Workers Vanguard No. 1045
2 May 2014
Defend the Palestinians!
For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!
Boycott Israel Campaign and Illusions in Democratic Imperialism
(Young Spartacus pages)
The pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has recently gained a foothold on numerous U.S. and European campuses and among small sections of the European bourgeoisies. This liberal movement appeals to “international civil society organizations and people of conscience” to implement boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel, a regional capitalist power that has brutally dominated the Palestinian people for over six decades. It also calls on its supporters to pressure their governments to implement embargoes and sanctions against Israel. The stated goal of the campaign is to force Israel to comply with “international law” and recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
The American Studies Association (ASA) made national headlines with its endorsement of BDS in December. Over 1,000 professors and academics at U.S. universities have endorsed the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and several university student governments have symbolically voted to divest from Israel. Student governments at Loyola University in Chicago and the University of California (UC) at Berkeley, Irvine and San Diego have voted in favor of divestment from companies such as Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, General Electric and Boeing which do business with Israel. Divestment campaigns have caused a stir at University of Michigan, Arizona State University, New York University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
BDS has also been debated internationally. Some European pension funds have withdrawn investments from Israeli banks, while some European corporations have canceled contracts. The most widely known controversy has involved actress Scarlett Johansson, who quit her role as ambassador with the British charity Oxfam to keep her contract with the Israeli company SodaStream, which has a plant in a West Bank settlement.
Predictably, the Zionists have launched a widespread campaign of slander and repression against all advocates of BDS. Speaking at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in March, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu provided marching orders for American Zionists: “Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned. The boycotters should be boycotted.” According to the London Times (February 11), the Israeli government has begun a media campaign to publicly link BDS supporters to “terrorists” and “enemy states.”
Equating any criticism of the racist, semi-theocratic Israeli state with anti-Jewish bigotry is the leading tactic of a well-oiled Zionist propaganda machine, which has the full support of the U.S. government. Their attacks on anyone who wants to defend Palestinian rights go far beyond slander and assaults on students’ free speech: the highly organized and financed pro-Israel cabal works overtime to instigate suspensions of activists from school and to get state legislatures to cut funding from universities that support the boycotts or to ban criticism of Israel under “hate speech” laws.
Last year, in the lead-up to an event featuring BDS spokesman Omar Barghouti and liberal academic Judith Butler at Brooklyn College in New York City, Democratic city council member David Greenfield slandered the BDS campaign as a “hate-filled, anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist movement” (see “Pro-Israel Furor at Brooklyn College,” WV No. 1018, 22 February 2013). The New York Spartacus Youth Club stood in defense of BDS supporters, holding signs outside with the slogans, “Down With the Zionist Witchhunt at Brooklyn College! Defend the Palestinians!”
In recent months, Palestinian rights groups on campuses across the country have been suppressed and intimidated, most notably at Northeastern University in Boston where the administration suspended Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in March until 2015 after the group distributed mock eviction notices throughout campus dorms during Israeli Apartheid Week, simulating those distributed by the Israeli occupiers before they demolish Palestinian homes. The group was recently reinstated for the fall semester on a probationary basis after students held rallies and threatened to sue the university for violating their free speech rights. During the suspension, the administration mandated that representatives from the organization undergo university-sanctioned trainings if they wished to serve in other student organizations. Two of the students who participated in the mock eviction initially faced expulsion and a Jewish spokesman for the group, Max Geller, received death threats. We demand the reinstatement of Northeastern SJP with full student group status! Down with the Zionist witchhunt!
The attack against the Northeastern SJP has been led by the ludicrously named “Americans for Peace and Tolerance,” a Zionist group that viciously smeared several professors there including Denis Sullivan, co-director of the Middle East Center, whom it vilifies for everything from stating that Hamas provides health care in the Gaza Strip to promoting Jewish historian and opponent of Zionist terror Norman Finkelstein. A UC student trip to the Palestinian territories in 2012 was spied on by a Zionist organization, the AMCHA Initiative. The ASA was swiftly ostracized in academia, as over 80 college presidents have condemned its endorsement of BDS and several have withdrawn from ASA membership. Meanwhile, legislation was introduced in February in the House of Representatives that would remove funding from any college that boycotts Israeli academic institutions or scholars.
While the Spartacus Youth Clubs fundamentally disagree with the liberal politics of BDS, we vigorously oppose all state attempts to limit its supporters’ freedom to express their views. Hands off BDS supporters!
