Is a Boycott of Israel Feminist?

It’s like asking whether research tools are feminist. The question, of course, is what you do with them.

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
A Pro-Palestinian protester holds a BDS placard during a gathering on the sidelines of "Tel Aviv Sur Seine", on August 13, 2015.
A Pro-Palestinian protester holds a BDS placard during a gathering on the sidelines of "Tel Aviv Sur Seine", on August 13, 2015.Credit: AFP
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

Last December the National Women’s Studies Association in the United States declared its support for a boycott of Israel and called for feminist solidarity with the Palestinians. “As feminist activists, scholars, teachers and intellectuals who recognize the interconnectedness of systemic forms of oppression, we cannot overlook the injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians,” the group wrote. “This resolution is an act of transnational solidarity aimed at social transformation for a better world.”

The process that led the organization to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement was accelerated after the 2014 Gaza war, in which hundreds of women and children were killed. The recent issue of the International Feminist Journal of Politics discussed the question of the feminism of the boycott.

These events raise the question: Is BDS a feminist issue? Not only figures like Roger Waters and Stephen Hawking but also feminists like Angela Davis and Judith Butler support BDS, which recently marked its 10th birthday. In Israel, one of the first organizations to express support for BDS was the Coalition of Women for Peace. In recent days the Haifa group Woman to Woman held a discussion on whether there is a feminist aspect to the boycott.

In Israel the boycott’s supporters are very few, and the great majority are women. Abroad, too, the boycott movement is led largely by women. In 2011 the Knesset passed a law imposing sanctions on anyone who calls for a boycott of Israel; in April last year the High Court of Justice deemed it kosher. The justices acknowledged that the law infringes on freedom of expression, but proportionally.

This is probably one reason the women interviewed for this article asked to speak anonymously. I admit – I was surprised. Fear because your name might be mentioned in connection with the boycott arouses a sense that we’re not living in a free country. One woman said it wasn’t only because of the law but because of the fear right-wing groups have been spreading for a year and a half.

In any case, the activists note that contrary to popular belief, the boycott is not an organization and it’s not an ideology. It’s a set of tools, so the question of whether the movement is feminist is strange. It’s like asking whether research tools are feminist. The question, of course, is what you do with them.

The occupation’s gender aspect

So it’s no surprise if someone asks what’s the link to feminism. Feminism is the advancement of women and the fighting of discrimination against them, isn’t it?

Well, not only that. Feminist thought and action in recent decades entail an understanding of power relations and the place of the individual within them. This is the lesson feminist activism teaches; it’s a life lesson that concerns not only gender relations or race relations within gender.

From this stems the solidarity of some feminists, among them Israeli Jewish women, with people who suffer oppression – Palestinian men and women, for example. For some women, the sense of solidarity is even stronger when the oppressor is the society they belong to.

The occupation, of course, has a gender aspect; there is no need for scholarly analyses to understand this. It’s enough to mention the women about to give birth who are delayed at roadblocks, and women who have to conduct their lives alongside Israeli soldiers who invade their homes.

There have been other notable examples. There’s the statement by Bar-Ilan University’s Mordechai Kedar: “The only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the [three teens in the West Bank in 2014] and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.”

There’s that online comment before the Gaza war: “Bibi, this time finish inside,” accompanied by a picture of a woman wearing a hijab and naked below the waist.

There’s Hadeel al-Hashlamun, the young woman Israeli soldiers shot dead at a Hebron checkpoint. Her half-naked body was shown on social media accompanied by racist and sexist profanity.

As one activist says, the occupation is a kind of violence, and woman are more vulnerable in situations of violence.

Of course, it’s not that Palestinian men aren’t experiencing violence too. And Israeli men and women, she adds, are also negatively affected by the situation. The control of the occupied territories in recent decades has accelerated the militarization of society, which affects both Israelis and Palestinians in many different ways and has clear gender aspects.

In Palestinian society there is a striking difference between women’s role in the first intifada compared to the second. In the first uprising certain aspects empowered women in Palestinian society – they had a place on the front line and this opened a public space to them. But in the second intifada the effect was the other way around. When the struggle was conducted by militarist groups using guns, the women went home.

The misogyny will be televised

In Israeli society, too, the militarization is palpable, be it in sexual violence or in the increasing numbers of civilians carrying guns, amplifying male terror against women. The militarization of the debate also excludes women, as in the purely male forums on television, especially on days when the conflict flares up. The way gender relations are being reshaped in the militaristic context isn’t good for women, who are marked as needing protection and whose freedom is curtailed.

So can the boycott advance a solution to this tremendous tangle of problems that has been exacting so many lives for so many years and destroying the lives of many more?

One activist says that historically, no occupation has ever ended through a process of democratic consensus within the occupying entity. In Algeria, South Africa and Ireland, the conflicts were resolved with the help of international pressure. Thus, she says, in Israel too it is necessary to create external incentives that will convince people that the current situation isn’t working to Israelis’ benefit.

And why specifically through a boycott of businesses, academia and the like? She says that because of the power relations in the international arena, change will not come from countries, so we have to turn to civil society, to nongovernmental organizations.

These opinions are very far from those of the vast majority of Israelis; one could say they’re beyond the pale.

Still, wouldn’t the boycott also have deleterious effects on women – Israeli and Palestinian alike? Another activist admits this is so – women as well as men are likely to be affected; they’ll lose their jobs when factories close, for example. But for decades both women and men are have been harmed by the effects of the occupation, she notes.

An unavoidable question is what these activists will say to right-wing feminists, settlers or other women.

“Since in my view feminism means being aware of power relations, and not only when it comes to gender, it’s hard for me to see how a woman develops a feminist consciousness and outlook on the world and does not see that she is taking an active part in creating injustices in the political context. Nevertheless, I think there is room for feminist struggle in every framework,” one woman says.

“There’s a contradiction here: On the one hand, if you're not aware of the other power relations, something is flawed in your feminist struggle. On the other hand, I don’t believe in a purist approach. It’s possible and necessary to talk about feminism everywhere: in the settlements, in the army and in other oppressive frameworks. It’s definitely not feminist to come along and tell other women what feminism is.”

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