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Boycott as a Tool for Change

The concept of boycotting generally refers to the withdrawal from commercial or social relations with a country, organisation or purpose, generally for political or activism purposes.[1]

The term was coined in the 1880s, when a British estate manager by the name of Charles Boycott refused to lower the rents of tenant farmers on his land. The farmers were unable to meet his demands due to a particularly bad crop that year but instead of allowing themselves to be evicted, they banded together and completely ostracised Captain Boycott[2]. The term “boycott” was thus invented and came to describe any type of organised avoidance of something or someone.

One of the most prominent instances of international boycott took place during the period of apartheid South Africa. Under growing international concern for the apartheid regime, worldwide boycotts of South Africa began across a range of disciplines. From academia to sport, arms to trade embargos, the international community came together to show their disapproval of the apartheid regime.

Sport in particular had a significant impact on the nation. Worldwide recognition of South Africa’s racist policy took place during 1968-9. Prime Minister John Vorster, a staunch supporter of apartheid famously refused to allow the English cricket team to play in South Africa because of the presence of Basil D’Oliveira – a coloured South African emigrant who played for the national team. This was a turning point in the story of sport during apartheid which resulted in sporting isolation of South Africa for over 20 years, a ban only lifted after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1991. [3]

The sporting ban had a significant impact on the nation, with the Minister of Sport Piet Koornhorf saying,

 “Play and sport are strong enough to cause political and economic relations to flourish or collapse”.[4]

The South African apartheid regime was eventually dismantled after decades of suffering by those subjected to its oppressiveness. A combination of international pressure and internal resistance worked together with various other factors to bring about some degree of equality for all races. The case of apartheid South Africa is often used to show that international unity and pressure can contribute to regimental change.

Throughout the course of the Israel/Palestine conflict, boycott has been employed many times. An early instance of an organised boycott of Israel took place in March 1988, by the group known as “The 21st Year” (also Year 21 and The 21th Year) led by Hannan Hever of the Hebrew University.[5] The 21st Year printed their Covenant for the Struggle Against the Occupation in both Hebrew and English.[6] A few of their principles stated:

  • We shall not stand by while Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are subject to coercion, humiliation and beatings through measures such as collective punishment, banishment, arrest without a trial, torture and daily harassment;
  • We shall not buy goods produced in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, and shall avoid any economic ties with the settlers;
  • Refusal is the only morally and politically sound form of participation in Israeli society during the Occupation.

Since the time of this early incidence of organised boycott, many more calls for the boycott of Israeli goods, services and personnel have taken place over the years.

One of the most well-known boycott systems internationally is the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement which was established in 2005. The three-pronged approach of the movement aims to allow “people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice.”[7] The main goals of the BDS Movement are as follows:

Israel ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;

  • Recognising the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Since its inception in 2005, the BDS Movement has seen a number of successes in its objectives. A detailed timeline highlighting their many achievements in regards to BDS of Israel can be viewed here:


As the movement gains recognition and strength worldwide, it has also garnered the support of a number of Israelis, thus threatening to “undermine Israel’s position in the civilised world.”[8]

And the boycott is undoubtedly having an effect. A few months ago, MEMO (Middle East Monitor) reported Mustafa Barghouti (secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative movement) as saying, “Israel has incurred losses of around eight million dollars (±20% of their GDP) due to the boycott campaign against illegal settlements.”[9] The news came after the agreement between 13 Arab parties to form boycott committees in the Arab world in March this year.

