We are joined by Olivia Katbi, the North American coordinator with the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the coalition of Palestinian organizations that leads the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement worldwide.
Lawmakers and organizations are busy, Katbi says, “putting out statements that say they stand with Ukraine; and many of these same individuals and entities, when they are asked to do the same for Palestine, they say that they either can’t make political decisions, they don’t get involved in foreign policy.”
“Or even worse,” Katbi adds, “they are the same politicians and same organizations who have been working to demonize and criminalize boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.”
Katbi tells us that it is critical to understand the difference between the brutal sanctions being imposed on Russia – which are also applied to Venezuela, Cuba, Iran and other states labeled as “enemies” of the West – and the kind of sanctions that the BDS campaign calls for.
By design, she says, the intention of these Western sanctions against Russia and other states “is to strangle the general population … they restrict access to food, medicine, energy, other resources that people need to survive, essentially, with the goal of inciting a revolt.”
The sanctions Palestinians are calling for in the BDS movement, she explains, “are first and foremost about governments just fulfilling their legal obligations to end Israeli apartheid, and not aid or assist in its maintenance.”
When politicians and businesses are implementing these sweeping actions against Russia, “it’s not BDS,” Katbi says.
“We wouldn’t use the BDS acronym to describe the actions they’re taking, because BDS is a very specific call for very specific actions based on complicity, not based on identity or political opinion.”Katbi points out that businesses, institutions and governments are unintentionally giving Palestine rights activists an opportunity to expand the BDS campaign.
“They are setting a precedent for themselves,” she says. “Now we know that you can take this kind of action, you are doing it right now.”
“It will make it harder for them to [say] ‘our hands are tied.’ That’s the most common response we get when we go up against big institutions with BDS campaigns, “she adds.” And now they’re proven to us that that’s not true. I think it will make it a little easier.”
Palestine Working Group chartered by DSA
We also speak with writer and activist Omar Zahzah to update us on the current situation around the dechartering of the BDS Working Group by the leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
This past week, the national leadership of the DSA spiked both the working group’s website and Twitter accounts.
They “decided to go ahead and nuke the Palestine solidarity and BDS working group. And the language they use in the DSA is dechartering. And what that means is that the working group is officially disbanded,” Zahzah explains.
DSA’s National Political Committee also banned members of the working group’s steering committee from leadership positions for one year.The Palestine Solidarity and BDS working group of the DSA, “led the charge to call on the DSA to basically expel [Congressman] Jamaal Bowman for his votes for replenished funding for the Iron Dome,” Zahzah says, as well as Bowman’s acceptance of Israel lobby group junkets to Israel.
“At the end of the day, you have this large national organization, you claim all these socialist values, but you can still be somebody, apparently, who’s really in it for your own career interests, rather than actually advancing socialism. And there’s no way to actually hold that to account within the organization, which is troubling.”
The DSA Palestine solidarity working group has issued a sign-on statement admonishing the leadership for suspending them.
Articles we discussed
- “West’s response to Russian invasion demolishes excuses for rejecting BDS against apartheid Israel,” Palestinian BDS National Committee
- “Boycotting Russia compulsory, while boycotting Israel is punished,” Tamara Nassar
- “Western rush to ban everything Russian, from cats to Dostoevsky, smacks of totalitarianism,” Joseph Massad, Middle East Eye
- “DSA fails Palestine test by giving Jamaal Bowman a pass,” Ali Abunimah
- “DSA disbands Palestine solidarity working group as furor over Bowman continues,” Omar Zahzah, Mondoweiss
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, and you can also donate to fund our work.
Lightly edited for clarity.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: And welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman, with Asa Winstanley and we have a great interview coming up in a few minutes with Olivia Katbi of the boycott, the Palestinian Boycott National Committee, the BNC. And in that interview, which was done last week, we talked a little bit about the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America. And Olivia is a member of the DSA, but she was speaking to us in her capacity as a BNC coordinator. But since that interview, the DSA has basically obliterated the Palestine Working Group and has, you know, kind of nuked the BDS capacity of the DSA. So we wanted to kind of get a little update from someone who’s been following this very carefully. Omar Zahzah, who’s an activist and a writer and contributor to The Electronic Intifada. Omar, thank you so much for being with us again on the EI podcast. I think you’ve been on at least once before.
