Pro-Israel Lobby Alarmed by Growth of Boycott, Divestment Movement

The movement to call Israel to account for its crimes against the Palestinian people is growing, it is “invading the mainstream discourse, becoming part of the constant and unrelenting drumbeat against Israel.” It could eventually threaten the existence of the Jewish state by undermining the support it receives from its strongest backer, the U. S. government.

That was the message of alarm delivered by the Executive Director of the American Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Howard Kohr, to the AIPAC Policy Conference on May 3.[i]
AIPAC is one of the principal organizations that lobby publicly on behalf of Israel in the United States, where it is an important influence on foreign policy. Among the 6,000 dignitaries who attended its policy conference were more than half of the members of the Senate and a third of the members of the House of Representatives. Featured speakers included Vice President Joe Biden, Senator John Kerry, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
AIPAC and its allies are often alleged to act as a kind of shadow government in Washington, distorting policy in Israel’s interest rather than that of the U.S. This stands reality on its head. The pro-Israel lobby carries real weight in the halls of power, but only because the U.S. and Israel share the same fundamental interests. The U.S. relies on Israel to keep the Arab states of the Middle East divided, weak, and under constant threat of attack, thus ensuring that they remain subservient to Washington. For its part, Israel could not continue to exist in its present form without the strong political and material support it receives from the U.S. It received more than $2.5 billion in military aid from the U.S. in 2009.[ii] Israel and the United States may be partners with shared objectives, but the relationship is a highly unequal one.
Kohr’s address focused on the growing power of the international movement against Israel’s criminal behavior, identifying support for boycott, divestment and sanctions as a particularly worrisome development.
Kohr pointed to a variety of statements and actions against Israel’s onslaught on Palestinians in Gaza, including demonstrations in Spain and Germany. He noted that 400 British academics had demanded that Britain’s Science Museum cancel an event highlighting the work of Israeli scientists and that an Italian trade union calls for a boycott of Israeli products.
“Incredibly, there now is even an Israel Apartheid Week conducted in cities across the globe,” he added.
Kohr noted the strength of opposition to Israel in the Middle East, Europe, and in international forums. But he voiced particular concern over the movement’s progress in the United States “where Israel stands accused of apartheid and genocide, where Zionism equals racism, where a former president of the United States can publicly accuse Israel of apartheid.”
Significantly, the AIPAC leader also insisted on the profound nature of the issues that divide supporters and critics of Israeli policy.
What we are witnessing is the attempted delegitimization of Israel; the systematic sowing of doubt that Israel is a nation that has forfeited the world’s concern; a nation whose actions are, in the strict meaning of the term, indefensible. This is more than the simple spewing of hatred. This is a conscious campaign to shift policy, to transform the way Israel is treated by its friends to a state that deserves not our support, but our contempt; not our protection, but pressured to change its essential nature.…
I’m not saying that these allegations have become accepted. But they have become acceptable. More and more they are invading the mainstream discourse, becoming part of the constant and unrelenting drumbeat against Israel. These voices are laying the predicate for an abandonment. They’re making the case for Israel’s unworthiness to be allowed what is for any nation the first and most fundamental of rights: the right to self-defense. …. They are preparing us for a world in which Israel stands alone, isolated, and at risk….
Now, there’s little we can do to stop the boycotts of Israeli goods launched in London or Lisbon or Rome. There’s little we can do to stop Israel Apartheid Week. But there is much we can do to stop this campaign from taking hold here. Here where it matters the most, in Washington, where United States policy is forged, we must stop the delegitimization of Israel. We must not let it penetrate the halls of Congress and the counsels of our president.
To win support for Israel from the U.S. ruling class, Kohr argued, friends of Israel must address “the absolute foundation, the base on which all else rests,” that is, the fact that Israel is
“a Western outpost in the Middle East. To those who make that accusation, I say you are right. Israel is the only democratic country in the region that looks West, that looks to the values and the vision we share of what our society, our country should aim at and aspire to. If that foundation of shared values is shaken, the rationale for the policies we pursue today will be stripped away. The reasons the United States would continue to invest nearly $3 billion in Israel’s security; the willingness to stand with Israel, even alone if need be; the readiness to defend Israel’s very existence, all are undermined and undone if Israel is seen to be unjust and unworthy.”
Kohr’s argument that Israel is a garrison state, “a Western outpost in the Middle East,” the front line of the defense of imperialist interests in the region, is not often stated in such forthright terms. But it is quite accurate, and speaks to the source of the conflict in the region.
Palestine appeals for solidarity
In his speech, Kohr voiced great alarm at the growth in solidarity with the Palestinian people in recent months. The unprecedented growth of the international solidarity movement is a grass-roots response to the crimes committed by Israel during its murderous 22-day assault on Gaza, and the tight siege of the territory that it maintains to this day.
Solidarity with Palestine is being expressed in many different ways. One of these is the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Support for BDS has grown considerably in recent months, which is why the AIPAC leader highlighted it as a cause for particular concern.
The BDS movement responds to an appeal for solidarity that was issued by Palestinian civil society in July 2005. More than 170 organizations, including trade unions, political and social organizations, and women’s and youth groups, issued the appeal. The signatories represent all three components of the divided Palestinian nation, namely, refugees, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The appeal from Palestine said, in part,
We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.
These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194.[iii]
Students mobilize for Palestine
