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Israel and the politics of boycott

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"Apartheid Wall" it built on Palestinian landsby Joseph Massad

"Boycott" is a term as old as political Zionism. As is commonly known, it came into circulation in 1880, starting out as an Irish peasant action to prevent peasant evictions from the land by landlords and their agents - in that inaugural case an agent named Charles Boycott. This is not to say that this was the first time such a tactic had been used. Indeed, half a century earlier, in 1830, in the United States, the National Negro Convention supported a boycott of slave-produced goods, a movement which had started among White Quakers at the end of the 18th century and which would spread among White and Black abolitionists during the 19th century until the American Civil War.

These auspicious beginnings of the boycott to restore the land and freedom of peasants and slaves would inspire movements in the 20th century that would range from anti-colonial tactics (as in the Indian boycott of British goods beginning in 1919 to end the British occupation of India) to anti-colonial-settler tactics (including the Arab League boycott of the Jewish settler-colony since the mid-1940s and the anti-South African Apartheid boycott beginning in the 1960s) to anti-racist tactics (including the anti-Nazi Jewish boycott of 1933 to end Nazi racial separatism and the Montgomery Bus Boycott by African Americans in the mid-1950s to end American white colonial settler apartheid in Alabama and the rest of the American South). 

Boycotting the Palestinians

There is however a different history of the uses of the boycott. In contrast with its uses to force the end of race, class and colonial injustice, boycott would also be deployed as a tactic to bring about colonial and racial injustice. Zionism would be a pioneer in this regard. Upon the formalisation of Zionist settler colonialism in the 1897 First Zionist Congress, Jewish colonists were incensed that earlier Russian Jewish agricultural colonists who had settled in Palestine since the 1880s would employ Palestinian labour in their colonies, on account of its availability and cheapness. It was in this context that Zionism would develop its racially separatist notion of "Hebrew labour", insisting and later imposing its regulations on all Jewish colonists in Palestine, namely that Jewish labour should be used exclusively in the Jewish settler-colony.

Realising the difficulty of imposing its racialisation project on Palestine, a country which Zionism did not control yet, the movement developed the idea of the first racially separatist planned community for the exclusive use of Ashkenazi Jews, namely the Kibbutz, which would develop in the first decade of the 20th century. Lest one mistake the idea of the Kibbutz as a commitment to socialism, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, who came up with the exclusive "Hebrew labour" idea to boycott the Palestinians, set the record straight: The Kibbutz was set up to "guarantee [separatist] Jewish labour" and not as an application of socialist theory. 

As a racially separatist Jewish economy and colony established on the lands of the Palestinians continued to be the primary goal of Zionism, the principle of boycott of Palestinian labour and products would become more aggressive as time passed. Like its parent Zionist movement before it, which used the tactic of boycott to effect racial separation and discrimination rather than end it, the Zionist labour Federation, the Histadrut, would begin in 1927 to use the time-honoured act of picketing. Picketing is traditionally used by workers and unions to end practices involving the exploitation and unfair treatment of workers. In the case of the Jewish colonists, they used picketing to bring about discrimination against Palestinian workers and to deny them employment in their own country. The Zionist picketing campaign sought to boycott Jewish businesses which continued to employ Palestinian labour as well as the goods the Palestinians produced. This was not only confined to the agricultural Jewish colonies in the Palestinian countryside, but also included urban settings where Jewish businesses employed Palestinians in the area of construction.

The Zionist campaign would continue until 1936 when the Great Palestinian Revolt would erupt threatening both the Zionist settler colonial project and the British occupation safeguarding it. In these nine years of picketing, not only did the workers among the Jewish colonists join the picket lines, but so did the professionals and the middle class of Jewish colonial society, including actors, teachers, librarians, as well as Histadrut officials. In addition to the major picketing campaign of the citrus groves of Kfar Saba in the 1920s, the Histadrut would organise "mobile-pickets" where picketers would travel from one construction site to the next in the cities, including Tel Aviv, where Palestinian workers were employed in the building of the first racially separate Jewish city.

