It seems the fervour of the Israel-Palestine conflict has well and truly landed at Lancaster University. The Lancaster University Student Union’s (LUSU) referendum surrounding whether or not they should endorse Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) (boycotting a select few companies operating within Israel and the illegal Israeli settlements) has led to intense campaigning on both sides – culminating in a lively and passionate debate that took place Monday evening. With polls opening on Wednesday, should you really vote to boycott Israel?
Boycotting Israel is not a new idea. It is not some dramatic last attempt at bringing down the occupation. Movements calling for the boycott of Israel have existed in some form or another for over 70 years. You may ask why it is, then, that we are debating a movement that began in 2005. The reason is the obvious fact that boycotts succeed at nothing but fostering division and further escalating levels of violence.
Hindering livelihoods on both sides
The Gulf Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf realised this following the Oslo Accords, and later stated that boycotts were actively hindering peace and development in the entire region, not just in Israel. If these incredibly wealthy nations could not get a boycott to work, then I question what a LUSU boycott will achieve but division. Indeed, even the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas believes that a boycott is wrong, as he and around 85% of Palestinians in the West Bank believe that relations with Israel are necessary, a view also shared by many Palestinian academics.
We must remember that 100,000 Palestinians rely on Israeli business to survive. While it is acknowledged that this is a fact of the occupation, nonetheless it must be taken into account just who will be harmed by such a rash decision. With massive unemployment and terminally low wages in the West Bank, 92,000 Palestinians work in Israel, with many thousands more employed in settlements.
Should we move to boycott the businesses that these people rely on, you can be sure that the Palestinian employees will be the ones to suffer any cut backs that come of our boycott, and any ours would inspire. Working with the Palestinians actually necessitates that we work with the Israelis too, such is the complexity of the situation.
What we should also consider, is that the reactionary and poorly-judged calls to boycott Israel will not only fail to achieve peace, but they will actually alienate our most important allies. With ties to Israel severed, no longer could we rely on the works of Israeli groups such as Breaking the Silence. We must not only value the brilliant and brave works of such organisations but we must stand with them in their search for peace and justice, not block them.
Israeli allies are arguably the most important group in this campaign, and I believe that this boycott would serve nothing but to insult them and their work and would severely restrict the efforts of us all to move towards a workable solution. Even if this boycott focuses on businesses, we send them a message telling them that we oppose what they stand for – unity, peace, respect and dignity.
Alienation will create more conflict
Arguably one of the worst results of a boycott are the long term implications of such a policy. The Israeli election this year stunned everyone who watched. While it looked like the Zionist Union coalition might win, this was not to be. Netanyahu’s Likud Party in fact attracted more votes from all over to be able to form a coalition, that was stronger than the last with less internal conflict.
Netanyahu won on promises that under him there would be no two state solution, and on fear mongering over Arab voters potentially winning it for the left. What we have is a government propped up by fear and division, an idea that is strengthened by the Israeli right wing narrative that the world is against them.
A LUSU boycott will merely look as though people from all over the world wish harm on the Israeli people, it is a wild stab in the dark at a population who already feels ostracised on the world stage, and would silence the progressive and peaceful elements of the internal discussion.
Israel today is already a violent place, with attacks happening daily against both sides. Boycotts cut us off and tell Israelis that the world has turned against them, which in the current context is not only irresponsible but morally indefensible. By voting yes it may be partaking in escalating violence and mistrust in the world’s most protracted conflict.
We must take the power away from them by refusing a boycott and showing the Israeli people that they are an important and equal partner in our collective journey towards a peaceful solution. We must not provide more reason for their government to crush Palestinians under the guise of protecting Israelis from a world that has abandoned them. By voting to oppose this measure, we can play our modest part in ensuring the Israeli population that they are not alone, and that we stand with both them and the Palestinians in peace and dignity.
This is not a black and white issue
Ultimately, the situation in Israel and Palestine is more complex than this black and white imagery provided by the BDS campaign. While no one on either side will argue that Israel is an entirely benevolent force, we should neither argue that about the Palestinian side. In choosing to boycott Israel, we will effectively be siding with the state that would torture those who speak out against Abbas, that condemns homosexuality, where media freedoms are oppressed by the Palestinian Security Forces more than by the Israeli ones.
There are also a number of undeniably anti-Semitic laws in place as well – the death penalty awaits any Palestinian selling land or houses to Jewish people. We would be saying that a state which abducts its own people, tortures and intimidates them, and even assassinates them is preferable. As students in a nation that cares for human rights internationally, we cannot presume to attack Israel whilst excusing Palestinian oppression simply because of the occupation.
The road to peace is a long one but it must be travelled knowing all partners, exposing their best and worst traits. Only by doing this can all groups work together to create a happy and democratic future.
Create unity not division
And what will a policy of BDS by LUSU mean for us, the students? Well for most, it will be irrelevant to their lives. Many will likely continue without knowing it has happened, but for some it will be a cause of grief and worry. LUSU is here to protect the interests of all students, but we fail to see how boycotting Israel will achieve this.
We risk Jewish and Israeli students left feeling isolated and even worse untrusted, and this is a genuinely dangerous outcome of an ill-considered and self-congratulatory policy. The Union that has promised to watch out for the interests of all members will have just made a massive statement towards students of their nationality and their faith. At Lancaster we welcome people of all faiths, nationalities and identities, and our diversity is a matter of strength for us, but if we choose to boycott Israel no matter how good our intentions are, we send a message of division to a very specific group of people. This must be avoided at all costs.
The students of Lancaster University must make an important choice. The referendum concerning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement must be taken seriously. While it will likely not affect the daily lives of many of us, there are those members of our university who harbour genuine concern over this vote.
I would rather vote for a united campus, one that doesn’t force our students to engage in a political debate that they wish to avoid or that marginalises them, one that doesn’t oversimplify one of the most complex issues in our world. When the polls open between Wednesday and Friday this week, it must be approached with all students in mind.