Boycott to and fro: Be careful what you ban


If I stop buying your goods, can I change you? Boycotts are a common political tactic, but they are sometimes more fashionable than successful, and their outcomes are not entirely predictable

SOUTH AFRICANS know a few things about boycotts, and Israel and those who want to boycott it could learn a bit, even though the two countries are worlds apart culturally and historically. From the 1960s until almost the end of apartheid, the trade, cultural, sports, academic and other sanctions against South Africa were intended to force the white regime to abandon its racist policies and its suppression of the black majority.

Historians will forever argue over how much the sanctions were responsible for apartheid’s demise, compared to other factors such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which changed the political environment. Nevertheless, being cut off from the world was painful; even travelling overseas on a South African passport was uncomfortable.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s first major victory, in 1961, forced South Africa to leave the Commonwealth. In 1962, the UN General Assembly asked member states to impose a trade boycott. In 1963, the Security Council called for a partial arms ban.

Expecting South Africa to capitulate, there was one effect the boycotters didn’t adequately foresee. Among certain sectors of the population, particularly conservative Afrikaners who wielded power, the boycotts induced a stubborn, creative camaraderie, a determination to hold things together and flourish despite sanctions – the opposite of the demoralisation the boycotters wanted. It was the midst of the Cold War, and politicians rallied conservative white groups by labelling liberal anti-apartheid protestors ‘communists’ – a damning indictment in the Cold War mindset. So South Africa continued stubbornly, for decades, to endure while the world was busy with the Cold War.

There is much talk today about partial or full boycotts of Israel. Anti-Israel movements use the South African boycotts as their model. But it is misguided. Africa is not the Middle East, and despite its flaws, Israel is not South African apartheid. Internationally, a major destabilising factor today is the complex conflict between the Islamic and western worlds. And boycotts can have the opposite effect to what is intended.

BDS makes a lot of noise, but achieving a full boycott of Israel is highly unlikely. It can only be symbolic. Israel stands on the highway of the world and is as strong as it has ever been. Most participants in ‘boycott’ groups know this.

So one wonders why Israel bothered to detain at Ben Gurion airport the 22-year-old American student Lara Alqasem who arrived on October 2 on a study visa. It was absurd when security officials who blocked her, cited her membership of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, and her alleged support for BDS. All it did was raise the boycotters’ profile; it had no practical effect. And by coming to Israel to study at the Hebrew University, Alqasem gave up any claim to represent the boycott movement.

Fortunately Israel’s Supreme Court has now overturned the decision of the Minister of the Interior to deny her entry, and she has entered the country after a two-week delay.

Pressuring Israel to change policies towards the Palestinians is urgently necessary. Its occupation of the West Bank will, if unchecked, foreclose any possibly of a two-state solution. But contrary to their intentions, supporters of boycotts are only giving the current government and its prime minister more politically expedient ammunition to tell Israelis that once again, ‘the whole world is against the Jewish state’. He will elevate BDS to the level of an existential threat, and rally Israelis behind him as if they were fighting yet another mortal, ‘anti-Semitic’ enemy.

South African sanctions had a huge effect on the country. But BDS will ultimately fail. Opposition to Israeli policies must come from within the Israeli and Jewish world. The question is how much damage, through overreacting, the prime minister will allow it to do to Israel’s image in the meantime.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


One thought on “Boycott to and fro: Be careful what you ban

  1. During the anti-apartheid boycotts, Athol Fugard – who vigorously opposed the cultural boycott, in particular – commented that the initiative was a unilateral act of madness because it effectively silenced not only those who supported the apartheid state, but also those who opposed it within the country. There are lessons here for the present situation in Israel. You can’t pressurise anyone to change their opinion. Disempowering Israel (or any other pariah state) is a step backwards, not forward. What I find particularly disturbing is that a significant percentage of those supporting the anti-Israel boycott are grossly ignorant about the situation in the Middle East in the first place, and are doing this as part of the social media hashtag trend. I agree with you that sanctions had a huge effect on apartheid SA, but the real change came with the Mandela era, which was one of admission, reflection and – for the first time – real understanding of who we had been under that regime and who we could become once we were free of it.


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