Podcast Ep 46: Israel declares war on Palestinian civil society

On episode 46, we speak to representatives of two of six major Palestinian rights groups Israel has recently designated as “terrorist” organizations.

And a human rights activist in Burlington, Vermont, talks about working to encourage the city council to pass a resolution in explicit support of the Palestinian-let boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Human rights defenders and top UN experts have denounced Israel’s defense minister Benny Gantz’s attack on the six groups.

The groups are Al-Haq, Defense for Children International Palestine, Addameer, ​​the Union of Palestinian Women Committees, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Bisan Center for Research and Development.

Some of their staff have cooperated closely with the International Criminal Court in its war crimes probe in the West Bank and Gaza.

UN special rapporteurs have warned that the Israeli designation would effectively ban the work of the human rights groups. It provides a pretext for Israel to arrest their staff, close their offices and seize their property.

As The Electronic Intifada reported, Israel has long sought to defame and sabotage the work of Palestinian human rights groups seeking an end to Israeli impunity. Senior Israeli figures and lobby groups baselessly accuse these groups of “weaponizing” the ICC against the US and Israel.

Aseel AlBajeh, legal researcher and advocacy officer at Al-Haq, tells The Electronic Intifada Podcast that this designation is part of a coordinated and decades-long campaign of repression against the Palestinian people.

Al-Haq, one of the oldest Arab human rights organizations, monitors Israel’s human rights violations.

According to AlBajeh, the designation “represents an escalated attack.”

“How we respond to that is that our struggle as the Palestinian people will not stop with these failed attempts to silence our voices … we do need the international community and the global human rights movement to stand with us,” AlBajeh explains, adding that she and her colleagues at Al-Haq know they face threats of arrest, residency revocation and confiscation of assets.

Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer at Addameer, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinian prisoners, tells The Electronic Intifada Podcast that as long as powerful governments and institutions stay silent regarding Israel’s human rights abuses, Israel will continue to try and stamp out civil society groups.

“When Israel feels that the work of human rights organizations is really taking action, and maybe is asking [for] accountability in a strong voice, they start attacking in bizarre and arbitrary measures – such as designating our legitimate human rights work as ‘terrorist,’” Ansari says.

“We do also have to let the international community know that now is the time to actually stand up with the six … and it’s not only these six organizations, we’re saying the Palestinian people as a whole,” she adds.

BDS in Burlington

Meanwhile, in Burlington, Vermont, more than two dozen left-wing groups have been working to push their city council to pass a resolution in support of Palestinian rights and the Palestinian-led BDS campaign.

Israel lobby groups used heavy smear tactics to derail the campaign in September, including attempts to brand the BDS movement and the resolution itself as “anti-Semitic.”

Under that pressure, the city council ultimately withdrew the resolution – but it was not defeated outright.

Wafic Faour of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine tells The Electronic Intifada Podcast that while the campaign continues, he has pertinent advice to other activists working on similar resolutions around the US.

“Don’t ever lose hope,” Faour says. “At the end, we’re going to win. If we want to talk about justice and human rights, history is on our side.”

The action of bringing this debate to the city, he says, “is a victory. Because even the local newspapers and the local TV covered this occasion completely differently from what our opponents wished. We had the space, for the first time, to say what we believe and how the future will look like to build a peaceful community here and back in Palestine.”

Vermonters for Justice in Palestine were also at the forefront of the campaign to push ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s out of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Articles we discussed

Full transcript

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. Israel’s designation of six major Palestinian rights groups as “terrorist organizations” on 22 October has elicited an immediate and strong response from human rights defenders. Dozens of human rights organizations in Israel jointly condemned the move, which was announced by Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz as an “act of cowardice that is characteristic of repressive authoritarian regimes.” They called on the international community to “oppose this decision unequivocally.”

The human rights groups are Al-Haq, Defense for Children International Palestine, Addameer, the Union of Palestinian Women Committees, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Bisan Center for Research and Development, have cooperated closely with the International Criminal Court in its war crimes probe in the West Bank and Gaza. UN Special Rapporteurs have warned that the Israeli designation would effectively ban the work of the human rights groups. It provides a pretext for Israel to arrest their staff, close their offices and seize their property. As The Electronic Intifada has reported, Israel has long sought to defame and sabotage the work of Palestinian human rights groups seeking to end Israeli impunity, while senior Israeli figures and lobby groups baselessly accused these groups of “weaponizing, the ICC against the US and Israel.”

