One important aspect of understanding the role that social movements have played throughout history, is what we can learn from them that might impact how we organize for justice today.
One of the more dynamic global justice movements today is the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). In its tenth year, the BDS movement is not only engaging thousands of people around the world to take an active role in challenging the Israeli system of apartheid, it is beginning to threaten the hegemonic power that Israel holds in the Middle East.
Within the past few months there have been new artists and musicians that have pledged to never perform in Israel. The giant French multinational corporation Veolia has pulled out all of its operations from Israel and even Israeli weapons sales have decreased significantly due to the pressure from the global BDS movement.
Part of the strength of the Palestinian BDS movement is that it is modeled after the South African Anti-Apartheid movement. In fact, some of the strongest voices in support of the Palestinian call for justice, have been South African voices. Black South African voices have been making it clear that there are strong similarities between the White South African discrimination of Blacks and the Israeli discrimination of Palestinians.
Groups like the End the Occupation Campaign make the connections between South African and Israeli Apartheid quite clear in educational resources they have created. In addition, there have been numerous recent books that also look at the parallels of these two global movements for justice. A recent example is an anthology of essays from the book, Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy, which was released last month by Haymarket Books.
These connections are also being made here in Grand Rapids. Right about the time that we were doing research on the 1980s South African Anti-Apartheid movement, a local group (Healing Children of Conflict) decided to join the international BDS campaign. Their decision was based in part on the fact that the 1980s Anti-Apartheid campaign was successful in Grand Rapids, as we have noted.
Considering that the decision by Healing Children of Conflict to take on a local BDS campaign was influenced by the success of the Anti-Apartheid campaign of the 1980s in Grand Rapids, we asked several of those involved in the current campaign to respond to the question, How much does the Grand Rapids Anti-Apartheid movement that got the city to divest in the 80s impact the current HCC campaign?
Grand Rapids activist Diane Baum responded by saying, “According to those who personally witnessed the struggle of native blacks against the repressive governmental policies of South Africa in the last century, Israeli oppression of Palestinians is worse than apartheid. In the 1980’s, the City of Grand Rapids acted to help relieve this suffering in South Africa and restore those people’s civil rights; how much more should we now urge our city to act to relieve the suffering of the Palestinians!”
David Alvarez, who is part of the Healing Children of Conflict BDS committee stated, ”HCC’s campaign to get the City of Grand Rapids to divest from corporations that are profiteering from the ongoing colonization of Palestinian lands, as well as from the regime of military rule and segregation that deprives Palestinians of all civil and political rights, is based largely on the1982 campaign to get the City of Grand Rapids to divest from companies that were profiteering from apartheid and military repression in South Africa. Against considerable odds, and before the global campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against South Africa became mainstream, the 1982 anti-apartheid campaign achieved its goal. Inspired by that victory for justice, HCC has responded to the call for solidarity that Palestinian civil society sent out to the world in 2005 asking people of good will to assist Palestinians in their efforts to put pressure on Israel to end its regime of occupation, segregation, and colonialism. As an organization that promotes the welfare of children in the Middle East, we want to do our part to help end a regime that since the year 2000 has killed over 2,000 Palestinian children, injured and traumatized thousands more, and deprived them all of the hope that they might ever lead a normal childhood. Such a regime has no place in the 21st century and by taking a principled stand for universal human rights as it did in 1982, the City of Grand Rapids can play an important role in consigning apartheid and colonialism in the Holy Land to the trashcan of history. Along with our many allies, we at HCC will do our outmost to follow in the footsteps of our predecessors.”
Lastly, we asked Rev. Doug Van Doren, pastor at Plymouth UCC about the connections between the Anti-Apartheid movement and the current Healing Children of Conflict BDS campaign.
The Grand Rapids Anti-Apartheid movement can impact the current HCC campaign greatly in several ways. 1. It too began among a small group of people that joined an international movement and built a local coalition. 2.The injustice they sought to overcome was unmistakable and had been condemned by the U. N. and many nations and world organizations. 2. The action requested of the city – to divest, at that point had been done by very few U. S. cities. This was early in the campaign. 3. There were a lot of close connections in Grand Rapids with white South African entities, and opposition to BDS as a strategy. The U. S. government was at the point of the Grand Rapids action, still in support of the South African Government and opposed to sanctions.The fact that the Grand Rapids City Commission was willing to take the stand it did should be encouragement to the current city commission and the HCC coalition’s campaign.