Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish
On the date of publication, it will be almost a year since the SOAS community passed a motion for the academic boycott of Israel. Part of the School’s historic support of the wider Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), the academic boycott motion won by 73% on the 27th February 2015. I remember the momentum of the night the results were announced. The room, filled with Palestinian flags, kuffiyehs and hopeful faces, erupted with the resounding ‘yes’ vote to academically boycott Israel. Such a decision, if implemented by the university management, would see the closure of the year abroad programme for Hebrew students at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
However, such a decision would not see the closure of Hebrew studies at SOAS. The study of Hebrew and the implementation of the year abroad (though the Persian programme in the same department lacks a year abroad programme) could be done in a number of diverse places, such as at universities in the West Bank, in the United States or even in universities or study centres within ‘48 (modern Israel proper) which do not contribute to Israeli apartheid.
The opening of several Israeli Studies center in the wider Middle East show that more radical things have happened than studying Hebrew outside of institutions which contribute to a militarised Israeli society. The decision to boycott Israel is not an anti-Semitic one. We who advocate for BDS are not against a religion, ethnicity or a language: we are simply against the continuing illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
This affirmation that BDS is not anti-Semitic has recently been denied, once again, by the British government with its plans to make institutional boycotts of Israel illegal as part of wider anti-boycott measures. On the 17th February, the government announced that local authorities, such as councils, and public sector organisations, such as universities, would be banned from boycotting Israeli products and suppliers.
In the government’s view, institutional boycotts are just dandy when they translate as sanctions and embargoes on ‘hostile’ or perceived ‘backwards’ nations, too embroiled in civil war or political turmoil to be endorsed by the strong arm of British capitalism. Where such boycotts are to be opposed, condemned and labeled as downright ‘anti-Semitic’ is when they apply to Israel, a country which we thoroughly endorse through arm sales and a thorough endorsement of a dead Israeli- led ‘peace process,’ not to mention local council’s wide use of companies such as G4S, Veolia and ISS (all BDS targets through their involvement in Israeli settlements).
Pro-Palestine groups which advocate for BDS have already been targeted in the UK in recent months. In October, several groups including local branches of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) had their bank accounts closed by the Co-Operative Bank. In a more local context, the SOAS Palestine Society was targeted as ‘anti-Semitic’ for holding a vigil for Palestinian martyrs, which was taken as a celebration of murder by Israel supporters. Pro-Palestine activists disrupting a visit of ex-Shin Bet (the Israeli intelligence service) chief Ami Ayalon to Kings’ College London were painted as ‘violent’ by the mainstream press which drastically twisted events.
The UK government desires to rest calmly on the fence in regards to Israel, though more accurately they prefer to dip their toes over the apartheid wall every once in awhile in order to profess support for Israel’s ‘right to self defence,’ sell arms and enjoy the fruits of a diplomatic trip to the promised land. Our government nominally supports Palestinian ‘statehood,’ that is, making the Palestinian Authority an ‘officially recognised state,’ though one which has no control over its borders, ‘right to self defence,’ or economy. A captive state controlled by Israel and the neoliberal, undemocratic and collaborative government led by Mahmoud Abbas is the British conception of Palestinian statehood.
It is this which motivates recent anti-boycott measures. On one hand, the government will support packaging measures to label items produced in settlements (apparently separate from, though endorsed by, the Israeli state), and on the other it will condemn boycotts which extend beyond the power of the individual consumer. SOAS was featured recently on a Channel 4 feature, with several students speaking out against the government’s anti-BDS stance. We’re a convenient place to initiate a conversation which clearly leans against BDS. Famous for being politically ‘radical’ and hosting ‘extremist’ speakers, the programme which later pitted Malia Bouattia (NUS Black Students’ Officer) against James Sorene, head of the British Israel Communications Research Centre. Sorene gestured that “the economic impact [of BDS is]… minimal… a boycott is doing nothing.”
On the contrary, last year a leaked Israeli government paper reported that BDS could cost Israel $1.4 billion a year – and that’s on the conservative side. A US think-tank, the Rand Corporation, estimated that over 10 years BDS could cost Israel $47 billion. Aside from economic costs (amongst which we can already count the withdraw of several companies, such as Orange, from their Israeli markets), perhaps the largest impact of BDS is dialogue. It is for this reason why we must continue strengthening the boycott, despite the scare tactics of the government.
Figures like Sorene like to talk about ‘interfaith dialogue’ and the power of conversation in the peace process. However, the reality of the Israel-Palestine peace process is that it has been dominated by the coloniser, the militarily superior state of Israel with its international backers, such as the United States. Such a dialogue has only ended in further losses of Palestinian land. The dialogue which should be initiated – and is being initiated, despite Sorene’s concerns over the ‘anti-Semitism’ of the BDS movement – is one within and between Palestinian and Israeli communities.
Over a decade of BDS campaigning has seen increased cooperation between anti-occupation Israeli activists and Palestinian communities. BDS was birthed from the heart of Palestinian civil society movements, and likewise it has invigorated the ‘Boycott from Within’ movement, which campaigns for boycott within Israeli society. This is the start of a truly productive dialogue within Palestinian and Israeli communities – and it starts with BDS.