Today we’re speaking with representatives of two of the six Palestinian human rights groups, Aseel AlBajeh, a legal researcher and advocacy officer at Al Haq. And Milena Ansari, an international advocacy officer at Addameer, Aseel and Milena, thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Aseel AlBajeh: Thank you for hosting us.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Of course. Aseel, let’s begin with you. Much of the work that Al-Haq does centers around documenting Israeli war crimes and trying to hold Israel to account. Tell us about that work and give us a sense of what this designation by Benny Gantz aims to do to your organization.

Aseel AlBajeh: Absolutely. So we’ve actually been operating in the occupied Palestinian territories for 43 years now. And since the 1970s, the organization has been documenting and monitoring the human rights situation. As well as documentation, to do advocacy work in various ways, including at the International Criminal Court, as you mentioned, but also at the United Nations level, with the special procedures at the Human Rights Council, and with policymakers to try to push that Israel and its illegal, apartheid regime and military occupation against the Palestinian people. In terms of what does this designation mean to us as Al-Haq, but also as Palestinian society and human rights and those and also as the Palestinian people as a whole because this represents an escalated attack within institutionalized and ongoing efforts to silence any efforts seeking to challenge basically, Israel’s crimes and violations against the Palestinian people.

Civil society groups, including Al-Haq in Palestine, seek to amplify what is going on on the ground and advocate for a better future for the Palestinian people, so we see it as part of the whole repression of the Palestinian people. But also, our work has been also subjected to smear campaigns and intimidation by the Israeli occupying authorities for decades now, including death threats for individuals at Al-Haq, for example, related to our work at the International Criminal Court, but also arbitrary arrests. I think Milena can highlight more on that and the fact that we are also subjected to residency revocation. So this is part of an institutionalized effort to silence any effort as I said. How do we respond to that is that our struggle as the Palestinian people will not stop with these failed attempts to silence our voices, we nonetheless are subjected to threats of being arrested and for our assets to be also confiscated as well. So we do need the international community and the global human rights movement to stand with us.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you. And Milena talk about the work at Addameer, which advocates for the rights of Palestinian prisoners as Aseel mentioned. In 2019, your offices in Ramallah were raided and computer equipment was seized by Israeli occupation forces. The same thing happened to Defense for Children International Palestine’s offices just weeks ago. Addameer has been under constant attack by Israel as all the five other groups have been. Tell us about Addameer and how this designation is designed to stop your work.

Milena Ansari: Yes, thank you. To begin, with Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association is a Palestinian non-governmental association that provides free legal aid to Palestinian political prisoners held both in Israeli prisons and under the Palestinian Authority’s prisons. And we also advocate for the rights of Palestinian prisoners on an international and a national level. The documentation unit at Addameer through their prison visits and legal files and cases, they have documented systematic and arbitrary policies by the Israeli prison services against the Palestinian prisoners, such as medical neglect, arbitrary collective punishment, isolation and many other arbitrary and harsh ill-treatment in prisons. And as you mentioned, Addameer has been a target of these Israeli-led attacks for many years. This is an attack that has been ongoing by harassments, as Aseel mentioned, residency revocation, arbitrary arrests under administrative detention, which means without any charge or trial, for an indefinite time.

So this has been an escalation for a long time. During the raid in 2019, Addameer was taking on cases of torture, where detainees were subjected to extreme torture techniques against them during the interrogation, where one of them within 48 hours, he was taken to the hospital and his life was at imminent risk. And you know, so when Israel feels that the work of human rights organizations is really taking action and maybe is asking accountability in a strong voice, they start attacking in bizarre and arbitrary measures, such as the six the decision of designating our legitimate human rights work as terrorist. You know, this is absolutely bizarre. But this is truly not surprising, because the international community has been silent with everything that has been going on, you know. Shatha Odeh, the director of the Health Work Committees, is now in detention under ill and arbitrary conditions. And she’s the director of the Health Work Committees, and the world stayed silent when she was arbitrarily arrested.