If labour picketers around the world would harass scabs who were coopted by exploitative employers at the expense of union workers, colonial Jewish picketers in Palestine would harass Palestinian workers who were violating the racially separatist project of Zionism. Picketers would attack and beat up Palestinian workers and steal their tools and destroy their work. The picketers would also destroy the produce of the Jewish colonies that employed Palestinian peasants and workers. This was hardly an exception but harked back to Zionist colonial practices in the first decade of the 20th century when the racist principle of "Hebrew labour" was first put into action. When Jewish colonists found out in 1908 that the saplings in a forest that was founded in memory of Zionism's founder Theodor Herzl in Ben Shemen near Lydda were planted by Palestinians, they came and uprooted them and then replanted them again, thus preserving the Jewish character of the forest.

Breaking the anti-Nazi boycott

Unlike the Zionists who were pioneers in their use of boycotts to effect racial separatism, the Nazis would be latecomers to the tactic. The Nazis would begin to boycott Jewish businesses in Germany starting in April 1933 in response to the American Jewish call for a boycott of Nazi Germany, which had started a month earlier in March 1933. In view of the racist Nazi regime's targeting of Jews, American Jews and other European Jews started a campaign in March 1933 to boycott Nazi Germany until it ended its racist campaign and political targeting of German Jews.

Whereas American Jews, including Zionists, began to lobby US politicians and organisations to join the boycott, the Zionist leadership in Palestine and Germany saw the matter differently. It was in this context that the Zionists signed the notorious Transfer (Ha'avara) Agreement with Nazi Germany, whereby Jews leaving Germany to Palestine would be compensated for their lost property, which they were not allowed to transfer outside the country, through the transfer of German goods to the Jewish colonies in Palestine.

The official parties to the agreement included the Zionist Federation of Germany, the Nazi government, and the Anglo-Palestine Bank (which was founded in 1899 as the financial arm of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) under the name "The Jewish Colonial Trust", and renamed in 1950 as "Bank Leumi"). Bank Leumi is today the largest bank in Israel. The Ha'avara Agreement, which was signed in 1933, not only broke the boycott against Nazi Germany, but also entailed the selling of German goods by the Zionists to Britain. Sixty percent of all capital invested in the Jewish colonies of Palestine between 1933 and 1939 came from German Jewish money through the Transfer Agreement. This infuriated not only American and European Jews who were promoting the boycott, which the WZO was breaking, but also the right-wing revisionists within the Zionist movement itself who assassinated the major Zionist envoy to the Nazis, Chaim Arlosoroff, in 1933 upon his return from Nazi Germany where he had been negotiating the Agreement.

Not only would Zionism break the boycott, but its local German branch would also be the only German Jewish organisation that would support the Nazi Nuremberg laws that were issued in 1935 to separate German Jews from German "Aryans" racially. The Zionists, like the Nazis, agreed that German "Aryans" and German Jews were separate races and people. Here Zionist thinking becomes clear on the question of boycotts. Wherein Zionists were using boycotts to bring about racial and colonial separatism in Palestine to privilege colonising Jews and separate them from Palestinian Arabs, they opposed the Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany which sought to end Nazi racial separatism in the country targeting Jews. For Zionism, what mattered most was its commitment to racial separatism, whether in Germany or Palestine, and it supported only those boycotts that would bring it about. Indeed, as the Nazis in the 1930s sought to deport Jews and render Germany Judenrein (the Nazis proposed Madagascar as a destination for German Jews), the Zionists were proposing Palestine as the destination for German Jews, whose deportation they ultimately supported and were using the boycott and picketing campaigns to render the Jewish State-to-be in Palestine Araberrein.

The Palestinians countered Zionist separatism with boycotts of their own, targeting the Zionist colonies and their products during the British Mandate years. The Arab League of States would issue its own boycott of Zionist and Israeli goods that would go into effect in 1945. Like the American Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany in 1933 which sought to end Nazi racial separatism, the Palestinian boycott of the 1930s and the ongoing Arab League boycott were imposed precisely to end Jewish colonial and racial separatism and discrimination against the Palestinians.