BDS: An Obstacle to Palestinian Liberation
The SYCs stand for the defense of the Palestinian people against Zionist state terror. We oppose all U.S. aid to Israel, demand the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Occupied Territories and call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Our starting point is the understanding that there can be no just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict within the framework of capitalism. Two national populations claim the same small piece of land, and under capitalism the exercise of self-determination by one will necessarily come at the expense of the other. Only through the establishment of a socialist federation of the Near East can the national claims of the Palestinians as well as the myriad other oppressed peoples of the region be equitably resolved. Simply put, the peoples of the Near East will never know justice, peace or prosperity until a series of working-class revolutions overthrow bourgeois rule throughout the region.
By contrast, BDS looks to employ moral suasion to pressure campus administrations and American corporations to ditch Israel and put their money in presumably more ethical investments. Academics, students and “cultural workers” are called on to “express solidarity” with the Palestinians by refusing, for example, to attend Israeli academic or cultural activities. The liberal idealist nature of this perspective is made clear in a statement by BDS spokesman Barghouti:
“It is the classic right-over-might paradigm, with the right being recognized by an international public that is increasingly fed up with Israel’s criminality and impunity and is realizing that Israel’s slow, gradual genocide places a heavy moral burden on all people of conscience to act, to act fast, and to act with unquestionable effectiveness, political suaveness, and nuance, and above all else with consistent, untarnished moral clarity.”
The background to the growth of BDS is the increasingly desperate plight of the Palestinian masses in the Occupied Territories. Gaza is essentially an impoverished concentration camp, regularly bombed with impunity by Israel, surrounded by an electrified fence, a sealed border with Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, relying for its survival on whatever UN aid the Israeli regime permits into it. In the West Bank, the Palestinian population has been sealed off by an apartheid wall and subjected to a deadly Israeli military occupation. Separated by settlements containing over 600,000 Zionists who are backed up by thousands more troops, Palestinians are subjected to a series of humiliating military checkpoints and “Israeli only” roads that make travel between towns virtually impossible.
Under such desperate circumstances, the so-called “success” of the movement is not measured by any change in the actual material conditions of the Palestinians, but by publicity alone. BDS leader Ali Abunimah spelled this out in an interview with the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO) titled, “We’re Starting to Win” (socialistworker.org, March 6). After describing the Zionist backlash against BDS as an indication of the campaign’s success, he says, “It’s pretty remarkable. Another sign of the success and growth of BDS is the fact that U.S. officials, like Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and others, are speaking out against BDS. It goes to show that they are bringing out all the big guns.”
In reality, the strategy of BDS is to appeal to the very same imperialist forces that are the historic occupiers, colonialists and oppressors of the Near East. For its part, the ISO, in a rare moment of candor, succinctly described the aim of BDS as “to bring sufficient pressure to ‘ensure a change in Zionist strategic calculations’ that would make a democratic state an acceptable option” (socialistworker.org, March 13). To seek to pressure the imperialists to make more “socially responsible” or “ethical” investments is to build dangerous illusions in the supposed benign nature of the imperialists—whose class interests are fundamentally counterposed to those of the workers and the oppressed all over the world—as being somehow better than Israel. It is no accident that advocates of boycotting the goods of “immoral” regimes like Israel do not propose boycotting U.S. goods—they believe bourgeois democracies like the U.S. can be pressured to be a force for good in the world. But the economic and military force of the U.S. and the other imperialists is what keeps the whole world capitalist system in power.
While the Zionists’ crimes against the Palestinians are abominable, they pale in comparison to those of Israel’s main imperialist patron, the U.S., which is responsible for well over a century of mass murder, torture and genocide on a global scale. From the brutal occupation of the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American War to the counterrevolutionary war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants to the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. imperialists have massacred and tortured their way to global supremacy.
The U.S. imperialist ruling class will pursue its interests in as merciless a manner as it needs to, regardless of what “people of conscience” have to say. The U.S. supports Israel to the hilt because Israel has served and continues to serve U.S. imperialism’s interests in the region. The only route to the liberation of the countless victims of U.S. imperialism is socialist revolution led by the international working class that smashes the imperialist and other capitalist ruling classes around the world and lays the basis for the development of an egalitarian socialist society.
South African Divestment Campaign
Supporters of the BDS campaign draw parallels between their struggle against “Israeli apartheid” and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. In a 27 February editorial in Socialist Worker, the ISO stated, “It was precisely when the South Africa regime could no longer defend its legitimacy that it was clear that apartheid’s days were numbered. The BDS movement is hastening the arrival of those same days for Palestinians, eager to live as equal citizens in their indigenous land.” The BDS campaign is supported by former spokesmen for divestment from South Africa, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Leaving aside (for the moment) that the end of legal apartheid did not end the oppression of South Africa’s black masses, what the BDS campaign and its ISO tails promote is the liberal fiction that divestment ended apartheid in South Africa. They bury the mass social struggles of the black and other non-white toilers, centered on the powerful working class, which brought an end to direct white-supremacist rule in South Africa. Before the end of apartheid, the significant wage gains won by black class struggle and the instability caused by a growing strike movement deterred investment. This was a direct threat to the continued profits of U.S. imperialism, which began to see the South African regime as a liability.
