By Phil Monsour
2010 may yet prove to be a turning point in the Palestine solidarity movement in Australia.
Activists in a number of cities have embraced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign called for by Palestinian civil society and are beginning to organize more coordinated consumer boycott actions, stronger outreach within the labour movement and work to spread the academic and cultural boycott among cultural and academic workers.
The BDS campaign began to gain strength and spread geographically after 150 Palestine solidarity activists met in Melbourne for the first BDS conference to develop an understanding of the BDS call and initiate coordinated actions through a national campaign.
The conference participants agreed to work together to promote an activist based BDS strategy and adopted key campaigning dates for 2011 including Israeli Apartheid Week.
Although Australian trade relations with Israel are relatively small, Australian political institutions and sections of the trade union movement have strong relations with the apartheid state.
A seventeen member delegation of politicians from both major Australian parties (accompanied by a large number of journalists) have recently joined a delegation to Israel largely funded by private Australian Zionist business interests. Israel is reportedly the most visited destination by Australian politicians. The current Australian Prime minister visited Israel shortly after operation Cast Lead destroyed Gaza and has consistently espoused unconditional support for apartheid Israel. High level delegations of Australian academics and university executives, as well as defence forces officials are a common occurrence.
In light of this, activists and emerging BDS campaigners felt it was necessary to launch a creative and determined grassroots campaign to challenge Australia’s complicit relationship with the apartheid state of Israel until it complies with international law, as per the demands of the BDS call signed by 170 Palestinian civil society organizations.
There have been a few important gains for the BDS campaign within the Australian labour movement, with over 21 trade union organisations and councils adopting BDS motions in the past nine months. Israel’s blatant and ongoing human rights violations, particularly the war on Lebanon followed by the war on Gaza and the ongoing siege, have created significant momentum for the BDS campaign in the trade union movement. Fact finding trips that took Australian unionists to Palestine and Palestinian refugee camps in surrounding countries have also played a crucial role in pushing the Palestine solidarity campaign forward, as the unionists on those tours come back and speak about the realities on the ground for Palestinian workers and the apartheid policies they have to survive every day.
Ordinary Australian workers are genuinely moved when presented with information about the reality of Apartheid for Palestinians and are easily convinced to support the boycott call. Union BDS motions have resulted in research being undertaken into divestment options in superannuation (pension) funds. This work is still at its beginnings and much education at the rank and file level has to take place in the next period, as well as serious discussion on the implementation of the motions passed. The Australian Council of Churches has also adopted a selective boycott motion and has so far resisted pressure to reverse this decision.
On the consumer boycott level, BDS activists are targeting a number of Dead Sea Cosmetics products that are sold in small stalls in large shopping malls across the country. The stalls are generally staffed by Israeli guest workers. On a number of occasions these stalls were shut down in a series of creative actions. This campaign also has a critical educational component, hundreds of pamphlets have been distributed to shoppers explaining the goals of the BDS movement and highlighting the apartheid practices of the Israeli government, particularly in relation to colonisation around the Dead Sea. Actions have taken place in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, and Melbourne; the videos from these actions have circulated widely on social media networks and are inspiring further creative actions across the country (you can see clips of the various actions at this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/BrisbaneBDS#p/). For December a “Don’t buy apartheid for Christmas campaign” is being coordinated nationally.
Although many challenges lie ahead, the understanding of Israel as an apartheid state and the importance of the Palestinian-led BDS strategy and respect for the unified BDS call is growing quickly in Australia. Israel’s decades long disrespect for international law, it violent wars and brutal occupation are beginning to culminate in determined ongoing international opposition. The 2009 Gaza war may yet prove to be its “south Africa moment” and Australian activists hope to play their role in the global movement and honour the courage and resistance of the Palestinian people. They may yet emulate the earlier anti-apartheid struggles against South Africa in which Australian anti racists and workers played a proud and historic role.
Phil Monsour is a musician, songwriter and union activist based in Brisbane.