“Tear Down That Wall!”
Activists demanding a better fate for Palestinians have chosen a potent accusation—the new apartheid—to rally support for the growing anti-Israel boycott. Their belief: what forced change in South Africa can provoke change in the Middle East. But it may not be that easy-or that simple
BY Sue Ferguson
Photography by Reuters: Reinhard Krause
Imagination. Creativity. Inspiration. Three words to stir the soul crown the towering windows of Toronto’s flagship Indigo bookstore. At ground level, shoppers pass in and out of wood-framed glass doors, navigating planters and benches intended to create a friendly, front-porch sort of welcome. They take little notice as, on the sidewalk beyond, two women unfurl an off-white canvas banner. Printed on one side are another three words, less poetic perhaps than the store’s motto, but the intended effect is just as moving: Boycott Chapters/Indigo.
No, the protest is not a last-ditch attempt by independent booksellers to draw the literate back into their fold. Rather, the activists—11 have turned up on this Friday in April, the fi rst truly warm day of spring—are taking a page from a much larger book. They are members of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), a network of Palestinian rights, Jewish peace and socialist groups doing their part to promote an international boycott campaign against Israel. They compare themselves to the early voices against South African apartheid, and history, they believe, can repeat itself: If international pressure could help rescue South Africa from apartheid, the same can be true for Israel.
Indigo picketer and Holocaust survivor Suzanne Weiss greets approaching pedestrians at the corner of Bloor and Bay streets, “Have a bookmark.” Weiss is handing out rectangular pieces of cardstock. Printed on each are the logos of Chapters, Indigo and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with the words “Partners in Apartheid” beneath. Flip it over and a short statement explains why Indigo Books and Music is the coalition’s fi rst and most prominent target: Two years ago, the chain’s founder and CEO, Heather Reisman, and her husband, Gerry Schwartz, chairman and CEO of Onex Corporation, launched the Heseg Foundation for lone soldiers. About 6,000 lone soldiers-so-called because they have no family living in Israel-serve in the Israeli army. Heseg (Hebrew for “achievement”) awards 100 scholarships each year to those who, after completing service, want to remain and study in Israel. Reisman and Schwartz donate $3 million a year to the cause.
The impetus behind such generosity? “We are a family,” Schwartz announced to the scholarship’s first recipients in December 2005. “As Jews who live outside of Israel, I can tell you that family extends to so many nations around the globe... and you’re here not just for yourself, or just for the State of Israel, you are here protecting the freedom of Jews around the world.”
Schwartz, Reisman and the lone soldiers share a deep commitment to political Zionism—a variant of the Jewish religious doctrine advocating pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Born of hundreds of years of anti-Semitism, the 19th century doctrine holds that only a nation-state, Israel, can guarantee Jews freedom from persecution. It follows then, that for hundreds of thousands of people around the world, an attack on Israel, whether physical or ideological, is tantamount to an attack on the very right of Jews to exist.
Outside Indigo, the protesters—mostly older Jewish peaceniks and socialists—could not be easily mistaken for anti-Semites. And although one participant, jazz composer Charnie Guettel, says she senses “a turning point in consciousness,” she acknowledges some passersby are contemptuous and hostile. Most people, however, ignore them. Fair enough. Eleven protesters on a downtown Toronto sidewalk doesn’t look much like a revolution, but they are part of a broader movement gaining momentum and commanding attention on the world stage.
In July 2005, 171 Palestinian community organizations issued a joint call for international action to isolate Israel. The resulting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has since migrated from a loose but committed group of artists, intellectuals and political activists to churchgoers, unions and professionals in an impressive array of countries. British, Israeli and South African newspapers are keeping a close eye on its activities and, recently, criticism of Israel and the idea of international trade sanctions have found a hearing in loftier, more powerful bodies—in parliaments in Europe, the UK and South Africa. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has also weighed in, lending credibility to the movement’s contentious analogy with his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
The moment, say activists, is ripe for action. The ever-intensifying strife in the West Bank and Gaza reminds the world almost daily of the international community’s failure to hammer out a workable peace accord. But recent moves by Israel-the widely condemned bombing of Lebanon last summer and the construction of a 730 km wall physically breaking up Palestinian homes and communities-are pushing some (including a healthy contingent of liberals in the Jewish Diaspora) to sharpen their criticism. For many today, Israel is less likely to symbolize the helping hand of the liberator, than the fist of the oppressor.