Omar Zahzah: Thank you for having me.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, Omar, this sounds to me a little bit like the pure chicanery that has been happening in the Labour Party over the last, well, since 2015 really. It just sounds like pure backstabbing. There was a lot of that going on in the Labor Party left over the last few years. Especially so you know, talk us through this a bit. Explain it to me.
Omar Zahzah: Yeah. Thank you again. So basically, I mean, I think as you know, both of us have been following you know, like all of this really – it didn’t actually start with Bowman, but I think publicly is when it really came into focus with Bowman so as you may remember …
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Jamaal Bowman, the congressman.
Omar Zahzah: Yeah. Yeah. There was a basically the Palestine Solidarity and BDS working group of the DSA, you know, led the charge to, you know, call on the DSA to basically expelled Jamaal Bowman, because, you know, for his votes for replenished funding for the Iron Dome, but also for his really opportunistic, you know, taking of J Street junkets you know, to the Israeli state, he’s appearing at J Street, you know, town halls, basically to, you know, talk to them about whatever it is basically, it’s normalization of J Street, and in addition to this funding, right, so after that happened, the working group, you know, let a charge to have Bowman expelled from the DSA.
And this was interesting, because I think it’s one of those what you’d call a kind of the mask off moments for people who claim to support, you know, Palestinian liberation. And then you realize, you know, there’s kind of a parentheses there, they support Palestinian liberation, unless you attack a politician they like, and then they sort of come out, you know, full Zionist, essentially. And that’s kind of what happened, you know, it was interesting to watch the way that this split, you know, even the droves of supporters or erstwhile supporters, you know, people saying that, you know, this is just a rogue band of activists or wreckers or people who really have no idea how electoral politics work, you know, all this stuff.
And meanwhile, you know, the NPC issued some kind of a backpedaling thing saying, well, you know, what we’re gonna do is we’re going to give him one more opportunity to prove he’s an ally to the Palestinian people. And then, you know, if he does not fulfill that, you know, we’ll you know, whatever. And so …
Nora Barrows-Friedman: The NPC is like the national leadership body of the DSA, right?
Omar Zahzah: Yes, thank you. It stands for national political committee. They’re basically the highest decision making body they’re the, you know, by what they like to constantly refrain at this point, the democratically elected leadership of the DSA. So, you know, after that happens, you know, it’s sort of I think, public – This is the difference: like there had been tensions between the working group and the NPC for some time, but the Bowman issue is what really brought it into focus. And I think the Bowman issue is what in many ways accelerated it, right.
So basically, you know, now we’re at a point where, you know, I wrote about this for Mondoweiss, you know, the NPC actually decided to go ahead and nuke the Palestine solidarity and BDS working group. And you know, the language they use in the DSA is dechartering. And what that means is that the working group is officially disbanded. And they say that, you know, it’s going to be folded into their international committee. So you know, our organization that’s tasked with international work as though Palestine has nothing to do with the United States, because it’s not like we have anti-BDS laws.
It’s not like, you know, we have politicians who continuously vote for replenishing, you know, Israeli genocide or anything like that. And the other issue with that, though, I think, in addition, this is important to know, in addition to the kind of principle of why this is offensive is that that leadership is also going to be handpicked by the NPC. So it’s basically we’re throwing you into an organization that is tasked with international work, we’re hand taking the leadership that’s going to manage you. And you know, it also basically, this is a punishment for the working group within the DSA, you know, they are not allowed to have – the steering committee members are not allowed to hold democratically, or sorry, hold national leadership positions for one year. So they’re basically on some kind of probation. You know, basically for their principled work for Palestine.
Asa Winstanley: DSA Democratic Socialists of America, it doesn’t sound very democratic, but it does sound quite American. Or British, for that matter, like handpicked sort of puppet leaders.
