The term “boycott” entered the English language when a particularly unpopular land owner in Ulster by the name of Captain Boycott faced an organized refusal of the locals to work for him. Since then the tactic of withholding services or an organized refusal to buy the products of a company or nation has been known as a boycott. The tactic really needs two conditions for it to be successful: First, boycotters must constitute a critical mass of consumers of the product. Second, the boycotters must have available to them alternatives that will allow them to boycott the targeted companies.
One of the most successful examples in modern history was the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that propelled Martin Luther King Jr. to the leadership of the national civil rights movement in the mid-1950s. The boycott worked because black riders were crucial to the economic solvency of the bus company in Montgomery, and because the organizers arranged a critical number of car owners—both black and white—to provide free rides to the boycotting former customers. Many of the boycotters were also able to walk for short distances and blacks who continued to ride the buses were shamed into compliance.
In the case of Israel there are economic alternatives to Israeli agricultural products and products manufactured in the territories. The question then becomes do the boycotters constitute a critical mass? In some European countries– particularly Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia– the anti-apartheid movement was able to successfully organize boycotts of South African wines and agricultural products such as fruit. Pretoria’s reaction was to begin to diversify its trade connections by marketing more to the Far East where consumers did not care about apartheid. Israel can easily do the same thing and is already doing so by opening trade relations with India, China, and countries in Southeast Asia. In many cases, Jerusalem organizes defense ties with Asian countries that lead to broader trade ties.
What is likely to happen is that as the BDS movement gains momentum in Europe, European governments will force strict labeling of products manufactured in the West Bank and Golan and this could lead to many of the producers closing their factories in the West Bank. This could result in some settlements becoming less economically solvent.
The crucial debate in the anti-occupation movement is whether or not it is legitimate to boycott Israel as a whole or merely the settlers in the West Bank. For the BDS movement the crucial analogy is with South Africa. The anti-apartheid movement targeted apartheid as a whole rather than the illegal South African occupation of Namibia. This leads the BDS movement to target Zionism as a whole rather than the occupation. This analogy may be viable in Europe and the Third World, but not in the United States outside of a few college campuses. Once the visual element of white on black violence is removed from the equation, the newsreel footage of brown Israelis beating brown Palestinians is much less compelling.
The anti-apartheid boycott worked in Europe because of post-colonial guilt. Because the United States was a minor colonial power for a shorter period of time (a half century in the Philippines and decades in Central America) there is not this same level of guilt. When anti-boycott spokesmen point out that the BDS movement wants the “right of return” for Palestinians to Israel, most outside of the radical Left will abandon support for the boycott. The real question will then be whether or not a boycott of goods manufactured in the West Bank will become conflated with the anti-Israel BDS boycott and become a victim of it.
The real purpose of the divestment and boycott portions of BDS is to lead to sanctions. I will cover this in the next blog post.