BDS Needs to Learn Right Lessons from South Africa

Boycotts didn’t end apartheid. They won’t decidedly change Israel’s policy in the Palestinian territories either.

Protesters call for a boycott of Israel in Washington DC, August 2, 2014
Protesters call for a boycott of Israel in Washington DC, August 2, 2014 (Stephen Melkisethian)

For ten years, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has been trying to pressure Israel’s governments to leave the Palestinian territories and implement United Nations resolution 194, allowing Palestinians to return to their homes and properties.

Major victories for the campaign include convincing the French rail company Veolia to withdraw from the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) project.

JLR is controversial because its route includes territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. As such, opponents argue that JLR represents an attempt to annex territory.

According to the website Global Exchange, Veolia has lost contracts worth €18.1 billion ($23.97 billion) due to activist efforts against the company. Canceled contracts range from waste collection for a British university to bus transport in the Netherlands.

Notable academic boycotters include the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. On the cultural side, hundreds of artists have pledged not to perform in Israel.

There is no doubt that the boycott has clout and momentum. And the debates around it have been extremely fierce.

But can it work?

Never mind whether the boycott’s aims are right or wrong. And never mind the ethical squabbles over boycotts. A look at where the BDS movement takes its inspiration from raises serious doubts about its chances of success.

Back in July 2005, the original call for boycott, divestments and sanctions based its appeal on the South African experience of the fight against apartheid:

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.

It’s not necessary here to enter the discussion about whether or not Israel’s policies can rightly be compared with apartheid. It suffices to say that the notion that Israel is an apartheid state is an important rhetorical point for many activists for the Palestinian cause and one that ties into the idea that Israel is a colonial state.

But even if that’s true, it doesn’t follow that boycotts are the best way to effect change.

The success of the boycott against South Africa’s white minority regime is probably overestimated. Economic pressure from within played a large role in undermining racial segregation during its last decade with a renewed trade union movement that was concentrated in the country’s most vital industries.

This is not matched in Israel. Palestinian labor is important to its economy but not to the extent that black labor was to South Africa’s.

South Africa’s last white president, Frederik Willem de Klerk, said he was driven by conscience, not by sanctions, to end apartheid. “Of course, sanction played a part,” he said. “Of course growing isolation played a part, it kept us on our toes — it brought us to the point of self-analysis.”

This view has been supported in academic research (PDF) that argues that the impact of sanctions was fairly small and — as De Klerk said — mainly psychological.

And there are certainly leaders, like Saddam Hussein and Cuba’s Castros, whose governments have survived under more severe embargoes than the one imposed on Israel.

Another important element in the South African example that is not mirrored in Israel’s case is the role played by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The anti-apartheid African National Congress and the South African Communist Party were interlinked. The apartheid government’s international and domestic legitimacy (such as it was) largely rested on whipping up fear about communism.

When someone is pinned in a corner they tend to fight. Only once the apartheid government could see that the ANC was unlikely to implement large-scale nationalization — for there was no communist bloc to join and no credible vision for socialism — did the fear that their supporters would lose out in a more democratic society vanish. There was no communist bugaboo to use as an excuse to prop up the political system anymore.

For Israel, a similar international block to a rapid change in the political dispensation is the attitude of neighboring Arab states. Here there has been little to no change.

In the popular imagination, the boycott against South Africa was critical in bringing down apartheid. The reality was more complicated. BDS activists should take a closer look at history and see if there aren’t other, more subtle ways to achieve their objectives.