Omar Zahzah: Exactly. Yeah. And I guess one other thing I’ll kind of throw in here is that I think it’s important for the viewership to understand, you know, how the process of, you know, politicians being endorsed by the DSA works. And you know, there’s basically two tracks for this, right? One track is that you’re actually a DSA member, you know, and who decides eventually to run for some kind of political office and you run fully on DSA principles, you know, and that’s what’s called a cadre candidate. Versus there are politicians who will seek DSA endorsements, you know, who were not previously DSA members, and that’s what happened with Jamaal Bowman.
And so you know, you still need to go through some kind of a vetting process for this, you need to be vetted by a local chapter and by a national chapter, or sorry, by the national before you’re actually endorsed in this way. But what we found, you know, is that actually what had happened is that for his national endorsement forum, Jamaal Bowman had said he is explicitly against, you know, he would vote against funding, right, funding Israeli military funding. And then what has happened, you know, this is the other, like, really ridiculous thing is that revelations keep coming out that show that the NPC was basically duped by this politician, and they continue to double down and attack the working group. Because I think they embarrassed them so badly for being such incompetent leaders. So in an interview, recently, Bowman said that he would have always voted, he said, voting for the Iron Dome is something I would have always voted for, even if it was independent. Right. So this is important, because I think, you know, to be fair, and kind of throw people a bone like these…
Asa Winstanley: Sorry, even if what was independent?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Even if he wasn’t endorsed by the DSA?
Omar Zahzah: Even if money for the Iron Dome had been presented within an independent context, I would have voted for that. Like he says, I voted yes for that. And I would have voted for that on principle in general. So he kind of eliminated this pretense that politicians often use, which is, you know, that sometimes funding for Iron Dome or funding for other things is smuggled into larger packages. In this case, he said, literally, I voted for it on principle, and I would vote regardless of whatever the, you know, whatever the pretense for it.
Asa Winstanley: So what is the DSA leadership’s justification for how are they sort of justifying Bowman on that? Are they saying this as okay, what he’s done? Or are they just sort of saying, Oh, well, you know, we may disagree with him, but he’s still a good comrade?
Omar Zahzah: What they’re saying. I mean, this is kind of like, you know, people who are kind of cultists for Biden at this point, you know, Bowman can still move left, you know, we shouldn’t be holding, you know, we shouldn’t be punishing people who are as you’re saying good comrades, who can eventually come around. Really, actually, their ultimate excuse is that, you know, they’re claiming that the Palestine working group was being antagonistic, you know, it was bullying, engaging in all of these hostile behaviors and they had no choice, you know, as good leadership …
Asa Winstanley: It sounds very familiar to me. Yeah, a little bit. Bullying. Yeah.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: You know, and this is only – this is the Palestine exception. This is only applied to people who are advocating for Palestinian rights and advocating for the US government to stop funding human rights violations against Palestinians. I mean, this is, you know, and what this also points to, is that the – is that there is a rot in the system, even on the so called, you know, progressive, you know, left left leaning section of, you know, the political establishment, that the DSA is so willing to throw Palestinians under the bus in order to get closer to the center of power, and and basically, you know, not be an opposition party to the Democrats, the neoliberal Democrats, but essentially, you know, work with them, and, you know, basically support them when it comes to standing by Israel. It’s despicable.
Omar Zahzah: Yes, 100 percent, you know, and I, I think it’s also important to note that at the end of the day, you know, a lot of these folks wear many hats and they’re not just DSA, you know, and I’m talking more about the NPC in the higher echelons of DSA at this point, you know, many of them actually have relationships with Bowman’s office, right. And they’re invested in having some kind of career through that, they’re invested in doing things like being, you know, perhaps chosen individuals to work on the campaign’s that he’s going to initiate, you know, for example, the Green New Deal is very big, you know, he’s got the Green New Deal for Public Schools Act. And so this is kind of a known conflict of interest, but it’s not one that’s ever really been able to be called out before. And you know, that’s – at the end of the day, you have this large, you know, national organization, you claim all these socialist values, but you can still be somebody apparently, who’s really in it for your own career interests, rather than actually advancing socialism. And there’s no way to actually hold that to account within the organization which is troubling.
