Historicizing Palestinian Boycott Politics


A boycott is a difficult and demanding political tactic. To understand the logic of boycott politics, especially in relation to the Palestinian campaign for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel, one needs to locate it within a broader history of anticolonial struggles beginning in 19th century Ireland and passing through apartheid-era South Africa. Tracing boycott politics back to its Irish origins in the late colonial era of the 1880s provides a richer sense of the key principles that have guided national boycott movements in general and the specific modalities of the Palestinian boycott of Israel.


Two Qualifications

First, popular boycotts need to be distinguished from state-sponsored embargoes, such as the current Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza, the U.S.-enforced sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1991 until 2003, the sanctions on Iran, or the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba. These state-sponsored embargoes are joined to military actions and seek to destabilize the existing regimes by limiting international trade relations, undermining the national economy and creating conditions of hardship for the general population. The diplomatic and military enforcement of state-sponsored embargoes contrasts importantly with boycotts organized by non-governmental groups, as is the case of the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Secondly, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions—or BDS—movement that now targets Israel and took formal shape over the last decade is distinct from the Arab League boycott of Israel, which developed in the period between the 1940s and the 1970s. While both boycott actions de-normalize relations with Israel, the Arab League boycott has failed at every level. Although still partially in place, the Arab League boycott has collapsed as Arab governments, including the Palestinian Authority, entered into diplomatic and trade relations with Israel.

Current Palestinian boycott politics is a grassroots alternative to the failed Arab League boycott, and can be viewed as the most legitimate mode for expressing international solidarity with Palestinians in the absence of a credible Palestinian national leadership. In other words, the failure of Arab regimes, the bankruptcy of the diplomatic approaches of the Palestinian Authority, and the ineffectiveness of the military actions of Hamas have all produced a groundswell of international support for the Palestinian boycott movement which represents the broadest base of Palestinian civil society, and has attracted the support of Israelis and Jews opposing the occupation. Consider, for example, the following statement of the Israeli group Boycott from Within: “We, Palestinians, Jews, citizens of Israel, join the Palestinian call for a BDS campaign against Israel, inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid. We also call on others to do the same.”


Irish Anticolonial Origins of Boycott Politics

BDS has positioned Palestinians within a legacy of anti-colonialism that can be traced to the modern origins of boycott politics in Irish resistance to 19th century British rule. The term “boycott,” in fact, enters the English language in the 1880s during the Land War in Ireland, which pitted the Irish National Land League against British colonial landlords. The specific local context is associated with Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott who in the 1870s became the British land agent on the estate of John Crichton, the 3rd Earl of Erne in County Mayo. According to Liam O’Raghallaigh, Captain Boycott “had a duty to collect the rents from the other 35 tenants.” The Land League targeted Captain Boycott, stopping work on his land in response to eviction threats against several tenants in September 1880. The tenants’ resistance was supported by local people who refused to provide other services, such as mail delivery and transport, to the Boycott family. In response to the evictions and rack-renting, Irish Land Leaguers had assassinated land agents and landlords, and the ostracism of Boycott was an alternative to the escalating violence in the Land War.

In a very general sense, the Irish Land League’s 1880 isolation and marginalization of the Earl of Erne’s land agent illustrates the principles of boycott politics organized in support of a population dispossessed of its land, as was the case in colonial Ireland, and later in apartheid-era South Africa and Israeli-occupied Palestine. These principles can be schematically stated in the following terms: land, labor, public awareness, and non-violence. First, the objective of the Land League was to secure Irish land claims in the face of ruthless colonization; secondly, the work stoppage on Captain Boycott’s land aimed at asserting the rights of Irish agricultural laborers over the interests of colonial landlords; thirdly, the action sought to educate the international community about resistance to colonialism in Ireland; and finally, the boycott constituted a non-violent weapon in the Land War against a heavily armed colonial military force.


Boycott Politics: from Margin to Center

While the Irish anticolonial origins of the term may not be relevant to every boycott, in the contexts of apartheid-era South Africa and Palestine, Ireland’s anticolonial history provides a crucial point of reference. Like Ireland, South Africa and Palestine were subject to the brutalities of British colonialism, a colonialism that is figured in the person of Lord Balfour, whose participation in British imperial politics was established when he was appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland (1887-91). Balfour’s career spanned the Boer War, but he is perhaps most well-known today for the Balfour Declaration (1917), which states that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

If the anticolonial character of boycott politics originates in Ireland, it is in the context of the anti-apartheid movement that boycott politics achieves its greatest success in the postcolonial era. The anti-apartheid boycotts—which began in the early 1960s on the margins among artists, academics, and athletes—achieved wide international support by the 1980s when the boycott of South Africa was endorsed by the UN. The ANC boycott movement is an explicit point of reference for the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel, which is reinforced by a critical discourse that describes Israeli policies as a form of apartheid. The designation of Israel as an apartheid state acquired greater currency when Jimmy Carter published a 2007 book on the Mid East conflict titled Peace Not Apartheid.

As has become evident over the last year, especially following the American Studies Association’s (ASA) endorsement of the boycott of Israeli universities, boycotting has moved from the margins to the center of Palestinian politics. Public support for the boycott of Israel has, however, generated significant blowback in the US as is evident in threats of legal action against the ASA and legislative actions aimed at punishing academic associations that advocate the boycott of Israeli universities. Already in 2012 defenders of Israel in California sought to silence boycott advocates by passing State Assembly HR-35. In its preamble, HR-35 states that “student- and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns against Israel  . . . are a means of demonizing Israel and seek to harm the Jewish state.” In this regard, the California State Assembly Resolution mirrors the 2011 Israeli “Law for Prevention of Damage to State of Israel through Boycott.” Attempts to contain Palestinian boycott politics in the U.S. illustrate fears of the mainstreaming of public criticism of Israel. Even though the boycott of Israel remains largely a movement of individuals, trade unions, and peace and justice groups, it has taken shape at a time when criticism of Israel is increasing, as Alan Wolfe observes in his March 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “Israel’s Moral Peril:” “The question is rapidly becoming not whether one should find fault with Israel, but how.”

The Palestinian boycott movement provides one mechanism for expressing criticism of Israel’s policies and has become the principal platform for organizing international solidarity with the Palestinians. The call for an academic boycott does not foreclose working with individual Israeli scholars. Rather, boycott politics is directed against Israeli cultural and academic institutions. These institutions have long played a part in producing the myth of an enlightened and democratic Israeli state. Palestinian boycott politics exposes the myth by confronting the brutality of contemporary Zionism.

Salah D. Hassan is an associate professor in the Department of English at Michigan State University.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Geograph)

Salah Hassan