By the early 1990s, the imperialists and a section of the apartheid ruling class decided to go for a “power-sharing” deal with the African National Congress (ANC). A key factor was the 1991-92 counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, which for decades had supported the ANC materially and diplomatically. As the Moscow Stalinist regime disintegrated, ending the supposed “Communist threat,” the South African rulers came to terms with Nelson Mandela and the ANC.
By and large, divestment from South Africa took the form of overseas corporations signing over their interests to local subsidiaries, which often treated their workers even more brutally. In fact, divestment actually worked against the interests of the South African working class. A case in point occurred in 1989 when workers struck against plans by Mobil Oil and Goodyear to pull their investments from the South African economy during the divestment campaign. While the workforce at Mobil Oil received a small payout in return, the 1,200 workers at Goodyear represented by the National Union of Metalworkers were fired en masse.
We would support time-limited, trade-union actions against the Israeli state, such as in response to a particular Israeli atrocity. But we are politically opposed to standing boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Successful boycott campaigns would hurt the working class of Israel—Jewish, Arab and immigrant—with mass layoffs weakening its power, which must be mobilized to smash the Zionist state through socialist revolution. As we said about the anti-apartheid struggle: “The only kind of ‘divestment’ that will benefit the exploited and oppressed will be proletarian revolution, and the expropriation of these riches by a black-centered workers government as part of a socialist federation of southern Africa” (“Black Workers Strike Against ‘Divestment’ Union-Busting,” WV No. 486, 29 September 1989).
Furthermore, the BDS movement prettifies the horrific poverty and immiseration that continue unabated in today’s neo-apartheid South Africa. While apartheid’s legally enforced racial segregation is no more, the economic and social foundations of white supremacy, based on superexploitation of overwhelmingly black labor, remain intact. South Africa is today ruled by the same white capitalist class with a sprinkling of a few black faces. Once the leadership of the South African divestment campaign, the ANC through its Tripartite Alliance government now runs this neo-apartheid capitalist order, which dishes out brutal oppression to the South African working class, exemplified by the massacre of 34 striking miners in August 2012.
The analogy is also false at another level. South African capitalism, both under apartheid and since, is rooted in the brutal exploitation of black labor in the mines and factories. Thanks to its size and centrality to social production, the black South African proletariat has tremendous social power. In contrast, Zionist Israel is based on reliance on Jewish labor, from the outset marginalizing Palestinian workers as much as possible and now virtually excluding Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories from participating in the Israeli economy. In the years following the 1993 U.S.-engineered Oslo accords, the Zionist rulers displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers, replacing them with workers from Asia, Africa and East Europe, who are themselves deeply exploited and oppressed. This underlines that Palestinian national and social liberation can only come through common class struggle against both the Israeli and regional Arab ruling classes, which are likewise oppressors of the Palestinians.
“One-State,” “Two-State” Chimera
With the growth of BDS, a debate has emerged in the pro-Palestinian movement between those who support a “one-state solution” in which Israelis and Palestinians would supposedly live under one bourgeois-democratic secular state and those advocating a “two-state solution,” where Israelis and Palestinians would each have their own state. Norman Finkelstein, long a darling of the pro-Palestinian movement, ignited a furor in 2012 with his comments that BDS is a “cult” and that its program seeks to “destroy Israel.”
There can be no genuine expression of Palestinian self-determination while the racist capitalist state of Israel, which inherently oppresses the Palestinians, continues to exist. A Palestinian “state” along some variant of the 1967 borders, consisting of Gaza and the West Bank, would be, at best, a deeply partial and deformed expression of Palestinian self-determination. It would be a statelet ghetto under the stranglehold of Israel and the surrounding Arab bourgeois regimes where neighboring states could dump their unwanted Palestinian populations—which number over three million in Jordan, 1.7 million in Israel and one million in Lebanon and Syria.
While the BDS Call remains agnostic on the question of a one- or two-state solution and the views of its supporters are diverse, several prominent leaders of the BDS campaign do support a “one-state solution.” BDS leader Barghouti, who often refers to Israeli Jews as the “oppressor community,” argues for a “secular, democratic state” that would supposedly ensure rights to both Jews and Palestinians.
In reality, this “secular, democratic” Palestine would exclude the millions of Palestinians living in Jordan, which is a majority-Palestinian country. More fundamentally, this position wrongly denies that Israeli Jews constitute a nation with the right to their own self-determination. This was made clear by BDS leader Haidar Eid:
“A binational state by definition is a state made up of two nations. These two nations are historically entitled to the land. But Jews do not constitute a nation. Israeli Jews constitute a settler-colonialist community, not unlike the whites of South Africa or the French in Algeria. Settler colonists are not entitled to self-determination.”
