Last week, lines of Israelis queued to mourn the war criminal Ariel Sharon.
Some lit candles in vigil; others, wanting to capture the moment for posterity, took photographs of the man’s funeral bier.
The world too weighed in, or at least the Western world did. Politicians and diplomats were dispatched, correspondents reported proceedings and speculated on the soul of Israel and columnists’ long obituaries recounted, in various shades, “a controversial figure.”
Absent from almost every mainstream report was the truth.
The truth is not that Sharon was considered a war criminal by Palestinians and Lebanese, the truth is not that he was a controversial figure, the truth is not that he was Israel’s most resilient politician.
Rather, the truth is that he was a cynical and racist political and military leader who led, formulated and instigated policies of murder and ethnic cleansing.
To his victims, this is not news. They don’t need the truth — they have the reality, the lived experience of loss and exile. What they deserved, and now will never get, was justice and restitution.
Despite that, what few lines media correspondents deigned to devote to the victims in Beirut and Gaza dishoneslty fixated — almost entirely — on tales of sweet-distribution and celebration of Sharon’s death, as if to confirm they were savages.
A rare and honest report by Reuters’ Alexander Dziadosz, however, recorded no celebration; only grief and loss, bitterness and resignation.
Milany Boutros Alha Bourje, bereaved mother and wife of victims of the 1982 Shatila massacre, laconically commented, “Nothing changes. The situation we are living in does not change.”
But if Palestinians don’t need the truth, Israel and the West certainly do. For amidst the national mourning, something much worse than an insult to Sharon’s victims was being perpetrated — a lie was reinforced, a myth embellished, a role model exalted.
Legislating against truth
Writing for The Guardian, Israeli academic Avi Shlaim was one of the few dissident voices to recognize that the legacy of Sharon’s criminality “has been to empower and embolden some of the most racist, xenophobic, expansionist and intransigent elements in Israel’s dysfunctional political system.”
That is a legacy only truth can counter.
And the reality is that without truth, Sharon’s legacy, like David Ben-Gurion’s, will be cross-generational.
Just as Israel legislated against truth in its 2011 Nakba Law, it is not inconceivable it will do the same against those who call Sharon what he was — a war criminal.
The power of BDS
In the absence, then, of a Palestinian Authority move to join the International Criminal Court — and even that may be of only limited value — only the civil society movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has the potential to unveil the truth.
BDS, although promoted foremost as a strategy to achieve Palestinian human rights and Israeli compliance with international law, also does something more — something which may in the end may be of as much importance as the act of not being complicit.
Through truth-telling, BDS holds a moral mirror up to Israel and its supporters.
Every time an artist says no to performing in Israel, a shopper questions a retailer or an academic turns down a collaborative project, they signal not just their preference for justice over injustice, but they write a new script.
In these thousands of small performative acts, testimonies for the voiceless are sent both to the perpetrators and to the bystanders.
Such indeed was the power of BDS against South African apartheid that towards its demise, discourse on apartheid focused almost entirely upon the truth of its searing injustice.
Lacking the international instruments of political power, the anti-apartheid movement created something new: a record of the truth in a testimony of actions. And, in so doing, the movement re-wrote the political, historical and ethical records.
Today, the global Palestinian-led BDS movement is doing the same.
And so while co-war criminal Tony Blair can eulogize his friend Sharon, we can all take comfort in knowing that when the historical record is reviewed in ten or twenty or fifty years time, the “controversial” Sharon will be by then recognized as the unconvicted war criminal Sharon, and Tony Blair as the shameful figure he truly is.
It will not be justice, but it will be truth. That is what BDS is doing and will do.
Richard Irvine teaches a course at Queen’s University Belfast entitled “The Battle for Palestine” which explores the entire history of the conflict. Irvine has also worked voluntarily in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and is coordinator of the Ireland-based Palestine Education Initiative.