDS campaign can only rely on those who are willing to answer the appeal from Palestinian civil society for us to use this non-violent, democratic weapon to punish Israel for its crimes. BDS is unlikely to win support from currents and individuals who aim to 'balance' between Israeli crimes and Palestinian rights, who refuse to align themselves clearly with the struggle of the Palestinian people, and only sympathize with their suffering.

The key role for any movement which claims to be in solidarity with Palestine in the current period is to channel the widespread anger at Israel's brutal methods of ethnic cleansing into an effective BDS campaign. The aims of the BDS campaign are not unrealistic, i.e. they are realizable: to send a clear message to Palestinians that the bulk of global civil society supports the Palestinians and is hostile to Zionism, despite the clear positions of Western governments to the contrary. We also send a clear message to Israelis that if they persist in policies and practices of murder, torture, and dispossession, they will pay an increasing price from international civil society.

 Crucially, the call for BDS comes from Palestinians. Solidarity takes many forms, from twinning to cultural visits and exchanges, but the call for BDS is the unique appeal from the entirety of Palestinian civil society for action worldwide by their supporters. This appeal needs to be widely publicized. BDS is the strategy for aligning pro-Palestinian sympathizers in an effective auxiliary role in the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

 The Israeli military and settlers have killed thousands of Palestinians during this Intifada and sometimes it must seem to observers that Israel is unbeatable. Politically, however, in the arena of world public opinion, Israel has already been decisively defeated by the struggle of the Palestinians. The iconic images of Mohammad Al-Dura, Faris Odeh, Israeli bulldozers and war machines, and Palestinians defending their homes with nothing but stones and their own bodies have seeped into public awareness around the world, causing popular support for Israel to evaporate. Past sympathy for Israel has been replaced by deep suspicion and ever-growing hostility to the Zionist project.

 Zionist publications regularly discuss what they see as a crisis caused by rising hostility to Israel. Indicative of Israeli awareness of this new reality is the response of Israeli company Eden Springs to boycott campaigns in Scotland and elsewhere. Eden Springs does not even try to defend Israel, but strives to conceal their true status as an Israeli company, as does, for example, the Israeli-owned Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh. Indeed, a boycott picket outside this hotel in Edinburgh's city center swiftly elicited a letter from hotel lawyers denying its widely-reported Israeli ownership and arguing, correctly, that disseminating this fact was 'incredibly damaging to the Hotel's reputation and its business.'

 The Palestinian Intifada itself, therefore, with its unambiguous images of struggle against military occupation, has massively eroded world-wide support for Zionism and Israel. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Israeli actions as 'an abomination,' ex-US President Carter writes about Israeli apartheid, and the UN Special Rapporteur, Jewish-American Richard Falk, sticks by his comparison of Israeli policies to those of Nazi Germany, they are articulating widely held attitudes.

 This is the background to the developing consumer boycott of Israeli goods. The evidence is only anecdotal, but it certainly seems that increasing numbers of people who are not reached by active campaigns refuse to purchase any Israeli goods. An inherent weakness of this component of the BDS campaign, however, is that success or failure, advances or retreats of a consumer boycott are impossible to measure. We simply cannot know the degree of pressure that British retailers of Israeli herbs, chocolate or flowers are feeling as a result of a myriad of private consumer choices against Israel. Neither can private decisions and actions, however numerous, send any strong message to Palestinians in their prisons and to Israelis in their Merkavas. It should also be clear that the spread of a culture of boycott, where individuals choose not to buy Israeli products, can only gain political significance when it comes together in concerted, systematic and public campaigns, leaving no room for doubt that the reason Israeli products are not profitable is precisely because the profits are destined for the coffers of an unacceptable racist regime and its economy.

 Collective BDS initiatives have already succeeded in sending clear messages to Israel/Palestine. At a UK trade union level, the decisions of the UCU lecturers' union to organize a national discussion of an academic boycott of Israeli universities both infuriated Zionist apologists, and gave renewed strength to Palestinian civil society. At a more local level, BDS activists forced the Edinburgh International Film Festival to return money it had accepted from the Israeli Embassy in London. Faced with threats of pickets and protests at every film showing of the 2006 International Festival, the organizers reluctantly returned the Israeli money and with it a strong political message to film-makers and others in Israel, Palestine and across the Arab world: Israel is not welcome at such cultural events so long as it is committing the crime of apartheid.

Israeli sporting visits should also be an important focus for successful boycott organizing. The attempted participation of the Israeli cricket team in an international tournament in Scotland in 2006 led to a straight win, Palestine 1- Israel 0, when persistent protests during the early matches forced organizers to cancel the arrangements which had been put in place for Israel to play in Glasgow, the host city. The Israeli team's games had to be rescheduled behind barbed wire at an isolated British military base far from population centers, at Lossiemouth in the Scottish Highlands. The matches were played, but Israel's pariah status was reinforced. Each such victory, however small, helps to establish no-go areas for Israeli sporting ambassadors.

