Boycotting Israel and the class struggle

Calls for boycotting Israeli academics and universities that do not disassociate themselves from the oppression of the Palestinian people have been growing in several unions internationally. How does this connect with the class struggle in Israel? Yossi Schwartz in Israel comments.

On Monday May 29, 2006 Britain's largest college teachers' union NATFHE at its conference in Blackpool passed a resolution calling for non-cooperation with Israeli academics or Israeli research journals that do not "disassociate themselves" from the oppression of the Palestinian people in the 1967 occupied West-Bank.

The boycott motion that was passed noted Israel's "apartheid practices" toward Palestinians, including the construction of a wall between Israel and the West Bank, and called for more meetings in secondary schools and universities on the subject.

As could be expected the supporters of the rulers of Israel condemned it as Anti-Semitism and an assault on the "universal concept of academic freedom."

This is the second time that lecturers in Britain have called for such actions. Last year, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to boycott Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities for actions that it said undermined the rights and academic freedom of Palestinians.

The AUT said it has targeted Bar-Ilan for its links to the College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. It also accused Haifa University of threatening to remove Ilan Pepe, an Israeli political science lecturer, for supporting a student's research into allegations of killings by Israeli troops.

If the rulers of Israel thought that the boycott would end in Blackpool they were in for a surprise. The largest labour union in the Canadian province of Ontario, which has 450,000 members, has also voted unanimously to boycott Israel, "until it recognizes the Palestinians' right of self-determination" and accepts all UN resolutions including the right of return. The union has also stated that it intends to support pro-Palestinian organisations in an educational campaign, which will explain that Israel is an apartheid state. It called on the national union to support this campaign and to pass a similar resolution.

The Anti-Defamation League, a Zionist organization that opposes the rights of the Palestinians, bitterly condemned the decision, describing it as "deplorable and offensive." Its director general Abraham Foxman stated that, "the union's resolution makes no effort to reflect current realities on the ground in the region. There is no mention of Israel's unilateral redeployment from Gaza and proposed action in the West Bank, nor is there any recognition of the challenges posed by... Hamas' reign over the PA and its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist or to renounce terror."

In the meantime these resolutions have divided the Israeli population. In the last two days two articles have appeared in the main daily liberal newspaper "Haaretz" openly supporting the boycott. The first was by Miron Benvenisti, once a high ranking official in the Jerusalem municipality, and the other was by Gidon Levi, who has come out in open and direct support of the boycott.

Meron Benvenisti, under the title "Between immigrants and natives" wrote:

"It's been less than two weeks since the High Court of Justice issued its ruling maintaining the deprivation of the rights of Palestinians to reunify their families, and we already have the decision that Palestinian MPs from Hamas, living in Jerusalem, will be expelled if they don't resign within 30 days.

"The suspicious will find a connection between the two decisions and wonder if the government is deliberately attempting to try the public and legal system's patience for evil acts bordering on racism, as preparation for even more brutal steps. According to the reactions so far, there have been no firm demands for an end to this cruelty and the government can continue on its merry way; the security excuse serves as an effective fig leaf from any domestic criticism and foreign criticism can always be rejected as forms of anti-Semitism.

"The Israelis, children of immigrants, who in the best case are only separated by a generation from the status of refugees ‑ uprooted and expelled ‑ impose on native Palestinians the status of foreigners, of living in a country to which they do not belong, forcing them to fight for the right to live in their home, and exposing them to an expulsion decree or banning their ‘entrance' on the grounds that they ‘do not belong'."

Gidon Levi, himself a journalist for the Haaretz, on June 4, under the title, "With a little help from the outside" wrote:

"The laugh of fate: The state waging a broad international campaign for a boycott is simultaneously waging a parallel campaign, no less determined, against a boycott. A boycott that seriously harms the lives of millions of people is legitimate in its eyes because it is directed against those defined as its enemies, while a boycott that is liable to hurt its academic ivory tower is illegitimate in its eyes only because it is aimed against itself. This is a moral double standard. Why is the boycott campaign against the Palestinian Authority, including blocking essential economic aid and boycotting leaders elected in democratic and legal elections, a permissible measure in Israel's eyes and the boycott of its universities is forbidden?

"Israel cannot claim the boycott weapon is illegitimate. It makes extensive use of this weapon itself, and its victims are suffering under severe conditions of deprivation, from Rafah to Jenin. In the past, Israel called upon the world to boycott Yasser Arafat, and now it is calling for a boycott of the Hamas government ‑ and via this government, all of the Palestinians in the territories. And Israel does not regard this as an ethical problem. Tens of thousands have not received their salaries for four months due to the boycott, but when there is a call to boycott Israeli universities, the boycott suddenly becomes an illegitimate weapon.

