Apr 9, 2024

The Power and Pitfalls of Modern Boycotts

"Born under a repressive regime, the boycott became an alternative means for the powerless to make their voices heard," writes Alexa Berman

Alexa BermanContributing Writer

Hamas’ attack on Israel this past October and the resulting escalating siege of Gaza catalysed a new wave of the movement calling to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel – a non-violent means to protest the economic and humanitarian challenges in Gaza imposed by the IDF. While the organisation is widely considered to be controversial across the US and many parts of the EU, it has garnered overwhelming support across Ireland and Trinity’s campus. 

Many supporters point to Ireland and Palestine’s shared struggle for autonomy under oppressive colonial occupation. The historical parallels between the two nations are clear. Both countries were partitioned by Britain and faced endless large scale displacement, hunger and violent repression as a result. Catastrophic events like Nakba and the Great Famine link the nations under great loss alongside the struggle to live amongst long-term sectarian violence. While Ireland has regained autonomy (for the most part), the national psyche has been permanently stained. The fight for independence remains within living memory promoting an inherent empathy to those still under the boot of colonial power. 

Born under a repressive regime, the boycott became an alternative means for the powerless to make their voices heard, often called “the weapon of the weak”. Though there is evidence of boycotting taking place before the 1880s, the term itself was coined here in Ireland when Irish employees started a nonviolent labour withdrawal campaign against British army captain and estate manager, Charles Cunningham Boycott. Cunningham Boycott refused to cut rent during bad harvests, effectively driving his tenants into debt. The technique was later employed by other farmers and popularised under British occupation as an important weapon for the Land League in the fight against landlords and landgrabbers. In the face of negligible government help, people started to employ the mindset of being the change they wanted to see, harnessing the power of a collective majority to do so. Similarly, the Palestinian-led BDS (boycott, divest from, and sanction) movement was created as an outlet for communication and organisation for change at the lower level. “Every other form of Palestinian resistance has been criminalised and made unavailable,” says Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and assistant professor at Rutgers University. “It’s not that BDS is integral. What do we have besides it?” 


Given this information, it’s no surprise that the Palestinian cause, and more specifically the BDS movement, resonates so heavily in Ireland. But, can we really take political action in the same way as we did in a pre-internet world? 

One of the most crucial components of a successful boycott is media coverage and the support it garners as a result. In an interview for Northwestern University’s KelloggInsight Magazine, political and sociological expert Brayden King said, “it’s not clear that boycotts affect consumer behaviour very much. But those boycotts that get some level of media attention are relatively successful in terms of getting some sort of concession out of their targets.” This idea reigned true even in 19th century Ireland and many attribute the boycott’s success to the newspaper sensationalism that alerted the public about widespread abuse at the hands of greedy landlords. Media was able to bring what started as a small-scale issue, across the Atlantic to Irish Americans, effectively garnering global sympathies from diasporic groups and the general public.

In terms of the Palestinian cause, the media plays a crucial role in the mission to grant Palestinian citizens full equality, ending occupation in annexed territories, and dismantling barriers that separate the territories from Israel. In fact, press coverage and communication featured heavily in the First Intifada, the most sustained, effective, and nonviolent protest movement in Palestine from 1987-1993. In using leaflets and communiques to direct Palestinian action in the form of strikes, relay information and establish an emotional connection among communities in the territories, the group was able to successfully create and sustain the uprising. 

BDS is currently the main form of public strife against Palestinian occupation, and is enhanced by the added advantage of the internet. Social media has been particularly useful in its ability to democratise access to news, speed the dissemination of information and facilitate collective action. As a dispersed and diasporic people lacking freedom of movement, the internet provides an opportunity to reconnect and mobilise the society. Yet, at the same time, the same platforms that offer so much good also have the power to be incredibly explosive and chaotic in the effort to advocate for and mobilise lasting change. 

For many, concerns lie in the decentralisation of the organisation where values often vary from place to place. While this feature can be useful in keeping the power consolidated at the lower level, it also allows room for extremist and hateful views to take flight. Some factions have devolved the call to end Israeli occupation into a discussion of dissolving a Jewish state altogether, effectively rebranding the mission as antisemitic and an oversimplification of the complex struggle for peace in the Middle East. This, coupled with social media’s ability to give virtually anyone a platform, creates a disturbing amount of room for the dissemination of false and harmful information, making boycotts ineffective and hard to organise as well as counterproductive in the fight for peace and equality. 

In a post-internet world, what once might have been effective, now has the power to implode into itself. Organisations like BDS can be deeply effective and informative, however, with the advent of social media the mission can turn problematic and unproductive. This only means that, just as our ancestors did, we must strategically use the tools available to us, rethinking the way we advocate in a changing world. This might mean instituting online monitoring for hate speech and misinformation, creating a centralised team to overlook local chapters, or offering clear cut values and events to guide supporters to a unified advocacy. Boycotting, while not an absolute solution, is still an important piece of the puzzle. It functions as a means to educate and mobilise the public. If approached correctly, boycotts can and should be used to adapt and enact the change that we want to see.

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