Asa Winstanley: This is exactly the same problem in the Labour Party, you know, that during the Jeremy Corbyn years, it was exactly the same thing. You know, there was this whole layer of young opportunists, I would say, who wanted a career in the Labour Party, albeit the sort of Corbynite wing, the Labour left wing, and quite often these people basically smothered the project, as they called it, there’s jargon of the project. And it was all a bit vague what the project meant anyway, of Corbynism. And yeah, you know, the whole impetus of wanting to – being desperate for jobs and being proximate to the centers of power really undermined any kind of actually existing socialism coming out on top in the Labour Party. And it sounds like a very familiar thing.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Finally, Omar, what, you know, you’ve been following this very closely. You know, what are people within the working – the BDS Working Group at the DSA doing right now? What is – is there any sort of organizing or appeals, you know, to the, to the national leadership of the party, to reverse course, and take Palestinian rights seriously?
Omar Zahzah: Yeah, thank you for asking that. Right now, you know, as of right now, there is a statement that’s been written by the working group, you know, basically calling on the national leadership to reverse its decision to decharter. And then, you know, they’re – so they’re asking for sign-ons to that, they’re all they also have a form for people to email, the national leadership, you know, basically, reiterating that message. And, you know, I think also more broadly, it’s really important to continue to call attention to this and to really vocally publicly oppose the NPCs actions and say, you know, again, that as you said, this is a Palestine exception. This has nothing to do with socialism. This is basically just honestly, its mask-off fascism at this point.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, the the method used to do this is literally a fascist method, you know, mass reporting a Twitter account that you disagree with, because, you know, to Twitter, that is literally what fascists do to left wing accounts, you know, and it’s unfortunate that this has come from a so called left wing organization.
Omar Zahzah: Exactly. And mass reporting it after you’ve already nuked their website. So this was, up until this point, the last refuge that they had to communicate. So this is a very, you know, calculated measure to make sure that the working group has no means of communicating to its followers, right?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Amazing. Well, Omar Zahzah, thank you so much for giving us a quick update before we head into our fantastic interview with Olivia Katbi of the BNC coming up in just a minute. Omar Zahzah, you can read their reports on The Electronic Intifada. You’re also with Eyewitness Palestine and Palestinian Youth Movement. Thank you so much and we’ll be, we’ll be right back.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman with Asa Winstanley. As institutions and political bodies in Western countries initiate sweeping boycotts of Russian products, cultural figures, athletes and corporations over the invasion of Ukraine, it has suddenly become justifiable. But as our colleague Tamara Nassar points out, “apparently only as long as it is Russia. Astonishingly, many of the anti-Russia measures are being implemented by the very same organizations that repeatedly ignored or rejected Palestinian calls to sanction Israel, their oppressor.”
As friend of the show, Joseph Massad recently wrote in Middle East Eye, “the Russia-phobic campaign straddles the entire Western political spectrum and it is fully endorsed by Western liberals and cultural elites.” To help us make sense of the current situation is Olivia Katbi, the North American coordinator with the Palestinian BDS National Committee, or the BNC, the coalition of Palestinian organizations that leads and supports the BDS movement worldwide. She joins us from Portland, Oregon. Olivia, thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.
Olivia Katbi: Thank you so much for having me, longtime listener, second time caller maybe?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: I think so! Good to have you back. Let’s talk about the statement that was recently issued by the BNC that points out and calls to attention the absurd hypocrisy of what we’re seeing around the world. We see the rush by corporations to end all their business ties to Russia, symphonies are now firing Russian musicians if they don’t sign a pledge, pledging, you know, to hate Russia as much as Americans are supposed to.
Universities and cultural institutions are banning books and cultural work by long dead Russian authors and artists, or even the banning of Russian cats at cat shows, when at the same time, the BDS movement has been constantly smeared and vilified by major corporations and institutions. Can you comment on what’s happening, and lay out how the BNC puts it, “The West’s response to the Russian invasion demolishes excuses for rejecting BDS against apartheid Israel?”
