Over the past few years, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has discussed measures designed to criminalize activitsts who express solidarity with the Palestinians. The result of these discussions was that a law was passed in 2011, enabling the prosecution of Israelis who urge a boycott of Israeli goods or institutions.
Ronnie Barkan is the kind of activist directly targeted by that law. He is a founding member of Boycott from Within, an Israeli group that actively supports the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Barkan was in the Netherlands last week. I interviewed him in Utrecht.
Adri Nieuwhof: Can you introduce yourself?
Ronnie Barkan: I am a white, male, privileged, Israeli Jew. The first two characteristics are decided by nature, the last are decided by the state. It is important to mention that I am from the privileged. This is the core we are talking about.
The State of Israel was founded on the basis of ethnic cleansing, ethnic separation and ethnic supremacy which was codified into law. What started in ‘48 carried on under the guise of the law, to take away the rights of the others.
I am in the Netherlands as part of a European tour speaking mainly about the BDS campaign, encouraging people into action. Since I am among the privileged, this means I can say things other people can’t. For example, that BDS is not against Israelis but against the State of Israel. That BDS is not anti-Semitic but opposed to all forms of racism, including Zionism. Being privileged means my voice carries more meaning and responsibility. People should listen to Palestinians but as a privileged person resisting alongside Palestinians, I have to speak for the voiceless.
AN: What are your main activities? Is Boycott from Within growing?
RB: Most of my time is invested in BDS activities, mainly with a small group we founded, Boycott from Within. We are not dictating but supporting the Palestinians, joining as privileged group. The group allows Israelis to express their support to the BDS call. After individuals like [the academics] Ilan Pappe and Tanya Reinhart were personally attacked for their support for BDS, we decided to operate as a group. It is not about the numbers. It is clear that our consent, endorsement of BDS activities is sought after.
Another thing we do is provide information since we are situated on the ground and have access to resources in the Hebrew language, to support BDS. And it proves to be successful.
Thirdly, we focus on the cultural boycott. The guidelines of PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) are clear. Israeli artists will be boycotted if they act as ambassadors for Israel or help whitewashing Israeli apartheid. Artists performing in Israel, we try to approach them.
We explain to them that there is a clearly marked picket line and they choose which side of the line they are on. Their decision about performing in Israel is political and that “music is universal” is not an argument. If they choose to perform under apartheid, they legitimize it and they will be used by the regime. They can choose to stand on the right side of history and not perform.
I am very happy that such artists put more effort in realizing where they stand. At present in Israel, when a performance is scheduled, there are already questions in the media if they will perform.
The cultural boycott is touching a nerve in Israeli society. Unlike the boycott of companies which remains quite often in the framework of 1967 [the occupied West Bank and Gaza]. It is more about refusing to give legitimacy to the State of Israel in its current form. It drives the debate about the boycott. In Israel there is more discussion, it is not liked, but people feel compelled to talk about it. This is important.
Until the BDS call was published it was popular to discuss Israel as the the only democracy in the Middle East, even though it is not a democracy and never was, not even to begin with. Some years later, Israelis and the world media start to discuss Israel as a flawed democracy. And now, ten years on, [US Secretary of State] John Kerry mentions apartheid in relation to Israel.
That is extremely important. Apartheid is a crime against humanity and all people and states have an obligation to fight this crime.
AN: Are you in touch with BDS activists in other countries? Do you have ideas for improving the BDS campaign?
RB: The BDS campaign is decentralized and the Palestinian leadership sets the guidelines. Some people have misconceptions thinking that it is all about breaking ties and communication. But we see that the opposite is true. We keep on building bridges, new ways of communications with every possible BDS group or its affiliates.
Boycott from Within plays a role in brainstorming future activity worldwide. I think what is needed is a lot more strategizing. We have made a lot of progress. It has reached US officials and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu spoke about it at an AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] conference.
Since we are relatively small and disparate, our forte is working together and coming up with strategies. We have to mainstream the discussion. When Scarlett Johansson stepped into the realm of BDS, it needed a handful of activists to challenge her and Oxfam’s role. It became one of the biggest issues. When this arrives in the US mainstream media, we are doing well. It is a big step forward.
I think we can improve the BDS campaign by sharing experiences, events that are organized, share information.
AN: There are some email groups doing that on certain topics, for example in mobilizing against companies which profit from the occupation, like Veolia and G4S.
RB: Email groups are limited. If someone in Utrecht wants to get involved, the information needs to be accessible. It should not depend if you know a friend who has a friend who may have more information. Facebook groups can act as a platform. The challenge is to get new people involved. We have to find a way which enables more people to take part in the BDS campaign.
AN: You are a conscientious objector. Are you in touch with other conscientious objectors? How can we support the objectors?
RB: When I was a conscientious objector, it did not have that terminology. I just felt I did not want to be part of the army. When I was exempted from the army, that was the moment when New Profile came into being [New Profile is a group working for the demilitarization of Israeli society]. The main thing that needs to be done is to give concise information rather than the slanted information or propaganda that is available. And to act as a support network.
Today there are two conscientious objectors in jail, one Druze and one Orthodox Jew. The objectors are doing wonderful work by standing up against everything Israeli society represents. However, I wouldn’t think there is a growing movement. There are a handful of dissidents, that’s all.
Anybody speaking of the Israeli left or the peace camp, is either lying or ignorant. There is no Israeli left and never was. Only a handful of dissidents.
But it is not only about the numbers. Speaking up against oppression is important in itself. When the anti-BDS law was legislated, we published our statement from Boycott from Within. It was called “We will not be silent,” taking inspiration from the German dissidents of the White Rose Society. It is important to speak out and not give an ounce of legitimacy to the Zionist project in Palestine.
AN: What is your response to claims that BDS will destroy Israel?
RB: Yes, that is what we hear. If we insist on equal rights for all [one of the demands of the BDS call], it will lead to the destruction of Israel. It says a lot about that Israel. Destroying apartheid was about apartheid, not the state of South Africa.
BDS supports the fight for equal rights. BDS addresses the very character of the State of Israel which is based on ethnic cleansing, ethnic separation and ethnic supremacy. Every Israeli government is concerned about maintaining the demographic majority. If the security apparatus of the state deems altering the demographic composition a security threat, what does it say? It says it is illegitimate to the core.
When Netanyahu sets as a condition for negotiations with Abbas the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, that is an absolute illegitimate demand. No country has the right to be a supremacist state. In the same way as South Africa could not be supremacist for the whites, Israel cannot be supremacist for the Jews.
This ethnic supremacist thinking is so predominant that even so called liberal organizations, who claim to speak for peace and human rights, or have human rights in their name, they would only acknowledge those rights of Palestinians that would not infringe their rights or privileges.
They will oppose the occupation of ‘67, while legitimizing the supremacist nature of the state of Israel. Such organizations have developed the discourse of lies about Israel into an art form. They speak about the strong democratic basis of Israel, about fighting for democracy, while refusing to say a single word about apartheid or even about the Palestinian refugees. They will protect the rights of refugees from Africa as long as no refugee from Palestine is allowed back home.