Official government statistics have not yet reflected the economic effects of the boycott however experts and analysts are confident that the boycott of Israeli products has made an impact. Israel’s Channel 10 broadcast a TV report saying,

 “Sales of Israeli products in the West Bank decreased by 50% due to the boycott accompanying the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip.”[10]

Beyond Israeli products, international boycotts of Israeli services are also beginning to have an impact on the country. Earlier this year, Denmark’s largest bank Danske blacklisted Israeli bank Hapoalim because it finances illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.[11]

Shortly before that, the largest pension fund management company in Netherlands – PGGM – divested all investments from the five biggest banks in Israel. The company cited a 2004 advisory from the International Court of Justice which said “settlements in occupied Palestinian territories were illegal and violated the Geneva Convention.”[12]

The effect of the Israeli boycott is evident in other fields as well. As recently as July, five Latin American countries (Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and El Salvador) had withdrawn their ambassadors from Tel Aviv in protest of the onslaught against Gaza.[13] In the field of academia and science, Professor Stephen Hawking took a stand against Israel when he refused to attend a conference hosted by then Israeli President Shimon Peres.[14] The backing of such a highly respected scientist brought significant weight to the cause. On a smaller scale, various educational groups have called for academic boycotts of Israel such as the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, the first association of lecturers in Europe to do so.[15]

While the increasing European boycotts across various disciplines do not seem to have affected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Finance Minister Yair Lapid has expressed his concerns about the situation. Earlier this year, Lapid stated that the increasing campaigns against Israel “will have devastating effects on the economy”.[16]Back

The concept of international boycott in general is widely considered an effective approach to countering a regime, however there exist some arguments against its employment.

Journalist Jack Wallis Simons of The Telegraph calls a boycott of Israel on its own “a deeply partisan approach to the conflict, and a ridiculously naïve and even hypocritical one.”[17] His argument is that pro-Palestinian activists are one-sided in their approach, and turn a blind eye to what he considers the equally offensive attacks of Israel by Palestine. In a nutshell, Simons writes that activists have fallen into the trap of ignoring the faults and incursions of their own nations (e.g. the British bombing of civilian areas during WWII and the torture of enemy prisoners by the British Army in 1940-1948) and are instead channelling their energy into Israel when Palestine he says, should be equally boycotted based on activists’ logic of Israel.

Another argument against boycott of Israel is the suggestion that the motives for the boycott are anti-Semitic as opposed to political and moral. For those suggesting anti-Semitism as the true incentive for boycott, the number of Jews and Israelis taking part in a boycott of Israel is a strong enough counter-argument. Steven and Hilary Rose, two scientists who pioneered an academic boycott of Israel in 2002 said,

 “If the supporters of the Israeli government cannot distinguish between being opposed to Israeli state policy and being anti-Semitic, it is scarcely surprising that real anti-Semites conflate the two.”[18]

American philosopher and intellectual, Noam Chomsky is cautions of a boycott of Israel. In an article written for The Nation[19], Chomsky suggests that the 3rd goal of the BDS Movement, the attempt to return the Palestinian refugees of 1948 to their land, will be the downfall of the boycott.

To explain this, Chomsky firstly describes the South African apartheid regime as a “dubious analogy” to use in the Israel/Palestine conflict. He surmises that the future of Israel is heading in a direction far worse than that of apartheid. During apartheid, the black population (although ostracised and downtrodden) were still required by the white nationals as their workforce. This is not the case in Israel, where it appears that Israel simply wishes to “rid itself of the Palestinian burden”.[20]

While he believes the first two goals of the BDS Movement are both achievable and on their way to success, Chomsky cautioned activists in their approach to the final goal of the BDS Movement without himself suggesting an alternative.[21]

Instances of boycott are not only evident during this day and age, but took place throughout Islamic history. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam), social and economic sanctions were laid against the Banu Hashim. The Quraysh clan leaders together formed a document formalising their boycott of the Banu Hashim. This included a prohibition on intermarriage with the Muslims as well as a ban on all forms of trade. This boycott lasted for around three years.[22]

The Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam) himself also employed boycott as a lesson. During the Battle of Tabuk, three companions did not respond to the Prophet’s call to take part in the battle despite being able to do so. Their fate was determined after the Prophet’s return from the battle – they were socially boycotted for 50 nights by the entire townsfolk. After this period, their repentance was accepted by Allah and the boycott was lifted allowing for their acceptance by society once again.[23] This example shows how boycott was used as a lesson and test of faith.

