Sanctions Mark II

Andrew Feinstein argues that the strategy that helped end South Africa’s apartheid must also be mobilized against Israel.

A Palestinian boy confronts an Israeli officer during a 2022 protest against Israeli settlements near the West Bank town of Qalqilya.
Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

What do you do when a racist, apartheid state operates above the law, with the covert and/or overt support of ‘the West’? This was the reality of apartheid South Africa and is the reality of apartheid Israel.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a peaceful mechanism to weaken and thus force concessions from an illegitimate, undemocratic and/or human rights abusing state or non-state group.

Western governments currently impose sanctions on Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and others, as well as groups they identify as ‘terrorists’.

The BDS strategy was very effectively utilized against apartheid South Africa by Scandinavian and Soviet-aligned countries. Meanwhile, Western governments like the UK and US tried to stop BDS, violating UN embargoes against the country. In the case of Israel, Western states not only actively oppose BDS, but also facilitate their biggest corporations’ trade with the apartheid regime.

This includes weapons-makers such as BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, tech companies, financial institutions (most notably Barclays and HSBC) and all manner of other companies. This trade not only relates to exports, including lethal equipment, but also imports from Israel – everything from killer drone technology to food products originating from illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

Resisting the indefensible

While the West publicly condemned the most egregious actions of the brutal and illegal apartheid South African state, the US, UK, Germany, France and other countries, alongside their financial, defence and oil companies, provided the regime with arms, oil and other covert support. This mask slipped when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan described Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, making clear their tacit support.

I grew up in South Africa, the son of a Viennese Holocaust survivor who lost dozens of family members in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. My mother’s horrific experiences shaped my politics from a very young age. Motivated by her work with anti-apartheid groups, I became involved in the then-outlawed African National Congress (ANC) from my late teens.

After being elected an ANC member of parliament under Mandela in our first democratic election in 1994, I introduced the first ever motion on the Holocaust in South African parliamentary history. I stated that previous suffering – by Afrikaners at the hands of the British colonizers, or of Jews by the Nazis – in no way justified the brutal oppression of Black South Africans or Palestinians.

My Judaism and my politics are informed by the campaigning of Israeli Warsaw Ghetto survivor, Irena Klepfisz, who says that whenever Israel commits atrocities against Palestinians, we must invoke our own suffering to resist these indefensible crimes.

It was this mindset that I brought to the struggle against racism and oppression in South Africa.

The ultimate demise of apartheid was due to a confluence of factors, including geopolitical developments, in particular the end of the Cold War. This followed the defeat, with Cuban and Soviet support, of the apartheid army in Angola in 1988, precipitating a realization that there was no military solution to regional hostility.

Meanwhile the liberation movement, primarily through its underground structures and the above-ground United Democratic Front, rendered the townships of the country ungovernable. The trade union movement, a key component of the liberation forces, intensified strike action across the country, hitting the economy hard just as the costs of repression spiralled, compelling giant South African conglomerates to seek a negotiated end to the racist system that served them so well.

Hitting where it hurts

Aligned with this internal strategy, the international anti-apartheid BDS campaign was an essential element of the success of South Africa’s liberation struggle.

The economic, academic, cultural and especially sporting boycott constantly reminded white South Africans, who largely supported apartheid, that there were costs and consequences to the system.

The boycotting of South African products impacted the apartheid economy, particularly its ability to generate much-needed foreign exchange. This complimented the UN sanctions regime which encompassed trade, arms and oil embargoes. These sanctions massively increased the key role of international banks in providing debt financing and foreign exchange to the pariah state, and from the mid-1960s, anti-apartheid activists pressured global banks to withdraw this support.

The campaign gathered steam in the 1980s when students in the UK and the US began to boycott the key lending institutions, Barclays and Chase Manhattan. The strength of this campaign led these companies to fear losing a generation of customers to rivals – so in 1985, the banks called in South Africa’s foreign loans, causing a fiscal crisis, with Barclays withdrawing its extensive retail presence the following year.

These moves created a serious deterioration in South Africa’s fiscal position and thus a profound decline in the quality of life of white South Africans.

Shell, the main supplier of oil to the apartheid state and its military, was boycotted in the US, Holland and the UK. Many motorists filled up at other petrol stations while local councils and trade unions terminated their contracts with the company. Despite the British authorities’ efforts to halt these boycotts – including a high court ruling that one council’s boycott was against the law – Shell’s share of the UK petrol market fell by seven per cent.

Isolating Israeli apartheid

Despite the many similarities with apartheid South Africa, Israel’s apartheid, illegal occupation and economy have key structural differences. Its economy is even more militarized than South Africa’s and more integrated into the EU and US military-industrial complex. Unlike with South Africa, Western governments are open and unapologetic in their support for Israel, reluctant to condemn even its most flagrant crimes, in contrast to the growing antipathy toward Israel’s actions amongst ordinary people in many countries.

The diplomatic cover that these governments provide buttresses their huge financial and military support. Israel’s reliance on exports, a high level of foreign military aid and the growing global awareness of its escalating human-rights violations suggest that BDS will have a significant impact. So concerned is the Israeli state that it established what local media refer to as a ‘BDS-Busting’ Ministry.

BDS is probably the only peaceful tactic that can address the horrific situation in Israel and the OPT. As with South Africa, BDS against Israel needs to be multi-focused and pervasive. It must be driven by ordinary citizens, as our political leaders have long shown they will not hold Israel accountable.

One key focus must be Israel’s military-industrial complex, which enforces apartheid and occupation: not just through weapons-makers but also tech companies at the forefront of surveillance, disinformation and repression industries. A ban on arms sales to – and purchases – from Israel is paramount. It also requires a boycott of financial institutions – including Barclays, HSBC and BlackRock – that prop up the regime, while public bodies like universities and local authorities investing in these primary targets should be pressured to divest.

Isolating Israel from sporting, cultural and academic contact will make clear to ordinary Israelis that their government’s policies have a cost. Where corrupt governments, sporting and cultural bodies fail to act, we should pressure individual artists, players and clubs to support the boycott.

We must not be deterred by our own governments’ appalling inaction in the face of Israeli atrocities that mirror the massacres of Soweto, Sharpeville and Boipatong. We must resist their introduction of legislation to outlaw boycotts of Israel and misuse of antisemitism allegations to try and silence legitimate criticism. Campaigns by conservative groups with close links to Israel to smear anti-racists such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, while ignoring apparent antisemitic tropes from the likes of Boris Johnson, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Trump allies, is intended to silence both Palestinians and those who support them.

Rather, their actions should lead us to speak out even louder, campaign even harder, recommit with even greater fervour to the most important anti-imperialist, anti-racist, human-rights struggle of our age. For, like Nelson Mandela, we too believe that ‘our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinian people’.

Andrew Feinstein was an ANC MP in South Africa, and is the author of After The Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa's uncertain future and The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.