“I am a black South African, and if I were to change the names, the description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be a description of what is happening in South Africa”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, New York 1989
When Desmond Tutu made this comment, the South African apartheid regime was still in power. In 1994, after 45 years of racial segregation, the apartheid era was officially over. When watershed moments like this occur, multiple factors can be attributed. But history is clear that one of the many reasons this tyranny finally succumbed was an international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign – BDS.
There is no doubt the decision taken by Sydney’s Marrickville council last December to heed the 2005 call for BDS by virtually all of Palestinian civil society was going to be controversial; so was the international movement against apartheid South Africa.
With a New South Wales state election just around the corner, and other local councils considering similar BDS proposals across Australia, this issue is generating predictable heat. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Gerard Henderson last week condemned the Greens for ignoring “democratic” Israel. A prominent mural in inner Sydney, normally aimed at attacking Muslim women who wear the burqa, was changed to attack Marrickville mayor and leading Greens candidate Fiona Byrne for supporting BDS. Even DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson has entered the debate, calling BDS “wacko stuff”.
Sydney's Daily Telegraph slammed Byrne for daring to consider a trade boycott of China over its human rights abuses in Tibet. She should be praised for consistency, acknowledging that we should not conduct international relations, even with a major trading partner, and ignore gross human rights outrages to make a buck.
As a Palestinian and a Jew, we salute Marrickville for understanding that words about “two-state solution” and “peace process” are soothing to elite media and political ears, but desperate facts on the ground in Palestine require direct action in a consultative and non-violent way. When governments fail to arrest the illegal march of colonisation on Palestinian land, it is not enough to wait for futile peace negotiations that only lead to a more deeply entrenched occupation.
Marrickville council is at least trying to advance the debate about occupation while our leaders visit Israel and dine with Benjamin Netanyahu. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd led the largest ever delegation to Israel in December, barely stopping in the occupied Palestinian territories for a few meetings.
Much as staunch Israel advocates would like to have us believe that apartheid South Africa and Israel are completely different, they are actually intimately linked. Israel was one of the few countries that continued to support apartheid South Africa when most of the international community had instituted its boycott. In his recent book about the relationship, The Unspoken Alliance, author Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes that the Zionist state is “playing its part” in comparison to the darkest apartheid days by instituting a matrix of control against the Palestinians.
In reality, the resolution that Marrickville passed is probably more symbolic than anything else, but it is a necessary one precisely because it has had its intended impact; leading a debate on Palestine/Israel both here and overseas. In early February , Israeli Member of the Knesset Miri Regev announced that “In the realm of the boycott alone, one can point to real damage to the State of Israel, assessed at tens of millions of US dollars”. It is as legitimate to target Western security firms that assist Israel in the West Bank as boycotting arms dealers who sell weapons to the brutal regimes of Egypt and Libya.
When Israel refuses to cease colony building and Western states, including Australia, continue to fete Israeli “democracy”, BDS becomes a logical and moral tactic. A wide selection of Jewish groups, activists, unions and Israeli citizens has now embraced BDS worldwide.
Israel’s illegal military occupation, West Bank settlements, home demolitions and blockade of Gaza have sometimes been met with Palestinian violence. BDS however is a categorical act of non-violence, yet those who support BDS as a way of franchising the international community into making Israel more accountable are themselves now attacked as ‘delegitimisers’. This is as insidious as calling critics of Israel “anti-Semites” as a way to shut down discussion. It should not succeed.
In the last 25 years, Australia has unfortunately lost its way with respect to dictating any real policy on Palestine/Israel. The major parties say they support a two state solution, but what does that mean when there are 500,000 plus illegal colonists in the lands that are designated as the future ‘Palestine’? Ironically, a UN vote on settlements that took place recently saw only the US (14-1) reject a resolution calling for the immediate halt to all construction in the occupied Palestinian territories.
It has never been clearer, with revolution sweeping across the Arab world, that America and its Western allies much prefer Arab “stability” to maintain the illusion of Israeli democracy. BDS punctures this bubble and clearly asks; do you believe in representative democracy in Palestine and Israel or a state that discriminates against non-Jews in the name of religion?
While the two major Australian parties continue to whitewash this critical issue, the void will inevitably be filled by those compelled to act. We congratulate the NSW Greens for embracing BDS, with the support of their Labor colleagues in Marrickville, as it demonstrates that the impending state election will be hotly contested on local and global issues – not least whether we as Australians truly value equality, human rights and real democracy for all Israelis and Palestinians. Our globalised world dictates acting when injustice rages, whether in Burma, Sri Lanka or Palestine.
Last week at a “meet the candidates” forum in inner Sydney, Greens candidate Fiona Byrne defended her decision to back BDS by saying it was a question of universal human rights, just as councils in the past have supported actions against Burma and China. Israel is committing human rights abuses and we are compelled to act.
To dismiss BDS out of hand as some sort of revolutionary cause célèbre of the left is to utterly denigrate those who died in the name of freedom from oppression. When the Australian Jewish News runs an entire front page headline, “Laughing stock of the world” and “a joke” this week, in reference to the decision by Marrickville council, one seriously wonders whether backing illegal settlements in the West Bank is their way to further 21st century Zionism.
The stated purpose of BDS is “to end Israel's occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid”. As Israel descends into an increasingly intolerant state with fascist members of parliament in major positions of power, BDS seems the most reasonable response imaginable.