Hillary Clinton recently wrote a letter to Haim Saban, billionaire owner of Univision and uncompromising supporter of Israel, seeking his advice about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The movement, she says, seeks to “isolate” and “punish” Israel, and we “need to make countering BDS a priority.” However, her letter does not say what it is that BDS supporters want or believe; not a word about Israel’s human rights violations, an unlawful occupation, collective punishment or any of the other conditions of oppression that prompted Palestinians to initiate the BDS movement for Palestinian freedom and equality.
The inference is that the reasons for BDS do not matter. Boycotts themselves, she implies, are not a legitimate tool in the struggle to achieve human rights. Clinton of course, knows better.
So, too, should the oversight and Government reform Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security. On July 28 the Subcommittee held a lopsided anti-BDS hearing on the “Impact of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.” Explanatory material for the hearing said nothing about BDS being a movement striving for freedom and equal rights. No Palestinian or Palestinian-American leaders of the movement were there to testify. It was, in fact, very much like holding a hearing on Jim Crow and excluding African-American leaders.Boycott movements have an important and honorable place in our country’s – and the world’s – history of peaceful protest. In my lifetime, three great boycott movements have exposed and successfully alleviated conditions of injustice and oppression.
In the mid-1950s, the requirement in Montgomery, Alabama that black bus passengers surrender their seats to whites led to a year-long boycott of the city’s public buses. Desegregation of the buses followed. When I went to the south as a civil rights lawyer some 10 years later, those I worked with understood, as have historians since, that the movement for equality and justice in which they were then engaged had begun with the Montgomery bus boycott.
In the mid-60s, farmworkers organized a strike to protest the appalling working conditions in California’s grape-growing fields. Strike leaders appealed for support of a nationwide boycott of California table grapes. Those who enlisted in what was known as “la causa” spoke not only of conditions in the fields, but hunger and poverty, discrimination against Mexican-Americans and Latinos, and the failure of labor laws to protect our most exploited workers.
At about the same time, opponents of the South African system of black oppression called apartheid began a campaign to persuade their supporters around the world to stop doing business with South Africa. Over the next 20-plus years, anti-apartheid activists organized an economic, cultural, and sports boycott of South Africa that the world came to understand as one of the 20th century’s signature battles for democratic rights.
What unites these great boycott movements is that each spoke with moral clarity on fundamental issues of equality and justice, and each grew out of an understanding that recourse to the ordinary mechanisms of government was unavailable. In my view, BDS is properly understood as a successor to those boycott movements.
The moral clarity of the BDS movement is hardly contestable. The enormous economic, physical, and emotional toll on the Palestinians exacted by the occupation has been repeatedly documented by every international agency that speaks to the issue. Within Israel – that is within the Green Line – Israeli civil rights agencies themselves describe a dual system of government services and benefits that is uniformly inferior for Palestinians compared to Jewish Israelis. In neither respect is there any serious argument that Palestinians are not gravely mistreated.
Notably, Clinton makes no such argument in her letter to Saban, saying only that the comparison to South Africa is unfair. But she knows, among other things, that Palestinians are forcibly removed from land on which Israel says they may not live and that there are roads in occupied territory on which West Bank Palestinians may not drive. Many, including anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter, recognize it as apartheid.
She also says that the vindication of Palestinian rights, including the creation of a Palestinian state, should be left to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But if there ever was any doubt about the current Israeli government’s willingness to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state, it was laid to rest by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pre-election vow never to accept a Palestinian state.
Clinton knows that. But in her run for the presidency, it does not seem to matter. Her letter boasts of her record in beating back reports and resolutions that criticize Israel’s human rights violations. Yet there may be a price to pay. Within the Democratic Party, a November 2014 poll shows that the idea of unconditional support for Israel is eroding, particularly among young and African-American and Latino voters. And in recent days, another poll, this one of the Democratic Party’s “opinion elite,” shows growing criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.
Even if there is no hope for Clinton, the growing grassroots opposition to Israel’s policies reflected in these polls is an encouraging sign. As we have learned from the boycott movements that preceded BDS, it is grassroots support that ultimately drives the success of every movement for freedom and equal rights.
Levine is a New York City civil rights lawyer who has represented social justice activists throughout his career.