Israel boycott: Untangling the issues

Submitted by Anon on 2 March, 2006 - 6:08

by sacha ismail

A number of recent events have posed again the issue of economic and other boycotts of Israel.

The Church and Caterpillar: On 6 February, the Church of England’s general synod voted to disinvest funds from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, including Caterpillar, a US firm which produces earth-moving equipment and has supplied vehicles used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes. Its D9 armoured bulldozer has been used to destroy over 12,000 houses, with International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie killed in one such operation.

However the pro-boycott campaigners choose to present it, the synod did not vote for a boycott of Israel. It voted not to invest its funds in a US company which is specifically complicit in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. This decision may strengthen advocates of a more general boycott, but it is logically quite distinct — and entirely reasonable.

Despite voting for disinvestment, the Archbishop of Canterbury has since claimed that the synod’s vote was non-binding and that the church will probably not act on it. Since shares in Caterpillar account for only £2.5 million of the church’s £900 million investment portfolio, it is impossible not to think of Marx’s comment on the C of E in Capital: “The English Established Church will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on one thirty-ninth of its income.”

Architects’ boycott. Meanwhile, a group of prominent British architects is discussing whether to call for a boycott of Israel’s construction industry in protest at the building of Israeli settlements, the destruction of West Bank cities and the construction of the separation wall in the Occupied Territories.

Architects and Planners for Justice for Palestine, whose supporters include Blairite peer Lord Rogers, met for the first time earlier this month. The group describes architects, planners and engineers working on Israeli projects in the Occupied Territories as “complicit in social, political and economic oppression” and “in violation of their professional code of ethics”.

Fair enough. But why then discuss a boycott of Israeli architects and construction companies, rather than firms participating in Israel’s occupation and grab of Palestinian territory? And worse, why call for the expulsion of Israeli architects from the International Union of Architects, regardless of their activities? Why should Israeli architects be subject to a political test at all when those in many other, much more repressive states are not?

Refusal by architects and others to collaborate with Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is a good idea. A general boycott of their Israeli colleagues is definitely not.

NUT leadership bans discussion. One of the motions submitted to the National Union of Teachers conference in Torquay this Easter calls for NUT members to boycott Israel. Despite its small practical impact, this would represent a major symbolic victory for the boycott campaign. In January, a ballot of branches voted to prioritise this motion for discussion.

The NUT head office has issued a circular saying that the motion as submitted cannot be debated because its resolutions run counter to the union’s commitments as part of Education International (which includes the Israeli teachers’ union). The motion will therefore be debated with all the contentious parts removed.

The boycott should be defeated through open political debate — not by the union bureaucracy dictating to members what can and can’t be discussed. The leadership’s action is particularly undemocratic since it waited until the motion had been prioritised to rule its key sections out of order.

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