Boycott is, as many proudly recall, an Irish invention. The first boycott targeted a notorious land agent, the eponymous Captain Charles Boycott, for attempting to evict Mayo tenants in 1880. Inspired by the Land League, local people refused to serve or work for him, responding to his threat to their means of life by severing social and economic ties with him. Boycott has since evolved into a familiar nonviolent instrument for effecting social change. It remains the most effective means by which civil society holds to account those responsible for ongoing yet remediable violations of fundamental rights, including especially violations that threaten the capacity of any community to reproduce its means to life and cultural survival. It works quite simply by withdrawing or suspending ties with the perpetrators, refusing to collaborate with injustices even by passively endorsing or “normalising” them through inaction.
Above all, boycott is an instrument of civil society. We call for a boycott when the means to redress an ongoing injury are denied by the legal or political institutions that ought to intervene. In December 2009, Israel launched its catastrophic “Cast Lead” assault on Gaza ‑ as it would again in 2012 and 2014. Before it was over, Israel had killed some 1,400 Gazans, mostly civilians with nowhere to hide and no means of escape. At the height of this indiscriminate slaughter, the US House and Senate passed a resolution in support of Israel’s campaign that was mendacious in almost every clause, including blaming Hamas for this long-planned and disproportionate assault. Only four courageous representatives dissented. Given such lock-step support of Israel, even as the IDF was pursuing what the UN’s Goldstone report would later establish was a criminal and utterly asymmetrical war on an imprisoned population, it became apparent that American ‑ or European ‑ institutions would never hold Israel accountable without some countervailing pressure from grassroots social movements.
That’s why, in January 2009, a handful of US-based scholars launched the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel which calls for the suspension of all collaboration with Israeli academic institutions that are complicit with occupation and discrimination against Palestinians. Boycott, as we understood it, was not simply an expression of our very lively disgust at Israel’s indiscriminate and overwhelming slaughter. It was, first and foremost, a response to the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel (BDS), directed not to the powers that had consistently and for decades failed them, but to global civil society. We committed to helping shape a social movement that would breach the blockade on achieving justice for Palestinians that Israel and its well-funded lobbies had for generations maintained. Those lobbies had succeeded in locking up not only the political process but also the US media that had consistently failed to cover with any accuracy the fate of Palestine and its people. Confronted with this blockade on justice and on information, only a civil society movement, we quixotically believed, could alter the balance of power and shape openings for any possible just peace.
The success of any boycott campaign is to be measured less by the economic or social impact it exerts than by the transformation of public awareness that the process of the campaign itself produces. The boycott movement has already achieved astonishing and unanticipated successes in various spheres, from the endorsement of academic boycott by professional organisations like the American Studies Association or the Teachers Union of Ireland to the blockade of Israeli ships in US ports during the 2014 assault on Gaza, to the international campaign to get the French global corporation Veolia to suspend its transportation projects in occupied Palestine. But welcome as these successes have been, their effect on the Israeli economy or the power of its military still remains limited. What they have achieved is something rather different, an ongoing transformation of public understanding of Israel’s political system and regime of occupation. In success or failure, boycott campaigns work primarily through educating people ‑ in churches, in schools and colleges, in union halls ‑ about the realities of occupation and discrimination that Palestinians suffer on a daily basis. Gradually, the perception is growing that the occupation is not a defence against intransigent terrorists, but an illegal annexation that dispossesses an indigenous population of its lands and basic rights, and that Israel itself is not a democratic bastion in the Middle East but a fundamentally racial state. How, indeed, can a state with more than fifty laws that discriminate against its own Palestinian minority be considered a democracy at all?
