NOTE: I originally sent this piece as an email to friends and members of the community when our local food cooperative (The PFC) was considering a boycott of Israeli goods. Sadly, the vote to boycott Israeli goods did not pass – but on the positive side, there was some good conversation as a result of the attempt. A number of friends have asked me to repost it here, as they are struggling with this issue as well.——————————————
Why boycott Israeli goods? When I was a college student at Kent State one of the first “long term” campaigns I got involved with was around the issue of South African apartheid. I recall building “shanty towns” in the student center to educate the campus community to the realities of life in South Africa, pressuring the university to divest and all businesses where we thought we might have some voice to boycott any products of the apartheid regime.
Even as I put what felt like “a lot” of time into this, I wondered in my heart how much of a difference it would make. Would anyone in South Africa really care if little old Kent State University divested? Would the people we tried to stand in solidarity with even know what we were doing – in the hardships that defined so much of their lives would they care?
Years later I had the privilege of traveling to the Hague Appeal for Peace conference. One of the conference presenters was Bishop Desmond Tutu….someone whose work I truly admire. I was so surprised and heartened to hear what he had to say. In one of the workshops he spoke his thanks to those who worked to put pressure on the South African government to end apartheid. He gave thanks to the university students, labor folks, and religious leaders who worked against apartheid. He mentioned educating people about the realities of life under apartheid, and pressure for boycotts and divestment. He said that in doing these things we gave people hope.
Recently a dear friend had the opportunity to travel in South Africa. While there she toured Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela spent much of his 27 years in prison, along w/ other anti-apartheid leaders). The man who gave the tour was a former political prisoner himself, who spent years imprisoned on the island, and like Bishop Tutu he thanked those in the audience who had worked against apartheid, and he gave special thanks to those Americans in the group (not something we usually get to hear!) letting them know the work we did gave the prisoners hope.
It seems to me, supporting a boycott is a little thing – with so little effort on our end – for such an important result – for giving hope. It may not seem like much – giving hope. But we know that hope is power. And those that feel hopeless are more likely to turn to violence, to engage in actions that seem “not understandable”, and to lose their creative visions for the future.
So if support for a boycott has a chance to make a difference, to my mind the question that remains is: is the comparison to South Africa an honest one? Is the system in Palestine/Israel an apartheid system?
My own eyewitness and that of my colleagues’ who have traveled there tell me it is. Palestinian towns are cut off from each other by settlements, Israeli only roadways, and the separation wall. Road Blocks and check-points further restrict movement and work to humiliate Palestinians. One can also add to the list of similarities home demolitions, collective punishment, identity papers, and the racism that allows this.
But, it is not my words alone that I ask you to consider: those with far more knowledge of apartheid have seen the similarities… and have pointed them out for some time now. On December 4, 1997 Nelson Mandela speaking in Pretoria, South Africa noted: ” The UN took a strong stand against apartheid and over the years and international consensus was built, which helped bring and end to this iniquitous system in South Africa. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Fellow anti-apartheid leader and Nobel peace prize winner Desmond Tutu also commented “I’ve been deeply distressed in my visit to the holy land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.” (BBC News April 29, 2002).
Former South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, often called “Architect of Apartheid” for his role in shaping the apartheid regime’s racial ideology and policies before his assassination in 1966, acknowledged “Israel, like South Africa is an apartheid State.” (Rand Daily Mail, November 23, 1961)
And finally, many of you are aware of former President Jimmy Carter‘s book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid in which he makes note of the conditions Palestinians live under. On CNN Nov. 28, 2006 Carter pointed out “In the West Bank, in the occupied territories, a horrible example of apartheid is being perpetrated against the Palestinians who live there. Israel has penetrated and occupied, confiscated and colonized major portions of the territory belonging to the Palestinians.” And, as I noted – it is not just the words of these others (many of whom I admire greatly) but my own observations and concern for justice for all people in the region that leads me to the acknowledgment that it is an apartheid system.
So, why boycott Israeli products? Because Israel is (I honestly believe) an apartheid state. Because apartheid is unjust and immoral. Because the system of apartheid and the racism inherent in it, hurts Palestinians, Israelis, and all who support it. Because a boycott just might let those working against this unjust system know they are not alone. Because, it might give someone hope.