January 24, 2009

On Chomsky and B.D.S.

And now to something completely different. At the end of the interview mentioned in the previous post, Chomsky is asked about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions strategy against Israel. His answer is weak and sadly unbecoming his record.

Is divestment a proper tactic? Well, you know, if you look back at South Africa, divestment became a proper tactic after years, decades ofeducation and organizing, to the point where Congress was legislating against trade, corporations were pulling out, and so on. That’s what’s missing: the education and organizing which makes it an understandable move. And, in fact, if we ever got to that point, you wouldn’t even need it, because the US could be brought in line with international opinion. (Democracy now)

The ANC first demanded the boycott of South Africa in 1958. In 1965, British academics for the first time adopted a boycott resolution. The U.N. General Assembly adopted a boycott resolution in 1962. In the U.S., the movement's first achievements had to wait to the late seventies, with the first campus divestment campaigns and the faith based pressure on corporations to end their operations in South Africa. The campaign reached the U.S. congress only in 1986. Apartheid survived for another eight years after that.

So Chomsky is right that many years passed between the first call for boycott and the first major achievement. However, had the anti-apartheid movement listened to people who made Chomsky's arguments in the sixties, the successes of the eighties would not have happened. Of course it takes years and maybe decades to build a successful movement against entrenched power. The B.D.S. movement against Israel is officially only three years old, yet it has already reached the state that the original anti-apartheid campaign reached perhaps in the mid seventies. There are B.D.S campaigns in dozens on campuses and trade unions, and many boycott resolutions have already been adopted; there are academic boycott resolutions that have gained wide support and publicity and will have a very good chance of succeeding in the near future. Corporations are begining to feel pressure from consumers and public partners. Veolia, one of the worse offenders, just lost a 3.5 Billion Euro contract in Stockholm. The President of the U.N.G.A., Miguel D'Escoto, urged the U.N. to support the B.D.S. movement (Please support him). No doubt that is going to happen before long.

What then is that "education and organizing which makes it an understandable move" that is missing? Is not the B.D.S. campaign by its very nature the very campaign that educates people about why B.D.S. is necessary? It feels awkward and sad to explain to Chomsky elementary principles of grassroots organizing, but he leaves me no choice. Do you educate people about nuclear weapons before you campaign against them, or do you educate people about nuclear weapons by campaigning against them? Did the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. spend years explaining civil rights to white people before demanding civil rights for African-Americans? Of course not. A campaign of public education without a commitment to and a strategy for applying pressure is not a movement.

Chomsky's last comment is that because of the power of the U.S. over Israel, the B.D.S. campaign would be superfluous the moment it becomes possible. That, as Franz Kafka pointed out, is also true of the Messiah. And I'm afraid that Chomsky's recommendation isn't too different from waiting for the Messiah. Any campaign that succeeds in its objectives becomes superfluous. And any campaign that challenges entrenched power in a major way looks hopeless when it starts. Besides, B.D.S. is not a U.S. campaign. It is a global strategy against apartheid coordinated by the united Palestinian B.D.S. National Committee. Despite its young age and daunting task, it is a campaign that already works. Every little success draws howls of protest from Israel, as well as attempts to deflect criticism. For example, only after the success of the British academic boycott resolution did the heads of Israeli universities for the first time ever issue a public statement criticizing the occupation for its effects on Palestinian education. The best evidence to the value and effectiveness of B.D.S. is the amount of fear it instills in Israel and its apologists.

I hope that we won't have to wait for the U.S. to "be brought in line with international opinion" for Chomsky to join the vibrant movement that has taken on and will bring down Israeli apartheid.

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