A new attempt is being made to set up a movement in Britain to support the Palestinian Arabs by organising a boycott of Israeli goods on sale here.
It would be a campaign like the decades-long boycott of South African goods. According to press reports, it already has pledges of support from as many as twenty MPs, mainly Labour, and including Clare Short.
Socialist Organiser [forerunner of Solidarity] supports the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and we support those within Israel fighting to get the Israeli army out of the occupied territories and for equal rights for Israel’s Arab minority.
But we believe the boycott is a bad idea. It will do little to help the Arabs either within Israel or in the West Bank and Gaza. It will do more harm than good.
In the first place, such campaigns generally have little direct effect. In the 30 years since the Sharpeville massacre triggered a powerful international campaign to boycott South African goods, its impact on South Africa has been pretty marginal and peripheral.
If progress has been made, if Nelson Mandela is free today, then it is mainly the result of the mass movement within South Africa. The main importance of the campaign to boycott South African goods has been not economic but political, to provide a focus for anti-apartheid propaganda and agitation.
Nobody could reasonably expect a consumer boycott campaign to tip the balance for the Palestinians.
Even so, a boycott might make sense as a means of mobilising and focusing a political campaign against Israel. The reason it doesn’t make sense, and should be opposed, is that such a campaign would inevitably become a campaign against the Israel-supporting Jewish community in Britain, who number not much fewer than half a million.
The Nazi mass murder, and the struggle to win, consolidate and defend the Jewish state are central to the identity of the Jewish community. It is not possible to have a campaign to boycott Israel goods without coming into headlong conflict with the Jewish community and then — if only in self-defence — going on to target them and campaign against them as an Israeli fifth column.
And why stop with a boycott? In the early ‘80s some supporters of Socialist Organiser who now support Briefing and Socialist Outlook – wanted us to campaign to “drive Zionists out of the labour movement”. The campaign to boycott Israeli goods would quickly, and inevitably, overlap with such blind “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Zionist” emotion and bigotry.
It would inevitably lead to a campaign for a boycott of – and pickets of – for example Marks and Spencer and other “Zionist”-owned enterprises.
Because they advocate the destruction of Isael, sections of the left are forced into an attitude of comprehensive hostility to most Jews, who have a reflex identification with Israel. Whatever anybody intends, that is a form of anti-semitism.
A boycott of Israeli goods does not necessarily or logically imply the destruction of Israel; but those who have long campaigned for the boycott do stand for the destruction of Israel, and the boycott proposal does have the same logic of comprehensive hostility to the Jewish community in Britain.
To believe that will do the Palestinian Arabs any good you have to be drunk on the “anti-imperialism of idiots” according to which “Zionism” is evil incarnate and equivalent to fascism.
Instead, we believe, socialist supporters of Palestinian rights should advocate reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. That must mean recognising that both nations have a right to their own state – the policy of both the Israeli radical left and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. We support the Palestinian uprising on that political basis.
The well-intentioned proposals to help the oppressed Palestinians through a boycott would quickly and inexorably turn into a campaign against the Jewish community. Behind this “left”-initiated campaign would line up all the old-fashioned anti-semites.
The Nazi National Front is already campaigning for a boycott of Israeli goods. The left boycott campaigners have very different motives and goals from those of the National Front. Brutus and Cassius – according to Shakespeare – had radically different motives for stabbing Julius Caesar. But Caesar probably wouldn’t have thought those differences were very important.
The logic of the idea that Israel is a bad nation which does not have the right to exit – the idea about the Middle East dominant on the left from the SWP through to sections of Labour’s soft left – would unfold within such a campaign in all its vicious anti-socialist stupidity.
Stop it before it starts!
The left should oppose and boycott any boycott of Israeli goods.
• From Socialist Organiser, 19 April 1990