Olivia Katbi: Totally, you know, as you mentioned, the statement that we put out cites the way that all of these politicians and corporations, I mean, even nonprofits and community groups in the US and the West, are rushing to boycott, divest from and sanction Russia. You know, they’re putting out statements that say they stand with Ukraine, and many of these same individuals and entities either say, you know, when they are asked to do the same for Palestine, they say that they either can’t make political decisions, they don’t get involved in foreign policy. Or even worse, they are the same politicians and same organizations who have been working to demonize and criminalize boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
And we have politicians in the US who are trying to pass laws to criminalize BDS at the state level, and are also pushing their states to boycott and divest from Russia. Governors are a great example – governors of all 50 states signed an anti-BDS letter a couple years ago. Now we’re seeing a wave of governors ordering their state-run liquor stores to deshelve Russian vodka.
Here in Oregon, we have had activists, unions, even some members of Congress, call on our state to divest from NSO, the Israeli spyware company that has a long list of human rights violations. The Oregon pension fund is actually one of the largest investors in the private equity firm that owns NSO. Our state treasurer and the Oregon investment council told us they can’t divest from NSO because they are not allowed to make political decisions. They have to invest based on what’s a good investment, even though NSO is obviously a bad investment now that it’s even been blacklisted by the Biden administration. But anyway, two weeks ago, the same state treasurer put out a statement saying he was directing the Oregon investment council to divest from Oregon’s Russian assets because the state of Oregon stands with Ukraine. That is what he said. A very clear political statement.
So the hypocrisy is so incredible to witness here and just lies, you know, we can’t make political decisions, but you can make political decisions – for your allies. And that seems to really be the key thing here is that Israel is a US ally, Russia is a US enemy. Some of the anti-BDS, the state level anti-BDS legislation, even specifically uses that language, it says you can’t target Israel as a US ally, with boycotts. And that’s, unfortunately, the underlying current that we’re seeing here. You know, there are no universal principles of respecting human rights and international law, and, you know, opposing illegal or immoral actions, it’s just about who is a US ally, and who is an enemy.
And I think last one, I want to say here is that when these politicians and businesses are taking these actions against Russia, it’s not BDS, we wouldn’t use the BDS acronym to describe the actions they’re taking, because BDS is a very specific call for very specific actions based on complicity, not based on identity or political opinion. And so with Russia, we are seeing, like you said, individual musicians targeted because they happen to be Russian, dead Russian writers, Russian cats, BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals, because they happen to be Israeli, or because of their political opinion. You know, obviously people can make their own decisions.
That is not what the BDS movement calls for. We call for boycotting institutions and companies that are complicit in Israel’s regime of apartheid and occupation. And only in circumstances where individuals are either representing the Israeli state or a complicit institution, or are participating in you know, those sort of like rebrand Israel efforts, then that might be grounds for a boycott, but it is really context sensitive, depending on level of complicity. And that is not the case with what we’re seeing with Russia, not to mention the sanctions piece and how different that is, and what BDS calls for, and we can get into that.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, what you say about the justification for opposing BDS being that you’re not allowed to make political decisions – We’ve kind of seen this in the UK as well, except that the Tory Government has just made it explicit. Like they just say, Well, you can’t – the local government is not allowed to make decisions that differ from the national government. So the British government’s policy is to support Israel, so you’re not allowed to do any kind of sanction that goes against national government policy. So I mean, yeah, we see these efforts, although, I mean, I guess the British government keeps saying they’re going to change the law to ban BDS, but they’re not, they’re still not quite doing it. And personally, I don’t think they will be able to do it. Oh, that was a bit of a tangent there. But do you have a view on that?
Olivia Katbi: Yeah, I mean, I don’t have a view specifically on what is happening in the UK. But I would say I think it just goes back to, you know, Israel is their ally, and Russia is not. And that’s what it comes down to.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah. So we’ve seen some self proclaimed progressives that have insinuated that if you support the BDS movement, then you should also support sanctions on Russia as if these are the same thing. Can you talk a bit about the difference between US or Western-led imperialist sanctions being tightened against Russia as they are against many other countries around the world, which are, you know, quite often socialist in character, or at least perceived to be official enemies of the United States. Can you talk about the difference between those kinds of sanctions and the kind of sanctions that the BDS campaign calls for?