—socialistworker.org, 16 December 2013
The doctrine that an oppressor nation forfeits its right to self-determination is the ideology of genocidal irredentism. The Zionist state was created by crushing the national rights of the Palestinians. But securing national justice for the Palestinians must not mean reversing the terms of oppression and denying the national rights of Israeli Jews. Basic to our Leninist position on the national question is that all nations have a right to self-determination.
Moreover, claiming that Israeli Jews have no rights pushes them more firmly into the arms of their Zionist rulers. The perspective of Eid, Barghouti et al. rejects any possibility of ever winning the Israeli Jewish working class to a program of class unity with their Arab brothers and sisters against all the exploiters and oppressors of the region. And if you do not look to the proletariat to advance your cause, then there is only one other social force to appeal to: the capitalist imperialist rulers and their politicians and institutions. Finkelstein rants about BDS’s supposed refusal to work within the framework of the United Nations. But in fact the BDS campaign, much like Finkelstein, appeals to the UN to enforce “international law.” Opponents of Zionist terror must place no reliance on this imperialist den of thieves and their victims! Time and again, the UN has acted to reinforce Palestinian oppression. The UN presided over the 1947 partition of Palestine, and its “peacekeepers” disarmed Palestinian fighters in Lebanon in 1982, setting up the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by forces acting on behalf of the Israeli army.
What BDS leaders promote is really nothing new. The “one-state solution” is a rehash of a similar formula promoted by the PLO in 1969, while the “two-state solution” apes its support in 1974 for the creation of a “mini-state” in the West Bank and Gaza. The fundamental premise of both perspectives was to appeal to the regional Arab bourgeois regimes and/or the imperialists to pressure Israel into negotiations. The result is the deepening of Palestinian oppression, with the Palestinian Authority now acting as gendarmes for Israel in the West Bank. In turn, the utter bankruptcy of the Palestinian nationalist movement has fueled the growth of the reactionary, anti-woman, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian outfit Hamas, not only in Gaza, where it holds power, but even among the historically cosmopolitan Palestinians of the West Bank.
For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!
Looked at narrowly through the prism of that tiny sliver of land called Israel/Palestine, the situation of the Palestinians does indeed seem intractable. It is only the working class of Israel that has the capacity to destroy the Zionist citadel from within through socialist revolution. Yet Israeli society has moved sharply to the right in recent decades and the stranglehold of Zionism on the Jewish working class has only tightened. Indeed, it will likely take a cataclysmic event, such as the conquest of power by the working class in one of the major countries of the region, to dramatically change the political consciousness of the Israeli working class.
The key to the liberation of the Palestinian masses lies not in a Palestinian nationalist framework, which preaches the unity of the downtrodden and exploited with their “own” exploiters and would-be exploiters, but in an internationalist class perspective that looks to the overthrow of bourgeois rule throughout the region through socialist revolution. Yet it is precisely the liberal-bourgeois political outlook promoted by the likes of BDS and others—working within a capitalist framework, seeking to pressure one capitalist force or another—that ensured that upheavals like the early 2011 uprising in Egypt, taking place amid massive waves of labor strikes, never for an instant challenged capitalist rule in that country. This was most clearly expressed by the ISO’s fraternal group in Egypt, the misnamed Revolutionary Socialists, which in 2012 called for a vote to the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, only to support the coup carried out by the bloodsoaked military a year later. The only program the ISO and its cothinkers will never support is that of the class independence of the proletariat and the struggle for workers revolution.
The Arab nationalist view that Israel is a seamless mass of predatory colonialists denies the reality that it is a class-divided society, with a capitalist ruling class and an exploited proletariat. If the Jewish working class is to fight for its own liberation from capitalist exploitation, it must champion the national rights of the Palestinians. In turn, the Arab workers will not be won to a perspective of proletarian revolution if they are not broken from nationalism, religious fundamentalism and anti-Jewish bigotry. And that will not happen unless the Arab proletariat upholds the right of Israeli Jews—as well as the Kurds and other peoples—to a national existence. In short, the program of BDS rejects the only realistic program for social and national liberation in the region: a socialist federation of the Near East.
The current grim situation underlines that there is no easy road to the liberation of the Palestinian people, which requires the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist rule in nuclear-armed Israel and the surrounding Arab states. This perspective demands the forging of revolutionary Marxist parties committed to the struggle for working-class power and tempered through the most uncompromising struggle against all forms of nationalism and religious reaction. There is no other way.