The authors of this article share a growing concern for the direction the Palestinian solidarity movement has been taking. Isa Al-Jaza’iri’s mother was kicked out of her home in Haifa at gunpoint in 1948, along with her entire family. Alex Grant’s grandfather wore his Star of David patch at Mauthausen concentration camp. However, they believe their respective backgrounds are irrelevant in as much as this is an issue for the world working class. They defend the position that only a working class perspective can end the oppression of the Palestinian people while providing a future for the Israeli population.
A new boycott campaign has been gaining an echo within the Palestinian solidarity movement. This campaign is known as “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”, BDS for short. Sometimes it is referred to as the campaign against Israeli Apartheid. We truly believe that the supporters of this campaign are acting from a genuine desire to end the suffering of the Palestinian people. However, we have to frankly say that we do not believe that the methods of this campaign can defeat Israeli imperialism. What is notable about this campaign is that it ignores the question of class in both Israel and Palestine. We believe that only a working class approach can put an end to Israeli imperialism.
What is BDS and who supports it?
The campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions was launched on 9th July, 2005 by a “unified call” drawing together more than one hundred Palestinian organizations. Amongst these are the Ramallah Chamber of Commerce, some PLO popular committees, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, the General Union of Palestinian Teachers, the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees, the Palestinian Engineers Association, the Palestinian Lawyers’ Association, and an alphabet soup of NGOs and “civil society” groups in the occupied territories and Israel itself.
These groups have elected a “Boycott National Committee”, which has been entrusted to lead the campaign as well as manage the official website, BDSmovement.net.
The campaign has been able to gain the support of some trade unions in Canada, such as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Fédération autonome du collégial teachers’ union in Quebec. It also has an extensive list of supporters worldwide.
Its demands on the Israeli state are laid out in the original call:
- Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
- Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
- Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
The BDS campaign is an international campaign for consumer and academic boycotts, pressure tactics to push corporations and universities to take investments out of Israeli companies and companies with major Israeli interests, and a broader call for economic sanctions against the Israeli state. It is also accompanied by “cultural” and “sports” boycotts. Furthermore, even though some less informed supporters may claim a more targeted approach, the consumer boycott is quite clearly intended to be a blanket boycott of all Israeli goods, as pointed out on the official BDSmovement.net website:
Many young activists are supporting this campaign because of an honest feeling that something must be done. In discussions with BDS activists, when the point has been raised that this campaign does nothing to weaken Israeli imperialism and in fact pushes Israeli workers and youth into the arms of imperialists, the response has been “well, at least the campaign has raised awareness”.
We are prepared to concede this point; the campaign has received much media attention. However, not a single Palestinian family has ever been saved from having their house knocked down thanks to a letter to the Toronto Star or the Montreal Gazette. People were also aware of the Iraq war. 50 million people demonstrated worldwide in March 2003. But this awareness did not stop US imperialism. Neither will it stop Israeli imperialism. What we need is an approach that can defeat imperialism.
The real question is: “is this the method that can overthrow Israeli imperialism?” The answer from the BDS activists always returns to the experience of South Africa.
How was South African Apartheid Really Overthrown?
In the Western media and academia, there is a myth that the sanctions against South Africa were the weapon that brought down the apartheid regime. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sanctions played a relatively little role in undermining the white regime, which merely passed on the privations to the black working class. It was not pressure from above, but fear of revolution from below, that led the South African ruling class to adopt “democracy”.
Faced with horrendous exploitation and oppression the black workers developed powerful mass organizations. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party, in alliance with the African National Congress, all stood for the eradication of capitalism and the institution of a socialist society. Together these mass organizations encompassed millions of workers.
COSATU launched onto the road of strikes and class struggle and played a decisive role in uniting the working class. The strategists of capital came to the conclusion that if there was not reform from above, there would be revolution from below. They did a deal with Mandela and the ANC leadership to end “white rule” in government as long as the capitalists continued to rule the economy.
South African apartheid was overthrown by the mass struggle of the black working class, who produced all of the products of South African society, and therefore held enormous power in their hands once united. It was this threat of socialist revolution from below that forced the granting of concessions from above, but it should not be forgotten either that it was a bittersweet victory. The masses could have easily overthrown capitalism and taken power; instead they continue to live the same misery as before, but with a black president.
In the new South Africa, the gap between the black working class and the bourgeoisie has become even wider than it ever was under apartheid. The only difference now is that the ANC leaders who betrayed the revolution and carried out this abortion have been rewarded handsomely for their services. They have all raised themselves above the masses and collectively made billions. A layer of black bourgeoisie has arisen, and black bosses sit on the boards of directors of major corporations. For them, life is spectacular. For the black masses, nothing has changed and we are seeing a new wave of class struggle in South Africa today.
