The Differences between dissent against the South African and Israeli Apartheid boycott movements: from tactical disputes to characterizing offence as oppression



It’s hard to imagine now what opposition to the Boycott of South Africa’s apartheid policies would have looked like. Did people actually support anti-black racism in the 1970s and 1980s? Did people support South Africa’s right to treat its blacks as it pleased, and declare that the liberation of blacks in North America and Europe was simply the self-assertion of North American/European values, not universally demanded principles? To some extent, they surely did – but more importantly was the critique of boycott by way of proposing an alternative: constructive engagement. The idea was that it is better to constructively engage with a country with deeply institutionalized racist problems, because that is more likely to produce positive change than simply ignoring them and unfairly singling them out. After all, all countries have problems, lots of countries have racism, why would we only single out South Africa – isn’t that unfair? 


So there was opposition to South African apartheid, but dominantly it did not criticize the moral logic of the boycott, but rather declared the boycott an immoral tactic and recommended another tactic to replace it. The other tactic is totally ineffective, and this is actually the point, but that doesn’t need to be recognized by the dominant discourse, or especially by those who advance the tactic of constructive engagement. This does, however, make for an interesting break between the conflict over the South African apartheid boycott, and the Israeli apartheid boycott. No one said that South Africa was not apartheid, and it was not dominant to say that South Africa was not institutionally racist. Whereas, it is considered partisan to say Israel is apartheid, or that Israel practices institutional racism. In criticism of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israeli apartheid it is never asserted that instead of boycott we should constructive engage with Israel to help end its institutionally racist policies – instead it is simply denied that Israel has racist policies, or blame the racism and the racist policies on the Palestinians or the Arabs or the Islamists or the Terrorists. This follows classic colonialist discourse – when you can blame the oppressed for their own oppression, you know the colonizer is safely in power. But it means more than this – it means that the conflict over the Israeli apartheid boycott is much more literally a war of words, a war of scholarly interpretation, a war of understanding. 


The affirmation of the Palestinian struggle as a struggle over interpretations, over images and words, is rousingly affirmed by North American pro-Palestinian activists: There is no debate, in public at least, about the legitimacy of armed struggle, or about the use of terrorism – everyone denounces these and supports boycott as an alternative. Among anti-Boycott activists the essential thing is to paint the boycott such that it looks as reprehensible as terrorism – it must be labelled as racist, or as “economic warfare” (a term commonly used in the Israeli press to criticize the new Israeli law which makes boycotting products made in the Palestinian territories illegal and punishable by huge fines). But it is not actually enough that anti-Boycott activists describe the tactics of the boycott as immoral, insofar as anti-Boycott activists are actually pro-Zionist activists, pro-Israeli supporters and supporters of Israeli colonization of significant portions of the West Ban including the old city of Jerusalem and the Al-Buraq wall, they must also oppose the goals of the boycott – the end of institutional racism in Israel. Perversely, the criticism of institutional racism must itself be described as racist, and calling Israel apartheid must itself become a kind of “apartheid” action in that you are “unfairly singling out one country for criticism”.


The outcome of the need for pro-Zionist activists to de-legitimize boycott not on the grounds of its effectiveness as a tactic but in terms of its goals is the raising up of the feeling of being-offended to the level of importance we assign to being oppressed. It becomes a legitimate response to claims of Israeli oppression to say that by pointing out Israeli oppression, you are offending Israelis. The extent to which this is effective is noticeable in the taboo whereby people in general actually eel that criticizing Israel is potentially anti-semitic. This is one implication of the discourse of talking about Israeli colonization as “oppression being undertaken by the oppressed” – if Israelis retain their characteristic of “being oppressed” because of the history of anti-semitism, and more importantly the holocaust, then offending them is characterized itself as a kind oppression, which then can stand on the same level as the oppression which they do against the Palestinians. 


The only positive point I have to make here is that it is essential not to characterize any people or group as essentially oppressed, or essentially oppressors. This is not to say there are no “oppressor groups” or “oppressed groups”, but rather it is possible for any oppressed group to historically transform into an oppressor group, and vice versa. The essential thing is to get the temporality of this transformation right – not to re-characterized an oppressed group as oppressors before they are effectively liberated, and not to continue to characterize an oppressor group as oppressed long after they have gained the position of the upper hand. 


It is possible to debate about whether the Zionists in Palestine during WW2 and in the late 40s were an oppressed or oppressor group, or both at the same time. I certainly have my own view – that they were colonizers who used the oppression of Jews in Europe as an opportune historical force to further their goal which they had been pursuing since long before Hitler’s germany – certainly it was the holocaust that changed Zionism into a mainstream political view amongst Jews. But my point is that it is at least possible for respectable people to have an argument about that question. It is not, however, possible for respectable and honest people to have an argument about whether Israelis today constitute an oppressed or oppressor group – they are clearly the aggressor against the Palestinians since the Oslo accords because they have in so many ways clearly opposed movement towards a settlement on the international consensus. And it is not possible, amongst serious people, to point to Palestinian terrorism as a source of Israeli oppression – the clear goal of the mainstream terror groups is the establishment of a Palestinian state on the internationally recognized boundaries (’67 borders), so in fact Palestinian military activity is legitimate, whereas Israeli military activity in the territories is not legitimate. 


There are serious and determined people who support the mainstream Israeli position – but they are extremists; they believe the land of Israel is theirs because God gave it to them, and they must be politically pragmatic to gain as much of it as is possible given geo-strategic considerations. Most importantly, extremists are willing to sacrifice peace for land, and this is what Israel has consistently chosen since Nasser offered peace in ’71 for the return of the Sinai, with nothing for the Palestinians. This is not to say that there are no Palestinian extremists, no Palestinians who do not insist that all of Palestine should be a land for Palestinians and for Israelis, and that Israelis should live under an Islamic (Hamas) or Secular (faith) Palestinian state – as Jews, and with equal religious rights to Muslims. This is the “extreme” Palestinian view, and although its secular version may be very similar in its values to, say, Canada or the United States, it is the extreme view because of the position it takes in the conflict – that Israelis are largely strongly opposed to living in an anti-racist society where they would have equal rights with Palestinians. 


There is an open question as to whether freedom and equality are truly universal or universalist values, and whether it is always the progressive thing to agitate for movement towards them and away from tribalism and sectarianism. The mainstream view in the Palestinian situation is to affirm tribalism (one state for Israelis, one state for Palestinians), and not to demand that equal rights be affirmed for all, and that Palestinians have the asme right to return to their villages as is being accorded to Jews all around the world to “return” to Israel onto land which was stolen from someone else. It is the extremist view to talk this way, to strongly affirm freedom, and to demand that people not act on tribal loyalties. 


But to return to the essential issue in this piece – what is at play with North American pro and anti boycott activism  is not so much whether or not we should affirm tribalism, or whether or not we should affirm freedom and equal rights – but whether it is actually oppressive to oppose tribalism – not whether one should be for or against it, but whether it is even appropriate to be against it, or whether being against Israeli tribalism should be stricken from the public discourse as offensive, and, since Jews are characterized as the essentially oppressed people, actually oppressive. 


Offence is not oppression if you are offending the oppressor. That’s really all I have to say, and all that needs to be said. The rest is details which can be resolved peacefully between amicable, honest, and generous individuals. 

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