The Association for Asian American Studies backed the boycott in April and the Modern Language Association debated the question at its Chicago convention this month.
Leaders of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel contend that Israel is the world’s unique pariah nation today, similar to the white-supremacist apartheid state of South Africa that was overthrown in the early 1990s. They say their effort is modeled on the campaign for international sanctions against apartheid but they say nothing about the mass struggle organized by the African National Congress, which was the key to the democratic revolution in South Africa.
While the expression “Israeli apartheid” has become accepted by some who support the Palestinian struggle, the analogy is false.
Both apartheid South Africa and Israel have roots as settler colonies and bulwarks of imperialism in underdeveloped regions of the world. But the two are otherwise quite different in key respects. South African apartheid set out to exploit the labor of the rightless Black majority to create superprofits for the capitalist class. The founders of Israel sought to expel as much of the Arab majority as they could and make their profits by creating an almost all-Jewish working class.
Israel today is the most economically and socially developed capitalist nation-state in the Middle East, with a large proletariat and substantial middle-class layers. Its power is backed by the most formidable military in the region. And despite its original goal of expelling the Palestinians, they make up more than 20 percent of its citizens. Israeli capitalism exploits Jewish, immigrant and Palestinian labor, including from the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.
At the same time Israel is a bourgeois democracy, which affords working people a degree of political rights and space to organize and act in their class interests that for the most part does not exist elsewhere in the region. Like other developed capitalist nations, it is full of class antagonisms and social contradictions.
Apartheid: a state of ‘white race’Apartheid South Africa was not a nation in any meaningful sense but a state of the “white race.” Less than 20 percent of the population living in the territories under its control — those defined by law as persons “of the white race” — had rights of citizenship. Blacks could not vote, change jobs at will or own land. They had to carry government-issued passes at all times and could not travel from one side of a town to the other without permission.
Anytime the government chose, it could send unruly African workers back to isolated Bantustans, so-called homelands in impoverished rural areas.
Apartheid prevented the formation of a modern nation. It institutionalized racial and tribal differentiations and blocked development of modern classes, including a hereditary working class among Blacks.
Following World War II, South Africa’s rulers were largely successful in implementing their vision of this unique system of capitalist wage slavery under feudal-like forms of subjugation. Its success was its downfall. Such blatant and socially explosive contradictions became impossible to hold together.
The Israeli rulers’ goal was very different: the removal of the Arab inhabitants and the setting up an all-Jewish nation from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Today they have abandoned this failed vision and instead are looking for ways to adjust their borders and maintain an Israel with a Jewish majority.
In the West Bank, the Israeli government has built a wall between Jewish and Arab areas, and constantly encroaches on Palestinian territory with settlements. It keeps the Gaza Strip blockaded, preventing Palestinians there from working in Israel and from normal trade and travel relations with the rest of the world. This reinforces their dependence on handouts from the United Nations and other agencies, stunting development of the class struggle.
Palestinian citizens of Israel face systematic discrimination in jobs, education, government services, land ownership and housing.
At the same time Jews and Arabs inside Israel can ride the same buses, go to the same universities, work in many of the same factories, belong to the same unions and fight side by side for better wages and conditions. Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel were both part of social protests over housing and inflation that swept the country in the summer of 2011.
Opens door to anti-Semitism’Israeli law professor Amir Paz-Fuchs told the Militant by phone from Oxford, England, Dec. 30 that he supported the boycott movement when he lived in Israel out of “frustration.”
“I felt like we had worked over the last 30 years to get the government to stop its most flagrant violations and have failed miserably,” he said. “We thought anything you can do to get the Israeli government to change, we thank you for it.”
But after taking a post at the University of Oxford he has begun to question the tactic. “A physics professor here refused to accept a doctoral student because he came from Israel,” he said. “I’m probably one of the last people to bring up anti-Semitism, but it reeks of that.”
Paz-Fuchs raises an important point. The Jewish question does not go away and capitalism remains a death trap for the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred and conspiracy theories, dredged up from the past, seek to get working people to scapegoat Jews for the crisis of capitalism and divert their attention from the real enemy: the bosses and their system of exploitation. Bending to anti-Semitism poses a danger to the working class and to the Palestinian struggle.
