The University of Cape Town has the chance to take a position in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and I join academics around the world in hoping that the ethically obligatory and politically progressive decision will be made to express support and to bind the university to its principles.
That should not be very difficult, since BDS draws on longstanding traditions, some of which were importantly developed in the context of the struggle against apartheid, for refusing modes of co-operation and economic consumption that seek to normalise relations with a state and its institutions structured on a model of settler colonialism and its modes of subjugating the Palestinian people inside and outside the current boundaries of that state.
The point is not merely to refuse to buy Israeli goods and so to support that economy that is, after all, a war economy (though that is one important point). Neither is the point only to call on governments to impose sanctions on Israel until it ceases its illegal occupation and its crimes against humanity (although that is an imperative point).
Rather, the point is to make clear that any co-operative relationship with an Israeli institution is not possible until or unless that institution takes a strong public position against the occupation; the discrimination against Israeli Palestinians; and supports the right of return for Palestinians in exile.
One objection to BDS, or commonly articulated anxiety, takes the following form: “But surely the Jews are in an exceptional historical circumstance, given the history of anti-Semitism, the Nazi genocide against the Jews, and continuing threats of anti-Semitism”. The response to this, it seems to me, has to be very clear. The opposition to anti-Semitism, as with all racisms, is ethically imperative. Second, the Israeli state does not represent the views of the Jewish people, even though it claims to do precisely that.
BDS is a movement that opposes all racisms, including anti-semitism. It is certainly not anti-semitic to oppose racism. On the contrary, to oppose racism is one of the most important contributions of Jewish activists against apartheid, against segregation and all forms of racism now widely directed against migrants. Let us not forget the large numbers of Jews who have fought in social justice struggles, including the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (Joe Slovo, Arthur Goldreich, Ruth First, Albie Sachs, Helen Suzman), who contest the radical inequalities that form the basis of Israel’s claim of Jewish sovereignty and its claim to maintain Jewish demographic advantage at all costs.
If to be for BDS is to be for social justice, it would, in fact, be anti-semitic to claim that Jews do not struggle for social justice. Not only are there many Jews who are actively struggling for BDS, but they are struggling in solidarity with Palestinians, on behalf of migrants and Mizrachim within Israel, in the ongoing struggle for racial equality and against racist violence in the United States, opposing fascist politics of the borders in Europe, enacting precisely those principles of working together across those kinds of cultural differences that characterise true democratic struggle.
BDS emerges as a social movement precisely when existing legal authorities fail to oppose manifestly unjust forms of discrimination. In this sense, it is a popular social justice movement that seeks to enforce norms of justice precisely when existing legal structures fail. Boycotts that focus on institutions tend to think that institutions, rather than individuals, have the power to appeal to the state, to withdraw their tacit support from state operations, including military ones.
So the boycott does not mean that its supporters fail to work with Israelis — there is now, after all, a “Boycott me” movement within Israel. It does not mean that Israelis are not hired for positions or are not invited to conferences. On the contrary, it means that working with Israelis is fine as long as one is not working with their institutions, lending credibility to those academic, economic, or cultural institutions that have refused to oppose the occupation in clear and consistent ways.
The BDS committee was formed in 2005 and has the support of more than 170 organisations in Palestine. It does not stipulate the right way to impose boycotts and sanctions, but it does describe its politics as “anti-normalisation”, which seek to force a wide range of political institutions and states to stop compliance with the occupation. This is the largest, most dynamic nonviolent mode of politically resisting the occupation.
We, who live on the outside and have no claim to the region (including those of us who are Jewish and have renounced any such claim), miss something fundamental about the importance of this movement if we fail to understand that it is nascent and a promising enactment of Palestinian self-determination.
If we want to know what we can do from the outside to support Palestinian self-determination, then we can support BDS, which alone can put international pressure on Israel to conform to basic principles of democracy for the first time. Although radical changes within Israeli civil society are quite important — and progressive Israelis are working on that in many admirable ways — those changes cannot substitute for the need to establish Palestinian self-determination against a continuing, anachronistic and brutal colonial regime.
If we on the outside are asked to join, then that is our way of not only supporting the claim that Palestinian self-determination has been systematically foreclosed and denied, but that, at this historical moment, BDS is the form taken by the movement of nonviolent Palestinian self-determination.
By supporting the BDS movement, you honour the history of the struggle against apartheid and all movements against colonial subjugation and racial supremacy, but you also vote for the political practice of nonviolence and for the future promise of democracy and political self-determination.
This is an edited excerpt of a letter that was sent to the University of Cape Town by Judith February and Maxine Elliot Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.