Just because Israel decided that the Health Work Committees is an unlawful organization, and they get to completely shut down a legitimate Palestinian providing public services to vulnerable communities. So we do also have to let the international community know that, you know, now is the time to actually stand up with the six and when we say six, it’s not only the six organizations, we’re saying the Palestinian people as a whole. Sorry, just another one thing, when we keep demanding Israel to revoke this decision, we’re also empowering it to have more control over us. Like is it by day and night they decide who’s a terrorist organization and who’s not depending on how far they’re getting in the international community? So this must end, we must not bow down to this harassment and bullying.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, thank you. UN human rights experts warned that “this designation is a frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement and on human rights everywhere.” Can you talk a little bit more about the ramification of this designation? You know, I mean, Addameer, for example, advocates for Palestinian political prisoners, as you mentioned, some of its officers have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. At this point, does a designation like this leave you and Aseel and members and staff of these organizations vulnerable to arrest and administrative detention at this point? What could happen? What are you expecting?

Milena Ansari: You know, my answer could come in different aspects. We’re talking about the defunding from the sponsors, we’re talking about isolating the work of Palestinian civil society organizations, from the global community, we’re talking about the international community questioning the credibility or not. This is why we see the public statements as motivation that this part of a threat is not really happening on the ground. But what I mean to say is that the defunding of sponsors and organizations that have always supported the work of the Palestinian civil society organizations, like Addameer, for instance, was not following the decision. But two weeks before one of our core donors did not renew the contract for additional sponsorship, due to political pressures, as they clearly stated. So you know, sometimes international organizations do bow to these false accusations and other times they publish statements where they say there is no basis, there is no substantial evidence. Regarding all that, we still stand and we do know that this is legitimate human rights work. So you know, arbitrary arrests are definitely an imminent risk [against] employees, even the directors. This is not something that is bizarre by the Israeli occupation. As I mentioned, Shatha Odeh is in prison and she’s a 61-year-old woman. So no one is exempt from the threats that are happening.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah. Aseel, what’s your response to that?

Aseel AlBajeh: Yeah, adding to what Melina said, I think there’s the individual level of how these designations – what the consequences are, but there’s also the collective kind of impact on our work. And as Melina said, I would just like to highlight that also, these designations come under Israel’s domestic law that is illegally applied on the occupied territory. And this law is basically vague in its definitions, and it can apply basically from five to 25 years of prison terms to the staff of our organizations. So this is on an individual level of how this will impact us. But I think also on the symbolic nature of our work as well. So for example, we do also a kind of collective work, joint work together as organizations. Melina and myself, we’ve actually been working on advocating for the rights of Palestinians in Beita in Nablus, which since May, they have been protesting an unlawful settlement that was placed on their land illegally. And since then, what the Israeli occupying authorities have done is kill the protesters, the civilians and injure the civilians. There are now seven Palestinians killed in Beita only since May. Addameer, for example, has been also documenting the arrests in this area where dozens have been illegally and arbitrarily arrested as well. So this is the kind of work we do. And unfortunately, the Israeli authorities have distracted us from the work that we do. Instead of us now advocating for this, this is just an example, of course, the Beita case, but instead of us working to advocate for the protection of the rights of people in Beita, we are now countering and trying to protect ourselves as well from this arbitrary and unlawful designation.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, that’s part of it, right? I mean, that’s how Israel lobby groups here in the US and you know, North America. They go after human rights defenders, they try and tie up their time and resources and finances in court and legal proceedings in order to to get them to stop the work that they’re doing. There was a diplomatic briefing on Wednesday by representatives of the six groups calling for immediate intervention to defend Palestinian human rights organizations and staff.

You know, and as I mentioned, Raja Shehadeh, the founder of Al-Haq, said recently, the fact that Al-Haq and other rights groups have supplied evidence of war crimes by Benny Gantz himself to the International Criminal Court is a very probable reason Gantz made this declaration. What can you say about Gantz’s personal connection to declaring Al-Haq and Addameer and the others as terrorist organizations, and the way that Israel itself through the last 73 years has been attempting to silence and attack any international body that could enact consequences for the entire Israeli project.

Milena Ansari: Yes, there is absolutely a connection between the decision and the advocacy on an international level, especially the International Criminal Court. Both our organizations and DCIP and other Palestinian civil society organizations are doing legal documentation to the ICC after their decision to open an investigation. Addameer is representing three victims before the ICC, who are child prisoners who were transferred illegally inside the occupying territory, which is illegal under international law and international criminal law. And DCIP is also representing victims before the ICC as well as Al-Haq has much documentation regarding the systematic and widespread attacks and crimes against humanity that Israeli occupation is doing on the ground. And so it is completely true. And since the decision of opening the investigation, it seems like things are moving on in the international community regarding the ICC. So we believe as Aseel mentioned, it is a distraction from our work. There are so many violations of human rights that are being documented. And instead of following up on that, or prosecuting and asking for accountability regarding these crimes, we’re here advocating all together jointly to defend what Israel is crying wolf about and the international community is just watching to see what secret evidence there is. This is completely bizarre at this point.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Aseel did you want to add to that?

