Last Thursday 29th October, Sussex students voted in favour of a Student Union boycott of Israeli goods. Turn out at the referendum totalled 1038 students; 526 votes were cast for a boycott, 450 against. 26 votes were deemed invalid.
Simon Englert, a member of Friends of Palestine (PalSoc), beamed: “This is a historical victory for Sussex. Today we have become the first British university to boycott Israel.”
In 2008, the University of Sussex Student Union (USSU) voted in favour of a motion to boycott Carmel Agrexco, an Israeli state-owned company which sells produce grown in illegal settlements in the Jordan Valley. Furthermore, in January of this year, many Sussex students occupied lecture theatres to demonstrate solidarity with Gaza. The Sussex Occupation reported 1293 signatures. Similar action was taken by students at SOAS, LSE, Kings College London, Warwick and Birmingham.
In recent months, Israeli newspapers have been filled with angry articles regarding the push for an international boycott of Israel. Leonard Cohen came under fire across the globe in September for his decision to perform in Tel Aviv, while Sex in the City star Kristin Davis was dropped by Oxfam as a goodwill ambassador because of her role as spokesperson for Israeli cosmetics company, Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, which sells goods produced in the occupied territories.
Evidently, adopting the kind of tactics which helped put an end to apartheid in South Africa is gaining followers worldwide. Indeed support for the ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ movement, launched by a group of Palestinian activists in 2005, is on the rise. The campaign’s objective is to ensure that Israel respects its obligations under international law and that Palestinians are granted the right to self-determination.
For some, however, a global boycott of Israel can’t help but contain echoes of anti-Semitism. It also raises questions of a double standard: why not boycott China for its egregious violations of human rights? Or America and the UK for its illegal wars?
Nevertheless, many Israeli Jews are in favour of an international boycott, including Guardian columnist Neve Gordon, who wrote last August: “I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.”
Gordon outlined the current situation in Israel. He explained that, for over forty-two years, Israel has controlled the land between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea. Within this region live about six million Jews and close to five million Palestinians. Of this population, over three million Palestinians and almost half a million Jews inhabit the areas that Israel seized in the 1967 war and yet, while these two groups live in the same area, they are subjected to totally different legal systems. The Jews (whether they live in the occupied territories or in Israel) are citizens of the State of Israel. By contrast, the Palestinians are stateless and lack many of the most basic human civil rights.
In the run up to last week’s referendum, PalSoc hosted an event ‘Vote Yes to the Boycott’. Two guest speakers attended the event, including Tom Hickey, a lecturer at Brighton University and member of the College and Union National Executive Committee, and Naomi Idrissi, representing ‘Jews for the Boycott of Israeli Goods’.
Hickey compared the Palestinian situation to that of apartheid in South Africa. He said that a boycott is not simply about the injustice of 1948, or about Zionism, “It is about the assault on Gaza. In the face of the barbaric state of Israel with its barbaric sponsor, the US, are we going to just stand aside and permit this injustice?”
Hickey added that, as citizens of conscience, we have a duty not to fuel Israel financially, as it is a nation that aims to “extirpate the Palestinians”.
In his closing words, he described the boycott as “a mechanism to open debate”.
Idrissi concurred, stressing that the movement to boycott Israel is becoming respectable: “In Europe and America as well as in the Middle East and many parts of the developing world, people of conscience – including many Jews – are rejecting anti-Arab prejudice and Zionist mythology.
“People are seeing Israel for what it is: an ethnocentric, colonial state, which deserves to be ostracized just as South Africa was ostracized during the apartheid era”, she said.
Idrissi called for an international boycott of Israel as a legitimate, non violent means to isolate the country “until it acknowledges and makes amends for the wrongs done to Palestinians over the last six decades”.
Interestingly, neither speaker mentioned Hamas, the Palestinian-Islamic Resistance Movement which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007.
The European Union and the United States classify Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas has launched numerous suicide bombings against Israelis since April 1993 and recently has also been responsible for rocket attacks, improvised explosive device attacks and shootings.
Earlier this month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that strong evidence indicates that all parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in different ways and with different effects, have committed and continue to commit serious violations of international human rights.
Ms Pillay expressed her support for the UN fact-finding mission into the fighting in Gaza at the start of the year, which found evidence that both sides had committed serious war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.
However, Israeli representative, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, called the UN report biased and flawed in its accusations that Israel had committed war crimes for fighting Hamas. He dubbed Hamas “war criminals” who had openly called for Israel’s destruction and had fired thousands of rockets against it.
Many consider the foundation of the State of Israel, which arguably erased the Palestinian homeland, a terrible injustice, including the Oxford academic and Iraqi-born Jew, Avi Shlaim. However, Shlaim also points out that this injustice sits alongside another: the hideous persecution of the Jews, which culminated in the Nazi genocide. In his works, Shlaim has suggested that only Palestine could provide the “titanic” solution which the Jews required.
Thus, while many regard Israel as a western imperialist colonial settler state, others argue that this view ignores the specificity of Jewish history, including the holocaust. Indeed, many Jews were forced to migrate from Europe in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution.
Idrissi dismissed this view in her speech, claiming that Jews typically see themselves as the victims. “They hide behind the shield that an attack on Israeli conduct is anti-Semitic”, she said, “This is simply not the case.”
Dr Ronit Lentin of Trinity College, Dublin, and author of ‘Thinking Palestine’, sent a message of solidarity to Sussex students supporting the boycott: “I would like to encourage Sussex students to vote for boycotting Israeli goods, and for an academic and cultural boycott. As a citizen of the State of Israel, and as an oppositionist Jew, I believe that boycotting is the most efficient non-violent strategy to motivate the Israeli state and Israeli citizens to re think the occupation policy. I applaud the initiative by the Palestine Society at the University of Sussex for your initiative and thank you for supporting the Palestinian cause.”
However, a spokesperson for ‘Build Bridges, Not Boycotts’, the opposition group to the boycott, argued: “What are the proposers of the boycott actually hoping to achieve? It seems clear to me that the obsession with the Middle Eastern conflict stems not from a desire to promote dialogue and peace, but instead to villify and delegitimize the only democracy in the Middle East.”
The University’s official response is that it is “not aware of a call for or agreement by the UN for economic sanctions against Israel. The University would wish to work with USSU to ensure that produce sold on campus indicates clearly its source or provenance so that members of the community can make an informed choice prior to purchase. The University notes that its catering and retail strategy already makes clear that it is the University’s practice to source food and other produce from local farmers and suppliers wherever possible.”