To BDS or not to BDS? That is the question. What is Borgen’s answer?

The European Union has finally voted to apply Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to any trade with Israel’s illegal settlements, thus joining the growing number of countries who have already taken action.

And they’re in distinguished company; Desmond Tutu, and Roger Waters, and Alice Walker, and Stephen Hawking and the Bishops of Guildford and Exeter … and … and … and – the list goes on and is getting longer by the day.

Israel variously hold such actions to be either Anti Semitic or, latterly, harming Palestinian workers more than they harm Israel.

In fact, aside from the parallel with the South African Apartheid era, those attacking the boycott in the name of “Palestinian workers” also echo those companies that defend sweatshop labour on the grounds of “Well at least they have a job!” – a justification rightly rejected by campaigners and rights groups.

The concept that not even Israel is free to ride roughshod over other people’s human rights seems to escape the Israeli government entirely.

So what in the world is BDS anyway?

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a global campaign which uses economic and political pressure on Israel to comply with the stated goals of the movement: The end of Israeli occupation and colonisation of Arab land, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In short, the sort of things the rest of us take for granted.

The campaign was started on 9 July 2005 by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organisations in support of the Palestinian cause for boycott, divestment and international sanctions against Israel. Citing a body of UN resolutions and specifically echoing the anti-apartheid campaigns against white minority rule in apartheid era South Africa, the BDS campaign called for “various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.”

And how does BDS actually work?

Luckily – or rather unluckily – we don’t have to travel too far back in history to test the model. Just 23 years, in fact. In 1990 South Africa’s brutal Apartheid regime finally buckled after 30 years of long and arduous BDS’ing by the rest of us. The regime’s repressive race laws were abolished, making way for a South African Spring. Ok, so it wasn’t called Spring back then, but it could have been.

For three decades, we’d thrown everything – including the odd kitchen sink, probably – at the South African despots, for that’s what they were. But nothing could persuade them to abandon their wicked ways and progress into a modern democratic state with equal rights for all.  Punitive United Nations arms embargoes, label-checking supermarket shoppers, un-cooperative academics, non-playing sportsmen, banks and companies, large and small, had finally managed to practically choke South Africa’s economy to within an inch of its life.

African National Congress (ANC) supremo Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, put there to shut him up as he was, according even to our very own Tory Party, “a terrorist”:

Margaret Thatcher, 1987: ‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation … Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land’

So, from 1987 cloud-cuckoo land to 2013 bongo-bongo-land … it seems that the British right wing has progressed precisely zero years. No surprise there, then.

But I digress. So, back in Apartheid South Africa days, consumers boycotted, banks and companies divested, and governments sanctioned – well, that’s roughly the scenario. And make no mistake about it, banks and companies divested because of customer pressure, not because they had suddenly succumbed to a fit of compassion. Trades Unions forced their company pension funds to divest from banks and companies that were doing business with South Africa’s diamond geezers, and voters put dithering politicians under the thumb. All of which hit these guys in their pockets. And. They. Do. Not. Like. That.

That’s the history lesson over, now let’s see if we’ve paid attention and actually learnt anything. Since 1967 we’ve faced a new Apartheid regime, this time in Israel – well, since 1948 actually, but everyone’s given up counting.


To be fair, Israel does deny being an Apartheid state. And some people deny that the WW2 Holocaust took place.  Delusional both. Israel claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” – while others beg to differ. After all, Hamas was voted in by perfectly democratic means and, while we are trading democratic validity, even Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. So, to make sure of our position, let’s just recap on the main planks that constitute Apartheid:

The crime of Apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

That sounds like a reasonably accurate description of the news coming out of Israel most days; Jewish-only settlements, separate roads for Israeli and Palestinian citizens, military checkpoints, discriminatory marriage law, the West Bank barrier, use of Palestinians as cheap labour, Palestinian West Bank enclaves, legal rights, Jews from everywhere on the planet having automatic right of ‘return’, even if they’ve never set foot in the place, while Palestinians who’ve lived there for centuries have no such right. For good measure, throw in access to land and resources between Palestinians and Israeli residents in the Israeli-occupied territories – it all looks uncannily like apartheid South Africa circa 1970, and the fact that elements of Israel’s occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law. *BREATHE IN*

Notwithstanding that whatever’s going on in Israel (this link is not for the squeamish btw) and whatever you choose to call it, is unacceptable to most of us, any amount of international cajoling has so far been water off a duck’s back.

Absolutely no Israeli reaction whatsoever. Zip. Nada. Rien. Niente. Nout.

If anything, it’s got worse.

So where do we draw the line?

Where’s our tipping point?

What Would Borgen Do?

