Locke Down on BDS?


Ilya Schapiro of the right-wing Cato Institute recently appeared on Chris Hayes’ show on MSNBC to defend Arizona bill SB 1062 that would have allowed merchants to refuse service to LGBTQ customers under the guise of “religious freedom.” Schapiro argued that private businesses should not be constrained by anti-discrimination laws since the free market will topple all racial barriers: “I really don’t think that a business that discriminated based on race would stay in business for a very long time, and rightfully so. The market would take care of that.”

The assertion is not only absurd—proven wrong by history itself—but ironic since most defenders of the law cried foul when opponents called for a boycott of Arizona. Right-wing ideologues, neoliberals, and even old-school traditional liberals have increasingly come to see boycotts as a kind of tyranny, a “bullying” tactic that hinders citizens from participating in the market.

Anyone involved in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement to end the Israeli occupation are all-too-familiar with these arguments. BDS is savagely attacked as pernicious, vile, anti-Semitic, a denial of freedom—cultural, academic and, yes, market freedom! It is a curious argument since boycotts are perhaps the purest form of free market expression: the exercise of free will not to consume, to refuse to dispose of one’s resources on products or services for whatever reason—but executed collectively in order to apply pressure on institutions to change. It is one of the few methods by which consumers can exercise power, legitimately, peacefully, all within the operations of the free market.

So why do the very defenders of free market capitalism find boycotts so threatening and dangerous? Why, for example, were boycotters in the Jim Crow South harassed, arrested, beaten, intimidated, threatened with job loss, or worse? For one thing, the Southern economy under segregation was the antithesis of the free market. In cities and towns where African Americans comprised a large proportion of the population the system deliberately and methodically suppressed competition and undercut black merchants so as to ensure the flow of black dollars to white coffers without giving black consumers equal service or products, or black workers equal wages. These “private” white-owned businesses relied on the State to codify and enforce discriminatory practices that wiped out competition, legalized second-class status, and required inferior service. This was not a free market but a racially regulated market, backed by the force of the state and fiscal policies that took black peoples’ money (from consumer compulsion to wage theft), which proved decisive in reproducing racial and class inequality.

African Americans fought back with the only weapons at their disposal—labor organizing, strikes, and above all boycotts. In other words, when they tried to introduce a basic free market principle of exercising the right to dispose of their income as they wish, using their collective buying power to withdraw, they were met with force and violence. There are countless incidents of white supremacists firebombing homes of boycott leaders, of local and state law enforcement harassing and jailing activists, and even cases where black elites—famously Booker T. Washington—attacked boycott activists because they threatened the precarious alliance between white city fathers and accepted Negro leadership.

"[The] vitriolic opposition to boycotting (when it comes to Israel) flies in the face of purported free market principles, largely because occupation and apartheid don't function as a free market.”
“[The] vitriolic opposition to boycotting (when it comes to Israel) flies in the face of purported free market principles, largely because occupation and apartheid don’t function as a free market.”
Likewise, in South Africa—when the African National Congress, black trade unions, and later the United Democratic Front boycotted elections, Bantu Schools and buses, and organized “stay at homes”—they were met by vicious state and vigilante violence. In the case of South Africa, not unlike the Montgomery bus boycott, the success of local and even national boycotts depended on internationalizing the struggle. Ultimately, it was the retaliatory violence, the complicity of the state, the silence of liberals, the blatant violation of human rights and the media projection of such violations that generated international solidarity and proved most disruptive to business as usual.  And the combination of international support and moral authority empowered activists to persevere against great odds.

These are important lessons for understanding the success of more recent boycott movements, including BDS. As Brayden G. King argues, boycotts can challenge corporate power in at least two ways: market disruption and mediated disruption. The first exerts enough economic pressure to affect profits or dividends, whereas the second uses media to draw “unwanted negative attention to a corporation, potentially threatening the corporation’s cultivated image.” In other words, mediated disruption exposes corporate crimes, or reveals corporate complicity in the maintenance of oppression or the violation of human rights.

Indeed, this is precisely why the academic and cultural boycott has been such a touchstone—not because it significantly affects Israel’s economy, but because exposing the complicity of Israel’s artistic, cultural, and educational institutions in sustaining apartheid has profoundly damaged Israel’s symbolic economy, its struggle for legitimacy as a liberal, democratic state.

Israeli officials understand that the domain of culture is a terrain of war. In the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s Foreign Ministry spent an additional $2 million to improve its image through “cultural and information diplomacy.” And as Arye Mekel, the ministry’s deputy director general for cultural affairs, put it, the export of novelists, dancers, visual artists is a way to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”

In short, the vitriolic opposition to boycotting (when it comes to Israel) flies in the face of purported free market principles, largely because occupation and apartheid don’t function as a free market (and I would submit that the “free market” does not exist anywhere, except as an abstraction). In Israel, institutions profit directly from the subjugation of an entire population, through a massive ongoing land grab, through force without contract, by denying workers and entrepreneurs the right to sell their labor, goods, and services in a free market, by destroying the economic infrastructure and blocking the importation of much needed commodities, by limiting mobility and denying the right of refugees to return to their homes, by creating barriers even to privatized education, by drawing on university resources to buttress the military occupation and war, by imposing an elaborate system of surveillance, checkpoints, laws that permit detention without cause and without the right of habeas corpus.

This is why boycotts must be international. They must expose to the world the flagrant violations of human rights and international law, and the absurd and twisted logic of those who claim boycott is a form of bullying when, in fact, it is the opposition that has launched a vicious campaign to slander and silence the BDS movement. Indeed, defenders of the Israeli status quo understand just as well the power of a global boycott, which is why groups such as AIPAC, Stand with Us, and the Vanguard Leadership Group, function like a pro-Zionist domestic police force—the modern version of Booker T. Washington.

Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of U.S. History at UCLA.


(photo credits: Wikimedia commons (featured) and Tapash Abu Shaim/Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK via Facebook)

Robin D. G. Kelley

Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, has published several books on race, labor, social movements, Black radicalism and music. His essays on Palestine have appeared in Counterpunch, Mondoweiss, Boston Review, and the Journal of Palestine Studies.