The third and final day of sessions at “Boycott as a Strategy to Counter Israel’s Occupation and Apartheid: Present-day Realities and Aspirations” closed on Saturday, August 6 in the Tunisian town of Hamemet (in the outskirts of Tunis). The meetings on Saturday, hosted in conjunction between the Doha and Tunis offices of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, included a panel titled “Boycott Campaigns across the Globe: Case Studies”, addressed by conference participants from Malaysia, Australia and Chile.
The first speaker to address that session was Malaysian scholar Mohammed Nazeri Ismail, whose paper was titled “Current Challenges Facing BDS Malaysia”. Ismail highlighted how in Malaysia—a country which has no relations with Israel—government officials are somewhat wary of the wide-scale public enthusiasm for the boycott of Israel. This was due, partly, to the prospective negative repercussions for the Malaysian economy if Malaysian BDS activists succeed in their demands to have all companies which have commercial relations with Israel banned from the country, which would include a number of US companies with massive investments in Malaysia. Meanwhile, massive popular support for the boycott of Israel among Malaysians was driven by the increases in Israeli attacks on the civilian Palestinian population and the expanded scope of settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian Territories.
Emboldened Israeli attacks against Palestinians precipitated the formation of a number Malaysian civil society groups aimed at enforcing a wider boycott of Israeli companies. Commenting on the tasks ahead for these groups, Ismail commented that “one of the biggest challenges which Malaysian boycott activists face is the increasingly negative perception of the Arab states among Malaysians who often ask ‘why should we boycott Israel if the Arab countries won’t?’”. According to Ismail, increasing numbers of Malaysian opinion formers were posing the question of what alternatives there were to boycotting Israel, given the potential economic fallout from a continued boycott of Israel. This was made more pressing by the difficult economic circumstances faced by everyday Malaysians, who are dealing with unprecedented levels of consumer debt.
From the other side of the globe, Palestinian-Chilean scholar Kamal Cumsille delivered his talk titled “The BDS movement in Chile: Brief Story and Challenges”. Cumsille pointed out that Chile’s large Palestinian community was the country’s channel to the wider Arab world. One result of this was that activism rooted within the Chilean Levantine communities was more impactful than boycott calls from broader Chilean civil society which had been subject to massive pressure by pro-Israeli groups rooted in the Chilean Jewish community.
Says Cumsille, Israel boycott campaigns took increasingly firm shape in Chile beginning in 2006,following Israel’s aggressions against both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip that year. Those events, the Chilean writer said, were a turning point in persuading large sections of the Chilean public that Israeli attitudes towards the Palestinians were born of racist ideologies. One tangible outcome of this shift in Chilean opinion on the Palestinian struggle and Israeli treatment of Palestinians was felt in university campuses. Specifically, this was brought to life when the students of the University of Chile Law School in Santiago voted, with a 64% majority, to boycott cooperation with Israeli institutions and academics. Cumsille points out that the Rector of the University of Chile agreed to abide by the students’ ruling, overcoming objections by other students groups who opposed its implementation. The next aim for Chile’s BDS community, said Cumsille, was to persuade Chilean civil society of the morality of supporting pro-Palestinian campaigns, and of the political, cultural and economic dividends to be gained by supporting Palestinian rights through a boycott of Israel.
|ACRPS Researcher Ayat Hamdan was one of the speakers at the conference.
The next speaker on Saturday’s first session was Australian philosopher Peter Szelak, whose paper was titled “BDS in Australia: Case studies of popular political protest” and which addressed the question of pro-Israeli domination of the public sphere in the country, which made it difficult for pro-Palestinian groups to gain traction among Australians. Nonetheless, said Szelak, a number of Palestinian solidarity groups, including some which were dedicated to the BDS movement, from springing up in some of the major cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Within the Australian academe, university lecturers have also been successful in heightening awareness of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians (a network of French-Australian academics was singled out by Szelak for furthering this cause). Similarly to the situation in Chile, Szelak pointed out the effect of pro-Israeli lobbying groups in the country in thwarting attempts at building support for the Palestinians. The solution, said the University of New South Wales lecturer, was for greater, more concerted efforts at public diplomacy that explain the negative impacts of Israel’s policies to the Australian public.
Following the first panel discussions, participants at the final day of the meeting congressed for a roundtable discussion intended to cover the main themes presented throughout the three days of the meeting. One part of the discussion which shined through the roundtable discussions was the prospective effectiveness of a disciplined and organized BDS movement across the Arab region. Not only would such a movement have significant symbolic value for the Palestinian cause, but it would likely be measurably more impactful from an economic perspective: while the captive Palestinian population living in the Occupied Territories consumes an estimated $1 billion of Israeli goods and services per year, other Arab countries consume between four and five times that amount. In other words, there remained a long way to go for public engagement for a boycott of Israel in the Arab world.
Another factor mentioned during the closing session was the need for the Palestinian cause “to be humanized”, indeed to emphasize that Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians is in violation of international norms as well as the national laws of countries across the world. Making this point clear would serve to advance the boycott of Israel within the academy and among intellectuals and other sectors vital to the formation of world public opinion. . Participants at the ACRPS meeting pointed to the vital importance of university academics and other intellectuals in shaping public opinion in this regard. One proposal was to help the formation of dedicated units within Arab universities which would be geared specifically to studying the feasibility of a boycott of Israel.
Others at the meeting pointed to the pitfalls of attempting to use international venues to confront Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, given that the Israeli government is ever willing to portray any protests of its transgressions as being born in anti-Semitism. Participants at the ACRPS conference also highlighted the importance of this latest meeting and others like it in helping to facilitate intercontinental coordination among boycott activists. Yet, as several participants at the meeting elaborated throughout the three days of the meeting, the effectiveness of any boycott strategy would be limited so long as the Palestinian national movement lacked a single, comprehensive strategy uniting both the grassroots and the political leadership when it came to the boycott of Israel.