This underlines the need for a working class solution. Without it, and within the confines of capitalism, there is no way forward.
How BDS strengthens Zionism
Israeli capitalism, no less than South African capitalism, rests on the exploitation of a working class majority by a bourgeois minority. Only in this case, the working class is made up of Jewish-Israelis, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (20% of Israeli citizens), and Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
BDS essentially takes the approach that Israel is one monolithic reactionary bloc, Jewish workers and bosses all happily united in the oppression of the Palestinian people. This flies in the face of reality. The Israeli working class has absolutely no interest in oppressing the Palestinian masses. While the bourgeoisie makes billions of dollars off of the production of weapons and the slaughter of innocents, the working class has to watch its sons and daughters sent off to die in wars for profit. While the profits soar, homelessness, unemployment, and tuition fees continue their ascent. While the millionaires in Tel Aviv build more towering office buildings to turn it into a “financial centre”, working class Jews are increasingly finding themselves expelled from that city by political and deliberate rent increases. Just as in the West, war expenditure is used in Israel as an excuse to cut back on social security and decent conditions for public sector workers.
The bourgeoisie is attempting to play a demographics game to force working class Israelis out of the cities and into the countryside, where there is a danger that Arab-Israeli citizens will become a majority. This has led to a struggle, and culminated in a massive increase in support in the Tel Aviv municipal elections for the Israeli Communist Party—a party started by Palestinian-Israelis. The bosses, as always, attempted to play up national hatreds, playing up the fact that the ICP stands for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
It did not work. The ICP received the same amount of council seats as the ruling party and received 35% of the vote for mayor, a historic breakthrough. In the largest city in Israel, Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli workers stood together, united, and struck a victory against the Zionist bourgeoisie.
There have also been a series of recent general strikes, during which the unity of Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli workers has been on marvelous display. In these strikes, Palestinian-Israelis have often been in the forefront, leading the way with radical tactics such as public sector workers directly collecting taxes in order to receive their backlog of unpaid wages.
These developments are incredibly dangerous to the capitalist class. This is the real reason behind the wars in Lebanon and Gaza: distraction and division. The bourgeoisie, faced with the danger of a united proletariat, conjures up fears and hatreds to sow division and distract the working classes from their common interests and common enemy: the Israeli capitalists.
Zionism is the ideology used by the Israeli capitalists to draw the workers behind their bosses, and cut across the class divide through “national unity” against the external threat. They perpetually underline the fear of the Israeli masses of being an isolated people, surrounded by enemies on all sides. They opportunistically play on the historical memory of the holocaust to convince the Jewish-Israeli working class that they are universally hated and their only allies are the Israeli bourgeois.
BDS attempts to achieve its demands by actively seeking to make that isolation a reality. It is therefore useful for solidifying Zionism, in the same way as the terrorist attacks and rockets against Israeli working people push them into the open arms of the capitalists.
Both of these tactics must be rejected.
Intifada and Palestinian self-defence
The Palestinian movement has gone through the entire spectrum of tactics—from guerrilla war, to plane hijackings, kidnappings, terrorism, bourgeois compromises, and now, boycott. Throughout the past decades, while the Palestinian leadership abroad was already beginning to fatten up, something was developing beneath the surface in Palestinian society. The first Intifada burst forth in 1987.
The revolution did not wait for the Palestinian leaders; it came despite their failures, and did its work without them. The Palestinian masses threw up councils of revolutionary action to organize their struggle, throughout the occupied territories, and even in Palestinian-Israeli neighbourhoods. Spontaneously, and without leadership, sheer determination and spirit drove the movement forward. The councils mushroomed, the expression of the collective activity of downtrodden masses flooding onto the stage of history for the very first time. In contrast to the corrupt methods and stale tactics of the isolated groups that had, until then, dominated political activity, the movement was truly democratic and put forward concrete demands. Some councils organized mass boycotts of Israeli taxes, which were collected by the army. General strikes arose and barricades were constructed.
This was a political earthquake, and fear gripped the Israeli ruling class. The repression and intensified house demolitions were only spurring the movement on. The exploited Israeli working class watched its sons sent to the front lines to kill fearless stone-throwing children; the capitalists rightfully feared the effect this would have on their consciousness. The Israeli capitalists’ worst fears were that Israeli workers would make the connection between cuts to their wages and services, and to the attacks on the Palestinian masses. A general strike in Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinian masses and their popular insurrection, would have spelled the beginning of the end of Israeli capitalism. However, the Israeli workers’ leaders were tied to the Israeli bosses and worked with them to sell out the struggles of the workers. They did everything possible to support the Israeli regime in its hour of need.
US imperialism led the efforts to negotiate a compromise that could offer a more secure order in the territories. The Israeli imperialists found willing servants in the nascent Palestinian bourgeoisie.
