On boycotting Palestinian workers

February 19, 2016

In Blog

In Wednesday’s Ha’aretz Larry Derfner charged the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement with gratuitously harming Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories.

One of BDS’s most high-profile victories to date came in 2014, when, under pressure from BDS activists, SodaStream withdrew its factory from the illegal Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumim and relocated to Israel proper. This left hundreds of Palestinians unemployed, at no doubt crippling cost to themselves and their dependents.

Derfner writes:

Of all the Israeli-owned companies to boycott, SodaStream should have been about the last. BDS is supposedly trying to help the Palestinians, but the movement cost 500 of them the kind of jobs that are exceedingly rare where they live. I agree that the occupation is immoral, but did they have to pay the price? Couldn’t BDS have passed on SodaStream and concentrated their efforts elsewhere, say on companies where maybe Palestinians weren’t working?

But Sodastream was a visible target, its products are on sale at big stores in U.S. and British cities where BDS has many followers, and when Scarlett Johansson became the company’s pitchwoman, SodaStream became the movement’s cause célèbre. Then the plant in Mishor Adumim closed.  Victory! Five-hundred Palestinians on the street? The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.[1]

He has a point.

Solidarity boycotts which harm, in the first instance, the people being oppressed might be justified as contributions to a struggle whose success is expected to yield collective gains that outweigh the individual costs incurred in waging it.

But that can be a difficult judgement to make. Those with the most authority to make it are the people being called upon to sacrifice for uncertain reward, or their legitimate representatives. In South Africa, representative organisations with genuine roots in a broad popular movement publicly endorsed the boycott, notwithstanding fears that it would harm black workers. An argument could therefore be made in its defence.[2]

Unfortunately, no comparable Palestinian movement or leadership now exists. It is true that the BDS National Committee (BNC) presents itself as representative of Palestinian opinion on these matters. Thus, BNC co-founder and leading spokesperson Omar Barghouti dismisses concerns about Palestinian layoffs as evincing a “colonial attitude”:

Those who claim that BDS hurts Palestinians are not just making unfounded and unethical claims that fail to understand how resistance is always costly at first. They are also patronising in telling Palestinians that they understand our interests better than we do.

But, first, BDS is hardly “costly” for the NGOs and other civil society groups that have championed it; and, second, it is not clear how many Palestinian workers share Barghouti’s (patronising?) understanding of their interests. Indeed, a March 2014 survey found that the vast majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories hadn’t heard of the BNC, and while the salience of BDS within Palestinian civil society has perhaps increased since then (pp. 16-22), that civil society is not rooted in, and has no claim to represent, a broad public.

In the absence of a mass Palestinian movement, substantially reversing Israel’s policies is impossible; while in the absence of representative Palestinian organisations, it is difficult to establish whether Palestinian workers support boycotts at the price of their jobs. The lack of potential compensatory gain on the one hand, and the lack of authoritative Palestinian legitimisation on the other, mean that, at this point, boycotts that lead to Palestinian unemployment cannot be defended. Resolving the dilemmas involved must await the emergence of a representative Palestinian leadership.

If certain BDS activists disagree, this apparently reflects their belief that the Palestine struggle is on the cusp of victory, needing only a few more nudges courtesy of BDS to bring it home. Thus, Barghouti has stated that “we are reaching our South Africa moment” and that Israel is facing “imminent collapse.” This in turn is apparently rooted in the hope that an external solidarity campaign might do the work of an internal mass movement – only on that basis could one mistake a historic nadir in the Palestine struggle for something approaching its peak. But the South Africa precedent cautions strongly that international activism can at most support and supplement the internal struggle; it cannot substitute for it.

The reality is, the solidarity movement is in a holding phase. Our aims should be to keep Palestine on the public radar, to sustain and build the activist movement, to exploit opportunities to intervene in policymaking, and to continue to prepare public opinion in anticipation of the (re)emergence of large-scale popular resistance in the occupied Palestinian territories. All of these objectives can be prosecuted without costing Palestinians their livelihoods, by targeting firms which don’t employ Palestinians or by pursuing others among the range of available tactics.




[1] These arguments echo those made in a 2014 article by David Rosenberg.

[2] But not an uncontroversial argument. Polls did not demonstrate majority black support for boycotts that would put their jobs at risk, while the prevailing scholarly wisdom is that international boycotts and sanctions played a likely minor role in bringing apartheid to an end. For documentation and discussion see Norman G. Finkelstein and Mouin Rabbani, How to Resolve the Israel-Palestine Conflict (New York: OR Books, forthcoming).