How the Boycott Israel Movement Draws Major Inspiration from the Success with Apartheid South Africa

Over the summer, we learned that foreign direct investment in Israel had dropped by 50 percent since the 2014 summer war in Gaza. The drop could be the result of numerous things, including reduced investor confidence due to the conflict, but experts said the driving factor is intentional boycotts o​f Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

In both the Europe and the United States, the boycott movement has ignited a furious debate about the efficacy and morality of boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning Israel – the three tactics that make up the Palestinian-led BDS movement.

The movement is patterned on a similar economic pressure campaign that was waged against South Africa, culminating in the fall of the apartheid system. Prominent South Africans such as the Bishop Desmond Tutu have joined the BDS movement, arguing that it is a necessary step to getting Israel to respect Palestinian rights.

This growing movement has sparked a hostile response from America's pro-Israel groups, with Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson and Democratic megadonor Haim Saban teaming up to finance an organization on American college campuses to stop it.

In a move that surprised many observers, they decided to appoint a Christian Zionist, David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel, as the leader of this group as opposed to a Jewish pro-Israel activist. CUFI has a history of antisemitism, with its founder Pastor John Hagee even going so far as to claim the Holocaust was part of God's will. 

But the usurpation of pro-Israel activism by the Christian right actually completes the historical analogy with the debate over boycotting South Africa.

Conservative Christians For Apartheid

Like other civil rights battles throughout American history, Christians found themselves on both sides of the debate over boycotting South Africa. On one side were progressive Christians and black Christians like the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The other side was represented by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Christian right organization Moral Majority.

Falwell developed a fascination with South Africa, viewing it as a bulwark against Communist-allied black regimes across the African continent. He traveled there in 1985, and returned claiming that “every segment of every community” opposed sanctions on South Africa; he called Tutu, who was then an anti-apartheid campaigner, a “phony” who doesn't speak for “the black people of South Africa.”

This set off furious denunciations of Falwell by civil rights activists. The Reverend Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said Falwell was “like a reincarnation of the old George Wallace.” The most vociferous denunciation came from Jesse Jackson, who said that “anyone who would choose Botha (the white, nationalist leader of South Africa) over Tutu would choose Bull Connor over Martin Luther King; would choose Hitler over the Jews; would choose Herod over Jesus and would choose Pharoah over Moses.”

Eventually the spat between Falwell and Jackson became so heated the two were invited onto the news program Nightline to debate the Reagan administration's refusal to impose sanctions on South Africa.

Eerily Familiar Debate

The Nightline debate mirrored many of the same arguments one hears today about the BDS movement. While Jackson argued for using BDS to pressure the apartheid-enforcing government in South Africa, Falwell saw it differently. He ostensibly condemned the regime of unequal rights in the region, but also accused Jackson of ignoring “violence of blacks against blacks” which he said was inspired by left-wing movements.

This argument is being refreshed by numerous defenders of Israel today. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complains that students abroad are boycotting Israel but not ISIS (it would be strange to imagine what such a boycott would look like considering it's illegal to do any business with ISIS). Israel's Transportation Minis​ter claims Europeans are in large numbers boycotting Israeli settlement goods but refusing to boycott Syria (which is also under international sanctions).

The argument rarely rises above the level of claiming that opponents of Israeli policies against the Palestinians are simply prejudiced against Jews, and that they simply ignore all other violence in the world, especially that of Israel's Arab-majority neighbors.

This was an attractive argument to Falwell when he was defending South Africa against boycotts. “The South Africa has to be the 'Watergate' of the American media,” he instructed. “There's no question about it, for example on that continent you have to go down to about twenty or thirty to find South Africa as the major program...It is most hypocritical to be pointing the spotlight [at South Africa]...we don't see these happenings in Havana and in Moscow.”

“Tonight we're discussing South Africa,” interjected Jackson. Host Ted Koppell seemed to be drawn to Falwell's black-on-black violence comments, asking Jackson, “Where in other African nations tens of thousands of people in some instances are being killed, draw a moral equivalent between that...explain to me why it is you raise South Africa?”

Jackson eventually parried these attacks on the “hypocrisy of this entire anti-South Africa” movement, as Falwell called it, by explaining a simple reason for not simply ignoring South Africa because other human rights abuses existed:

We must use our judgment case by case. In this instance, this apartheid system is bringing down the moral credibility of our nation.…You can't be against it and for it. …like being against smoking but investing in a tobacco company. You cannot have it both ways. …Every investment in apartheid is another brick. We must tear the brick of apartheid down.

In other words, America's large investments in South Africa created a special obligation on our country to distance ourselves from its human rights abuses.

Interestingly, about half an hour in, Falwell attempted to ditch the topic of South Africa altogether, claiming Jackson was “embracing Arafat over the Jews,” referring to the civil rights leader's early embrace of a Palestinian state. It was like a 20-year echo of a debate that is now becoming as prominent as the earlier debate over South Africa.

Turning Point

From Secretary of State John Kerry's private but leaked warning that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is approaching apartheid to the title of former Preside​nt Carter's book, more and more senior figures in the American political establishment have warned that Israel is approaching the same destiny as its former close ally on the African continent.

Even some in Israel are waking up to this conclusion. Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, who had previously scorned international efforts to label Israeli treatment of Palestinians as apartheid, this week wrote a column that quickly went viral on the Internet, titled, "It's Time to Admit It. Israeli Policy Is What It Is: Apartheid.” He writes:

I used to be one of those people who took issue with the label of apartheid as applied to Israel. I was one of those people who could be counted on to argue that, while the country's settlement and occupation policies were anti-democratic and brutal and slow-dose suicidal, the word apartheid did not apply. I'm not one of those people any more. Not after the last few weeks.

Citing brutal settler terrorist attacks against Palestinians and a state that is both unwilling and unable to defend the rights of Arabs, Burston concludes:

Years ago, in apartheid South Africa, Jews who loved their country and hated its policies, took courageous roles in defeating with non-violence a regime of racism and denial of human rights. May we in Israel follow their example.

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