 A campaign to boycott the Israeli water cooler company Eden Springs is beginning to achieve some success as one Scottish university, a college and a number of other customers (such as the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organizations and UNISON Scotland) have canceled their contract with this company, while union branches and student associations across Scotland are committing to a boycott of Eden Springs water. Eden Springs is particularly vulnerable since they operate across universities, colleges, schools, hospitals; in each of these places groups of pro-Palestine sympathizers and activists work or study and are willing to take action on their home turf in support of Palestine and against Israel.

The KKL-JNF is another Israeli Achilles' heel, albeit one that has fended off all attacks to date. The racist JNF enjoys charitable status in the UK to raise funds for its Israeli counterpart to carry out activities in both Israel and the Occupied Territories that would be illegal if attempted here in Britain, i.e. buying land or financing construction on seized land which only Jews can lease or benefit from, and financing water theft and apartheid in the West Bank. It would be an outrage today if Jews in Europe were banned from living outside ghettos; the bare facts of Israeli apartheid land laws, and the involvement of a British charity in intensifying the ghettoization of the Palestinians is a scandal which is kept from public view by the convention that all the leaders of all the major political parties become Honorary Patrons of this outfit. Their Hilton Scottish fund-raisers, however, are always vigorously protested by hundreds. When Mofaz spoke for the JNF in October 2002, the catering staff refused to go through the mass of protest pickets outside and assorted bigwigs inside had the rare experience of self-catering. In March 2004, the entertainer Ruby Wax, the star guest for the JNF bash, was met by a militant, hundreds-strong protest and shortly after announced her withdrawal from the London celebrations of Israeli Independence Day, citing Israel's assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as the main reason. The important thing is to vigorously contest each and every such fundraising event with grass-roots mobilization; we are the sure-fire winners against Israel at the level of popular opinion.

There is no pressing need for BDS activists to go to Palestine; Israel has already come to us. The initial problem is not to convince the majority of people of the case for Palestine; rather it is to move those already sympathetic towards action. This is not to discourage from awareness raising activities, but to clarify that small groups of committed people can have a large impact if their work is properly planned and implemented. Since the movement is based on just principles and truth, people will become increasingly conscious and join the movement if we can offer a clear path of how to effectively channel our solidarity efforts. No matter what other activity we may get involved in, the task is for all of us to deliver effective solidarity, and for the moment BDS is the tool we must use. These kinds of boycott activities bring groups, large and small, together to campaign. The level of success of these initiatives is measurable, tactics that succeed can be generalized and there is a learning curve for all those involved. The Palestinian appeal for BDS however is not given the priority it deserves within the wider pro-Palestinian milieu in Scotland, Britain and around the world. This is partly the result of a misplaced desire to be 'balanced' between ethnic cleansing Israel and its Palestinian victims but it is often simply a result of seeing BDS as one item in a long agenda of pro-Palestinian advocacy and campaigning, rather than as a central duty of all human rights activists. Currently BDS is the most effective mechanism for going well beyond the existing confines of pro-Palestinian activism to mobilize part of that vast constituency of trade unionists, students and others who are broadly very sympathetic to Palestine and hostile to apartheid. A significant problem is that sections of the left oppose BDS as the strategic core of Palestine solidarity campaigning posing false alternatives of twinning and even wider anti-war activity to BDS work.

On the labor movement front, the claim by the Histadrut that the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) seeks co-operation and is opposed to BDS prevents the breaking of relations by UK and other trade unions. Consequently, trade union leaders who do not wish to break fundamentally with the criminal policies of the British government fend off calls for BDS by parading joint PGFTU-Histadrut delegations. It should be stressed that much of this widely-publicized Histadrut-PGFTU relationship is mythology, a fact discovered first-hand by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions delegation to Palestine in 2007 which learned of the massive amounts of money coercively taken by the Histadrut from Palestinian workers which the PGFTU has consistently demanded be returned over the past 14 years. Either way, activists should not be deterred from pushing forward on BDS. The PGFTU, and importantly, PGFTU local branches as well as other Palestinian trade unions, largely overlooked even by activists, have made their appeal for BDS, and specifically for cutting ties with the Histadrut. In fact, the PGFTU is a member organization of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC). It is crucial to remember that BDS is a grassroots appeal from Palestinian civil society, and even if Zionist pressure results in a Palestinian figure distancing themselves or their organizations from the campaign, this should not confuse anyone as to the legitimacy and mass support in Palestine for the campaign.

 It is useful for delegations to visit Palestine to witness for themselves the full horror of Israeli occupation. It is, however, more important to support the Palestinian appeal for boycott of Israel in our own universities and trade unions. Here, we are strong and Israel is exceedingly weak. Campaigning for institutional commitment to boycott can deepen Israel's isolation, win active support for Palestinian human and national rights and deliver psychological and even economic blows against the apartheid state.