On the ground, the BDS campaign is simmering, both in Canada and abroad, where it focuses on academic links to Israeli universities, supermarkets selling Israeli produce, and mining, telecommunications and other hi-tech companies with links to Israel. Labour endorsements include COSATU, South Africa’s 1.8-million strong trade union coalition, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (which passed the motion “to actively and vigorously promote a policy of divestment” without any internal opposition), Britain’s 800,000 members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Britain’s National Union of Journalists and CUPE Ontario’s 200,000 members.
A heated debate inside British universities and colleges resulted in a national faculty union voting to condemn “the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation,” and to “actively encourage and support branches to create direct links with Palestinians’ educational institutions.” (Opponents of the initiative cite academic freedom, pointing out that the Israeli professoriate includes some of the regime’s most trenchant critics.)
Similar wrangling in ecumenical circles has led a number of churches (including the United Church of Canada) to condemn Israeli treatment of Palestinians, while in the U.S., the Presbyterian Church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee is targeting such corporations as Citigroup, Motorola and Caterpillar for dealing with Israel. On the cultural front, John Berger, Arundhati Roy, Ken Loach and Brian Eno head a long list of artists and intellectuals speaking up against Israeli policies. And a letter published in the April 21, 2007, Guardian signed by 130 UK physicians calls for a boycott of the Israeli Medical Association, citing human rights infractions.“Ambulances are fired on... and their personnel killed,” write the doctors. “Desperately ill people, and newborn babies, die at checkpoints because soldiers bar the way to hospital.”
With the voices of doctors, pastors, journalists and professors backing up the grassroots chorus, a handful of politicians are listening. In June, Bloc Québécois and Parti Québécois members led a march through the streets of Montreal organized by that province’s anti-apartheid activists. Around the same time, 45 members of the European Parliament stood right before a House debate, expressing solidarity with the 45 imprisoned Palestinian MPs. And MPs in the British House of Commons have registered deep concern over the “complex system of separation under which Palestinians must live,” while raising the spectre of suspending European Union-Israeli trade relations. Meanwhile, in South Africa, BDS activists have an unlikely ally in ANC Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils. “Although the government is not supportive of the boycott, Kasrils has written about it extensively,” says activist and University of Witwatersrand senior researcher and lecturer Salim Vally. “We have differences with him but we’ve made common cause.”
We’ve seen something like this before. In the late 1980s, a sweeping international movement pushed to isolate the once tolerated (if not fully embraced) white regime in South Africa. As their cause seeps into the mainstream, BDS activists are stoked by the hope that their campaign has the same potentialas the anti-apartheid movement on which it is modelled. Is this merely wishful thinking, another great revolutionary fantasy of the left? Or not?
While today’s conflict parallels white South African rule, say veterans of the South African movement and others, it is not identical. Most significantly, Israel is not widely seen as a racist state. Indeed, for many, it’s the solution to intractable discrimination. As a result, there’s little moral prevaricating in the support for Israel issuing from U.S., Canadian and other powerful allies. It’s hard to imagine, then, that the admonishments of a few well-meaning groups of activists can cause a similarly momentous upheaval. Yet, as Linda Freeman, a southern African scholar at Carleton University and former anti-apartheid activist, recalls, “Our groups fought for many years really in the wasteland, getting absolutely nowhere, and treated with condescension and contempt. Then everything changed.” One thing is certain, she adds: “History is surprising.”
History is also contested. The UN put Israel on the map in 1947 and, depending on who’s telling the story, the following year 750,000 Arabs living in the area either fled voluntarily or were forced from their homes by Israeli soldiers, becoming permanent refugees. According to those promoting the BDS campaign, the remaining Palestinians, both in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) or in Israel proper, are excluded from the social, political, economic and cultural life of the state as a whole-a situation that parallels apartheid South Africa. This claim, as might be expected, is hotly contested.
Believed to be first used in 1917 by a soon-to-be-elected prime minister of South Africa, the term “apartheid” is most famously associated with the social and political segregation along racial lines in that country between 1948 and 1994. The creation of Bantustans in the 1950s, so-called homelands subject to quasi-tribal law, effectively excluded blacks from participation and representation in the country’s legal and justice systems. Some of its more visible results were sub-standard health and education services for blacks, pass books monitoring blacks’ movements and brutal repression. By ensuring a steady supply of cheap labour in the mines and elsewhere, says York University professor emeritus and southern Africa expert John Saul, apartheid policies enforced a racialized class system, which was the basis of a vibrant first-world economy, the benefits of which remained in the hands of whites.