Formerly unassailable truisms about Israel have crumbled over the past few years, not because their falsity was not evident to anyone who cared to do some research (just read the late Edward Said), but because the boycott movement has generated debates that have disseminated information in an unprecedented range of venues, even within the precincts of the US Democratic Party. Perhaps the most telling index of the impact of the global boycott movement is the fact that the Israeli state has elevated BDS to the status of a major strategic threat. The result has not been a further invigoration of debate, but an Israeli-sponsored effort ‑ dubbed “lawfare” ‑ to outlaw advocacy of the boycott movement. It has already succeeded in France and numerous anti-BDS bills are under consideration in state legislatures around the United States. Other tactics include the insidious effort to define criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic or the attempt to impose punitive sanctions on student movements or civic and commercial entities that endorse the boycott. One of the founding members of the Palestinian campaign, Omar Barghouti, has been denied the right to travel and had his life threatened by government ministers. Further crack-downs on supporters of BDS, within and beyond Israel, continue to emerge. But these increasingly virulent acts of censorship reveal only one thing: that Israel’s regime of occupation, dispossession and discrimination is indefensible. Those who cannot defend a system in the light of public debate must resort to force, legal or otherwise, to stamp out debate. But coercion is a very poor argument and, ironically, the very effort to censor functions like a megaphone for broadcasting the arguments it seeks to suppress.
Meanwhile, daily life for Palestinians is a tedious labyrinth of legal and physical obstacles, from the hundreds of checkpoints and road closures that turn ten-minute journeys into hours-long treks to the permit regime that makes every single project, from harvesting to medical travel, into a nightmare of arbitrary denials; from the student leader’s well-founded dread of “administrative detention” that can be indefinitely renewed to the professor’s anxiety about unpredictable but recurrent incursions onto campuses; from the annexation of one’s family’s or community’s land for the illegal settlements that everywhere dominate the landscape to the daily threat of harassment and violence from right-wing settlers protected by the Israeli military. What is astonishing is not the occasional reactive outburst of violence on the part of those systematically oppressed but the pervasive exercise of patience and persistence that Palestinians display under unimaginably humiliating and frustrating conditions of life.
On a recent trip to Palestine, on which we met Palestinian scholars and students from some ten or more institutions in Israel and on the West Bank, my colleagues and I witnessed our peers’ dismay at what they term localisation: that is, the cumulative effect of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement and interference with the right of foreigners to travel freely is the increasing fragmentation of intellectual life at all levels. Students from Hebron in the south now rarely attend Bir Zeit University near Ramallah: what would perhaps be an hour’s journey, if settlements and the settler-only highways did not protrude into Palestinian land, now takes several hours via mountainous detours along twisting roads punctuated by checkpoints. At those checkpoints, the danger of military violence may flash up at any moment, especially for young Palestinians. To the north, the Palestine Technical University at Tulkarem, the only free and public university in Palestine, used to serve students from all over the West Bank and even Israel. Almost daily Israeli army invasion of the campus have permanently disabled twenty students and wounded hundreds more, at times with exploding or hollow-tipped bullets whose effects we could still witness on a disabled student and a technician some six months after the incident. In consequence of these lethal threats, the university has lost a high proportion of its students from outside the northern region who no longer feel safe there. One student at Bethlehem University told us that the first time she ever met a Palestinian student from anywhere outside her immediate area was when she managed to attend a study programme in the United States. Few Palestinian students are so fortunate. She was one of the few to survive the obstacle race that deters most Palestinians ‑ especially male students ‑ from seeking such opportunities.
Localisation destroys the cosmopolitan principles that inform any university, preventing the vital circulation of people and ideas on which intellectual life and culture thrive. It is almost impossible for Palestinian universities to host international scholars to teach for a full semester, since Israeli tourist visas expire after three months and there is no guarantee of renewal. Work visas are rarely granted even ‑ or especially ‑ to teachers, so in order to stay for a semester or longer the visiting scholar must risk either lying or overstaying illegally. Palestinian scholars and students acutely feel this loss of access to a world of research, archives and learning. Palestine was always a society with high levels of literacy and a rich artistic and intellectual culture. Israel’s regime of occupation is steadily destroying both that rich legacy and the dreams and visions of Palestinian youth. As Mariam, another student at Bethlehem University, put it to us: “We no longer dare to dream. If you have dreams you cannot realise, you cannot live with yourself.”
