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Boycott, Anti-Boycott

Social Movements

The tactic of boycott has an honourable origin. It evolved out of the late 19th century ‘Land War’ of the Irish national movement. The land agent for the English Lord Erne’s estate in Ireland, Captain Charles Boycott, became the target of total ostracism by Irish labourers, and unwittingly gave this tactic its enduring name.

With boycotts have come anti-boycott countering responses.

One little known anti-boycott initiative was the “Transfer Agreement” negotiated in 1933 between the World Zionist organization and the Hitler regime. It allowed capital to flow to the Zionist movement in Palestine while economically benefiting Germany. And it undercut the boycott movement against Hitler, organized by Jewry in the United States.

So it should not be surprising that the growing world-wide boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which also has taken root among some Jewish Israelis, would spark anti-boycott campaigns – internationally and within Israel.

The Knesset (Israel’s parliament) just passed a law subjecting advocates of boycotts to punishment. This is an obvious attack on the fundamental right to free speech. But less noticed, the law also creates a unique form of sanction. Instead of criminal prosecution the law promotes a process whereby individuals can bankrupt those with whom they disagree politically. Any Israeli can sue supporters of the boycott for compensation – and need not prove they suffered actual financial harm.

Significantly, most mainstream Jewish organizations in the US (unlike Canada so far), known for their advocacy on behalf of Israel, have publicly slammed this Knesset law.

Why? Because, as the New York Times – one of Israel’s staunchest allies – says in its editorial: “Israel’s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished by [this] new law” (emphasis added).Translation: it’s becoming more and more difficult to maintain the credibility of a false reputation. This difficulty is also evidenced in three Israeli ambassadors’ whining farewell letters as their postings came to an end, about the discouraging ‘hostility’ they faced from the people in the UK, Ireland and Spain.

The anti-boycott Knesset law was backed by more than half of Israelis, 31 percent opposing. It is only one of a flurry of brazenly anti-democratic laws recently passed. The least publicized is the decision to bar an elected Palestinian Member of the Knesset, Haneen Zoabi, from being able to speak in the parliament. Why? Because she was on last year’s flotilla to break the siege of Gaza.

Jonathan Cook, a free-lance journalist resident in Nazareth and an astute observer, has raised the question of whether there is “method in Netanyahu’s madness”. He argues that these ever-more draconian legislative maneouvres, along with on-the-surface hyperbolic responses to the Gaza freedom flotillas, and the threatening of foreign airlines with reprisals while massing hundreds of soldiers at Ben Gurion airport to block the “flytilla”, all are designed to “leave no room for non-violent opposition”.

Whether Cook’s interpretation is correct or incorrect, it is necessary to initiate, sustain, and deepen the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

What happened to Lord Erne’s wheat when his land agent could get no labourer to harvest it, no business to trade with him, no postman to deliver a letter? Yes, fifty Orangemen volunteered, and escorted by 1,000 police and soldiers, cut the wheat. But all at a cost far, far greater than the value of the grain. Most telling: the boycott continued.

As it did against apartheid in South Africa, bus segregation in Montgomery (Alabama), grape-farmers in California: until racial apartheid and segregation were ended, and a union of farm workers recognized. So it must against apartheid Israel, until there is the justice without which peace is impossible.

This article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canada’s Criminal (Justice) System).

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