Italians stand up to apartheid
This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.
The 2005 launch of the Palestinian appeal for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel initially met with limited active support in Italy. The BDS call prompted much debate on the subject, questioning the general effectiveness of boycotts as well as its possibilities for ending the occupation. As boycott endorsements and success stories from around the world began to add up, more and more groups warmed up to the idea. However, like much of the world, after the Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza that BDS attracted a huge increase in mainstream support in Italy.
Initial campaigns focused on calls for divestment by Italian corporations, such as telecoms giant Telecom Italia and global insurance operator Generali, and revoking scientific and technological cooperation agreements between Italian institutions and Israel. Italy is not only one of Israel´s top trading partners, it is also Israel's biggest scientific partner in Europe, and second only to the US internationally. While divestment campaigns may have had a limited impact, they did help the Italian people become more aware of the economic ties between Italy and Israel as well as the BDS campaign and the situation in Palestine.
Whether or not the general public - or even the activist community - was ready to tackle the sensitive subject of cultural boycotts, the announcement that Israel would be guest of honor at the 2008 Turin Book Fair brought it to the forefront. BDS and Palestinian solidarity activists, led by ISM Italy and Forum Palestina, called on fair organizers to reverse their decision. One that would effectively allow the use of a cultural event for political propaganda, as the fair coincided with Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
When fair organizers failed to rethink their choice, campaigners called for a boycott and organized debates and seminars leading up to the fair. While some Arab and Palestinian authors, as well as Israelis, declined the invitation to participate in the fair, press coverage was hostile. The press did little to explain the reasoning behind the boycott to the Italian public and instead focused on attacking it with no serious thought given to the issue at hand. That is the use of a cultural event to give political cover to a state engaged in a long-standing pattern of violations of human rights and international law.
Following Israel's brutal attack on Gaza, mobilization on BDS increased dramatically in 2009. A national assembly organized by Forum Palestina in Rome in February featured BDS as one of the main topics. Local BDS committees were created throughout Italy and the first global BDS day on March 30 was observed with co-ordinated actions throughout Italy.
In October 2009, the recently formed group BDS Pisa organized the first national meeting focusing entirely on BDS. The two-day conference brought in 100 activists from all over Italy, as well as activists from other European countries, and via Skype, members of the BNC in Palestine and boycott activists from Israel.
During the BDS conference in Pisa the national coalition Stop Agrexco was formed. Agrexco presented a strategic choice for a co-ordinated national campaign. Aside from being Israel's largest fresh produce exporter, Agrexco has also admitted to exporting 60-70% of settlement produce. In addition, Agrexco's use of the port of Vado Ligure, near Genoa, as one of its main entry points to Italian and European markets provided a direct Italian link. And similar campaigns already in place in France and the UK offered an opportunity for Europeanwide co-ordination.
The Stop Agrexco Coalition chose to target COOP Italia, a national supermarket chain and consumer cooperative. A letter writing campaign calling on COOP to suspend sales of Agrexco products was followed by co-ordinated actions in several Italian cities for the 2010 Global BDS Day on March 30 and meetings with COOP management.
As a result, in May 2010, the Stop Agrexco Coalition celebrated its first victory. Both COOP Italia and Nordiconad announced the suspension of sales of settlement produce. Their decision unleashed a firestorm in the national press and political arena, with accusations of racism and anti-Semitism. Under intense pressure, and despite hundreds of letters of support by
Italian citizens and Israeli peace organizations such as Gush Shalom and ICAHD, both chains retreated. COOP Italia announced an "agreement" with Agrexco for proper labeling of settlement products. The Stop Agrexco coalition, which counts over 60 national and local associations, trade unions and political parties, has vowed to continue until all Agrexco products have been removed from supermarket shelves.
The year 2010 brought additional endorsements from organizations who had been hesitant about BDS, including Jews Against the Occupation (Rete ECO), FIOM-CGIL, Italy's oldest industrial union representing over 350,000 metal-workers, and the Federazione della Sinistra, the coalition of left political parties. Pax Christi Italy, as a first step towards BDS, voted to endorse the Stop Agrexco campaign.
While consumer boycotts are on the rise, academic boycotts in Italy lag behind other European countries. To encourage the Italian academics to take a stand on Palestine a number of university professors launched the "Italian Campaign for Right2Education in Palestine" in March 2010. The campaign denounced the "serious violations of the right to education, freedom to teach and freedom of thought of the Palestinian people" and resolved to "establish concrete means of intervening in support of the universities and the younger generations of Palestinian and Israeli Arab students and scholars". Over 280 academics publicly supported the campaign.
In a direct call for academic and cultural boycotts, ISM Italy recently (re)launched the "Italian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel". This set off a debate on the pages of the weekly L'Espresso between author and politician Gianni Vattimo in support of the campaign and novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco who argues that whatever the policies of a government, it should not be taken out on an entire people or culture.
With hopes of helping to provide a base from which to expand the debate, the book "Planned Oppression: The Complicity of Israeli Academia," was published this year in Italy with the stated aim of leading academic and cultural communities in Italy to make a concrete contribution to the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Since the launch of the Palestinian call for boycotts, though widespread BDS mobilizations in Italy have waxed and waned to some degree along with public interest following tragedies such as the 2006 bombing of Lebanon, the tightening of the siege on Gaza and Operation Cast Lead, there has been a steady increase in both the groups involved and number and range of BDS activities. Most recently, the deadly attack on the Freedom Flotilla further galvanized support, with calls for boycotts at the forefront of virtually all mobilizations throughout Italy.
And for the fifth anniversary of the Palestinian BDS call July 9, 2010, plans are already underway for co-ordinated actions across the country.
Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen who has been living in Rome, Italy since 1991. She is active in the peace and social justice movements in Italy and traveled to Gaza in June 2009