In effect, a privileged Palestinian elite was given the task of policing the Palestinian masses, and profited from the occupation. Palestinians worked for Israeli companies, crossing into Israel and returning home at night, but also worked for other Palestinians who built bottling plants and booming capitalist operations. The Palestinian petty-bourgeois leadership developed into a bourgeoisie and got comfortable and corrupt. Fatah evolved from an organization that at least talked of socialism and revolution into the party of the capitalists and super rich in the occupied territories.
The BDS campaign claims a rejection of violence, but that is not the point. The self-defence of the Palestinian people is justified and necessary; if anything, the Intifada taught the neighbourhood councils that they needed arms to defend the revolution, prevent the massacres, and inflict defeats on the Israeli army when it enters Palestinian territory. But this revolution had nothing in common with the tactics of suicide attacks. Such desperate actions are no threat to the Israeli state; they only terrorize the Israeli workers. The first one in Palestinian history came on 16th April 1993, and can be viewed as a result of the failure of the revolution and the onset of reaction in Palestinian society.
This revolution also heightened the yearning for a solution by the Israeli workers and brought them closer to the Palestinian masses, unlike the rockets and bombings, which have had the opposite effect.
For a working class approach
The working class has proven, time and again, its power when united. Only organized working class action will help liberate the Palestinian masses, not vague consumer boycotts. The Palestinian masses have shown amazing heroism, enough to put through a dozen revolutions, but the reality is that only one force can overthrow Israeli imperialism—the Israeli working class.
Without their work, not a single gear moves in the factories of Israel. Israeli imperialism is built on the myth that the Israeli worker and boss share a common interest and should stand together for mutual defence. Our task is to explode this myth, and our tactics must take this into account.
Something must be done, on this we agree. What kind of tactics would a working class campaign undertake? There is only one kind of boycott that was effective during the South African struggle: the targeted union boycott. Workers’ unions on the docks refused to load any arms shipments destined for South Africa.
This is a very clear method that relies not on petitioning corporations, or appeals to the tricksters in the UN or in parliament, but on immediate and vigorous implementation by the working class.
Activists should launch a campaign, based on union affiliation, where armaments workers, transport workers, and postal workers refuse to fill weapons orders meant for Israeli imperialism.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has signed on to BDS. Instead of calling on its workers to boycott Israeli goods, the union should call on its members to refuse to deliver any mail to SNC-Lavalin or similar weapons companies so long as they build weapons for Israeli capitalism.
Alongside this union campaign, mass demonstrations can be organized against visiting representatives of Israeli imperialism. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given a spectacular welcome by thousands of protesters when he attempted to speak at Concordia University in 2003. This is correct; such criminals and apologists for Zionism should be shut down.
These kinds of tactics, which differentiate between the Israeli workers and their ruling class, are the kinds of working class methods that will help the Israeli and Palestinian working masses overthrow Israeli imperialism.
Class unity and the fight for socialism
There is no force on Earth other than the Israeli working class that can destroy Israeli imperialism. Unity between the Israeli proletariat and the Palestinian toilers and fallaheen (farmers) is the first necessity for carrying out a revolution that will end the bloodshed once and for all.
The movement in solidarity must be based on that unity. We reject the perspective of “Jews to the sea”. The solution will not come without working class Israelis; they will play the central role! This is why we reject the BDS campaign as counter-productive, and a campaign that strengthens bourgeois Zionism.
We reject any attempt to place blame on the Israeli workers for the crimes of their ruling class, no less than we reject attempts to blame the Palestinian masses for the blood spilt by Hamas and Fatah. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli and Palestinian bourgeoisies, and the capitalist classes in the US, Canada and the rest of the western world.
This is why the workers and youth in the advanced capitalist countries cannot stop at solidarity. This fight must be linked to the fight for socialism at home. Our imperialists profit from these wars, and the only solution is a movement to throw them out here as well. Capitalism worldwide must be overthrown.
The Jewish and the Palestinian peoples both have a strong socialist and revolutionary history. With help from the international workers’ and solidarity movement, they will be able to find the way back to these traditions and throw nationalism and fundamentalism on both sides to the trash pile.
Freed from fratricidal warfare and the meddling of imperialism, the Palestinian and Israeli working masses would be able to unite in a voluntary socialist union of both peoples as the first step towards a Socialist Federation of the Middle East: liberating their resources and using them for human need instead of for profit, and to rapidly develop in common and rise out of the collective misery.
Therefore, we appeal to all those who fight for the liberation of the Palestinian peoples to adopt the following course of action:
- Abandon the blanket boycott of Israel, which pushes the Israeli workers into the arms of the imperialists.
- Adopt a workers’ boycott that targets the Israeli state and representatives of the regime.
- Promote strategies that build solidarity between Jewish and Arab workers.
- Fight for socialism, both at home and in the Middle East.