The idea of Israeli apartheid emerged in the final years of the white South African regime. According to Vally, ex-patriot Palestinians supportive in toppling that regime drew the link between Israel and South Africa, which intensified in the early 1990s. “There was a widespread view,” he recalls, “that Israel needed to be isolated in the same way apartheid South Africa was and for the same reasons-its intransigence, its violation of international law.”
That view gained currency with the international left at the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban: over the course of a week, 10,000 people signed the committee’s declaration on apartheid Israel. But it was another South African, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who introduced the analogy to a more mainstream audience. In a 2002 article he wrote for the British Guardian, Tutu applauded the fight against anti- Semitism and affirmed Israel’s “right to secure borders.” At the same time, he condemned the segregation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, as well as the military violence and restrictions on their movement, writing “It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.” Jimmy Carter’s book merely cemented the term’s association with Israel for a North American audience.
BDS campaigners do not claim Israel is an exact replica of apartheid South Africa. Still, they insist on the analogy. The 750,000 Palestinians who fled in 1948, they point out, can not return and reclaim citizenship, whereas the Law of Return grants any willing Jewish person in the world automatic citizenship. Because many of their houses sit on “unrecognized” land, they’re not serviced with electricity, water or sewage. Discrimination in Israel’s housing and health care budgets means vast differentials in social services as well. (According to BDS campaign literature, the 2002 housing budget dispensed about $30 per person to Israeli-Palestinians and up to $3,250 per person to Jewish Israelis, while the health ministry gave less than half a million dollars to Palestinian communities, and $76 million to Israeli communities.) Palestinians also face a sort of de facto discrimination. They cannot apply for certain jobs and welfare benefits if they have not served in the Israeli army.
Within the Occupied Territories, says Vally and others, the restrictions and segregation are even more pronounced. The Israeli army has destroyed thousands of Palestinian houses, schools and hospitals since its occupation, and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip are required to show identity cards as they enter and exit their communities. Because car license plates identify their owners’ origins, Palestinians driving on Jewish-only highways can be easily apprehended. Moreover, Israeli childhood ends at age 18, but the Israeli legal system considers any Palestinian over 16 an adult.
All these policies and laws, say BDS supporters, are evidence of a made-in-Israel apartheid. But the most visible evidence is in the form of Israeli encroachments. Since 1948-and even more so since the 1993 Oslo Accord-Palestinians have been squeezed onto ever-smaller parcels of land, producing what the campaign literature refers to as the “bantustanization” of the Occupied Territories. Speeding this process along is the ongoing construction of the wall winding through the West Bank. With the completion of the wall, which began in June 2002, an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians will occupy about 12 percent of historic Palestine. Carter picks up on the same point: “It is obvious that the Palestinians will be left with no territory in which to establish a viable state.”
But to Israel’s supporters, the A-word is an affront-“an odious comparison,” according to Warren Kinsella, a member of the Canada-Israel Committee and author of two books about anti-Semitism in Canada. Its application to Israel is neither fair nor accurate, he insists, pointing to the basic rights Arab-Israelis enjoy. They can vote, run for election to the Knesset (Israel’s legislature), go to public schools and use public health services. Moreover, Israel permitted Fatah (a major Palestinian political party) members to cross back into the country in May, the same week Palestinians were firing rockets at Sderot in southern Israel. “No regime in South Africa would have done this.”
What you see in Israel, says Kinsella, is “the mirror image of apartheid-economic engagement” with the Palestinians. At least, that’s what he saw when, as chief of staff to former Liberal government services minister David Dingwall in 1994, he met with Israel’s then-foreign affairs minister Shimon Peres. After tentatively raising the possibility of meeting with the PLO, Peres’s response “blew us away,” he says. “He was emphatic we must meet with them,” insisting that the possibility for peace hinged upon a healthy Palestinian economy.
Derek Penslar, director of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, likely wouldn’t go so far. “The Palestinians are oppressed,” he says-both within the Occupied Territories and Israel itself. And they are, he acknowledges, “functionally separated” from Israelis. But this is not apartheid. Apartheid is a specific arrangement “based along racial lines, in which the entire black population was fundamentally disenfranchised,” he says. Not only have Palestinians “known freedom of movement in the past,” the Israeli state is not enforcing a racial regime, but in some cases, responding to violence perpetrated against a civilian population (although he concedes the balance of power favours the Israelis).
