Shunning Israel is in tradition of Jewish protest
Published 13/08/2014 | 19:30
The main reason there is a campaign for boycott of Israel, but not a campaign for boycott of, for example, the Islamic dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, is that that the people of Palestine have asked the world to boycott the state which ethnically cleansed them in hundreds of thousands from their land to make way for Jewish immigrants and which continues to refuse Palestinians a right to return home.
The campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) was launched on July 9, 2005 in an appeal by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organisations for "various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law".
It is notable that the aim of the BDS movement was not the destruction of the Israeli state, much less the expulsion of Israelis, but to secure adherence by Israel to international law.
It is the refusal of Israel to regard itself as amenable to international law which provides the basis for continuing the BDS campaign.
The campaign has explicitly been modelled on the boycott campaign which helped bring down the apartheid system in South Africa.
The anti-apartheid campaign originated at a meeting in London in 1959 called in response to an appeal from the president of the then-banned African National Congress, Chief Albert Luthuli, for international non-violent action against the South African regime.
The launch meeting was addressed by Tanazian independence leader Julius Nyerere and Father (later Archbishop) Trevor Huddleson, best-known now for his hugely influential book, Naught For Your Comfort, an account of his experiences as an Anglican priest in Sophiatown in Johannesburg in the 1940s and 1950s.
Huddleston had witnessed at close quarters the expulsion at gunpoint of 65,000 residents of Sophiatown, the land on which their town had been built having been re-designated as reserved for whites.
The South Africa campaign stuttered along until boosted by deep and widespread anger at the 1976 killing by South African police of hundreds of students demonstrating in Soweto against apartheid in education. Most of the dead were children of those forced from their homes 20 years earlier.
At the time, supporters of the boycott were regularly asked by Conservative MPs, newspaper columnists and defenders of apartheid generally why they were picking on South Africa. Were not greater atrocities being perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia? Where was the 'boycott Cambodia' campaign?
The differences included the facts that the launch of the South Africa boycott had come in response to a direct appeal from those suffering under apartheid, and, more pertinently, that the apartheid regime had the support of major Western banks, industries and political parties and was being provided with the weapons to continue repression by governments, including those of the UK and US, which purported to act in our name.
(Promises by the Labour Party to ban arms sales were ditched once Harold Wilson was safely ensconced in Downing Street. No surprise there.)
The parallels between the boycott of apartheid and the BDS campaign are not forced, or fanciful, but obvious, unmistakeable. It is logical, then, that veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle have tended to be strong in their support for the Palestinian cause – Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Desmond Tutu, Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs and Ronnie Kasrils.
The last three are Jews. Relative to its size, the Jewish community in South Africa contributed much more to the struggle against apartheid than any other white, or mainly white, group.
Mandela acknowledged this in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom: "I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice."
Jews in the US were likewise heavily over-represented among white supporters of the civil rights movement. The 1963 "March on Washington", at which Martin Luther King made his "I have a dream" speech, was endorsed by the rabbinical associations of all three major Jewish denominations. The march included a contingent of Holocaust survivors carrying pro-civil rights banners in English and Yiddish.
A majority of Jewish people today may have come to support the Israel state to the extent of supporting the murderous assault on Gaza. Rising levels of anti-semitism in many parts of the world may have reinforced this tendency towards a Zionist view.
But that's not the whole of it. Recent demonstrations in Belfast, Dublin, Derry, London, New York and many other centres have heard passionate calls for support for BDS from Jewish writers, artists, academics and others, speaking not just in solidarity with Palestinians, but in line with the best traditions of their own community.