The University of Sussex Students Union is due to hold a second referendum on whether to implement a boycott of Israeli goods in SU outlets. The boycott policy was passed by an earlier referendum at the end of October by a margin of 562 to 450. However, a group of students has now gathered the 150 signatures required to reopen and rerun the vote.
Supporters of the boycott have said that they see themselves as part of an international BDS — boycott, divestment and sanctions — movement, intended to apply sufficient economic, moral and political pressure on Israel to force it to observe international law.
While the desire to “do something” about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is the beginning of political wisdom on this question, not every tactic is helpful. Some can be counterproductive.
Boycotts promote the idea of consumer, rather than class, power. The tactic “exceptionalises” Israel (where are the campaigns to boycott China, Russia, Sri Lanka or indeed the USA; states which brutally repress other peoples?).
Boycotts have a potential danger of being extrapolated in the direction of anti-semitic witch-hunts; if the aim is to economically and politically undermine the state of Israel, why stop at boycotting directly produced Israeli goods? Why not boycott all those linked to Israel, in whatever way? And, as the majority of the world’s Jews do support the existence of an Israeli-Jewish national entity in some form, why not simply boycott Jewish (or “Zionist”) goods and people altogether?
The campaign at Sussex will have negligible positive impact. Unless it has taken to stocking industrial quantities of oranges or hi-tech weapons systems, it is very unlikely that the Sussex student union shop stocks Israeli goods to any economically-significant degree. What the campaign seems to tell activists is that, rather than making positive, direct solidarity with working-class and other progressive forces struggling against occupation in both Israel and Palestine, they should spend time and energy fighting for changes in the consumption habits of UK wholesalers and shoppers.
If similar activist resources had instead gone into supporting initiatives like the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Centre in Ramallah or the joint Israeli-Palestinian Workers’ Advice Centre, how much greater an impact could they have had on the actual struggle for national liberation and social justice in Israel/Palestine?
When the referendum reopens, socialists and other class-struggle activists at Sussex should combine a campaign for a vote against the boycott with a campaign for positive solidarity with radical forces struggling against the occupation on the ground. It is those campaigns that will have a real impact; boycotts are, at best, a diversion and, at worst, a dangerously counterproductive trap.