The BDS campaign plays to a more generalized criticism of Israeli policies, most strikingly evident in the faultline developing within the Jewish Diaspora community. Last December, the right-wing American Jewish Committee posted an essay on its website decrying liberal Jews who are critical of Israeli policies, accusing them of fomenting anti-Semitism. That debate, says Yakov Rabkin, a University of Montreal historian and author of A Threat From Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, signals “a growing awareness that Israel isn’t so much a Jewish state as a state that takes a certain political stance in the Middle East, and that brings the sympathy of conservative, right wing circles in the world.” Many Jews oppose “the idea of having a state reserved for just one particular ethnic group,” he says, noting the discussion is nowhere more vibrant than inside Israel, where the government has just set up a task force to deal with the academic boycott. And elsewhere, in Sweden, France, Italy, Belgium, the U.S., South Africa and Canada, networks of liberal Jews critical of political Zionism are spreading. Here, the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians endorses the BDS campaign.
Rabkin, who prefers the term “separate development” to “apartheid” (they mean the same thing, but the former is less provocative, he claims), believes a shift in international opinion is not a pipe dream. Even the “pro-establishment” Economist magazine has questioned Israel’s relevance to the younger generation of Jews, he observes. Its January 13, 2007, issue reported that 17 percent of Jewish Americans are pro-Zionist, and just over half say “caring about Israel is a very important part” of being Jewish. The article suggests Israeli policies in the Middle East are at least partially responsible for this disaffection. Rabkin also cites a BBC World Service poll in which Israel is ranked the lowest, just below Iran, as the country perceived to have the most “negative influence” on the world. While overwhelming majorities within mostly Muslim countries skewed the figures, Canada, Britain and other EU countries were also highly critical of Israel. Support from the right for Israel today may be “massive,” concludes Rabkin. “But it’s very fragile.”
The white South African regime enjoyed widespread support once as well. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and well into the 1980s, the global anti-apartheid movement sat impatiently on the fringes-meeting in church basements, leafleting shareholder conventions and giving talks to audiences of half a dozen people.
John Saul was among those activists. He recalls a stunt he and his fellow rabble-rousers dreamed up to draw attention to the hundreds of millions of dollars in direct Canadian bank loans made to South Africa. The Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa (TCLSAC) printed fake withdrawal slips with a summary of the banks’ activities on the back and then surreptitiously tucked them into Toronto bank counters. “We put a lot of them out there,” he says. “That got a certain notoriety for us, but I don’t know whether these things have any larger impact. At least the banks knew that somebody was watching them.”
The Canadian government, for its part, largely ignored the activists. While it made the occasional gesture-John Diefenbaker helped push South Africa out of the Commonwealth in 1961, Pierre Trudeau introduced sanctions in 1977-its efforts were “half-hearted,” says Freeman. “Ultimately and ironically it was Mulroney” who stood up to the Commonwealth and imposed a few compulsory trade sanctions. But when domestic issues took priority, she notes, he also “basically let it down.”
Joe Clark, then minister of foreign affairs, cites a number of factors pushing the Tories to act, including his and Mulroney’s ambition to take up Diefenbaker’s mantle. As members of the young Progressive Conservatives in the early 1960s, explains Clark in an email, “We considered the fight against apartheid to be a central element of the activist Progressive Conservative tradition in international affairs.” Still, he acknowledges, “growing international concern” about human rights abuses in South Africa did play a part. “The public anti-apartheid campaign maintained a steady pressure on the government, often criticizing our pace and, in an increasing number of cases, working with us in proposing initiatives, and giving effect to policy.”
Both Saul and Freeman stress it’s impossible to draw a straight line from their activism to the upheaval in South Africa. Rather, events inside that country were key. As long as the political and economic elite felt they were in control, “the not-so-mild embarrassment that we could cause them was a business cost they could live with,” says Saul. “I don’t think they liked it, but I don’t think they felt themselves terribly threatened by it either.” By 1984, however, recalls Freeman, “things in South Africa were really boiling and burning.” The Vaal township uprising that year, the state’s response, and an economic crisis split the South African ruling class, with some arguing that apartheid was simply too costly to continue. (Internal developments within Israel and the Occupied Territories have taken on a different complexion, in part because the Israeli economy isn’t as dependent upon Palestinian labour, and in part because of U.S. and other international interests in the area.) Anti-apartheid activism in places like Canada was only a small-albeit essential-part of the equation. “It kept their minds alert to the fact that they were paying some price for this,” says Saul. “In that sense, the cumulative anti-apartheid activity made a difference.”
