Which Side Are They On?

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act criminalizes a tactic used by some of history's great protest leaders.

Boycott Apartheid bus, London, 1989. R Barraez D'Lucca / Flickr

    There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, the bipartisan bill that seeks to turn support for the international boycott of Israel into a felony with a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and twenty years of jail time.

    It’s grossly authoritarian, for one, a heavy-handed curtailment of free speech rights by the state. And it’s also the embodiment of the bipartisan reflexive tendency to back any measure demanded by the Israel lobby, no matter how draconian or absurd. It’s no wonder, then, that outrage has been so fierce that the bill’s Democratic cosponsors are now saying they’re going to consider amending the wording.

    But more than all this, by criminalizing and seeking to stamp out future boycotts, the bill is a violation of the kind of liberal democratic values that its Democratic cosponsors would typically claim they champion. By trying to outlaw a boycott — an attempt to replicate on the national scale a similar, successful effort in New York and what has attempted to be done on college campuses — the bill’s Democratic supporters are placing in their crosshairs a vital tool of struggle that marginalized communities have used in the past in the service of causes that many in the party would now say were justified.

Moral Majesty

The South African boycott movement is the ur-example of the power of boycotting often brought up in relation to Israel. Though that boycott movement now tends to be thought of as largely a Western invention, like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign’s push by Palestinians, it was advocated and supported by South African anti-apartheid campaigners.

As outlined by Christabel Gurney, an Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) activist who edited the movement’s newsletter in the 1970s, the boycott movement began domestically after the South African government had banned other forms of public resistance, with campaigners boycotting local bus companies, goods made by firms supporting the pro-apartheid National Party, and potatoes grown on farms using forced labor. At its annual conference in 1958, the African National Congress declared that “the economic boycott is going to be one of the major political weapons in the country.”

Following this declaration, the ANC looked to international support for its boycott. In 1959, in a report on fighting segregationist laws restricting the movement of people, it declared that “when our purchasing power is combined with that of sympathetic organizations overseas, we wield a devastating weapon.”

In 1998, E. S. Reddy, the former secretary of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, said that Sweden had made “a great contribution in support of the struggle for liberation in southern Africa.” What were some of the actions it had taken? Boycotts of South African produce (which campaigners warned “tastes of blood”) and the government’s ban of business investments in the country.  (The ANC in 2012 came out in support of the BDS movement against Israel).

One member of both the ANC and the AAM was Nelson Mandela, who joined the ANC in the early 1940s and was a vital member thereafter. Mandela joined in the Alexandra bus boycott of 1943, and later supported the international boycott of the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, from his prison cell.

“The movement for the boycott of South African goods and for the imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions against South Africa,” he said in 1962, “has served to highlight most effectively the despotic structure of the power that rules South Africa, and has given tremendous inspiration to the liberation movement in our country.”

Here are a few things the Israel Anti-Boycott Act’s Democratic cosponsors have said about Mandela:

  • Chuck Schumer: “He led by moral majesty. And when you lead by moral majesty, the walls come tumbling down.”
  • Ben Cardin: “He was a personal hero of mine, and of those who work to uphold human rights around the world … His story and moral courage has changed countless lives forever.”
  • Richard Blumenthal: “a human rights giant — a true civil rights champion for all seasons and all nations.”
  • Robert Menendez: “Few individuals in human history can truly claim a legacy of peace and perseverance like Mandela can.”
  • Ron Wyden: “a truly inspirational leader who exemplified the best of humanity. May his legacy guide our future generations.”
  • Chris Coons: “a true hero”; “hard to overstate Nelson Mandela’s transformative impact on his country and the world.”

All of these men plus six more of the bill’s fifteen Democratic cosponsors also signed onto a 2013 Senate resolution honoring Mandela’s “life, accomplishments, and legacy” shortly after his death. Yet by the logic of the bill they now support, the man they hail as a hero would’ve been sent to jail and bankrupted for his support of the South African boycott.

The Boycott at Home

Democrats don’t need to go as far as South Africa to understand the importance of boycotts, though. They can look much closer to home.

For decades, boycotts were one of the primary tools of struggle and resistance used by black populations against the segregated South. Although preceded by a similar protest in Baton Rouge, the Montgomery bus boycott is the most famous of these. For thirteen months, 95 percent of the city’s black residents — who made up 75 percent of its bus users — walked, carpooled, and otherwise avoided using the city’s buses in order to force desegregation of the city’s bus system and the hiring of black drivers.