Supporting French settler-colonialism

From 1948 until 1967, the Israelis would become the major ally of France, which was the chief colonial-settler European enforcer of racial apartheid on another Arab people, namely Algerians. Not only would France become Israel's major arms supplier and ally during this period, the fact that the two countries shared the status of being the only two European settler-colonies on Arab lands was paramount in its calculations.

When the Algerian revolt started in November 1954, the French decided to increase their arms sales to the Israelis. French Generals explained the intensification of their military alliance with Israel as part of the fight against the Algerian revolutionaries, as well as against the anti-imperialist Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser who supported the Algerian Revolution. The alliance and friendship between the two colonising states was so strong that Israel would also carry out military manoeuvers with the French on occupied Algerian territory and would enlist Algerian Jews (who were granted French citizenship in 1870 by France to separate them from their compatriot Algerian Muslims and grant them the privileges of White French colonists) to spy on the Algerian National movement that was seeking to end French colonialism and racism.

A few months after the end of his 13-month stint as Governor General of French Algeria, the French colonial politician and later terrorist, Jacques Soustelle, helped to create and presided over the pro-Israel lobbying group Alliance France-Israel in November 1956. This followed Israel's collusion with France to invade Egypt that year and destroy the regime of Abdel Nasser. In 1958, Soustelle would enjoin not only Israel but the world Jewish communities to support French colonial apartheid in Algeria: "We believe that given the influence which not only Israel but above all the Jewish communities throughout the world exert on international opinion, this alliance would produce happy results for us." Soustelle's anti-Semitism and Nazi-like views concerning the alleged power of the world Jewish communities did not bother Israel one bit. Indeed, Soustelle would join the terrorist group Organisation de l'armee secrete (OAS) in 1960 to fight against Algerian independence, which was by then increasingly becoming the accepted vision in French government circles for the future of Algeria.

The military alliance with Israel did not only provide arms and impart military training to the Israelis, but also made it possible for the French themselves to learn a few Israeli tricks, including "convoy bombing", which the French would use in Algeria. This was not all. French officers would be dispatched to Israel to learn new techniques in psychological warfare from the Jewish colonists. French General Maurice Challe, Commander-in-Chief of the French forces in Algeria (1958-1960), insisted in an interview with Sylvia Crosbie that the Israelis were "consummate artists" at dealing with the Palestinian natives. Challe went further and hoped to use the Kibbutz as a model for his pacification program in Algeria, but the triumph of the Algerian Revolution would prevent his plan from being executed.

Israeli study missions in Algeria were also welcomed as the Israelis were keen to learn from the French the use of helicopters to fight the Algerian guerrillas. Challe, like other generals who were friends of Israel, would participate in the failed coup of April 1961 against the French government in Algeria and would be tried by a military tribunal. Testimonies by at least one participant in the failed coup stated that the coup leaders were expecting support from a number of settler colonial powers: "Portugal, South Africa, South America, and perhaps Israel."

Israel's alliance with colonial France would sour when the French opted to end their war against the Algerian people and acceded to their independence. Not happy with its isolation as the only remaining European settler colony in the Arab world, Israel rushed to support the right-wing French terrorists who opposed their government and began to fight against Algerian independence. Aside from conscripting a number of Algerian Jews, who had joined the terrorist OAS, into Israel's spy network, the Israelis provided logistical support to the French terrorists. This included support for Jacques Soustelle himself, who was supported by Ben Gurion and was financed by rich right-wing pro-Israeli American Jews who opposed de Gaulle and Algerian independence. Algerian Jewish commandos organised themselves in Oran against Algerian Muslims and sought partition of the colony along racial lines. They were said to be inspired in their quest by Israeli government policy. Thus, just like its support of Nazi racial separatism and refusal to join the Jewish anti-Nazi boycott, Zionism and Israel opted to support French colonial racism and separatism, and indeed to fight actively against its final dissolution in Algeria, rather than join the international condemnation of French colonial policies.

