I support the Israeli boycott – but which one?

Debate rages over Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – is it effective or just symbolic?

BDS Movement supporters rally near Armistice Agreement Line
Israeli Border Police and army soldiers block Palestinian protesters from advancing near a southern West Bank village [EPA]

On February 13, the Guardian published a letter signed by 100 British artists. The letter called for a cultural boycott of Israel and my name was on it. For years, I have argued that, in so far as the boycott tactic is concerned, the cultural and academic boycotts may well prove more effective than the economic versions seeing that they go straight to the heart of the matter – shaming those who are, directly or indirectly, colluding with the occupation.

You can see I am not very timid but, when it came to signing the pledge this time round, I have to confess, I did it with a slightly heavy heart. So, why was it not straightforward?

If you listen to conversations inside the Palestinian camp today you are likely to get the impression that the effort to advance all forms of boycott against Israel is gaining ground and that this advance is the safest way to secure some traction for the cause of the Palestinians. 

Inside Story – Boycotting Israel

In the past month, it is the academic campaign that was able to boast some victories. On February 17, for example, the Undergraduate Senate of Stanford University passed a motion approving to divest from companies with holdings over the Green Line.

Academic boycott

Northwestern University’s Associated Student Government in the US has passed a resolution that urges the University to divest from Boeing, Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and other companies benefitting from the occupation.

And, just two weeks ago, SOAS University in the UK set a precedent by voting yes to an academic boycott after a school-wide referendum that invited votes from students, academics, faculty staff, governors  as well as outsourced workers.

Understandably, everyone cheers but in the euphoria most seem to forget about checks and balances. I doubt it if many have paid attention to the article by Sir Mark Walport, chief scientific advisor to the British Government in Haaretz on March 11 in which he says: “From the prime minister down, the government of the UK is committed to a stronger research and innovative partnership with Israel. This is why 2014 was a record year for trade between the two countries.”

Walport might be employing some diplomatic speak but there is no doubt that both trade relations and scientific research collaborations between Israel and various European countries have been steadily on the ascendancy. Where are we going wrong?

Pariah state

Inside the boycott camp a debate is unfolding but it seems rarely to go past the first or second posts. Is Israel a pariah state? This is what first divides the two main camps. I heard one American professor once say: “The academic boycott is wrong because it immediately suggests that only one side has the moral high ground.”

“That is right,” I thought. Only one side does. This is why the boycott is such an important tool. It draws a line in the sand and challenges people to learn about the issue.

Inside the boycott camp a debate is unfolding but it seems rarely to go past the first or second posts. Is Israel a pariah state? This is what first divides the two main camps. I heard one American professor once say: 'The academic boycott is wrong because it ... suggests that only one side has the moral high ground.


Until recently, this is where the debate used to end. The effectiveness of boycotts as a tactic is a fairly new debate and, dare I say, not very popular with the boycott supporters. Of course, South Africa gets cited as one example where this tactic has worked although post apartheid research has not provided any decisive evidence as to how instrumental the boycott had been as an agent of change. Speaking about the power of boycott, Desmond Tutu refers to it as “symbolic”.

The truth is, we do not really have enough examples to go by. We might have a hunch that it can work but boycotts are a blunt tool. We have to admit that we are hacking in the dark. Going by comparable strategies adopted by states like the sanctions that were imposed on Iraq, Cuba, and even Israel when it was a nascent state boycotted by all its neighbours, we might deduce that isolation only leads to firmer and more entrenched positions. 

I do not agree with the opponents of the cultural and academic boycotts on the grounds that the boycott impinges on the freedom of speech. It does but freedom of speech is not an absolute. Freedom from slavery is. Some argue that boycotts are counterproductive because they sever dialogue when change is more likely to occur if you provide information rather than withhold it. True, which might mean that there is a need to ensure that every act of boycott should be treated as an opportunity to provide information.

There is a lot of thinking to be done both about ways to make this tactic effective but also about the obstacles to get a real ground swell of support for the movement. The problem is there is genuine resistance in the movement to bringing hard analysis to the situation. The reason stems from fear of taking the first, most important step – defining the objectives.

The movement wants to secure a broad coalition but, as it is often the case with the weak, it seems easier to rally the troops around slogans rather than a real political programme. Until this can be addressed, we are not likely to see massive progress and many, including myself, will continue feeling slightly uncomfortable when trying to define which BDS campaign exactly are they trying to support.

Leila Sansour is the founder and executive director of Open Bethlehem, an organisation that works to promote the city and raise awareness about the challenges it faces today. She is also an acclaimed film director. Her latest documentary feature  “Open Bethlehem” is currently playing in cinemas in the UK. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.