Int’l boycott, divestment and sanctions update: ‘I went because I needed to go’

So said a Holocaust survivor and anti-apartheid activist about his trip to Jackson, Mississippi in 1961!

The same impulse inspires BDS activists from all walks of life today.

International boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activities got a boost at the founding conference of the Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS in Ramallah on 30 April. It called on trade unions around the world to sever all links with the Israel labour federation Histadrut.

Histadrut protects illegal Israeli workers in the settlements and doesn’t protect the legal Palestinian workers there, having withheld almost $2.5 billion of their wages over the years, deducted for “social and other trade union benefits” that they have never received.

There was good and bad news on the political front in the past month. Scottish voters rejected the pro-war, pro-Israel Labour Party and elected the Scottish Nationalist Party, whose leader leader Alex Salmond supports sanctions against Israel.

Bad news came from Canada. The strongly pro-Israel Conservatives won a narrow majority with only 40 per cent of the vote. A sign of the times, the city council of Markham, Ontario, a Conservative stronghold, adopted a motion to censor Israeli Apartheid Week, organised each year in March by students at Canadian universities, even though Markham has no university and no IAW events.

Queens University Rector Nick Day criticised such attempts to stifle students’ free speech, and suddenly found himself the victim of an organised witch hunt by the Campus Conservatives, Queen’s Liberal Association (the Israel lobby is well entrenched in all Canada’s political parties) and Israel on Campus, demanding his resignation. The count’s not in yet on Day, as students and faculty immediately started a petition to defend Day and free speech.

In a similar attack on free speech, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner’s honorary doctorate at New York University’s Criminal Justice College was cancelled after board member and investment banker Jeffrey Wiesenfeld claimed that Kushner believes Israel’s founding involved “ethnic cleansing” and that Kushner supported BDS. The playwright, a member of the advisory board for Jewish Voice for Peace (which indeed gives qualified support to BDS), retorted that he was proud to be Jewish, but “that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish people.”

On the boycott front, British activists are celebrating their hard-fought success in shutting down the Ahava flagship store in London after a 2-year long campaign against Ahava’s theft of Palestinian land and resources. Ahava sells Dead Sea skin products, but consumers came to realise they were being sold “Stolen Beauty from Stolen Palestinian Land” and packed in their mud packs. The Dead Sea has been inaccessible to Palestinians since 2000.

Caving in to BDS pressure, German rail company Deutsche Bahn pulled out of the $550 million train project to connect Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Six kms of the route cuts through the occupied West Bank in two places, displacing already displaced Palestinians.

On the divestment front, the University of London Union, the largest student union in Europe, with over 120,000 members from colleges across London, voted 10-1 to institute and campaign for BDS, citing their anti-apartheid campaign of the 1960–90s as precedent.

Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) at Ottawa’s Carleton University delivered a petition signed by 2,000 Carletonians and more than 25 student clubs, academic workers’ unions and university service centres to the Board of Governors. The board refused to consider SAIA’s demand that Carleton divest from BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, Motorola and Tesco Supermarkets. More than 400 BDS activists besieged the meeting with a united message: “Board of Governors, we won’t rest till you divest!” forcing the board to cancel the meeting.  There is no doubt that SAIA will keep up the pressure “till you divest”.

On the sanctions front, Israeli officials continue to dodge the bullet. The Israeli PM’s military attache Major-General Yohanan Locker cancelled his trip to London last month when faced by a suit alleging he committed war crimes in Operation Cast Lead, the invasion of Gaza in early 2009.

At Brandeis University in Massachusetts, students disrupted a speech by Israeli politician Avi Dichter, calling him a torturer and war criminal for his involvement in the targetted killing of Gazans in 2002. They cited the class action suit brought against him by the American Center for Constitutional Rights. In 2007, like Locker in 2011, Dichter had to cancel a visit to the UK for fear he would be arrested on war crime charges.

Louis Brandeis was the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, nominated in 1916, and a militant Zionist who lobbied strongly for the Balfour Declaration. What would he have thought of the unruly Brandeis students? Or the honorary doctorate awarded Kushner in 2006 as America’s most celebrated playwright, despite the lobbying efforts of the Zionist Organisation of America? The times they are a-changin’.

Taking BDS a step further, Ken O’Keefe, the ex-Marine who captured the world’s attention during the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara a year ago, has been working with survivors of the Cast Lead massacre in the safe-trade project Aloha Palestine, a community interest trading company. To raise funds, Aloha Palestine is assembling an international trade convoy which plans to leave London in early July and arrive in Gaza 3 weeks later. The trucks will be reloaded in Gaza with made-in-Palestine products for export.

O’Keefe’s fellow peace warrior, retired US colonel Ann Wright, is taking over his duties in this year’s Freedom Flotilla II, headed for Gaza in June. She will be aboard the USS Audacity of Hope, inspired by Furkan Dogan, the 19 year old Turkish American killed by Israeli forces on the Mavi Mamara.

Celebrating the initiative, Hannah Schwarzschild stirred audiences with her words: “Fifty years ago, my father, then a 35-year-old refugee from Hitler’s Germany with a young wife and two small children, boarded a Trailways bus headed for Jackson, Mississippi. Like the 427 other freedom riders who rode voluntarily into the terror that was the segregated South in 1961, my father set out to violate the illegal state laws that barred white-skinned people from sitting together with black-skinned people on public transit. He went, as he wrote many years later, not because he believed that his mission would succeed, but ‘as an act of faith in the validity of a moral act. I went because I needed to go.'”

As if to goad activists to go, Israeli Ambassador to the EU Ran Curiel insisted his country is well within its rights to besiege the Gazans, calling on the flotilla organisers to bring their materials to Gaza through approved land-based routes. This, after Israel recently froze millions of dollars of aid and tax revenues to the Palestinians, and despite the fact that land channels means going through Israel and risking having cargo confiscated at the whim of hostile Israeli officials, paying duties, transit fees and hiring Israeli drivers. In other words, providing Israel and Israelis with “aid” rather than the Gazans.

“In our view, the flotilla is clearly a political provocation, since there’s no need for a flotilla to aid Gaza. You can pass whatever you want to Gaza through normal channels,” taunted Curiel. Tell that to Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker, who like her compatriot Schwarzchild, called Freedom Flotilla II “the Freedom Ride of this era”.


Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly You can reach him at You can purchase Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games at

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