Aseel AlBajeh: I can only say that we also see this as a failed attempt. After several years and decades of smearing campaigns and intimidations to Palestinian civil society organizations and human rights defenders, Israel has failed to challenge our work based on evidence or on law. So now it is trying to criminalize the whole Palestinian civil society work. And it is indeed related to our work towards accountability. But also there’s widespread and mounting recognition of Israel as an apartheid regime as well by states and by the United Nations and by global civil society. So this is kind of intimidating Israel to eliminate any voice trying to expose its crimes or efforts seeking accountability basically.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Finally, what are the next steps for your organizations now and what can people around the world do to make their voices heard at the international level? I know that in terms of even financial support, it’s almost impossible for people here in the US and in Europe, to donate via PayPal or anything like that, because Israel has completely banned the use of monetary exchange platforms to support your work. What can people do right now?

Milena Ansari: Mobilize, take action. And most importantly, you know, I’m not trying to advertise or whatnot, you need to follow the sources, which are the six organizations. We are calling for actions daily, we are calling for stands and rallies, actions for specific organizations or for individuals or for politicians. And you know, we’re trying as much as possible to allow the international community to take its role regarding what’s happening right now. So now’s the time to really wake up and take action. Whether it is with statements or speaking up to your parliamentarians, your elected officials. And these are the broader demands. I think Aseel if you’d like to add to that. But it’s important to really not think or take this lightly. Arbitrary measures will come escalating after this. So we do need to take action as soon as possible.

Aseel AlBajeh: Yeah, I can only add that we are at risk now so we need protection, and protection comes from action. As Melina said, one way to do so is to pressure policymakers. Individuals can pressure their policymakers to call on Israel to end this designation and also to revoke the law itself. And any efforts basically, that Israel does to silence Palestinian resistance and voices against its violations. In relation to donors, I would say that these donors, but also the international community who was supporting Palestinian society. This is the time, because we’ve been repeating the same demands for decades in relation to different violations that Israel has done for decades. Now is the time to actually act on their international obligations to pressure Israel to end the whole illegal situation against the Palestinian people as a whole.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Aseel AlBajeh from Al-Haq, and Milena Ansari from Addameer, thank you so much for all the work that you both do, and the work of your colleagues. We will have links up on The Electronic Intifada blog post that accompanies this podcast, so people can check out more of your work and learn more about your organization and how you’re fighting back and fighting for the rights of Palestinians. Thank you both so much, and please be safe. We’ll check back with you soon.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman and welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. Over the years, activists around the US have organized to pass resolutions in support of Palestinian rights via their local city councils and have faced attacks by the Israel lobby. Today we’re looking at a particular case in Burlington, Vermont, where for months, more than two dozen leftist groups have worked to get their city council to pass a resolution in explicit support of the Palestinian led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which would make it the first US city to do so. As blogger Richard Silverstein writes, “during the campaign, the groups worked tirelessly to gain the support of city council members. They secured the support of seven of 12 members and believe they were assured of victory. But they didn’t count on the overwhelming firepower of the local and national Israel lobby. It pulled out all the stops, flooding their council offices with up to 2,000 text and email messages, letters and phone calls denouncing the resolution as anti-Semitic.” Joining us to talk about this resolution, what the next steps for it are and the importance of organizing such a campaign is Wafic Faour of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine. Wafic, thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Wafic Faour: Oh, thank you, Nora, and good to see you again.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Likewise. So talk about this resolution. The Israel lobby claim is that it was easily defeated, but it actually isn’t over yet. Can you talk about what the resolution says, and its next steps?