The Montgomery boycott was led by Martin Luther King, who, though having reservations about using the same tactic as White Citizens’ Councils, decided that what set apart their use by civil rights activists was that they would be used to “give birth to justice and freedom” and “put justice in business” instead of putting the bus company out of business. The boycott, he determined, was simply “withdrawing our cooperation from the bus company.”  King and eighty-eight others were convicted of violating Alabama’s anti-boycott law, receiving $500 fines and 386 days in jail.

These same Democrats who now want to throw people in jail for following King’s example would loudly proclaim him as their hero. This is on top of the added irony that the Jim Crow South appears to have been more lenient on boycott violators than today’s Democrats.

Boycotts would be used throughout the civil rights movement. In the early 1960s, black activists staged a boycott in New Orleans, a long-term action that crippled local business owners’ bottom lines and forced them to the negotiating table, with some notable progress. From 1960 on, Woolworths was the subject of a boycott across the country, hurting its bottom line and leading it to integrate.

Activists in Selma didn’t just boycott stores, but stood outside stores and tried to convince other African Americans not to shop. When King called for no new businesses to set up shop in segregated Alabama and the Hammermill Paper Company did anyway, activists boycotted it. That same year, King would call for a nation- and world-wide economic boycott of the entire state.

Later, in 1990, when Mandela’s support of Fidel Castro led Miami to rescind a proclamation welcoming him to the city, Miami’s black population launched a two-year-long economic boycott of its tourism industry, costing the city millions of dollars. By the time it was over, city officials apologized, the proclamation was issued, and Mandela was granted the key to the city.

Boycotts weren’t just used by African Americans. In 1963, César Chávez led the first of several boycotts of table grapes and non-union lettuce in an attempt to pressure growers to sign union contracts.

“The consumer boycott is the only open door in the dark corridor of nothingness down which farm workers have had to walk for many years,” Chávez said. “It is a gate of hope through which they expect to find the sunlight of a better life for themselves and their families.”

Despite apparently wanting to potentially jail those who would emulate Chávez’s words and deeds, four months ago, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer signed onto a resolution introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (also a cosponsor of the Israel boycott bill) honoring “the accomplishments and example of a great hero of the United States, César Estrada Chávez.” Though the resolution didn’t specifically mention the boycott, it praised Chávez’s use of “peaceful tactics” to “call attention to the terrible working and living conditions of farm workers” and declared that he “provides inspiration for individuals working to better human rights” around the world — which, presumably, these lawmakers are okay with as long as it doesn’t involve bettering human rights in Israel and Palestine.

Chávez and King inherited the boycott from Gandhi, whom King called “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” Gandhi strategically deployed boycotts where practicable several times, including in 1920-22, when Indians boycotted British cloth and cotton imports, as well as in a boycott of British goods in 1930-31, which sent British trade with India and government tax revenue plummeting, and ground commercial clothing production to a halt. And like the other non-violent leaders on this list, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Democratic politician who offers anything less than effusive praise about Gandhi.

In other words, the Democrats who now support outlawing a boycott on Israel outspokenly revere as heroes figures who put economic boycotts of whole nations, localities, and businesses at the center of their non-violent struggles. They exhort the lessons to be learned from them while supporting legislation that suggests they were criminals.

Boycotting for Liberalism

The list could go on and on. In recent decades, boycotts have been deployed in the service of a variety of liberal causes too many times to count.

Nestlé is the target of what is now a more than four-decade-long boycott over its aggressive marketing of unhealthy infant formula to mothers in poor countries. Exxon was the target of a boycott in 1989 because of its massive oil spill in Prince William Sound, and again in 2005 partly over its financing of climate denial. A two-year boycott led Burger King to stop using beef that came from cattle that grazed on deforested rainforest land. Burroughs Wellcome was forced to cut its extortionate $8,000 price tag for an anti-AIDS drug by 20 percent after a boycott on its other products. Threats of boycotts were lobbed (unsuccessfully) at Louisiana and Utah to prevent the states’ curtailment of abortion rights. More recently, British pharmaceutical retailer Boots has faced threats of boycott over its sale of the morning-after pill at an inflated price. And it was only five years ago that outraged liberals called for a boycott on Chick-Fil-A over its support for anti-gay causes.

The Democrats who support this bill are almost certainly aware of this history. But as Glenn Greenwald found, even the bill’s primary sponsor didn’t appear to know the actual details of the legislation. These Democrats have simply sacrificed principle for the sake of reflexive fealty to Israel. And though this particular legislation may end up being softened, it will likely not be the last time Democratic lawmakers will put forward or support legislation to curtail boycotts aimed at Israel, nor will it roll back the hostility to BDS within the party.

Boycotts have a long history as a vital tool used by the very groups and movements whose legacy Democrats and liberals lay claim to. They should remember this as efforts to outlaw the BDS movement pick up pace around the country — and consider which side of that history they’re on.