Olivia Katbi: Yeah, definitely. So the call for sanctions from the BDS movement is very different from the very brutal and crippling sanctions imposed by the US and other Western powers on their enemies like those we are now seeing starting to be imposed on Russia and, you know, on Iran, Iraq, Cuba, Venezuela. These kinds of illegal and immoral sanctions are, by design, their intention is to strangle the general population, you know, they restrict access to food, medicine, energy, other resources that people need to survive, essentially, with the goal of inciting a revolt. You know, the US government has said this, you know, they strangle the people, and they hope that people will blame their government and revolt and potentially overthrow it if their government fails to comply with us or NATO demands.
And, most famously, I think that the very brutal US-led sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s are a great example of these kinds of sanctions. You know, those sanctions on Iraq were estimated to have caused the deaths of over half a million children. And, you know, we knew that was intentional. Everyone said it wasn’t intentional, you know, it was not just oops, collateral damage. You know, very famously, when she was asked about the half a million children that Madeleine Albright responded, “We think the price is worth it.” So the difference is that the sanctions we are calling for in the BDS movement are first and foremost about governments just fulfilling their legal obligations to end Israeli apartheid, and not aid or assist in its maintenance. So that means banning business with illegal Israeli settlements and apartheid and ending military security funding, trade and research canceling free trade agreements, as well as suspending Israel’s membership in international forums like FIFA, you know, things that are so hypocritically on display now with Russia.
But the foremost demand of the BDS movement is to end complicity. And that is really front and center what we mean when we call for sanctions. So the US not only, as we know, they fight any attempt to hold Israel accountable to international law, but we also provide Israel with nearly $4 billion a year in military funding. So ending US military funding of Israel, you know, that’s not even a call for sanctions, but for fulfilling a legal obligation to stop supporting Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. You know, that is not something that’s designed to hurt innocent people. But it is something that we are framing as a sanction when we call for sanctions with BDS, that’s how it differs from these illegal immoral sanctions that that the West imposes on its enemies.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Olivia, what can you say – I mean, more, you know, kind of circling back to just the like, astonishing hypocrisy and double standards being applied to Russia, while you know, institutions keep making up excuses why they can’t hold Israel accountable or respond to calls for the the boycott of apartheid Israel.
The other day, you were tweeting about this – the Sierra Club, you know, had announced that it was hearing from, you know, BDS campaigners and Palestinians, who were protesting the trips that that the Sierra Club was planning to take to Israel – kind of, you know, I mean, we all see it as part of Israel’s greenwashing campaign, of course, to try and like portray Israel as this like beacon of, you know, ecological environmental protection and, you know, all of that. So, as soon as the Sierra Club announced that they were going to not, you know, hold these trips to Israel, the Israel lobby went into full damage control mode, and ended up pressuring the Sierra Club to reverse its decision just a couple of days later. You know, and they said, this whole thing of, you know, we don’t want to take a political stand. This is, you know, we don’t believe in politics, we believe in environmentalism. Meanwhile, they also published a statement on Ukraine. So what can you say about this as kind of an example of, of what we talked about when we talk about institutional double standards?
Olivia Katbi: Yeah, the Sierra Club is another great example of this hypocrisy we’ve been talking about, like you said, they put out a statement not too long ago, saying that they stand in solidarity with Ukraine. Someone had flagged for us last month that the Sierra Club had these outings scheduled Israel for this month, that are essentially greenwashing trips, you know, framing Israel as a beacon of environmentalism, going to go do birdwatching, saying nothing about Palestinians or the occupation, though, I think the description of one of the trips mentioned a Palestinian sunbird, which was kind of funny to us. So we got a coalition together of Palestinian organizations, the Movement for Black Lives was in the room, Indian Collective, which is an indigenous organization, Jewish Voice for Peace.