"It would have been preferable had the opponents of the occupation in Israel not needed the intervention of external groups to fight the occupation. It is not easy to call upon the world to boycott your own country. It would have been better had there been no need for Rachel Corrie, James Miller and Tom Hurndall, bold people of conscience who paid with their lives after standing in front of the destructive bulldozers in Rafah. These young foreigners did the dangerous and vital work that Israelis should have done.

"The same is true for the few peace activists who still manage to roam the territories, to protest and offer assistance to the victims of the occupation in the framework of organizations like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) ‑ which Israel fights ‑ preventing its members from entering its borders. It would be better if Israelis mobilized to fight instead of them. But except for a few modest groups, there is no protest in Israel and no real mobilization. Thus, it only remains to hope for the world's help.

"The world can help save Israel from itself in limited ways."

The present moves in several countries in favour of a boycott have encouraged the left leaning peace movement in Israel. Yesterday it organised a rally and a march with the participation of 2000 people. Such a relatively large peace demo has not taken place in Israel for a long time. The mood on the demo revealed that something is stirring on the left. We, the Marxists, were selling our journal and we sold out. Many people asked for copies after we had none left. This shows that if you stand firm on Marxist principles, sooner or later it will pay off.

As Marxists we support unions in other countries who come out in defence of the Palestinians' right of self-determination. However we would ask one thing of our brothers and sisters around the world. They should word their protest resolutions and develop their activities in such a way as to differentiate between the rulers of Israel and the workers and the poor who also live here. Many academics in Israel do oppose the occupation. The average Israeli worker is not the one to be blamed for the reactionary ruling class and politicians who run Israel. It would be much better to formulate resolutions and actions clearly aimed against the Zionist ruling class and its interests, to organise a workers' boycott of Israeli military equipment that is sold to reactionary regimes around the world, for instance.

The growing boycott of Israel is modelled on the boycott of the South African Apartheid regime. What is conveniently forgotten is that the brutal Apartheid regime survived for decades, in spite of that boycott. What finally brought down that regime was the mobilisation of the South African working class, the creation of COSATU, and so on. It was the threat of revolution that pushed the South African ruling class into making concessions.

We should also not forget, however, that the outcome was only a cosmetic change. The massive working class movement in South Africa, that had the opportunity of taking real power into its power and transforming society, of achieving the socialist transformation of society, was in essence betrayed by the reformists. The old ruling class, the white capitalists, still have their power, the economic power they always had. They continue to exploit the black workers. These have remained poor and exploited while the ruling class remains more or less what it was, apart from a tiny handful of privileged blacks that have been promoted. Of course, there are the black bureaucrats in silky suits and expensive cars that are running the capitalist state, but they are running it for the same old ruling class that used the Apartheid system in the past.

This experience only serves to show that a boycott, if applied correctly, can be used to support the working class in its struggle for power and to transform society. It cannot become a substitute for the struggle of the working class.

Israel is not one reactionary bloc as many people on the left unfortunately believe. It is a class society. There are Jewish capitalists and Jewish workers. The bosses exploit the workers. There are class antagonisms. Yes, these are blurred by the national question. It is in the interests of the Israeli bourgeoisie to make the Jewish workers of Israel feel that they can only protect their interests through "national unity". But this means oppressing another people, the Palestinians.

It is the duty of genuine Marxists to work to break this false unity down. The same Israeli ruling class that oppresses the Palestinians also cuts pensions for Jewish workers. So long as this situation is maintained, the workers in Israel will never really be free. It is in the interests of the Jewish workers to transform capitalist society, and their only real allies in this struggle are their Arab sisters and brothers, the workers in the Occupied Territories and beyond.

Unlike the whites in South Africa, Israel is a relatively new nation. It is a nation that oppresses another nation. Marx pointed out that a nation that oppresses another nation can never be free itself. In spite of all this, sooner or later class contradictions will prevail in Israel. There is an ideological stranglehold at the moment, and the politics of the Labour Party right-wing bureaucracy is an important contributing factor in maintaining the present status quo. But the workers of Israel have no other choice. Poverty and unemployment are growing. There are constant attacks on their living standards. The objective situation will push the workers of Israel into struggle. If they want a better future they must struggle for a new society, namely socialism.