As we reported in Solidarity 3/164, the University of Sussex Students’ Union recently passed a policy committing it to a boycott of Israeli goods. Workers’ Liberty opposes such boycotts because we believe they cut against what is objectively necessary — international working-class solidarity to help Palestinian and Israeli workers build unity around a programme of mutual respect and equal rights — and create the potential for an anti-semitic backlash by exceptionalising Israel. A group of students at Sussex succeeded in winning the necessary levels of support to trigger a rerun of the policy referendum; they do not share our emphasis on working-class solidarity as a means to help the Palestinians win national liberation and independence (rather than moves toward “dialogue” and “peace”). I interviewed one of the anti-boycott activists here in the interests of continuing a broad debate around the issue.
Q: Why do you oppose the boycott of Israeli goods by Sussex Students’ Union?
There are many reasons why we are against the boycott of Israeli goods. First, we believe that it is counter-productive; far from showing positive methods towards open dialogue and peace, it shuts down dialogue and isolates one people. There is no reason to implement a boycott that affects the people far more than it does the government. This conflict is more than just a story of one ‘good’ and one ‘bad’ side; it is far more complex than that. Wrongs are being committed across the board and by singling out Israel and delegitimizing it as a country nothing is being done to work towards peace. We support actions like the work of ‘Children of Peace’, working with Palestinians and Israelis to educate and proactively work towards peace. It is these kinds of actions that are far more productive towards peace than boycotts.
Q: How did you campaign against the boycott?
Our campaign consisted of flyers and posters, but was centred on the building of a five meter bridge. The campaign ran under the banner of ‘build bridges not boycotts’ and so that’s what we attempted to do. Anyone walking past was asked to help hammer in a nail for peace and contribute to the construction process. Once the bridge was constructed, students began to sign it. The campaign was well received and encouraged a lot of open and honest discussion from people who knew nothing of the referendum or the issues being raised.
Q: What arguments were put forward in favour of the boycott? How did you counter them?
Many of the arguments being put forward in favour of the boycott had little truth to them, but used emotive rhetoric to end dialogue. Arguments about racism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing were used, to once again delegitimize Israel. People were being accused of being racist if they disagreed. The argument that this was a method of Palestinian solidarity was refuted by us informing students that the both the Histadrut (Israeli TUC) and the PGFTU (Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions) do not want boycotts but want to continue working together for peace.
Q: Has the boycott changed the political climate at Sussex?
There has been a feeling of alienation felt by not just Israeli students, but all those accused of being racist for supporting Israel in any way. But furthermore there was a huge backlash against the student union from many students who were outraged at the result and were unaware a referendum was ever taking place on campus; this sparked a new group of students to stage demonstrations and hold public meetings to discuss the nature of the union and the way in which they felt it did not represent their interests. The campaign sparked one of the most highly fought referendums I have witnessed in my time at Sussex and certainly one of the highest voter turnouts. But I believe that if the union had advertised it better, beyond just the arts departments to include science-based areas of campus, the turnout would have been far greater.
Q:?More generally, what effect do you think an extensive boycott of Israeli goods would have on Israel and Palestine?
The effect would merely hurt the people who are not to blame for the actions of the Palestinian or Israeli governments. Many grassroots Israeli agriculture workers identify with the original socialist Israeli ideology and are most likely in favour of a peaceful two-state settlement and an end to violence on both sides. The Palestinian workers who rely on an income coming from the production of Israeli goods will suffer tremendously. Boycotts will only harm the Palestinians and Israelis who have suffered enough.
For more on the boycott, see:
Sussex University - reverse the boycott, fight for positive solidarity
Interview with John McGee, FBU (Fire Brigades Unions, which moved a pro-boycott motion at the 2009 TUC?Congress)
Why left-wing students should not support a boycott of Israel
Israel, Palestine and workers’ solidarity