And we met with some of the executives in the Sierra Club and they were sent by Dan Chu, the CEO who was not in these meetings, but he empowered them to make a decision. And they actually did recommend to him that they not go forward with these trips. You know, the Sierra Club has been in a moment of trying to reckon with their very racist history as an environmental organization. And they’ve made statements in recent years, many statements about standing up for Black lives in these meetings, you know, they were all acknowledging what unceded territory they were calling in from when doing introductions, and we were just like, this is so tone deaf – unless you’re going to cancel these trips. So we were giving them, you know, this opportunity to work with us. Once it got out, you know, the ADL began pressuring them and the backlash began, big name funders were pressuring them. And then Dan Chu, the CEO, came out with a statement saying it was a hasty mistake, they’ll reschedule the trips to Israel for the summer. And when we talked to him, he was trying to say, Oh, we thought you just wanted to help us make these trips more balanced, essentially, I guess maybe setting them up to meet with a Palestinian. So the word Palestine or Palestinian never even came out of his mouth.
Asa Winstanley: This is a trend like in recent years, like it’s a real, quite strong trend with the Israel lobby in the last few years on the more liberal end where they try and say, Well, you can just still do these trips. And you can also visit with Palestinians, you know,
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right. Yeah, play our concert in Tel Aviv, you can also play a concert in Ramallah if the Palestinians want you to. Yeah.
Olivia Katbi: Yeah. We were very clear that no, this is an active picket line from the people indigenous to the land, and you are crossing it. And there’s no way to make a trip to an apartheid state fair and balanced, there are no two sides, or there are, you know, occupied and occupied. Apartheid state and those subjected to apartheid. Those are the two sides that you were talking about here. And now you are taking the side of the apartheid regime. So that’s what happened with the Sierra Club.
And I think, you know, more broadly, this is an opportunity for us to – first to point out the hypocrisy of these organizations like the Sierra Club, universities, other you know, organizations that try to present themselves as progressive or who are issuing statements standing in solidarity with Ukraine, instituting divestment policies against Russia, boycotting Russia, you know, saying, essentially, we have asked you to do the same thing, you have refused for these reasons. Now, you’re going back on your word, and you’re suddenly able to take these kinds of actions. I think a lot of the time, corporations and institutions say they respect human rights, especially corporations, a lot of them have corporate human rights policies, but they don’t actually act on them. And this is actually the first time for many entities that we’re seeing them act on their “values.”
So I think we should use that to hold their feet to the fire. General Mills is another example. General Mills is a target of the BDS movement, because they own Pillsbury. And they manufacture Pillsbury products in the Atarot industrial zone, which is illegally occupied Palestinian land. They have a corporate human rights policy, they have repeatedly told us that they cannot do anything about this. They’re respecting the rights of Palestinians who work at these factories. They basically use Palestinians as like a diversity quota, like it’s excusable to do business and occupation, because we’re providing jobs to help Palestinians. Right now they’re withdrawing their business from Russia. And this is an opportunity for us to point out for companies like General Mills, for other actors, like, Hey, by taking this action against Russia, you’re setting this precedent for yourself now. We’re just holding you to your own standards that you are setting here with your actions.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, I mean, I think we’re going to see more of that. So, yeah, I’ve been thinking that a lot recently, over the last few weeks with all this – I mean, to me, it’s hysteria, like it’s anti-Russian hysteria, whereas more like, people want to be seen to be doing something about the bad thing. And so therefore, it’s like, hey, you know, I stand with Ukraine.
Olivia Katbi: And it’s an uncontroversial position.
Asa Winstanley: You’ve literally got Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Britain, sorry to bring it back to Britain again. Anyway, yes. So yeah, Boris Johnson going on to a video on Twitter and saying Solava Ukraine, the Glory to Ukraine, this literally fascist slogan. And it’s like, yeah, you know, I read that Netflix dropped an adaption of Anna Karenina, because it was written by Leo Tolstoy, who was this, you know, long dead Russian pacifist, as we’ve mentioned, I suppose, but I mean it so it is kind of crazy. And it’s like, people are not thinking the implications through of how is this actually helping the situation?