Breaking the boycott against apartheid

But the story of Zionism and boycotts would not end there. Zionism would stay true to its principles of supporting boycotts that promote racial apartheid and denouncing boycotts that oppose racial apartheid to the present. When the United Nations imposed mandatory sanctions against the racist settler-colony of Rhodesia in 1966, Israel supported the sanctions at the UN but in reality never abided by them. Israel would provide arms and helicopters to be used in counterinsurgency by the Rhodesian government against the anti-racist independence movement seeking to overthrow the regime (a tactic, as we saw, which it learned from French colonial forces in Algeria and which it was now imparting to Rhodesian white supremacist colonists). Indeed the Israelis, breaking the international boycott, would provide the racist Rhodesians in the 1970s with a 500-mile separation fence along the border with Mozambique and Zambia. The fall of the Rhodesian settler colony in 1980 and the rise of Zimbabwe did not bode well for the future of Israel.

When the African National Congress (ANC) and progressive allies, who would also be joined by the United Nations, began to call for and effect different forms of boycott against apartheid South Africa beginning in the early1960s, Israel would be a central breaker of the boycott, becoming the apartheid state's major political and economic partner. Indeed Israel's strategic alliance with South Africa would be built in the late 1960s as the boycott campaign against the apartheid regime became more vociferous.

Here again, Zionism was true to its principles. One of its founding fathers, Chaim Weizmann, was a close friend of none other than the Afrikaner leader Jan Smuts, one of the central founders of modern South Africa. Smuts was such a big supporter of the Jewish settler colony that Jewish colonists named a Kibbutz after him: Ramat Yohanan.  It was both ideological proximity and structural positionality that led to the alliance between the two settler colonies. In November 1962, The UN General Assembly resolution 1761 was passed and called for a voluntary boycott, requesting member states to break off diplomatic relations with South Africa, to cease trading with South Africa (arms exports in particular), and to deny passage to South African ships and aircraft. In August 1963, the United Nations Security Council established a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa. Finally in November 1977, the Security Council adopted a mandatory arms embargo. Under increasing domestic and international pressure, the Carter administration finally voted in favour of the embargo.

As international consensus was mounting against the apartheid state, Israel would strengthen its alliance with it, not only in military, including nuclear cooperation, but also in providing it with training, arms and equipment to put down the ongoing anti-apartheid demonstrations and uprisings. Support for the apartheid state would come from Israel's quintessential racist and separatist institution, the Ashkenazi-Jewish Kibbutz. For example, Kibbutz Beit Alfa would provide the apartheid security forces of South Africa with anti-riot weapons to put down the demonstrations. One of Beit Alfa's main industries is indeed riot control equipment, including water cannons, which it would provide to the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s in a "secret pact". Kibbutz Beit Alfa, it should be mentioned, was established by the Jewish National Fund partly on lands purchased from absentee landlords and partly on confiscated lands belonging to Palestinian villages.

Israel would also provide South Africa, as in the case of Rhodesia, with hundreds of miles of mined electric fences to protect the racist state's borders from ANC guerrilla infiltration. It would also build a thousand-mile fence on the Namibia-Angola border to protect South Africa's occupation of Namibia. Its expertise in separation fences and walls would be put to productive use with the massive "Apartheid Wall" that Israel would build on Palestinian lands beginning in 1994 and continuing into the 21st century. Israel's breaking the boycott against the apartheid regime would continue until the latter's demise in 1994. With the fall of colonial Algeria, Rhodesia and South Africa, Israel remained alone as the last European settler-colony across Asia and Africa. 

The Palestinian Authority and boycott

Since the beginning of the so-called "peace process", all diplomatic solutions which Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have signed on to are engineered to preserve Israel's racially separatist project of a "Jewish state" and of racial partition. Indeed, not only does Israel and US president Barack Obama insist on preserving Israel as a separatist and racist Jewish state as a precondition to all peace talks, but also on Israeli policies of racial separation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which continue unabated with the construction of Jews-only settlements and Jews-only highways on stolen Palestinian lands. 

In Israel itself, Israel's state-appointed rabbis have been incensed that Israeli laws do not fully ensure racial separatism. In light of Safad's chief Rabbi's call urging Israeli Jews not to sell or rent houses or apartments to non-Jews, dozens of Israel's municipal rabbis signed onto his rabbinical ruling in December 2010. The Rabbis issued a letter to announce their call to "urge neighbours of anyone renting or selling property to Arabs to caution that person. After delivering the warning, the neighbour is then encouraged to issue notices to the general public and inform the community… The neighbours and acquaintances [of a Jew who sells or rents to an Arab] must distance themselves from the Jew, refrain from doing business with him, deny him the right to read from the Torah, and similarly [ostracise] him until he goes back on this harmful deed". 

