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Boycotts: Your Power, Your Purse, Our Liberation

  • Opinion

By Amran Abdiqadir-Mohamed, BA Global Development and Social Anthropology

“Boycotts don’t work…I’m just one person so it won’t make a difference…Well the shop has already bought it, so I’m not changing anything.”

These are all phrases that I’m sure we’ve heard in the last few months. Recently, boycotts have been associated with rejecting companies/organisations/people who support Israeli apartheid. Most of us are probably familiar with the BDS movement, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,  which “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” Sounds great, but what does that have to do with us as individuals? There are many ways to be involved in the movement – just start by looking on their website and social media (@bdsnationalcommittee on Instagram).

What I’d like to talk about, however, is how boycotts can be carried out on an individual and institutional level. The majority of the things that I boycott are products that I use in my everyday life, including cosmetics, food (basically every chocolate bar ever), and clothing brands. Essentially, deciding not to engage with companies that I know support and invest in Israeli apartheid. The latter, to me, is the most important aspect of this discussion. We, as the public, are actively choosing not to give our money to companies that use it to do awful things. 

If we can access information that explains clearly how a company supports the Palestinian genocide, I personally don’t see any reason for us to continue giving that organisation our money – cash we have worked very hard to make. Not to speak in slogans but, knowledge is power and silence/ignorance is complicity. In the same way that you choose to boycott, you can choose to avoid it by hiding behind the excuse of “I didn’t know.” That’s just not good enough.

“Individualistic societies desperately want you to believe that you are fighting for liberation on your own. It’s just not true, and we cannot allow ourselves to internalise that line of thinking.”

There are so many companies supporting the Israeli apartheid regime, so much so that it may feel impossible to research and avoid all of them. This brings us back to the BDS movement and their targeted and organic consumer boycotts, which include a list of selected companies that “play a clear and direct role in Israel’s crimes” so that the boycotts are as impactful as possible. These are products that everyone should avoid, and the organic ones are super easy to do, with their culprits largely being fast food companies. It’s important to acknowledge that although we are individuals who are not buying these products, we are part of a collective community that’s boycotting the company. Individualistic societies desperately want you to believe that you are fighting for liberation on your own. It’s just not true, and we cannot allow ourselves to internalise that line of thinking. 

This is not the first time that targeted boycotts have been used to defund and end genocidal acts. The BDS movement has taken inspiration from boycotts during the South African apartheid, the Civil Rights movement, and many more. Its historical origins are important for two reasons. Firstly, they are evidence of successful boycotts. Secondly, they demonstrate the link between collective struggles and liberation, across time and geographical space. It’s not a coincidence that South Africa is the country that has brought the case of genocide inflicted by Israel to the ICJ.

There is also the point that boycotting Israeli apartheid leaves out other communities that are facing unspeakable realities. Why should we choose to fight for Palestinian liberation over all of those others? My response to this is that a company which is doing awful things to one group is probably doing terrible things to more communities. This line of thinking also ignores the very real fact of collective struggles; the systems that have allowed and maintained white settler colonialism in Palestine are also the cause of genocides and terrible things elsewhere. Boycotting companies that reinforce these systems means we’re a bit closer to dismantling them and their effects everywhere. Basically, you’re never going to lose out or miss something by supporting Palestine through boycotting. I also think it’s unfair to criticise individuals for focusing on particular liberation movements and not others. We should be doing what we can within our capacity, if someone has chosen to boycott a company for Palestine, the impact this has will be felt in many places. Don’t allow cynicism and arrogance to cripple you into doing nothing at all.

So now I hope it’s clear that boycotts are important, that they work, and that they also reflect the power we have as collectives. This is why the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill – the anti-boycott bill – that was passed in Parliament, is incredibly worrying. This bill makes it impossible for public bodies to divest companies that are complicit in human rights abuses. 

Recently, I found myself feeling a bit disheartened and honestly just very exhausted from repeating things that felt obvious and basic. It was really hard to see a way out of the environment we’re in. Someone then asked me what I thought an anti-racist society looked like. I had no idea how to answer! I’ve only known a world that is racist, imperialist, and a billion different awful things. That person made me realise how paramount it is to envision a better future. If we can’t see a way out, then genuinely what is the purpose of boycotting, marching, or any other action? By internalising and sharing the mantra “things will never change,” you are disrespecting and devaluing yourself, firstly for not recognising your role and power, but also that of other liberation groups and individuals who dedicate lifetimes to dismantling oppressive structures.

History is filled with horrendous events. I’m sure people experiencing them and born into those situations struggled to see a society that looked different – but things change. However, they only change when you believe that they can, and when you join communities that are working to enforce that change. Boycotting is one of many actions you can take, and it’s also the most individually beneficial – you save money, become a bit healthier, and won’t fund genocide and ethnic cleansing… seems easy enough?

Photo Caption: Journal Notes from Devon Blow (Photo credit: Artist Devon Blow – devthepineapple on Instagram)

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