Naomi Klein and the BDS campaign

by tobybee

There’s been a bit of media recently in Melbourne about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign that has been initiated by Palestinians. That media has centered around the call by Ken Loach for the upcoming Melbourne International Film Festival to reject the sponsorship of the Israeli Government, or he will pull his film from the festival. His call was, in turn, in response to the demand from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which issued a statement asking the MIFF not to partner with the Israeli Government. The Jewish News this week, as well as another Melbourne Jewish blog (which has posted twice), have severely criticised Loach’s move as misdirected and wrong. But, I think, they miss many key points of the BDS campaign, as well as of Loach’s aim.

Firstly, pulling a film from a film festival is a non-violent act, surely better than waging war. Secondly, the boycott is aimed at the Israeli Government, not at particular Israeli people, films or cultures. It is therefore quite different to the Chinese Government’s demand that a film be pulled from the festival because it shows a side of China which they wish to deny. Thirdly, boycotts sometimes work and are a recognised form of alienating a government which tries to pass itself off as a ‘normal’ government: Israel sponsors international film festivals in order to make it appear as a particular type of government, one which is kind, generous, benevolent and democratic. It’s important to say that while that might be true for some Israeli citizens, it’s very much not true for others.

There were similar mass international boycotts of South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, and they worked: they brought international attention to a state which was dysfunctional (to put it mildly). Would the people who are protesting Loach’s boycott have protested the boycotts of South Africa? I think probably not. The difference, it seems to me, is an emotional one. It’s hard to look at a country you love and see its problems. It’s sometimes just plain hard. And it hurts. I’m not going to pretend otherwise: it’s an emotional struggle.

The Jewish Peace News sent around a week ago a summary of talks (as well as an addendum) that Naomi Klein – the Jewish author and activist, who wrote the books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine – gave in Ramallah and Jaffa. Klein’s book has recently been published in Israel, and she, in consultation with the BDS campaign, organised a book tour of the West Bank and particular areas in Israel (in doing so she makes it clear that the boycott isn’t of Israelis, but of Israeli institutions and the things/knowledge which they produce). Rebecca Vilkomerson posted this summary of her talks: it’s a good read because it brings out the complexities, the difficulties, and the necessities of Jews being involved in the BDS campaign. Klein has had an excellent article published about the boycotts, with responses to various criticisms of the boycotts, in The Nation as well. I highly recommend reading it.

Naomi Klein and the Boycott Movement : supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within (Israel) : exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry, a project of Coalition of Women for Peace (Israel) : Palestinian Global Call for BDS : Naomi Klein press conference in Bil’in

Naomi Klein’s recently completed visit to Israel had a galvanizing effect on the “boycott from within” movement here , which has endorsed the Palestinian call for BDS. Her public meetings, in Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Haifa, and Jaffa drew hundreds of people to hear her clear-eyed analysis of why it is time for a full boycott of Israel until the occupation ends, Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel have full and equal rights, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees is fully realized under international law.

I attended her events in Ramallah and Jaffa, where hundreds of people gathered, largely supportive, to participate in a conversation that felt historic. Klein spoke clearly as a Jewish activist, though she acknowledged that that was a new role for her. In Ramallah, apparently near tears, she told us, “I come to you with humility that I didn’t heed the call sooner. It was purely because of cowardice.”

This admission was complex and powerful, because it juxtaposed the clarity and simplicity of her reasons for supporting BDS with an acknowledgement that supporting boycott, perhaps especially for Jews and Israelis, requires a psychological leap out of our comfort zones.

Her presentation of why BDS is right, now, was remarkable in that she consciously presented it as a positive, movement-building tool to build a joint future with Palestinians, rather than simply a method to punish Israelis. She was insistent that the boycott was not about boycotting Israelis as individuals, but was actually an opportunity for increased communication and public education. She used the example of her own unconventional book tour in Israel and Palestine as an example of how to follow the BDS call with integrity while still interacting with and educating Israelis. She avoided ideological buzz words (such as “Zionism” or “anti-Zionism”) that could have been polarizing and yet emphasized the need to call things what they are (ie “apartheid” not just “human rights abuses.”)

She spoke clearly about BDS as a tool of non-violent solidarity, comparing not complying with the BDS call with crossing an invisible picket line. She noted that one reason to heed the call is because it has been called by so wide a swath of Palestinian civil society and that only boycott can make the occupation visible inside the Israeli “bubble.” Compared to the boycott of the Palestinian economy which includes the siege of Gaza and the choking system of checkpoints and other forms of control in the West Bank, boycott of Israel is a light punishment indeed. She quoted a Gazan who told her, “what Israelis call a crisis we’d love to have.”

She firmly rejected the idea that to boycott is anti-semitic, further noting that the BDS movement needs to be particularly vigilant in standing against anti-semitism, while being prepared to call out the use of anti-semitism as a way of silencing dissent. In this role, Jews worldwide, and Israeli Jews in particular, have a key role to play.

Finally, in Jaffa particularly, there was some discussion of the mechanics of boycott, especially from within. Yael Lerer, Klein’s Israeli publisher, suggested that lessons could be learned from Palestinian Israelis who have learned through experience about how to navigate living their lives without endorsing Israeli institutions. We are all learning as we go about what boycott means in practice, and that its implementation is a tactic, not an end in itself.

As Naomi Klein noted simply in response to a questioner, “It’s hard. But I still agree with it.”

–Rebecca Vilkomerson

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Z. Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman