Boycott Israel or link with Israeli workers?

Submitted by Matthew on 14 September, 2011 - 12:33

In Melbourne, Australia, activists picketing the Israeli-owned Max Brenner chocolate shop have caused a stir, and several have been arrested. Workers’ Liberty Australia commented:

There are better ways to help the Palestinians. The focus on Max Brenner has led the chief boycott activists to ignore the long-running Palestinian quarry workers’ strike at Salit, and the explosion of strikes by Israeli workers, Jewish and Arab, in recent weeks. Solidarity with those struggles is a better way forward.

Sympathy for the rights of activists arrested on these pickets will be automatic; but it does not follow that the pickets are a wise or effective way to help the Palestinians.

The rationale is obviously not that lack of chocolate treats will cripple Israeli repression. It is that the pickets are a high-profile activity which convey colourfully to the Israeli establishment that its repression of the Palestinians is abhorred, and to the Palestinians (most of whom sympathise with boycotts of Israel) that they have international support.

There are at least four arguments pointing the other way.

1. History tells us that the response in Israel to such actions is a heightening of the siege mentality, and a consolidation of the majority of Israeli society around the chauvinist right wing, rather than an opening-up.

2. Although some supporters of the boycott and protests back a “two-states” solution such as advocated by the main secular Palestinian movements, the groups most active in the Max Brenner pickets, Socialist Alternative and Green Left Weekly, do not. They do not want Israeli politics opened up so that advocates of “two states” can win a majority there. They want Israel conquered and subsumed in a broader Arab-ruled state.

3. Socialist Alternative bills the actions as “Boycott Apartheid Israel! Boycott Max Brenner!”, and Green Left Weekly defines the aim as “to target apartheid Israel, just as apartheid South Africa was targeted”. The boycott of apartheid South Africa was universally understood as a move to isolate and stigmatise the ruling elite in South Africa and its particular laws, to be coupled with extending links to the majority of the population in South Africa. The “apartheid Israel” trope is an attempt to isolate and stigmatise the whole of Israel, and to equate it with the ruling white minority in apartheid South Africa, as an element to be overthrown and subdued.

4. Whatever about the chocolate treats for Israeli soldiers, the Max Brenner chain is targeted essentially because it is Israeli and Jewish-owned. An extension of the boycott movement could not but become a movement against everything Israeli and everything pertaining to that huge majority of Jewish communities worldwide who instinctively identify (though maybe critically) with Israel. Whatever the original intentions of the boycotters, it could not but become an anti-semitic movement.

One response on our website, from a user called “Red”, defended the Brenner pickets:

The Hebrew website [of the Strauss group, owners of Max Brenner] says: “As part of our donation program, Strauss’ sales division has donated to the Golani brigade’s 13th battalion”…

The Golani and the Givati brigades are notorious for carrying out human rights abuses against the Palestinian people…

BDS has never targeted Israeli companies solely because they are Israeli or businesses because they are Jewish. As the recent BDS National Committee statement on the issue note: “Nowhere in the world are BDS activities about targeting specifically business with Israeli ownership, based on the nationality of their owner. Businesses and institutions are rather chosen based on their direct contribution to grave human rights abuses and international law violations of the Israeli state and military, or to rebranding campaigns that attempt to whitewash Israel’s crimes”.

In relation to WL claims that Israel is not an apartheid society not only does WL give no evidence to back up this claim, in order to make this claim they clearly are ignoring the international legal definition of apartheid. The accepted legal definition of apartheid within international law is articulated in 1973. The International Convention on the suppression punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Israel ticks just about every box in relation to the definition of apartheid under international law, including in relation to both the territories it illegal occupies and the Palestinian population within the Israeli state; this is why it is designated an apartheid state.

Edward Maltby responds to “Red”:

To argue that socialists should not term Israel an “apartheid state” is not to deny the tremendous oppression and injustices that Israel heaps on the Palestinians.

To argue against boycotting Max Brenner chocolate is not to defend the actions of the Israeli Defence Force. Like Red, we are for the liberation of the Palestinians. The disagreement is not that the oppression of the Palestinian people is not bad or not real — it is over the best way to end it. And the method that Red offers — boycott — is wrong, and can offer no hope to the Palestinians.

Israeli society is not like South African society. In Israel, Israeli bosses exploit Israeli workers. Israelis are not an exploiting caste. They are a nation, divided along class lines. The Israeli working class — including Israeli Arabs and other oppressed minorities within Israel — are right now waging big struggles against their exploiters. This working class is held back by nationalist ideas, to be sure — but it is possible and necessary to fight against those ideas, and build a working-class movement which fights not only for its own rights, but also against the oppression of the Palestinians and against the occupation — and which unites with the Palestinian workers and oppressed.