Unlike the Palestinian anti-colonial resistance which sought to boycott colonial goods in the British Mandate years, and unlike the Arab League which mandated an Arab boycott of Israel, the PA has a different view of economic relations with Israel. Like the World Zionist Organization and the German Zionists who saw the fight against anti-Semitism as self-defeating and saw collaboration with anti-Semitism as crucial to the success of Zionism, the Oslo Palestinian leadership has followed a similar strategy of collaboration with Zionism and of prohibiting resistance to it. 

Calls for boycotts by Palestinians are constantly assailed by PA operatives, who only recently, in 2010, and under public pressure heeded a minimalist call to boycott the Jewish colonial settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In December 2012, unelected PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an erstwhile opponent of a boycott of Israel, issued a call to West Bank Palestinians to boycott all Israeli goods for the first time ever in retaliation for the Israeli government decision to sequester PA tax revenues, an action that bankrupted PA coffers. His government, however, never provided any mechanisms or logistical support for such a boycott nor has there been any official follow-up. In fact, when Fayyad announced the boycott of settlement goods in May 2010 as a publicity stunt, it was accompanied with assurances from unelected PA President Mahmoud Abbas that the PA was not boycotting Israel at all and would continue trade cooperation with it. 

BDS, Obama, and pinkwashing

Today, it is the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and its international solidarity network that is the champion of a boycott of the racist Israeli settler colony. Like its noble predecessors, from African American boycotts in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Indian boycott of British goods, the Jewish anti-Nazi boycott, and the international boycott of Rhodesia and South Africa, the BDS movement insists that its call for a boycott should be heeded until Israel sheds all its racist laws and policies and becomes a non-racist state. 

Israel has expectedly mobilised much of its political power to defeat the BDS initiative and has solicited the help of its formidable ally, Barack Obama, who has publicly expressed hostility to the BDS movement and shamelessly threatened the Palestinian people with dire consequences were they to dare to dismantle Israel's racist institutions. Israel's campaigns have included what some have called "pinkwashing", portraying itself as a democratic country that safeguards the rights of homosexuals unlike its allegedly oppressive Arab neighbours. In this regard, it is important to mention Zionism's prehistory of "pinkwashing".  

The first European Jew that the Zionist movement assassinated in Palestine was the Dutch Jewish poet and novelist Jacob Israel de Haan. De Haan, whom the Zionists assassinated in 1924, was not only a fighter against Zionist racism and oppression of the Palestinians, but was also known in Zionist circles to engage in homosexual activities, and that he had a special fondness for young Palestinian men (he wrote a poem about the theme). His assassin, Avraham Tehoni of the official Zionist army, the Haganah, was given the orders to assassinate him by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who would become Israel's second president (1952-1963). The Zionists tried to pin de Haan's murder on the Palestinians who were allegedly motivated to kill him on account of his homosexual activity with Palestinian boys.  While Zionist propaganda failed, and de Haan's Jewish murderer would confess decades later publicly to his assassination, some evidence suggests that de Haan's homosexual activities might have been an important factor on the mind of Zionist decision-makers when they ordered his assassination, though his assassin denied that this was a motive. 

Israel's attempt to rebrand itself as a just and egalitarian society comes up against its actual and stark racist reality. Its opposition to the Palestinian BDS movement is often framed as an opposition to all boycotts as a form of struggle. But as the historical record shows, this is not a time-honoured Zionist position. As they have done throughout their history, Zionism and Israel will continue to support any boycott that seeks to institutionalise racism and racial separatism and will denounce any boycott that seeks to end racism and racial separatism. Their campaign and that of Obama against BDS should be understood in this context of their commitment to apartheid as a principle of organising human life. 

Joseph Massad teaches Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of The Persistence of the Palestinian Question published by Routledge. 


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