As it happens, Borgen has already ‘done’. They instituted BDS against Israeli settlement goods last year, reason being that “the products are produced under conditions that not only the Danish government, but also European governments, do not approve of”.

Relations had been challenging since 2011 when the Danes refused to allow armed Israeli security guards to patrol checkpoints at Copenhagen Airport. That would be against Danish law but still didn’t stop Israel piling on the irony by threatening to boycott Danish flights into Tel Aviv as retribution. It never happened though.

Meanwhile elsewhere, Danish businesses started to shun companies, who had ties to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Security giant G4S, who man the Israeli prison system for example, was dumped by a number of clients.

All manner of protests calling for more boycotts of Israel started to spring up all over the country. In one particularly inspired action, trade unionists from the scaffolding industry joined activists to transform G4S headquarters into a prison, locking up the staff in their offices. G4S called in the cops, who didn’t arrest anyone.

Pulling the Anti Semitic card Israel cried foul, a move which could provoke some egg-on-face action. For when it comes to pro-Semitism, Borgen has form.

Many a WW2 tale bears testament to the sheltering of Danish Jews during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Truth be told, the gloopier stories were often somewhat embellished by people like Leon Uris, and the Danish King never did wear a Yellow Star in sympathy with Danish Jews.

Nevertheless, thousands of Jewish Danes were successfully protected by Borgen throughout the war years, culminating in 10 grim October nights in 1943 when a myriad of small boats, organised by the Danish resistance movement, somehow managed to spirit 7000 Jews across the water to neutral Sweden, under the noses of the Nazis.

So it’s reasonably safe to assume that Borgen would require considerable persuasion before taking any restrictive action against Israel and that, were it to do so, you’d have a job on your hands to argue that such action was anti-Semitic.

Fast forward to 2011 and, at the very same time as the Danish boycott, the mother of all Apartheid nations, South Africa, also announced sanctions against goods produced in Israeli settlements.

Meanwhile, back in Blighty things were also on the move; the British Co-operative Group, announced boycotts against four Israeli companies swiftly followed by the TUC, the Trade Union Congress, Britain’s labour federation, who voted to reaffirm its commitment to the boycott of Israel.

As countries, organisations and individuals continued to join in the BDS action, a recent BBC survey revealed that global opinion ranks Israel just marginally more influential than North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. Not a good place to be…

Problem is, like the South African Apartheid regime, Israel doesn’t mind being disliked. They have money on their side and imagine that, so long as the USofA sticks in there, they don’t need friends – but is the US repositioning itself a bit? The South African Apartheid regime also thought they could go it alone. And we all know what happened there.

The key to a successful BDS campaign is to find your target’s Achilles’ heel and head straight for it. In the case of South Africa it proved, above all else, to be sport. After numerous attempts by Olympic organisers to stop segregation in South African sports for example, South Africa was formally expelled from the IOC in 1970. For such a great sporting nation, this was a calamitous catastrophe that reached the parts that other sanctions couldn’t reach. Other sports boycotts subsequently rained down on the regime, drowning the South African sports establishment in international oblivion.

Israel’s Achilles’ heel revealed itself in May 2013 when Stephen Hawking pulled out of a high profile conference in Israel in support of his Palestinian colleagues. Compared with Borgen, Hawking was a tad late for the academic boycott party which the Danes had joined 11 years earlier in 2002.

However, when you’re Stephen Hawking you’re allowed to be late and the fireworks that accompanied his grand entrance are still going off all over the place. Like sport in South Africa, academic kudos, science, and the spondoolies this generates have proved a sanction too far for the Israelis.

The flurry of diplomatic activity unleashed since Hawking’s action, culminating in “Peace Talks about Peace Talks” – of a kind – is impressive. It remains to be seen what happens next.

A memorial in Jerusalem’s Denmark Square honours the Danish people for that floating rescue during the Holocaust. The monument in the square is shaped like a boat, recalling the boats on which Jews were smuggled to Sweden. The text on the monument reads:



Like Apartheid South Africa, Apartheid Israel will eventually have to end.

If Israel and Jews everywhere indeed have not forgotten those 10 icy nights back in Denmark, perhaps they could now apply themselves to show some of that indelible proof of human values in times of their very own Barbarism.


One thought on “To BDS or not to BDS? That is the question. What is Borgen’s answer?

  1. Reblogged this on WHAT WOULD BORGEN DO? and commented:

    As furious frustration with the Israel-Palestine massacre engulfs us all, it is too easy to feel helpless and hopeless. But every single one of us can change the picture in the conflict by refusing to tacitly take part in it. BDS finally ended Apartheid in South Africa and it will ultimately end Apartheid in Israel-Palestine. This post was originally published in August 2013. Tragically, it is still all too relevant.

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