The future of boycotts after Ukraine

Calls for state and civil action against Russia are an important shift in Western political discourse, writes Ben Jamal

April 16, 2022 · 9 min read
Credit: Raya Sharbain

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The Western response to Russia’s invasion and savage assault on Ukraine represents a profound shift of political discourse when it comes to ideas around boycott, divestment and sanctions as tools to be employed against states in breach of international law. An unprecedented level of encouragement is being offered to civil society, public bodies, cultural and sporting organisations and even individuals to boycott and divest from Russia. While previously reserved as part of a state’s armoury, this wave of politico-economic solidarity is being promoted with three main arguments. First, it is a response to a direct request from the victim. Second, it is the most potent means of imposing non-violent pressure. And third, to not act is to be complicit – as best expressed by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous formulation: ‘if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’

We hear them deployed for Ukraine constantly because they are correct, moral arguments that were developed years ago for the Palestinian campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). We recognise intimately the nightmare Ukraine has been suddenly plunged into, and we are heartened to see the principles of popular economic solidarity finally being expressed. For years, Palestinians and their allies have worked against increasing government efforts to restrict this type of solidarity, from dismissal to demonization to outlawing – so the sudden reversal has been dizzying.

International accountability

Consider Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – all considered illegal under international law, officially condemned in foreign policies of the West, and yet, not only is the modern world’s longest military occupation accepted as an enduring illegality, it is shielded from accountability in the international arena.

This is why, in 2005, Palestinian civil society launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. While sanctions remain the domain of state actors, the power of the call to date has been in the galvanization of international civil society, which has gradually built pressure on companies and public bodies complicit in the occupation. Today in the UK, all major trade unions are affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and have policies endorsing the call for BDS.


Israel publicly identifies BDS as a major strategic threat and commits significant resources, globally, to try and isolate the Palestinian cause from the progressive mainstream. Western governments have, so far, been willing accomplices.

What Palestinians call for remains the same – not for Israel to be treated exceptionally, but for the exceptional treatment of Israel to be ended

Thirty five US states have passed laws aimed at curbing boycotts or divestment from companies complicit in Israel’s occupation, laws pushed aggressively by groups such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Similar laws and resolutions have been passed in European countries – notably Germany and Austria.

Here in the UK, the government attempted to introduce legislation to prevent Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS) from being able to divest from complicit companies but was thwarted by a successful legal challenge by us at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Now, a new attempt is being made with a similar amendment to a new pension law being pushed through the Commons in February, the opening salvo before the expected introduction of a wider anti-BDS law in May.

Double standards

The arguments employed to justify the need for this bill and to delegitimise the Palestinian-led BDS movement tend to come in three styles. Firstly it is anti-semitic because it targets Israel and does not call for action against other states. Secondly, it promotes division and not peace and thirdly, it is the responsibility of governments, and not public bodies, companies or individuals, to make decisions about which states are in need of accountability.

We, quite rightly, do not question why Ukrainians are focussed on the need to boycott Russia, and not other states – they are not accused of Russophobia, or of ignoring the Uighurs in China. Nor are Ukrainians accused of fostering division, rather than working towards peace by bringing two warring sides together for dialogue. Further, not only is the argument not being made that public bodies should leave accountability measures to the government, but such bodies and wider actors are being actively encouraged to do their part to isolate Russia. In the same week that the amendment to pension law passed with its author asserting that officials in pension schemes should not take on the responsibility of making divestment decisions in relation to foreign states, Michael Gove wrote to the same schemes advising them of their right and responsibility to take their own moral decisions about divesting from companies complicit in supporting Russia’s invasion.

Calls for BDS in relation to Russia have extended well beyond governments and public bodies, as almost every sector of society is encouraged to do their part to isolate Russia. In sport, Russian players and federations are being banned, the Champions League final has been removed from St Petersburg, Russian athletes have been barred from the Paralympics, and Ukrainian flags are omnipresent. When Egyptian squash champion Ali Farag was asked to comment about Ukraine, he said: ‘We’ve never been allowed to speak about politics in sports, but all of a sudden now it’s allowed. And now that it’s allowed I hope that people also look at oppression everywhere in the world. The Palestinians have been going through that for the past 74 years, but I guess because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the media of the West, we couldn’t talk about it. So now we can talk about Ukraine, we can talk about Palestine.’

Complicity, not identity

As Yousef Munayyer points out in a recent article in Jewish Currents, the arguments fallaciously used in denying the legitimacy of the Palestinian call for BDS, that it targets identity and not complicity, have not been deployed in relation to Russia. The irony, as Munnayer points out, is that the ethics and strategy developed by the Palestinian BDS movement is precisely what is missing in this moment. The indiscriminate targeting of all things Russian has seen Russian shops vandalized, Dostoevsky banned, bottles of vodka pointlessly dumped. The BDS movement, on the other hand, is careful to only target complicity and not identity or individuals.

When this hypocrisy and double standard is questioned, as it was in parliament by Julie Elliot MP, the response is to deny the legitimacy of comparison between the actions of Russia and those of Israel. Israel, in this argument, is a liberal democracy, overseeing a problematic occupation, but one that it intends to be temporary. This illusion is becoming impossible to sustain in the face of the growing consensus across international civil society as to the true character of Israel’s regime of oppression. Just last week UN Special Rapporteur, Michael Lynk, in a coruscating report, wrote that Israel’s ‘55-year-old occupation long ago burst through the restraints of temporariness. It has progressively engaged in the de jure and de facto annexation of occupied territory. It insists that the laws of occupation and human rights do not apply to its regime. And its proliferating facts on the ground have virtually extinguished what lingering prospects remain for a genuine Palestinian state. A legal oxymoron has emerged: an occupation in perpetuity.’ The UN investigator goes on to join Palestinian civil society, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in judging Israel to be committing the crime against humanity of apartheid.

Whilst never underestimating the capacity of political elites to sustain double standards, it is undeniable that the shift in political discourse about the appropriateness of BDS as a tactic will make it much harder for Israel and its allies to sustain the full body of false narratives used to protect the state from accountability. Consider, for example, the ability of sporting bodies to sustain the line that politics and sport must always be kept separate as a shield to prevent Israel’s abuses being called out. What Palestinians call for remains the same – not for Israel to be treated exceptionally, but for the exceptional treatment of Israel to be ended, and for principles of respect for international law and human rights to be applied consistently.

Ukranians under illegal invasion and occupation deserve support and solidarity – not because the West regards them as allies nor because of the colour of their skin, but because principles of rights, justice and respect for the rule of law demand that solidarity. All those whose rights are being violated, including Palestinians, deserve the same.

Ben Jamal is Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK


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