Wafic Faour: I think the resolution was clear in terms of our demands: the withdrawal of Israel from occupied Arab land, we mean 1967 lands that include the Golan Heights, respecting the human and equal rights of Palestinian-Israeli citizens and ending the apartheid laws in Israel. And lastly, respecting American citizens who observe and called for BDS, which stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions. And Nora, we wrote this resolution and we worked on it prior to the success we had here in Vermont and the city of Burlington, that we forced Ben & Jerry’s after almost a decade of activism, to come up with a statement calling for the end of their business in Israel and the occupied territories. And both occasions came together, because on 19 July the statement came out. We introduced our resolution after working with many people, mainly the committee within the city, called Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, on the 20th in the evening, so the second day exactly. After a hearing within the committee and passing it the first meeting, we went to the second meeting of the same committee.

Our supporters came and it made international news, because the second day, there were a lot of journalists, including Israeli journalists from Channel 13. I took him to the meetings. So it was over three days of news in Israel as well, contrary to our local Jewish siblings, who said that they didn’t know about it, because they were in the same program like us. We didn’t hide anything. Our call was very clear, mainly on respect for human rights and equal rights to the Palestinian people as well. After it passed in the committee, we had no control of the calendar ourselves. It is a parliamentarian calendar. So from the committee, it went to the full council on Monday 13 September. Now the local Zionist supporters of Israel came out with two kinds of attacks. One, they called us anti-Semitic and insensitive because we brought such a resolution on the high holiday of our Jewish siblings, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that we are trying to single out Israel. And, frankly, we worked very hard because we thought it is timely not because we like to exercise our rights, which is we have all the right to do it. Timely because we built on it over the years. This is not the first time we wrote a resolution. We did it before but 10 years ago, 11 years ago, there were no takers. As a matter of fact, the only interesting person council member then it was from the Republican Party. We didn’t call for BDS, then. But at the same time, he told me to go and talk to the left. If they accept it, I’m accepting it. This time, we called every member of the council and we sent the resolution. We talked to our progressive members within the Burlington City Council. We had success with six of them and one independent who became the sponsor of the resolution. Now, all this talk, and we sent the resolution to the lawyers of the city to make a comparison on what the effect is on the city. Because we didn’t call the city for divestment. We called for the respect of boycott, divestment and sanctions. And it had been sent to the mayor too.

All through this time, we didn’t hear anything. The Friday before Monday when the council was supposed to meet four of our local rabbis, they came up with a statement in our local newspaper attacking the resolution. Immediately after we saw hundreds of emails going to the council member and the mayor to reject it. There was huge pressure on the sponsor council member Ali Dieng to withdraw before it comes to Monday. We rejected all that. We felt that some of the council members started to stop answering our calls. We felt the people who answered our calls, they were telling us about these emails coming from all over the United States. And it was two kinds of letters that later we discovered came from Israeli lobbying groups like ICANN and ADL, the Anti-Defamation League. And the second surprise, is that some of the rabbis who attack the resolution are people we met on other occasions, because we are not [only] working here on the Palestinian question.

We build the Palestinian question through social and racial work on the ground. So we sometimes see many members of the Jewish congregations and synagogues standing up with migrants, and we bring up the subject that we are migrants too. They stand with Black Lives Matter, and we bring up the apartheid racism which exists in Israel. Against the southern wall, we talk about the wall they are building over there. Environmentalists about what’s happening in our water over there and the shoreline. So all our issues are the same issues we are fighting here in the United States. And we put a comparison between the inequity, the racial divides we are living here, on education, on health care, on housing, and in the judicial system. And we make a comparison, based on a lot of studies conducted by Human Rights Watch, by Israeli human rights organizations like B’Tselem, like Addameer and others.

So we were not blindfolded when we went there, we were not adventurous, we had seven votes from those that read the resolution. Nobody brought up the subject of anti-Jewish or anti-Semitism because, we too, are fighting against anti-Semitism. We, too, are fighting against Islamophobia and any kind of racism. So nobody brought up that issue. That includes the mayor who came up with a statement against the resolution, Monday at noon. So we know even if we have the seven, that we didn’t have a majority proof, even though we were banking on another two votes from the Democratic caucus, that they were undecided and they want to talk more about it, they want to study it. But we were sure that the subject of policy of human rights and equal rights and our rights as American citizens will be respected in Burlington City. Before we went into the city hall, we had a huge rally. I mean, over 150 people. And we went to the city hall, but 10 minutes after six when the rally [started] we learned that one of the greatest supporters within the council was not going to show up.