These examples of boycott show that not only has the concept existed within Islam, it was also practiced by the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam) under Allah’s command.

People worldwide are being encouraged to boycott Israel with the intention of bringing about better conditions for the Palestinian people. Islamic teachings and principles similarly indicate that partaking in a boycott can be considered correct.

Islam’s emphasis on justice and freedom as well as its prohibition of oppression require that Muslims take some sort of active role in helping those suffering in Palestine.

While the simple act of avoiding products produced by pro-Israeli companies may seem like a trivial task, the idea of boycott is that it starts at a grassroots level. For those who consider boycott a pointless attempt at activism and instead ask what the wealthy, the influential and the leaders of nations are doing towards the cause, it should be remembered that Allah (subḥānahu wa ta’ālā) accepts the effort more than the amount. It was narrated by Abu Hurairah (raḍiy Allāhu ‘anhu) that the Messenger of Allah (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:

 “One dirham (at times) surpasses one hundred thousand dirhams.”

The Sahabah (raḍiy Allāhu ‘anhum) enquired the reason to which he (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) replied:

“One person has abundant wealth and donates a hundred thousand there from, while another man only has 2 dirhams, from which he donates 1 dirham!”[24]

If boycotting products and services is the best a person can do, then it is certainly better than nothing at all. Muslims have been instructed to take action when they see a wrong being committed. The Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is narrated to have said:

 “When any one of you sees anything that is disapproved (of by Allāh), let him change it with his hand. If he is not able to do so, then (let him change it) with his tongue. And if he is not able to do so, then (let him change it) with his heart, though that is the weakest (kind of) faith.” [25]

This hadith explains that condemning something in one’s heart when a person can do no further is the bare minimum expected of them. When a person knows something is wrong and sincerely prays for the wrongdoers to change their way/s, there is hope that Allāh (subḥānahu wa ta’ālā) will accept their prayers and bring about the change they seek.

Therefore, whether or not the BDS Movement will significantly impact Israel’s economy is not the important issue according to economic analyst Naser Abdul Kareem. Instead he says,

 “The campaigns to boycott Israeli products go beyond the economic repercussions because this is a patriotic and moral duty that contributes, even if only partially, in eliminating the economic dependence on Israel.”[26]

Based on the evidences discussed above, it can be seen that boycott has successfully been a tool used to bring about change for many years throughout history. Most recently, boycotts of Israel across all sectors have been called for worldwide as a protest against their occupation and ill-treatment of the Palestinian people. While boycott can be considered a grassroots level initiative, it has garnered significant support over the years and is coming to impact Israel in various manners. At the very least, boycott allows Muslims all over the world to easily participate in taking a stand against Israel’s illegal occupation.

Based on the motives and reasoning behind boycotting Israel, it can be said that Islamic principles are not only consistent with them, but can also be considered supportive of the idea of boycott. The morals and manners of Islam require its adherents to help the oppressed, condemn the oppressors and help bring about justice. While it is not the only manner in which to do this, boycott can certainly be considered an effective method of fighting for the cause of not just Palestinians, but any of those oppressed by a stronger power.

Source : www.islam21c.com


[1] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/boycott

[2] http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/boycott.aspx

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2011/nov/19/basil-doliveira-cricket-tribute

[4] Booth, D. (2003). Hitting Apartheid for Six? The Politics of the South African Sports Boycott. Journal of Contemporary History, 38(3), 477-493.

