Back in April, the big international BDS news story was the reversal of an anti-Israel boycott (voted in by the city government months earlier) in Marrickville, Australia. This was the first major municipal BDS fight since Somerville, MA in 2004 and since the BDSers seem to be showing some interest in focusing on more cities and towns over the coming year, the story of Marrickville seems worthy of a detailed (i.e., longish) case study, similar to one that appear on schools, churches and other institutions in the Divest This Guide.
Fortunately, participants in this particular BDS fight (who travel under the moniker “The Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance, Inc., – iwJAFA?“) extensively documented their story, so much of what follows is drawn directly from their account.
First off, in a pattern that has become wearily familiar when looking at BDS “victories,” the vote to boycott Israel was taken by city leaders with little to no awareness (much less input) from the public. As described by local activists:
“The motion was carried late at night, by a Greens/Labor majority just before the Christmas break. Not long before, a similarly worded motion had been voted in as NSW State Greens Party policy unlike the National Greens policy which did not support BDS.”
For those of you unfamiliar with Australia domestic politics, Australia has an active Green Party which pulls left of the moderate-left Labor Party. And these two parties sometimes compete and sometimes form coalitions in their battles against Australia’s more conservative Liberals. In the case of Marrickville, the Greens and Labor hold 9 seats between them on the 12-member Council. Despite the fact that BDS was not supported nationally by the Green Party, nor at national or state level by Labor, all nine representatives of the two parties, plus one independent, enacted the Marrickville boycott before anyone knew the issue was on the municipal agenda.
As usual in BDS politics, citizens awaking to discover that their town had joined the “Israel=Apartheid” propaganda bandwagon (many reading about it first in the international press) reacted by organizing themselves. As they describe:
“Local Jewish residents (less than 1% of the municipality) and other concerned people formed an association to work together to overturn the decision. The group was diverse in ethnic background, age, political views and religious connections but their particular common perspective was that BDS was an attack on equal participation in the multicultural community. The Council was in effect taking sides in a foreign conflict and as a result eroding community harmony. The local group had numerous respectful and serious meetings with the Mayor and individual councilors, seeking common ground and a way forward. The group also took every opportunity at formal council meetings to express their position for an alternative approach – that rather than the boycott, Council could make a positive contribution to assist the growth of a future Palestinian state by supporting joint Israeli/Palestinian people to people cross border projects.”
“The group developed a strong network of supporters and was able to draw on various skills and qualities of its members to help in a myriad of ways. For example, they set up a website, Facebook site, organized community meetings, wrote emails, newspaper articles, blogs, had market stalls, met with politicians and so on.”
The group organized some important (and creative) activities focused on demonstrating that the boycott was not supported by the Marrickville community at large:
“In the midst of the election coverage, the local group and broader Sydney Jewish community were able to gain good media coverage for their objections to BDS. A couple of important local actions included a locals-only petition to raise awareness and gather support and a professional survey which showed that a strong majority of Marrickville residents opposed the boycott, and disapproved of their council taking sides in a foreign conflict.”
Just as importantly, coalition members made an effort to keep their campaign targeted on BDS and its impact on the community, rather than let themselves be dragged into a debate on the Middle East (stressing that it was the dragging of this conflict into the community by BDS activists that created a needless local controversy in the first place).
External political and economic factors played a major role in changing the political dynamic vis-à-vis BDS, alongside local community activism.
On the political front, the Mayor of Marrickville (who had spearheaded the BDS vote) was expected to win an upcoming election and be voted in as the first Green Party member of the lower house of the New South Wales Parliament (the equivalent of a state-house representative). Sensing local discontent, the Mayor’s Labor and Liberal rivals made the Mayor’s support of BDS a major issue of the campaign, an effort supported by the national parties and the media that loudly condemned the boycott and all of the local mayhem it was causing. When the Mayor lost the election, this demonstrated to other leaders (including Green Party leaders) the electoral toxicity of an embrace of BDS.
The final straw came when a report was generated demonstrating that actually implementing the boycott (rather than just striking a pose), would cost the city millions. With the public, as well as political and economic reality, demanding the issue be re-opened, the Marrickville Council held a meeting to reconsider the vote. As usually happens in these tales reach their conclusion, the public forum gave BDS advocates and proponents a chance to vent:
“An overflowing council chamber, packed with media and supporters of both sides, was the site of a 3-hour meeting which considered the report and revisited the boycott decision. This strongly polarised gathering finally saw the end of the Marrickville boycott of Israel after four months of unprecedented attention.”
And so, as with so many other stories involving leaders trying to sneak in a BDS measure behind the backs of the public, the inevitable headline ending this story was (I never tire of typing this): “BDS Loses Again.”
The activists who won this victory learned a great deal during the course of the conflict, which is why I wanted to print their “lessons learned” points in their entirety (Australian spelling and all):
* Watch out for BDS policy in a political party. Expect to see attempts to implement it by party members in government.
* Many levels of involvement will be needed to bring about the reversal of a boycott motion once it is adopted. Put together a local grassroots organisation to coordinate efforts if one does not already exist.
* Agree on common goals from the beginning, and revisit them as necessary.
* Keep up the open communication among activists and supporters–in person, at community meetings, in a private facebook group, phone hook-ups, via email and in every way possible. Build and enjoy positive relationships among yourselves.
* Locals, especially those with similar political sympathies to the councilors, are the best people to work one-to-one. They will often know their local councillors personally. Work through local networks. Talk to members of the council and other community people influential to the result.
* Rather than engaging in the endless blame game of Middle East politics, focus your argument against BDS on the local impact on yourself and your family, and the responsibility that your local council has to you and its other citizens. What are the relevant policies on multiculturalism, anti-discrimination etc.?
* Council members who vote for BDS are likely to do so because of a genuine concern for human rights. Respect and honour this motivation. Research and advocate for alternative, positive, ways that the Council can help to bring about peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.
* Make intelligent use of all the media, political and other resources at hand, eg petitions, surveys, open letters in the press, press releases, talk-back radio, opinion articles, letters to the editor, blogs, lobbying of politicians at various levels, etc.
* Keep in mind the points of view of the various audiences, especially the decision-makers. Resist the polarised positions that BDS creates; instead, emphasise common goals.
* Commit to a policy of avoiding negative point scoring. Stay serious, dignified and respectful of all people involved, including your harsh critics and opponents. Don’t be shrill or rude at public meetings or in private communications.
* The issue doesn’t go away when the decision is overturned. The BDS solidarity groups will paint the experience as a victory for themselves. In the aftermath, you will need to continue careful attention to how you deal with the various groups, individuals and issues. Perhaps this will mean becoming a community that is more actively involved than before in working toward a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Remember, hard as it seems, you and the BDS proponents probably have some common ground – for example wanting an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict!
The only item I would add to their list is that the best victory is one you don’t have to fight to win. So now that municipal divestment is allegedly back on the BDS agenda, it’s much easier to try to prevent a vote like the one which took place in Marrickville from happening in the first place (by keeping track of what’s going on in local politics), rather than having to put more far energy into getting such a vote reversed once the cow has left the barn.
The dedicated, creative and energetic activists in Marrickville took one for us down under. Now it’s our mission to take what they learned to ensure that no community has to suffer through the same torture inflicted on Marrickville for no reason other than to give the BDSers something to boast about.