Transnational Feminist Solidarity in Times of Crisis
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement and Justice in/for Palestine
International Feminist Journal of Politics, 2015, vol 17(4)
Simona Sharoni and Rabab Abdulhadi in conversation with Nadje Al-Ali, Felicia Eaves, Ronit Lentin, Dina Siddiqi
Transnational feminist politics has long been fraught with challenges and contradictions, especially around the reluctance of feminist activists in the Global North to fully engage with, or account for, the power differentials that structure their own relations with feminist activists in the Global South. These dynamics are particularly noticeable when it comes to crisis situations, which require intervention from the outside. In such circumstances, feminists in the Global North have assumed the role of “saving” their sisters in the Global South (Abu-Lughod 2013). For years, feminists in the Global North have failed to understand why Palestinian women insist on linking their struggles for gender equality to national liberation. As a result, Palestinian women have been at the receiving end of well-intentioned but misguided initiatives, which have disregarded their agency, needs and resilience, and have focused on a narrow understanding of “women’s issues” and critiques of patriarchy and nationalism (Abu Nahleh 2006, 103; Abdulhadi 2009, 13).
Missing from the feminist response to the crisis in Palestine has been recognition of its root causes, namely Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, its violation of Palestinian rights and its apartheid-like policies toward the Palestinian people. The political and humanitarian crisis in Palestine has only intensiﬁed, making it a permanent issue on the agenda of international women’s gatherings since the early 1970s. Over the past four decades, feminists in the Global North have persistently tried to address such issues as the plight of Palestinian women political prisoners, or the rise in Palestinian infant and maternal mortality as a result of delays at Israeli military checkpoints (Abdulhadi 2009 , 20). These responses, however, had limited success due to pressure from the Israeli government and its US supporters. Feminists in the Global North have yet to take the basic step of holding Israel accountable for perpetrating the violence and injustices that have triggered and continue to feed the mounting crisis.
That said, there are promising signs of an emerging transnational feminist solidarity in response to the political and humanitarian crisis in Palestine. Foremost among these actions is the emergence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which can be said to have created a new momentum for a coherent feminist response to the crisis in Palestine. The call for BDS was ofﬁcially issued in July 2005 by over 175 Palestinian civil society organizations, including many women’s groups. Inspired by the achievements of the South African anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s, the global BDS movement has grown steadily as an expression of solidarity with Palestine among trade unions, religious groups, academic associations and student unions. This year, 2015, marks the tenth anniversary of the BDS call and coincides with a deepening humanitarian crisis for Palestinians, particularly in the wake of the ﬁfty-one-day Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014 (OCHA 2014). Although prominent feminists like Angela Davis and Judith Butler have used their platforms as public intellectuals to endorse BDS, this Conversation outlines an explicitly feminist perspective on BDS.
In November 2014, at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, several members of the association crafted a petition presenting a rationale for feminist support of the BDS movement. The group was moved to action in the aftermath of the siege on Gaza a few months earlier and sought to stress the connections between systemic forms of oppression and the transformative potential of collective resistance and solidarity. Their petition invoked the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but also the persistent everyday violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and inside Israel. Even though the leadership of NWSA did not pass an ofﬁcial resolution in support of BDS in November 2014, the case for a feminist endorsement of BDS as both a response to the grave humanitarian crisis in Palestine and as an act of transnational solidarity resonated with the organization’s membership. Over 1,000 NWSA members signed the petition.
The following discussion draws upon responses from feminist scholar-activists working in Ireland, England, Bangladesh and the United States to demonstrate the potential of BDS as a transnational feminist response to crisis. Put together, the responses highlight the gendered dimensions of the struggle for survival in Palestine, as well as the urgency with which feminists must react.
The Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS) dedicated its February 2015 e-bulletin to the BDS movement. The issue included multiple positions on BDS while remaining critical of the settler and occupation policies of the Israeli state. One of the articles featured in the e-bulletin is by two Israeli-Jewish feminists, Sarai Aharoni and Amalia Saar, who point out that an academic boycott would be “devastating” for certain Israeli academics who may well be some of the strongest critics of policies of occupation (2015, 9). They argue that such a boycott would be a “double-edged sword” that serves to encourage “self-moralizing that silences voices of dissent inside Israel” (Aharoni and Saar 2015, 9), ultimately undermining collaborations with feminist scholars and peace activists in Israel. However, the contributors to this Conversation are in agreement with Nicola Pratt, the author of another article in the same e-bulletin, who argues that BDS targets academic institutions that have been complicit with Israel’s repression of Palestinians, not individual scholars who have supported Palestinians’ struggle for self-determination. Indeed, “far from isolating those individuals, BDS is in solidarity with them” (Pratt 2015, 13).
Our discussions about a transnational, anti-imperialist, intersectional, feminist response to crisis are relevant to this debate. We endorse all aspects of BDS, including the academic and cultural boycott, because Israel’s cultural institutions and higher education system are deeply implicated in the state’s violence. For instance, Tel Aviv University was partially built on the lands of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis (Zochrot 2003). More recently, the same institution granted presidential scholarships to 850 Israeli soldiers who had participated in the 2014 attack on Gaza (IMEMC 2015). Those who view feminism as a theoretical framework and a movement grounded in an analysis of and resistance to multiple forms of oppression should have no problem endorsing BDS, especially in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the July 2014 assault on Gaza by Israeli forces. Supporting BDS is an opportunity to address the root causes of Palestinians’ oppression as we center our intersectional analysis on the links between interlocking systems of domination, and foreground the transnational movements that are determined to dismantle them. By historicizing and contextualizing BDS as a strategy of transnational feminist solidarity we seek not only to legitimize the movement to which we belong but also to highlight the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead.
The inclusion of our conversation in this special issue on gender and crisis allows us to make explicit the fact that the situation in Palestine meets all the criteria of an acute crisis — in its humanitarian dimension and in its persistence since 1948. The response of the international community to the Palestinian call for BDS represents a radical departure from earlier approaches to crisis intervention. As the BDS movement gathers momentum and draws on the historic achievements of its South African counterpart, governments and international organizations, like the European Union and the United Nations, will no longer be able to ignore Israel’s Apartheid. As a long-overdue response to a persistent crisis, the global BDS movement has mobilized support for Palestinian resilience and resistance. Feminist interpretations of BDS have a transformative potential. Far from a mere exercise in intellectual luxury, this transnational feminist conversation is a call to action, inviting feminists to consider BDS as an urgent act of solidarity, designed to advance a just and lasting solution to the ongoing crisis in Palestine. By insisting on intervening on the side of justice in the face of mounting evidence of Israel’s violent onslaughts, feminists who endorse BDS can send a message to Palestinians that we refuse to be complicit in perpetuating their oppression, reassuring them that the whole world is watching and they are not alone in their struggle for freedom and justice in/for Palestine.