Joining debate ‘more powerful’In 2011 British novelist Ian McEwan was invited to Israel to accept the Jerusalem prize for literature. He refused to heed calls to boycott the invitation. Instead, in a speech widely reported on in Israel, McEwan denounced the Israeli government for the “continued evictions and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of the right of return granted to Jews but not to Arabs” as well as for turning Gaza into “a long-term prison camp.” He also criticized Hamas for embracing “the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns, and the nihilism of the extinctionist policy towards Israel.”
“What he did was so much more powerful and took more courage than refusing to come,” Paz-Fuchs said.
The boycott campaign is based on “the logic of pressure, not diplomacy, persuasion, or dialogue,” Lisa Taraki, a leader of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said in an August 2011 interview in al Jazeera. “No amount of ‘education’ of Israelis about the horrors of occupation and other forms of oppression seems to have turned the tide.”
But just as there are two Americas — the America of the wealthy capitalist property owners and the America of the working class — there are two Israels. Similar class divisions exist within the Palestinian territories.
Viewing all Israelis — and Taraki means Israeli Jews — as enemies and Israel as a special apartheid state that must be destroyed, blocks Palestinians from winning potential allies among working people of all nationalities and religious beliefs. It can also provide cover for Jew-hatred to hide and fester, whatever the intentions of boycott supporters.
This can be seen in the boycott campaign against the G4S private security firm for equipping Israeli prisons in the West Bank. But G4S also equips prisons in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and in the United States. Are U.S. prisons, or those in Saudi Arabia for that matter, a better model for their treatment of workers and oppressed people behind bars than Israel?
The Israel boycott campaign stands in contrast to the revolutionary course followed during the fight against apartheid. The African National Congress won leadership of the vast majority of Africans in struggle on the basis of the 1955 Freedom Charter, which called for a South Africa that “belongs to all who live in it, Black and white.” And they meant it. That course ensured victory by winning support among all nationalities, including a substantial number of Caucasians, to the side of the ANC.
But there is no revolutionary leadership in Israel or the Palestinian territories today. Hamas and Fatah, which claim to speak in the name of Palestinians, are bourgeois organizations that are obstacles to the struggle. They don’t have a program that offers a way forward for the Palestinians, much less one that can attract allies among Jewish, African immigrants and other workers in Israel.
This doesn’t mean the fights for Palestinian rights and against national oppression should wait for other developments in the class struggle. But it will not succeed in the long run unless it wins allies among working people inside Israel. And any advance in the Palestinian struggle must be championed by the labor movement in Israel if workers there are to break down divisions fostered by the bosses that keep them hamstrung.
Palestinian working people, not the Palestinian bourgeoisie, are the motor force for the liberation struggle and the fights for Palestinian rights that are going on today: from fights against job and housing discrimination inside Israel to the fight by Bedouins in the Negev to remain on the land they have lived on for decades, to fights against the West Bank wall and the economic embargo of Gaza, for water rights and to win freedom for Palestinian political prisoners in Israel’s jails.
Because Israel is the most developed capitalist country in the region, with a powerful multinational working class, there are more opportunities than ever for advancing these fights.
But the boycott campaign’s schema of Israeli apartheid leaves its supporters disoriented and unable to embrace real developments in the class struggle in Israel, like the ongoing fight of Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants for refugee status.
The road forward for working people is not the “destruction of Israel” — anymore than the “destruction” of the U.S. or Russia — but the forging of a revolutionary movement and a communist leadership of Jewish, Arab and immigrant workers and farmers that will advance the fight for Palestinian national rights and lead working people to take power out of the hands of the capitalist rulers in Israel and the region.
A revolutionary government will invite Palestinians scattered throughout the world to return to their homeland. And in the face of rising rightist movements as capitalism’s crisis of production and trade deepens, it will open its doors to Jews fleeing reaction anywhere in the world.
Protests of African refugees spur discussions by workers in Israel
Saudi government carries out mass deportations
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