So we knew our situation was on shaky ground because she was very sick. But we entered over there and the council who sponsored our resolution said I am under so much pressure to pull it out and I’ve been called left and right about it. And, frankly, he told me he is scared for his family, for his daughter, for his well-being. I mean, he told me things that he didn’t tell anybody. Like traveling on Tuesday overseas, and people will tell him “Oh, have a nice trip.” So he felt like his life was threatened. But we insisted that we needed the debate. The debate is necessary.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: And it is going to happen. Is that right? Do you have a date for when that is?

Wafic Faour: No, it took place, then evening. I mean, it started at 7:30 and we left the city hall at two o’clock in the morning. So the debate happened, and the people who were forcing our council member, the sponsor, at the end, even though we were two to one, and you can go to the video, you can see the difference. The difference is what we are living now. You have a mix of people who look like the future of this country, coming from all walks of life with all the colors possible, standing with us standing with the Palestinian human rights and equal rights for racial justice too. And you have the older generation of Zionist Jewish, they repeated the same thing that bringing this issue during the holy days was anti-Semitic. And they called us all names possible. And we were two to one on that. But in the end, they insisted that our opponents on the council put things to the vote. And when we knew our numbers are not sufficient even to vote for, and that we are threatened by veto, we asked our council member to pull it out and we will bring it on another day. And the vote can tell you this is the outcome because the six voted to pull it out and not to shelve it. And our opponents had five votes.

So how to describe this? Absolutely, we didn’t win the resolution we hoped for. But they lost. They lost the vote they wished for, because they call it we want to put everybody on the record and they made the whole debate about anti-Semitism. So we are preparing now for the next round. We are in contact with the same council members, and we are going through education and we can talk about it more.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thanks for that. And, you know, the way that these Israel lobby groups are attacking people who stand up for Palestinian rights, of course, you know, this is a very well-worn smear campaign of anti-Semitism. You know, when it has absolutely nothing to do with acts of bigotry against Jews, how do you activists fight that? What’s the advice that you can give to activists who are considering this kind of campaign to get their local city council to act for Palestinian rights, or to support BDS? What do you say to activists who are like, “Oh, God, if I’m going to be, you know, smeared as an anti-Semite by these very powerful lobby groups, what’s the point? I might as well not even try.” What do you say to them?

Wafic Faour: I think as a Palestinian, I will say, we are now in a different place. So don’t ever lose hope of what will happen in the future. I mean the future with us. And in the end, we’re going to win because if we want to talk about justice and human rights, history is on our side. So don’t be shaken by these results. As a matter of fact, I want other cities and communities to take over this resolution, and we can help them too, from here, from Vermont to do it. We kept it local, we tried even not to bring religious figures, even though we have faith-based organizations supporting us, because we don’t want to make it religious. They brought four rabbis. And as a matter of fact, my biggest surprise at the end, the last speaker, who gave testimony was a Jewish rabbi, David Friedman from [Naturei Karta], as we call it an Arabic, even though they are a minority, but I believe he came from – his not from Burlington, definitely.

What I was going to say, the action itself to bring this debate to a city or to any municipality, by itself, it’s a victory. Because even the local newspapers and the local TV covered this occasion completely differently than what our opponents wished. We had a space for the first time to say what we believe and how the future was going to look like to build a peaceful community here and back in Palestine, Israel. So the action itself is a victory. And we will never accept that as a defeat. You know, as a matter of fact, they wish that the vote will be against us. And on the second day, they would say that Burlington rejected BDS, but Burlington is not rejecting BDS, you know. The other thing is, we are facing an attack, and now this is specific, based on a strategy, like let’s say, using the holidays as an excuse, as an attack, as an anti-Semitic [smear]. I learned later that it was the only other resolution and it didn’t come to the city of Cambridge, from activists or as we call them BDS-ers. It came from three council members to boycott HP, you know.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Hewlett-Packard, yeah.

Wafic Faour: Yeah. The first excuse was that they shouldn’t have brought it to the council on a holiday. And they created a holiday. I mean, they’re going to bring a holiday because we have only 365 days a year. And you’re going to find a holiday or commemoration every day, every week because of the long history of our Jewish siblings. So our opponents were using that. But here in Burlington, the strongest supporters we have are from our Jewish community, too. So don’t forget that. This is why I heard from so many personally, I received calls from members of the synagogues that they are revolting against it before the statement of the rabbis came in and after that. As a matter of fact, if you read this statement, the signatories of the statements, the four rabbis signed only their names as a rabbi of such congregations, but not by the boards, because many boards rejected.