This fight is indispensable for social progress in the region. Without some element of a united movement of Israeli and Palestinian workers, just about the only agency which could force Israel out of the occupied territories would be a successful military invasion of Israel by her neighbours, an invasion which could only end in even worse horror. And because such an invasion is unlikely, the corollary of implicitly relying on it is to allow the occupation of Palestine to fester. It will continue to breed both Arab and Israeli chauvinism, and that will boost the strength of the Arab and Israeli ruling classes.

To declare Israeli an apartheid state is means to say that the Israeli working class is either so privileged as not to count, or is irredeemably racist. It means accepting defeat from the outset, saying that no positive change can come from within Israeli society. It disorientates anti-occupation activists.

A boycott cuts against workers’ unity. It feeds the siege mentality that the Israeli ruling class uses to limit workers’ struggles and shore up their authority.

The boycott tactic aims only to bludgeon Israelis indiscriminately — for in the unlikely event of the boycott having any palpable economic effect, bosses will surely pass the cost onto workers. Discussion of how best to help the Palestinians is diverted into enumerating the crimes of the occupation. Yes, comrade — but the issue at hand is how to defeat the occupation! Red’s implication seems that anyone who disagrees with the boycott tactic must not be “really against” the occupation.

The best that Red can say for the boycott is that it chooses its targets carefully, “based on their direct contribution to grave human rights abuses and international law violations of the Israeli state and military, or to rebranding campaigns that attempt to whitewash Israel’s crimes” and not on the nationality of their owners. But this definition is impossibly broad!

Given the penetration of the occupation throughout the Israeli economy and the fact that the IDF is a conscript army (and given that Max Brenner’s “direct contribution” is to donate chocolates, books and toys to soldiers as part of its marketing strategy), which companies based in Israel could not be accused of making a “direct contribution” to the occupation?

The indiscriminate nature of the boycott tactic is best demonstrated by the academic boycott of Israel, which aims at driving Israeli academics out of global academia, to the point of non-co-operation with individual academics. The criteria are potentially so broad that they encompass basically any academic based in or linked to Israel and even those that are critical of the Israeli government or oppose the occupation.

The logic of the boycott tends towards a general hostility towards Israel as such. This is no political programme on which to build Israeli and Palestinian workers’ unity — it is a counsel of despair.

Socialists who want to see the liberation of Palestine should concentrate instead on making solidarity with workers’ struggles and social movements in Israel and Palestine, like the Salit Quarry workers’ strike or the Israeli “tent” movement — developing the forces that can really fight the occupation.


Submitted by Matthew on Tue, 20/09/2011 - 11:58

Paul, what you say about the oppression of Palestinians on the West Bank by the Israeli state and discrimination against Arab Israeli citizens is clearly true. Where the analogy with apartheid South Africa falls down however is that whereas both Israel and Palestine are complete class societies, with Israeli and Palestinian bourgeoisies, petty bourgeoisies and working classes, South Africa wasn't: there was a large black working class and small black middle class ranged against a white ruling class, middle class and thin labour aristocracy but no real white working class. The existence and potential of the Israeli working class - both Jewish and Arab - is not something socialists should ignore, especially given the recent wave of protests against the social and economic policies of the right-wing government.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 20/09/2011 - 11:59

It's legitimate to compare the situation in the West Bank and, in different way, Gaza to an apartheid set up. The AWL has said this many times, including in our reports back after the solidarity delegation we organised in November/December last year. For instance, in my speech at an AWL London forum on 14 December I said:

"It’s worth thinking about the apartheid comparison. We have argued, rightly, that Israel is not an apartheid state but a mini-colonial power. The Israelis are not a narrow caste but a nation with the whole spectrum of social classes — working class, bourgeoisie, intermediate layers — and therefore the right to self-determination. But the society which is now developing inside the Occupied Territories, as opposed to Israel itself, is something like apartheid."

And that's just the point. In Israel minorities face severe discrimination, including legal discrimination. We highlight this, condemn it and oppose it. But it seems obvious that the set up is fundamentally unlike apartheid South Africa. And it's qualitatively different (though obviously linked) to the situation in the Occupied Territories.

If you could take the West Bank in isolation, if there was no Israel, then you could talk about a South Africa-type scenario. But Israel, with its working class, does exist!

Most colonies of foreign powers maintain an apartheid-style set up to hold down the indigenous people; what was distinctive about South Africa was that the country was one big, 'internal' colony, with no motherland: no Israel, just one big West Bank.

A lot of people use the apartheid label lazily, while also advocating a two-state solution. But those two things are in contradiction. No serious democrat, let alone socialist, advocated anything but a single unitary state in South Africa. What's your view on that?

Sacha Ismail

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