Missing the point on boycotting apartheid

Rick Salutin, well-respected columnist for The Globe and Mail, and rabble.ca has published a criticism of the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against the state of Israel.[1] Below is one of the responses posted to his column when it appeared on rabble.[2] • It is not credible for Rick Salutin to paint all boycott campaigns with the same brush. U.S. sanctions against Cuba are an attack by an imperialist country on a small oppressed nation. U.N. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s cost hundreds of thousands of lives and were the preliminary act in the horror that became the Iraq war.

The civil society movement to isolate South Africa through a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions was, by contrast, a movement against imperialism and war – a call to isolate a racist, sub-imperialist power. This is of a kind with the civil society movement to isolate Israel through a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Israel is a sub-imperialist power that is built on the basis of the racist exclusion and oppression of the Palestinians. The issue is — are we with imperialism and its allies, or with the oppressed and their allies in the fight against imperialism?

Salutin then changes the goal posts and questions the efficacy of such campaigns. That is something that has been discussed at length in the social movements. Very few maintain that BDS alone brought down apartheid. The key factor in the fall of apartheid was the generations-long struggle by the black people of South Africa themselves – from the uprising in Soweto to the magnificent illegal miners’ strikes. This movement received considerable support from others in Africa (and from the armies of Cuba), engaged in their own struggles against colonialism and racism. Finally, to the extent those of us in the West could play a role, it was through exposing our governments’ and corporations’ complicity by calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

And “self-righteous language on each side”? In what way can the use of the term “apartheid” be equated with the Israeli state banning the use of the term “nakba?” Both express a truth – that the Israeli state is based on the racist exclusion of the majority of the Palestinians. The reality of the mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians does in fact make 1948 a catastrophe (nakba), just as the ongoing exclusion, fragmentation, isolation and separation of the Palestinians is a fact that deserves the label “apartheid”. What unites both these terms is the way in which their use has been greeted with hysteria. We must not use the label “apartheid” or the term “nakba” – because these terms make it difficult for a complacent political class to continue to wallow in 61 years of willful ignorance about the reality of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Rick Salutin, “Mr. Cohen doesn’t do Ramallah,” The Globe and Mail, July 24, 2009 .
[2] Salutin, “Mr. Cohen doesn’t do Ramallah,” rabble.ca, July 24, 2009

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