“Streets were filled with people and his van surrounded by thousands” so the story began. It was one of those stories always repeated again and again back in Iran by my grandmother but it never lost its charm. It recounted the day when Yasser Arafat, erstwhile leader of Palestine Liberation Organization, visited Tehran to collect donations for the struggle of his people. “In those days, I barely had money to buy milk for your uncle,” my grandmother recounted “But I threw my necklace in the bucket of donations.”
Such were the stories that I grew up with. Like a lot of Iranians, the struggle of the Palestinians against the occupation of their homeland was always very important for me. Their plight and their honourable struggle have always had a special prominence.
As a result, when I moved to Canada a couple of years ago I was very excited to hear about activists who were here to wage campaigns against Israeli Apartheid. I heard these campaigns were especially prominent in Toronto and was thrilled to join comrades here in an international struggle against imperialism. What I did find was some very honest and hard-working people fighting with good intentions. But what disappointed me was the type of campaign they were running.
Israeli Apartheid Week, and its campaign for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions of all Israeli products, has come under a lot of unjust criticism and pressure that aim to silence our protests against Israeli imperialism and apartheid. While fighting against these, I also see the need to extend a friendly criticism to the organizers since it’s my belief that the campaign, in its current form, will not only not lead to an effective struggle against Israeli apartheid but, unfortunately, will end up strengthening it.
BDS is ineffective because it relies on liberal reformist methods and politics that have never changed anything in the world. To suggest that the way to struggle against imperialism is a consumer boycott — basically convincing people to not purchase products made by Israeli firms — is analogous to methods that seek to end the imperialist exploitation of workers in the global south by changing the coffee you drink. It’s a method that will be mocked by genuine working class people — especially those in Palestine — who know nothing has ever been won in this way.
In fact, a tragi-comic situation happened when one BDS activist went to Palestine to promote boycotts and was told by Palestinians that they can’t afford to do that, as most major goods sold in Palestine are Israeli-made. The arrogant Canadian activist then tells us that he sees this as “example of internalized colonialism” in Palestinians! This is a point of view that Canadian workers are used to hearing when they shop at Walmart.
The politics that IAW propagates also demand criticism.
There’s no talk of class contradictions existing in Israel/Palestine, no talk of revolutionary solutions as the way out and repetition of mainstream ideologies and dogma. In an op-ed for The Varsity, Faraz Vahid Shahidi, my very good friend and comrade, said that the goal of the movement was “Israel’s compliance with international law.” How can a campaign against the world system that has subjugated Palestinians to their current status define itself in terms of “international law”? Even worse, Al-Hosseini, a spokesperson for the event, says in an interview: “We are a rights-based organization. We have no ideology and only defend people’s rights. Our movement is not for or against these revolutions [in the Arab World].” But how can we speak only of “rights” without fighting against specific political forces that have taken these rights away? How can we have a conscious struggle that is proud of having “no ideology” and is neutral toward a spectacular rising of Arab masses against dictatorships? There is also a lot of talk about “rejection of violence” but this misses the point. Palestinian people have a just and necessary right to armed self-defence that no campus activist in Toronto has the right to deny them.
But BDS is not only ineffective. It plays a negative role by strengthening imperialism. A blanket boycott of everything made in Israel will only help the nationalist rhetoric of most right-wing elements in Israel, who will further push Jewish workers, objective allies of ours in struggle against imperialism, to the defence of their state. Even worse is demand for so-called “cultural,” “academic,” and “sport” boycotts. Why is it that anybody who teaches in Israeli universities should be boycotted? Are there no progressive scholars and educators in that country who we could benefit from hearing? Why is it that singers should be urged not to perform in Israel or Israeli athletes not to be able to compete internationally? This does nothing but add to the siege mentality that Jewish workers are being forced into. This is similar to the demands for travel boycotts being raised in relation to dictatorial countries like Burma or Iran, which will result in nothing but the closing of these societies.
It might be asked that if I reject these methods and politics, what do I propose instead.
Here is what I would argue:
1: Instead of the blanket boycott of Israel, which pushes Israeli workers into the arms of imperialists, adopt a worker’s union-based boycott of all the shipment of military weaponry. This boycott would target the Israeli state and bosses and not all Israelis regardless of class. For instance, CUPW, who has signed on to BDS, can call on its members to refuse to deliver any mail to SNC-Lavalin or similar arm manufacturers, so long as they build weapons for the purpose of Israeli apartheid. Students can fight for such boycotts to happen.
2: Promote strategies that build solidarity between Jewish, Arab, and Canadian workers.
3: Link the struggles of workers in the Middle East and fight for socialism both there and at home.
The fundamental problem with IAW, as I have tried to explain in this short article, is its way-too “moderate” political line and its view of Israelis as one reactionary bloc, as opposed to a society made up of different classes.
I should add one more time that I do not doubt the sincerity and hard work of the comrades involved in SAIA, IAW, and BDS. However, by adopting a working-class approach, they can play a great role in fighting against capitalism and imperialism, from Tel Aviv to Toronto.