[5] http://israel-academia-monitor.com/index.php?type=large_advic&advice_id=8494&page_data%5Bid%5D=178&cookie_lang=en

[6] http://israeli-left-archive.org/greenstone/collect/the21sty/index/assoc/HASH56e2.dir/doc.pdf

[7] http://www.bdsmovement.net/bdsintro

[8] http://boycottisrael.info/content/milestones-history-israeli-bds-movement-brief-chronology#_ftn1

[9] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/10590-israel-loses-eight-billion-dollars-and-arab-parties-join-the-boycott

[10] http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/08/22/sales-of-israeli-goods-in-west-bank-down-50-due-to-boycott

[11] http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/1.571849

[12] http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/israel-boycott-pressure-mounts-denmarks-danske-bank-blacklists-israel-hapoalim-1434898

[13] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/americas/13123-five-latin-american-countries-withdraw-envoys-from-israel

[14] http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/may/13/stephen-hawking-boycott-israel-science

[15] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/08/stephen-hawking-israel-academic-boycott

[16] http://worldobserveronline.com/2014/07/17/israeli-finance-minister-expresses-boycott-fears/

[17] http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jakewallissimons/100270057/why-it-is-hypocritical-to-boycott-israel/

[18] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Commentary/2007/Jul-09/113988-boycotting-israel-the-pros-and-cons.ashx#axzz3DIz1QYh9

[19] http://www.thenation.com/article/180492/israel-palestine-and-bds?page=0,0

[20] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/02/bds-boycott-campaign-israel-noam-chomsky

[21] http://www.thenation.com/article/180492/israel-palestine-and-bds?page=0,0

[22] http://www.al-islam.org/restatement-history-islam-and-muslims-sayyid-ali-ashgar-razwy/economic-and-social-boycott-banu

[23] Sahih Bukhari: Volume 5, Book 59, Number 702

[24] An-Nasai 2527

[25] Sahih Muslim

[26] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/08/west-bank-economic-boycott-israeli-products.html


About Maryam Asif


  1. Correction to my statement that the Jews were expelled from Israel by the Romans. It was long before the Romans occupied the middle East, but he point is still valid.

  2. Economic boycotts can have the result of making countries moderate their policies, and I don’t buy Israeli products if possible. However I know this is hypocritical as I don’t boycott goods from other countries such as China, Iran, Turkey, etc. who conduct terrorist or totalitarian campaigns against sections of there own communities.

    The biggest group of countries in the world today who have an almost complete lack of democracy are the Muslim states, mostly theocratic, military or civilian dictatorships. Even the “most democratic” use religious, sexual or racist methods to suppress sections of their society.

    Boycotts will never change Israel’s policies because the surrounding countries want its extermination, rather than being sincere in wanting a two-state solution, the only possible one.
    Any shortfall in Israel’s defence budget is made up by billions of US dollars.

    I think the Israelis have a strong moral case for their occupation, due to the fact that they were expelled by the Romans, and have finally come home. Remember that Jerusalem was an Israeli city before Islam was even invented

  3. For a boycott to have an effect on a country you should hit it where it hurts otherwise it becomes only symbolic. In the case of South Africa the sports boycott really hurt the country’s pride and isolated it. In the case of Israel an economic and academic boycott will be effective, but with Big Brother USA looking after them it could take a long time for the effect to be felt.
    Maryam has written a well researched article on this subject

  4. Excellent article, After reading this I feel more strongly about the boycott of Israel and has given me the necessary motivation to provide more support for it.I like the etymology and how you showed this same tool being used in the time of the Prophet SAW. The diversity of the concept of boycott was also nicely explained – social, academic and economic boycott.

  5. Well written I agree boycotting is an effective tool against oppression and injustice.

  6. The BDS movement changed their mission statement very quietly, it now only talks about returning the refugees from 67 thereby selling out the refugees from 48 onwards. Secondly, the culture of academic boycott is a Jewish concept, we as Muslims have suffered attacks on our leading speakers for years and had many events closed down purely because there are those who wish to silence the voices of our Orthodox scholars. We have Theresa May preventing certain scholars from entering the UK is this something with foundation in Islam? Is it not better to be able to debate and refute ideas that go against our beliefs? Whilst I personally do not buy products that I know to be benefitting Israeli business, I do not support the BDS movement because I believe it is dishonest in its changing of the mission statement, I also do not support the notion of boycotting academics.

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