Ilan Pappé has spoken eloquently of the “incremental genocide” that Israel has been inflicting on Gaza. The strangulation that the Occupation imposes on Palestinian life in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank may or may not be intended as a means to ethnic cleansing, but it is certain that the effect of the tight net of regulations and restrictions makes life gradually intolerable. Almost every Palestinian scholar or student we spoke to felt that the malevolent intent of ethnic cleansing was evident in the conditions inflicted on them, driving those who could to leave. This is the structural violence that is the essential precondition for the explosions of lethal violence that occasionally register in Western media. What the universities suffer is merely a microcosm of the fragmenting impact of repression and dispossession on Palestinian society as a whole. The impact of localisation falls not just on them, but on Palestinian culture as a whole. Palestine was once the hub of ideas, goods and people circulating through West Asia and North Africa: as a professor at Bethlehem reminded us, the ancient caravan route used to pass from Jerusalem through Bethlehem to Hebron and beyond. Now he cannot even travel the twenty minutes from Bethlehem to his former family home in Jerusalem without a special permit. Israel’s regime has almost immobilised a people that were once an integral part of a cosmopolitan civilisation based on movement and commerce.
We Irish should know what it is to suffer the loss of a land and a culture, to be forced into a life of emigration that has recently been rebranded as a “diaspora”. The knowledge of what it is to have to leave without real hope of return is engrained in our collective memory. The conditions of Palestinians, in historic Palestine and in the diaspora, are far worse, forced as they have been to undergo often successive exiles and denied the right of return by Israeli laws that protect an artificial Jewish majority against an indigenous population that has been dubbed a “demographic threat”. Yet still they persist and refuse to be displaced without a struggle. The international powers have failed them decade after decade. Israel continues its punitive and racist regime of occupation and dispossession that is by turns brutally violent and astonishingly ugly in its concern to inflict petty humiliation. It has done so with utter impunity so far. But, as almost every Palestinian affirmed to us, BDS is the last form of non-violent resistance that remains to them and, as such, offers the most promising means to achieve peace with justice against an ever-worsening situation.
But the boycott is not a tactic that Palestinians under Occupation or in Israel can very effectively deploy alone. It is, rather, a tactic that they have called on international civil society to implement. They ask us to respond to their call. If we do not, we too will be complicit, by virtue of our inaction, with the slow and deliberate destruction of Palestinian society and culture and with the daily violence that incrementally and malevolently pursues their elimination.
David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, and a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. He is also a signatory of the IPSC “Irish Artists’ Pledge to Boycott Israel” and has published numerous articles on Palestine and Israel. His most recent critical book is Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity: The Transformation of Oral Space (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is Michael Cronin’s essay on the new service industry capitalism, “The Meaning of Ryanair”. Here is a short extract:
Whereas earlier dystopian visions such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had seen totalitarian governments as the wicked shepherd leading the flock to certain destruction, now it is banks, insurance companies, pension funds and low-cost airlines, the raucous cheerleaders of deregulation, that routinely enervate, extinguish and stupefy their customers with a “network of small complicated rules”.
Stupefaction comes early. Booking a ticket on the website is like dealing with a snickering ticket tout ever alert to the foibles of the gullible or the inattentive. The future passenger is forever on guard against a kind of digital cute-hoorism so that she does not end up with a Samsonite suitcase she never wanted, travel insurance she never asked for and a car she never intended hiring. Concealed in the thicket of drop down menus are the pass keys out of the labyrinth of algorithmic disorientation and the pop-up messages are video game villains which must be swatted down if the future passenger is to arrive safely at the destination of payment, where more inexplicable charges await the unwary. Being charged for the privilege of printing your own boarding pass is perhaps one of the most inexplicable. This version of paying others for work you do is at the heart of the present moment of market capitalism, where low cost increasingly means, to the producer at least, no cost.