Students have been in the forefront of the solidarity movement with Palestine. The attack on Gaza spurred student solidarity to new heights.
In what one newspaper described as “the biggest student revolt for 20 years,” students in the U.K. organized occupations at 34 universities. They used the facilities to hold meetings and show films promoting awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians. Many occupations demanded that their university provide practical aid to Palestinian universities and students. Another common theme of the movement was a call to end all ties to arms manufacturers – the university-military connection being particularly strong in the U.K. The universities promote research that benefits the merchants of death; they also invest in those companies.
The student movement achieved some notable gains. Glasgow Strathclyde University agreed to end its purchases from Eden Springs, an Israeli company that produces bottled water from land in the Golan Heights that Israel refuses to return to Syria. Several universities agreed to provide scholarships to Palestinian students. Others organized fundraising for Palestine; many of these efforts are ongoing. The Oxford and Manchester universities agreed to donate surplus books, journals and other educational material to universities in Palestine.
At the University of Manchester, an emergency meeting of the student union attended by more than 850 people adopted a motion committing the union to campaign for BDS.
One of the most important results of the wave of occupations was to raise consciousness of the Palestine issue among thousands of students and beyond. It also provided activists with valuable experience in organizing on this issue and forged links between them. Following on the occupations, many of the campus Palestine committees have increased their activity in support of BDS. Efforts are also being made to build a more sustained student Palestine solidarity movement.[iv]
In early February, new ground was conquered in the U.S. when Hampshire College agreed to implement a policy of divestment, the first college or university in the country to do so. Bowing to a two-year campaign by Students for Justice in Palestine, the Board of Trustees agreed to withdraw its investments from six companies targeted by SJP because they profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. SPJ noted that “this groundbreaking decision follows in Hampshire’s history of being the first college in the country to divest from apartheid South Africa 32 years ago, a decision based on similar human rights concerns.”[v]
Archbishop Desmond Tutu hailed the decision: “This is a monumental and historic step in the struggle for Palestinian equality, self-determination and peace in the Holy Land by non-violent means. I see what these students have accomplished as a replica of the support of their college of our struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Hampshire College’s decision to divest should be a guiding example to all institutions of higher learning.”[vi]
Israeli Apartheid Week
In his speech to the conference, AIPAC leader Hauk twice referred to Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual series of presentations and film showings that focus on the Israeli apartheid system and the need for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Initiated at the University of Toronto in 2005, IAW events took place this year on five continents in more than 40 cities and towns, 11 of them in Israeli-occupied Palestine, during the first week of March.[vii]
Organizers of IAW in Canada, one of the centers of the movement, had to contend with a sustained barrage of attacks and threats from Zionist organizations backed up by the federal government. In February Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, decried the “anti-Zionist version of anti-Semitism” which maintains that “the Jews alone have no right to a homeland.” A few weeks later Kenny took aim directly at IAW. Speaking to the House of Commons, he proclaimed that “Israel Apartheid Week is not about [freedom of opinion] …. We condemn these efforts to single out and attack the Jewish people and their homeland.” He thus suggested, without the slightest basis in fact, that IAW organizers were violating Canada’s criminal code, which bans “hate propaganda.”
University administrators on a number of campuses followed the government’s lead, attempting to disrupt Israeli Apartheid Week. But IAW organizers were successful in beating back these attacks. The daily events unfolded as planned, with audiences of up to 500 in Toronto and Ottawa and 400 in Montreal.[viii]
Boycott Motorola, Caterpillar, Israeli produce
Campus-based activities in solidarity with Palestine are one facet of a broader international campaign, which includes targeted boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
Motorola is one such company. The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is urging consumers to “Hang Up On Motorola” until it stops selling communications and surveillance equipment to the Israeli military and to Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. The group organized a protest outside Motorola’s annual shareholders meeting in Chicago on May 4. Inside the meeting, representatives of the Presbyterian, United Methodist and other churches pressed shareholders to adopt a resolution that would instruct Motorola to follow corporate standards consistent with international law.
The pressure on Motorola has already forced it to give up some ground. After Human Rights Watch announced that its teams had found shrapnel carrying Motorola serial numbers at some of the civilian sites bombed by Israel in its recent assault on Gaza, the company sold the department that makes the fuses for the bombs.[ix]
Caterpillar is another target. Israel makes extensive use of its bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes and to build the apartheid wall. In early February the Church of England announced that it had withdrawn investments of more than £2.2 million ($3.5 million) from Caterpillar, following a policy that it adopted in 2005 of not investing in companies that support the occupation. Other churches and faith-based organizations have joined the divestment movement against the company.[x]
In Canada, the Committee Against Israeli Apartheid and other solidarity activists have organized a boycott of Indigo Books and Music. They demand that the majority shareholders of the bookstore chain, Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz, publicly end their support of Heseg, the Foundation for Lone Soldiers. Reisman and Schwartz created the foundation in 2005 to reward “lone soldiers,” volunteers who travel to Israel to serve in the Israeli military. Every year, Heseg grants scholarships to a hundred or more of these zealots to help them remain in Israel after they complete their military service.

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