For the Toronto BDS campaign to make a difference, it has to first get noticed. Formed in 2005 (under the name Coalition Against Israel’s War Crimes) in anticipation of then- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the city, the group held demonstrations, leafleting and public talks. Taking up the Palestinian call to action a year later, says York University grad student and coalition member Adam Hanieh, provided a welcome focus and greater exposure. The group publishes a long list of Israeli-made imports to boycott, including everything from toiletries to garden sheds to wines produced in the Occupied Territories for Israeli firms (they are also researching a sporting and military boycott), but Chapters/Indigo is by far the biggest, and most familiar, name.
Since the first Indigo picket aimed at Christmas shoppers on December 23, 2006, interest has grown steadily. Pickets have shot up at other Canadian stores without any direction from the coalition. People “are really taking their own initiative,” says Hanieh. They’re sending emails to CAIA saying, “I’ll organize a picket. Just give me the material.” Regular protests now take place at the Toronto store and Indigo or Chapters outlets in Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria and Halifax. (A thousand people stopped to chant outside Montreal’s McGill College Ave. Indigo outlet during a June march, which was endorsed by Quebec trade unionists, feminists and CEGEP student unions.) And in a stunt reminiscent of TCLSAC’s bank action, some boycotters have moved their efforts inside, slipping End Israeli Apartheid bookmarks into bestsellers on store shelves.
For the most part, the actions are small, and members know they’re a long way from winning their core demand-that Reisman cut all ties with Heseg. But there are other measures of success, says Hanieh. “The whole idea of the boycott strategy is around public education-to make it clear that dealing with Israel is not on.” On that level, he believes the group is having some impact. Asking people to consider the way in which money spent at these bookstores contributes to the oppression of the Palestinians, he says, not only pushes the debate into the open, it draws attention to how individual Canadians are implicated in that oppression. “It’s not an abstract thing. It’s not just something that’s going on in a weird land. There is a connection you can see between your location here and what’s happening in Israel.”
That’s the message CAIA members are also pushing in the unions. Since the CUPE Ontario resolution passed in May 2006, they’ve published a booklet and run education sessions at Ontario locals. “It’s very exciting,” says Hanieh. “Each week we’re reaching a lot of new people, and it’s being very well received. People want to get involved.” Union work, he adds, was important to the earlier anti-apartheid struggle. Not only did some unions, like the postal workers, refuse to handle South African goods and mail, members were well placed to identify which products were coming from South Africa, and where and when shipments were arriving.
As for the Indigo picket, it’s not going away-although the official response has been minimal. B’nai Brith Canada issued a press release denouncing CAIA for targeting Reisman and Schwartz, whose philanthropy, it points out, “has benefited Canadians of all backgrounds.” It calls the boycott “misguided,” an example of “blind hatred for Israel.” According to Anita Bromberg, director of legal affairs at the Jewish human rights organization, CAIA is “unfairly singling” Israel out. “Where in their materials does it discuss the apartheid state of Syria? Or Lebanon, where Palestinian refugees are kept in camps for 60 years, where they don’t have the right to vote, where Jews had their property confiscated and were driven out. Have they raised their issues there?” Israel, she insists, is a democratic state, in which Arab-Israeli citizens “enjoy rights.”
But Indigo Books and Music is staying on the sidelines-or at least trying to. Reisman’s publicist stopped returning my calls and, except for the dark-suited security guard who strides by at the beginning and end of each picket, the company has not responded to CAIA. “They realize we’re kind of fringe,” says Hanieh. “Basically, they’re hoping it’ll fizzle out.” When activists confronted Reisman at a store book launch in May, her voice was cool and firm: “I won’t engage in a debate on this subject.” She then announced the protesters had their facts wrong, and promptly shut down the event.
Meanwhile, the picketers at the corner of Bay and Bloor streets soldier on. The occasional passerby glares contemptuously, a few stop to chat and learn more. But most walk by, oblivious to anything except maybe the warmth of the long-awaited spring sunshine. As I lean against a concrete planter watching, two familiar faces exit the store’s main doors, both former bosses of mine. I mention the picket to them. “I didn’t notice this when we went in,” quips one. “Having noticed it, I’m now ignoring it.”
The choice is his to make—at least for now.