And if you read The Forward article about what happened, many other rabbis rejected to sign on it. So we are in the right direction, because in the end, we the Palestinians, and the people who support us and the Jewish community, we’re going to live forever. I mean this is not a selective choice. This is our future together. So in the end, I believe we and many, many younger generations from our Jewish siblings are going to come to a conclusion that all of us will be proud of.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you, Wafic. You mentioned the Ben & Jerry’s campaign earlier and I want to kind of pivot a little bit to that. Vermonters for Justice in Palestine was really the spearhead group that took on the ice cream makers profiting from Israeli colonization. Can you tell us a little bit about your reaction to Ben & Jerry’s finally saying over the summer that they wouldn’t sell ice cream in the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank? And what are the next steps in that fight?

Wafic Faour: Ben & Jerry’s, this is the thing. I mean, we were definitely excited about the statements. We’ve been working on this campaign for over 10 years, and we met Ben & Jerry’s executives, and we tried to negotiate for something to come out. They went on multiple trips to educate themselves about the situation over there. But many times they shut the door in our faces. To come to that conclusion, on two occasions, at least, we were on the streets for Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day and a big festival in Burlington called ArtHub, where Ben & Jerry’s part of relating to our local community, they give free ice cream. We used Ben & Jerry’s campaign for education, because as you know, for the longest time, and until now, many Americans will say why are you talking about Palestine-Israel, it’s far away, we have nothing to do with it. So to relate the subject that benefiting and profiting from occupation is against international law, we use these tools. But the majority of us were older in Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, and for that, a younger generation of activists, mainly I will give credit to an organization called Decolonize Burlington.

After 15 May, the commemoration of the Nakba Day rally, which had hundreds of people, almost 500 people showed up. And we had petitioned to Ben & Jerry’s. They took Ben & Jerry’s to their account, and they put it on Instagram, on Twitter. And within three, four days, they shut Ben & Jerry’s twitter completely and we stopped seeing anything come from Ben & Jerry’s. And they forced Ben & Jerry’s to come to the table to talk to them, from board members, which we know are progressives, but they were absolutely timid to make that move. Of course, we knew that there was a statement coming and we were waiting for it. But when it came in the form of over three different statements, it built confusion. We have the statements of the board, which is very clear: we’re leaving at the end of 2022 from Israel and occupied Palestine. And the other one from the executive: we are leaving by 2022, but we’re going to stay in Israel in one form or another. And the parent company Unilever, which is: we are not leaving.

But now we are facing a new dynamic that many states because of anti-BDS laws are boycotting Unilever and divesting and we heard I think from recently from Florida, from New Jersey, and I believe maybe Arizona, and Texas are studying it. I called our activists, I told them that this is our opportunity, for all means boycott and BDS, and let’s adopt one kind of a product and go for it like Pillsbury, or Puma or any other product. Yes. But it’s an opportunity to go after the anti-BDS laws. Us locally and all across the United States. We have to prepare ourselves to go after such unlawful and unethical ways. Some state that they are putting an American First Amendment in jeopardy. So it will be the actual debate between us and the American public. It’s freedom of speech to some but not to others. You know, I know I feel as a Palestinian like others, like Black people, like the migrants and Indigenous people. The otherization exists. But when it comes to the First Amendment, this is a test for the American Constitution and the lawmakers. And I am wondering, when all of us activists across the United States will go after these laws, because every time these laws went to the court, they lost.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, in all federal courts, they’ve been denounced as unconstitutional. Right?

Wafic Faour: Yes.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: Wafic, if people want to get in touch with you and your group and want to learn more about what’s happening in Burlington, where can they go? What can they do?

Wafic Faour: vtjp.org. Our organization. And or if you want my phone number, you can ask Nora.

​​Nora Barrows-Friedman: I’ll weed out the queries there. Wafic Faour from Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, thank you so much for all that you do and for being with us today on The Electronic Intifada Podcast. Please do keep us posted about what’s happening in Burlington.

Wafic Faour: Thank you, Nora. Love to talk to you. Take care.

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

Subscribe to The Electronic Intifada Podcast on Apple Podcasts (search for The Electronic Intifada) and on Spotify. Support our podcast by rating us, sharing and leaving a review. You can also donate to fund our work.


Add new comment

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).