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Five Book Plan: Apartheid PR, boycotts and backlash

Hil Aked picks five books on the propaganda of apartheid states, the social movements boycotting them in response to their racially discriminatory policies, and the repressive state-led backlashes these movements face. 

19 April 2023

Five Book Plan: Apartheid PR, boycotts and backlash

Hil Aked is the author of Friends of Israel: the Backlash against Palestine Solidarity.

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: the Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights by Omar Barghouti (Haymarket, 2011)

An essential text for anyone interested in Palestinian BDS, from one of the co-founders of the movement. Positioning BDS as part of a global “challenge to neoliberal Western hegemony and the tyrannical rule of multi-transnational corporations”, Barghouti describes the movement as “a qualitatively different phase in the global struggle for Palestinian freedom” and decolonisation. Emerging from praxis, the book explains with moral authority why the 2005 BDS call represented “a historic moment of collective consciousness” through which “Palestinian civil society reclaimed the agenda”, drawing strategic inspiration from the international solidarity movement that helped isolate South African apartheid.

Writing in 2011, Barghouti presciently discusses the rise of fascism in apartheid Israel, and the haemorrhaging of global support it faces as a result, noting that the boycott movement helped expose the true nature of the state. Deftly anticipating and unpacking counter-boycott arguments, Barghouti shows that BDS has “dragged Israel and its well financed, bullying lobby groups into a confrontation” on the terrain of global public opinion, in which the justness of the Palestinian cause can counteract Israel’s military power. Published just as the BDS movement was blossoming into a force to be reckoned with and the Israeli government’s repression campaign - including measures directly targeting Barghouti himself - was ramping up, the right-versus-might confrontation this book describes has only intensified in subsequent years. 

The Battle for Justice in Palestine by Ali Abunimah (Haymarket, 2014)

The battle for justice in Palestine, Ali Abunimah argues, is “first and foremost a battle of ideas” - and this book makes an invaluable contribution to that struggle. Abunimah pulls no punches in skewering the racial logic at the heart of the Zionist project, unravelling the arguments underpinning Israel’s alleged “right to exist”, and laying bare the demographic obsession, ethnic cleansing and discrimination which flow from Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state. Palestinian liberation, he asserts, is intertwined with racial justice movements elsewhere. Focusing on North America, Abunimah inverts the narrative of “shared values” between the US and Israel by showing that both nations are premised on “systemic violence rooted in ideologies of racial and cultural supremacy” and yet both face social movements challenging their practices of racial segregation, militarised policing and mass incarceration. 

A longstanding advocate of a one state solution, Abunimah sets out a radical vision in which Jewish survival is not reliant on ethno-nationalism and a South Africa-like “neoliberal Palestine” (preserving deep economic inequalities) is averted. He also eloquently traces the emergence of the backlash against BDS, exposing the pinkwashing, ‘greenwashing’, and lawfare practices which Israel and its supporters use, and pays special attention to repression and censorship on US university campuses - a critical arena in the battle of ideas. 

The Idea of Israel: a History of Power and Knowledge by Ilan Pappé (Verso, 2016)

One of the foremost new historians, who challenged the foundational Zionist myths of the Israeli state, few people understand Israeli politics better than Ilan Pappé. This book interrogates the idea of Israel in both scholarship and popular culture, tracing the battle of ideas within the Israeli academy in particular; an arena in which the author has deep personal experience. Having been part of the post-Zionist movement, through his archival research which helped to document the deliberate ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that took place in 1948, Pappé’s departure from Israel was itself a symptom of the backlash movement he refers to here as “neo-Zionism” - a more brazenly racist and dogmatic brand of Zionism which is today increasingly dominant in Israeli politics. 

This book’s epilogue, meanwhile, tells the story of Brand Israel. The battle for the idea of Israel “has moved abroad”, Pappé asserts, tracing the role of private PR firms, Zionist think tanks, and pro-Israel advocacy groups in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official nation branding programme, launched in 2005 in response to growing support for Palestinians and waning support for Zionism. Despite the huge sums invested in this attempt to market Israel as progressive and liberal, Pappé shows, the settler-colonial reality behind this myth becomes harder to mask every day. 

Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age by Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein (Stanford University Press, 2015)

At the nexus of two enormous (and so sometimes mediocre) bodies of literature - on digital media and Israel/Palestine - this modest book of less than one hundred pages stands out. Offering an incisive analysis of the ways Israeli militarism plays out on digital battlefields, Kuntsman and Stein chart not only how official Israeli government hasbara (propaganda) has been adapted to the informal, everyday vernacular of social media in an attempt to woo public opinion (a response to “the failures of traditional forms of didactic and hierarchical state talk during prior military operations”) but also how both soldiers and ordinary members of the Israeli public have been willingly conscripted en masse to “support their state” online. 

These social networked mobilisations of Israeli citizen patriots may be encouraged by Israel advocacy bodies but also occur spontaneously (especially during episodes of intense state violence), in a phenomenon the authors dub “personalized militarism” and illustrate with numerous screenshots of real user generated content. From expressing solidarity with soldiers caught extrajudicially executing Palestinians, to spreading “digital suspicion” about Palestinian deaths, the proliferation of activity which works to invert state violence - recasting Palestinian victims as “hoaxes” and Israel’s global image as the victim - offers a grim insight into the reach and vitality of apartheid propaganda online.  

Selling Apartheid: South Africa's Global Propaganda War by Ron Nixon (Pluto Press, 2016)

Former New York Times journalist Ron Nixon’s highly readable account of the propaganda war waged by the apartheid South African government explores how its well-funded global PR campaign was launched in response to an international boycott movement operating, by comparison, on a shoestring budget. It enlisted the help of professional PR firms, white South African businessmen close to the state, and a network of non-governmental organisations - often covertly funded by the apartheid regime - whose voices enjoyed more legitimacy than that of the government itself. The propaganda war was masterminded by Eschel Rhoodie, whose Department for Information engaged in a stunningly diverse array of influence tactics from sponsoring sporting events to producing television programmes and courting relationships with MPs by taking them on junkets to South Africa.

Nixon highlights how the South African propaganda machine cynically manipulated racial optics, seeking to counteract the attention placed on its discriminatory policies by hiring Black PR operatives. He also keeps the ANC’s resistance and international solidarity firmly in the picture, explaining how local councils in Britain passed motions against apartheid and the Trades Union Congress called for sanctions. The Conservative government, despite huge public pressure, resisted these calls and instead rehearsed the hollow rhetoric of “constructive engagement” till the end. All these PR tactics, and especially the colonial solidarity shown by the British government to South Africa, are eerily reminiscent of apartheid Israel’s propaganda war today.


Friends of Israel: the Backlash against Palestine Solidarity by Hil Aked is out now. Read an excerpt from the book here, and Hil Aked's essay Cruising for a bruising? Critiquing the British Zionist movement (while trans).


Filed under: israel-palestine