Is BDS Palestine’s best hope for an effective global solidarity movement?

BDS South Africa staged a Palestine solidarity protest in the Limpopo province earlier this month. (Facebook / Che Erasmus Nche )

BDS South Africa staged a Palestine solidarity protest in the Limpopo province earlier this month. (Facebook / Che Erasmus Nche )

Two weeks ago, as the world celebrated Nelson Mandela’s first birthday since his death in December, a more hopeful story broke through the bleak coverage of the ongoing war in Gaza. This occurrence was more than coincidental. For years, the United States has uncritically supported Israel as it once did South Africa, but recent months have shown cracks in the alliance. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed exasperation, even comparing one possible future to the same South African apartheid Mandela opposed for much of his life. Yet for many Americans, it is difficult to discuss Palestine alongside the anti-apartheid cause. Associations with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism trump the shared goals of self-determination and equal rights. There remains, however, a possibility for American solidarity. It is apparent within the analogy of apartheid. Between 1948 and 1994, a global movement developed against the segregationist policies of South Africa, which now offers important lessons for addressing the Israel and Palestine issue.

The comparison is apt given the similar positions occupied by apartheid South Africa and Israel within the American alliance network. Both were partners in unfriendly regions of the world. Both received weapons from the United States and Europe while developing strong economic linkages. Both mobilized American constituencies; South Africa drew support from segregationists, while Israel relies upon right-wing Christians (often hailing from areas that once embraced apartheid). Both also had policies of forced resettlement and militarized societies that inspired international and domestic criticism. Popular anger at apartheid in the 1980s overcame economic, strategic and political alliances to push through sanctions that helped encourage negotiations in South Africa, but the same cannot be said of Palestine. This global solidarity is vital when fighting countries like South Africa and Israel who depend on foreign weapons to maintain unpopular policies through overwhelming force.

Given the strong government ties to such oppressive states, American and European solidarity with Palestine is most likely to emerge from the grassroots, though parties like Hamas have been slow to cultivate these relationships. Generally, the average American is not well-versed in foreign policy issues but can take action when confronted with the realities of how daily decisions affect conflicts abroad. The job of the nationalist party is to develop popular movements that simultaneously educate and organize solidarity. The African National Congress, or ANC, achieved this dual task by using boycott and divestment campaigns to introduce the American population to apartheid and U.S. complicity in the system. The party and its allies targeted companies operating in South Africa including Shell, Chase Bank and IBM. Especially effective were campaigns against companies directly involved in the operations of apartheid like Polaroid, which provided technology to produce the identification cards used to monitor black Africans and other peoples the government classified as “non-white.” The greatest success came when targets were common businesses or products with easily accessible alternatives, so that the decision to boycott a brand had to be made regularly without creating real hardship for the average consumer.

These campaigns had relatively little impact for decades, but their cumulative efforts achieved two objectives. First, they provided a personalized education on apartheid. The decision to reject South Africa became quotidian, domesticating an international issue and providing the moral consumer with ways of demonstrating solidarity. Second, it persuaded companies to demand adjustments to apartheid, including the integration of some facilities. Such moves were half-measures and were rightly criticized by the ANC and its allies, but they did weaken the system and provided momentum to the international movement when companies acknowledged the grassroots impact on decision-making. Moreover, organizing garnered the attention of politicians. Congress launched inquiries into business and military ties as a way of impressing voters. Adoption of boycotts and divestiture by churches, unions, universities, local government and state assemblies helped politicize the issue to the point that Congress passed a sanctions bill outlawing new investments in South Africa over a presidential veto.

Only recently has a similar movement begun around the issue of Palestine, but here is the greatest opportunity for the development of effective solidarity. In 2005, international Palestinian groups launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, to place economic pressure on Israel. The BDS movement targets major brands like Pampers and Victoria’s Secret, which work with Israeli subcontractors and the government. As the apartheid movement learned, however, initial success depends on high profile targets involved in the most distasteful elements of policy — namely segregation, displacement and violence toward civilians. Companies like HP provide biometric technology used at checkpoints. Others such as Sodastream operate plants in illegal Israeli settlements. These companies’ products are ripe for boycott since alternatives are readily available. Divestment has also begun to strike at HP and other publicly traded companies like Caterpillar, whose tractors have been used to bulldoze Palestinian homes.

Reflecting the same path as apartheid organizing, the BDS movement has already found success in Europe. Now, major institutions such as the Presbyterian Church are helping to popularize the cause in the United States. These efforts are already having some effects. In March, Israeli newspaper Maariv estimated that the boycott had already cost the economy $30 million in 2014. This is only a small dent, but it demonstrates a new level of support for the BDS movement.

Like apartheid, economic boycotts and sanctions can play a valuable role not just in developing economic pressure, but in mobilizing opinion against unfettered support for Israel. Multinational companies may avoid establishing new projects in illegally settled areas if they know they will encounter criticism. A popular movement might also push the U.S. government to place clear limits on its military assistance — a psychological blow that could convince Israel to reassess its policies.

This is not to say, of course, Israel or its citizens don’t have legitimate security concerns. The possibility for isolated instances of real anti-Semitism — much like the racial animosity that sometimes informed anti-apartheid activism — should not be ignored. Potential benefits, however, outweigh concerns. As in South Africa, international pressure from economic and political allies can force Israel to confront the long-term infeasibility of its settler policies and embrace sincere negotiations. This will be highly unlikely if Israel continues to invade and abuse Palestinian territory without any consequences.

The emerging BDS movement bears a strong resemblance to Mandela’s struggle, and indeed Palestine has become the new cause for international anti-apartheid organizers. However, the most obvious reason that Palestine has lagged behind similar solidarity campaigns is the violent rhetoric of its leaders in the Middle East. The ANC found success in large part because it defined its struggle as one against the unequal system of apartheid and its international supporters, not against white South Africans or westerners. This nuanced distinction allowed the ANC to claim the mantle of champion of human rights, providing a foundation for international alliances and a basis for negotiations with the state.

The primary Palestinian movements, including Hamas and Fatah, have been less discerning in their rhetoric and actions. At various points over the last four decades, they have threatened the destruction of Israel and demonstrated a disregard for human life in the use of unguided missiles. Such activity has stoked Israeli fears and weakened the prospects for a negotiated settlement. It has also deeply colored American and European views of Palestinian nationalism, which in turn has limited the popularity of the nonviolent BDS movement.

The Palestinian cause remains marginal in the United States due to associations with violence, but this image can change. The ANC overcame similar difficulties to establish an international movement in support of its revolution in South Africa. Its president and military leader, Nelson Mandela — a man once branded a terrorist — has become a global icon. He achieved this transformation by embracing — to the best of his and his party’s ability — a real rhetorical and actual commitment to the universal idea of human rights. The global solidarity that emerged from this strategy helped accomplish what guns could not achieve independently.

The question is: Can Palestinian nationalists and their allies reassess their tactics in order to seize the opportunity and introduce real change into American views of their cause, Israel and the Middle East?

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