While fears of a large Israeli invasion of Gaza mount and representatives of Hamas threaten not to “back down,” there is much frustration and weariness with the lack of any positive developments coming out of Washington. Despite President Obama’s inaction, there is growing awareness that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the intense blockade of Gaza are serious impediments to peace and that US military and political support make this all possible. At the same time we have a cautious president, not willing to expend his newly earned capital on this morass, a fractious Congress, and an increasingly belligerent Benjamin Netanyahu, threatening to extract a “heavy price” if Palestinians renew their bid for observer status at the UN, as he also seeks reelection.
One positive development in this evolving catastrophe is the growing citizen activism that is turning to grassroots organizing, merging socially responsible investing, food justice, and peace activism to create another voice that offers a way forward. Universities, businesses, investors, and citizens are increasingly interested in their social responsibilities, from investments to grocery shopping. Consumers are beginning to understand that supporting a corporation that not only makes cell phones but also high level security apparatus, makes the consumer complicit in the use of that equipment and its consequences.
Internationally, boycotts in Europe have caused several important industries to move out of the West Bank settlements, pension funds have divested from military companies, universities have severed ties with Israeli universities that work on military research and development. Agrexco, Israel’s largest fresh produce exporter is facing bankruptcy because the company markets 60-70 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Nationally, Quakers, United Methodists, and Presbyterians have debated and moved toward ethical investing, divesting from companies that directly profit from the Israeli occupation. Universities are increasingly debating these issues, with student groups taking the lead. These efforts are supported by a number of trade unions as well as outspoken members of the African American community, like Angela Davis, who are drawing parallels between a segregated and discriminatory Israeli society and US civil rights struggles. Spearheaded by Jewish Voice for Peace, there is also a national campaign to pressure TIAA CREF, one of the largest ﬁnancial services in the United States, to divest from a similar list of companies.
Mirroring a campaign in Philadelphia, a coalition of Boston area groups focused their efforts on the Harvest Co-op, a food co-op that prides itself in its social responsibility. The group collected signatures for a referendum to deshelve Sabra Dipping Humus. Sabra operates under an Israeli company, the Strauss Group, which proudly supports a brigade in the Israeli Defense Force, the Golani Brigade, known for particularly egregious treatment against Palestinians. Members of the coalition stood outside the Co-op for over a year and talked to thousands of shoppers, the vast majority grateful for information regarding Sabra and its ties to human rights abuses. Many Co-op shoppers pledged to stop buying Sabra, to tell their friends, and to learn more about the US and corporate ties to Israeli violence. While the call for a referendum was recently rejected after a less than open process, the Co-op also announced that it will no longer stock Sabra Humus because of lack of consumer demand; shoppers voted with their pocket books.
All these actions are responding to a call from over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations for a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions until the Israeli government abides by international laws. The efforts serve to educate the public about realities on the ground, to create economic and political pressure, and ultimately to reach a tipping point in public discourse and political behavior.
The campaign offers a welcome, nonviolent, creative grassroots challenge to the status quo. It is based on a long tradition, a form of resistance that has been used by people of conscience going back to the antislavery movement. After all the dialogue groups and peace songs, the calls to congress-people, letters to the editor, agonized conversations in temples, standouts in front of AIPAC, what progress has been made?
Ultimately, respecting human rights and honestly addressing long simmering conflicts that threaten to explode within Israel and the territories, rather than defending Israeli exceptionalism, can only enhance the security of all Israelis and Diaspora Jews, as well as improve life for Palestinians. I just spent two weeks in the region with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, a US civil rights organization rooted in the work of Martin Luther King. We met with Palestinians and their Israeli allies engaged in nonviolent resistance, working to protect village lands from the encroaching Jewish settlements and the separation wall; working to change Israeli policy one bulldozer, one olive tree, one chick pea at a time.
Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician, author and filmmaker. Her book, “Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience,’’ was published in 2010.