How is it a targeted boycott in any way? It’s just, well, Russia’s bad. Let’s boycott everything Russian, and BDS has always been the antithesis of that. So but at the same time, on a simple level, I suppose it is like that you’ve been saying it is going to set precedents for people in a way where it’s going to be able to make people think again of sort of like, well, actually, yeah, we just boycotted everything Russian. So what’s actually so bad about a targeted boycott – against complicit companies?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Strategic –
Olivia Katbi: They’re no longer able to say we can’t take positions on foreign policy issues,
Asa Winstanley: Yeah. And it makes I suppose it – I mean, we all know that, like, these rules are not universal, and they’re not going to be applied in the same way. However, it does, it will make it harder in these sorts of ways for these kinds of pretexts to be put up. So how do you think that people on the left and BDS activists, especially students, and trade union activists, who’ve been trying to pressure their universities, for example, to break institutional ties with Israeli companies and Israeli institutions that are complicit and involved in the occupation of Palestine? How do you think those kinds of activists can, you know, use, I suppose, this kind of moment and these kinds of precedents that are being set to their advantage in the BDS movement in the near future?
Olivia Katbi: Yeah, like I said, I think this is just an opportunity for us to point out that these actors, universities, governments, institutions, are setting a precedent for themselves. I think, for example, here in Oregon, where we’ve been campaigning against NSO and our state’s investment in NSO, they’ve told us they can’t take a position on foreign policy issues, they have to do it on whether or not it’s a good investment. Now, they’re making a political statement on standing with Ukraine and divesting from Russian assets, which I think the state of Oregon has like $122 million of Russian assets versus the almost $300 million that they invested in Novalpina Capital, which is the private equity firm that owns NSO. And so I think, you know, they are setting a precedent for themselves. Now, we know that you can take this kind of action, you are doing it right now. Not to mention, it is a bad investment. I think, like you said, Asa, it will make it harder for them to weasel out of not being able, you know, everyone always says, our hands are tied. That’s the most common response we get when we go up against big institutions with BDS campaigns. And now they’re proven to us that that’s not true. I think it will make it a little easier.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Well, finally, you know, this is also an opportunity to put even more pressure on politicians who are, you know, changing their avatars to the Ukrainian flag, while, you know, professing to be progressive or antiwar. And, you know, I think it would be good to talk about how grassroots activists, antiwar activists, BDS campaigners can use this opportunity to pressure progressives, especially as the midterm elections approach.
Can you talk a little bit about, you know, people like Jamaal Bowman, who was supported by the DSA and had espoused a lot of Palestine, you know, rights language before his election, and now has really backtracked, as a BNC representative, what can you say about the positions of people like … Yeah, as a BNC representative, what can you say about the positions of people like Bowman, and other progressives who are, you know, saying that they stand with Ukraine, that they support a boycott of Russia, but when it comes to Israel, that said, you know, that’s a step too far. What can people do now?
Olivia Katbi: Yeah, so I think probably some people listening to this will know that I’m a DSA member for full disclosure. I’ve been active in DSA since 2016. But I’m speaking here as the North America coordinator for the BDS movement. I think we can talk another time about my perspective as a DSA member. But I think the BDS movement has been really excited about partnering with DSA ever since the organization endorsed BDS in 2017 and then founded the National BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group in 2019 to commit not just in principle to BDS, but in taking action. And I know one of the tasks of that working group has been to give DSA chapters and organizers and the national organization the political education and resources needed so that situations like the controversy around Bowman, are avoided in the future.
As the BNC, we don’t interfere in like decisions like DSA and political parties and other countries may, we did put out a statement recently reiterating our long held positions, the first being that the BDS call is a picket line, and traveling to Israel on propaganda trips, meeting with the Israeli prime minister, that is crossing the picket line. We also pointed out our principles on accountability and context sensitivity when it comes to politicians, and their positions on BDS and on Israel. And you know, the US is not the center of the world. There are so many political parties around the world who deal with the same issues. Some who deal with them, well, some who do not. And I think it would be good for DSA to take lessons from these parties. I mean, Chile just elected a pro-BDS president. That is massive.
So you know, the US is not the center of the world, but it is the center of support and military funding and providing international legitimacy for Israel. And so I think it’s crucially important that organizations like DSA who are having this huge rise in US politics take that seriously. And I think the fact that this was such a huge controversy, you know, everyone was talking about it. So many media articles came out about it. I think it shows that they are taking it seriously. And there is a lot of action being taken inside the organization to prevent this from happening in the future.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s great. My Siberian cat is behind us. His ears were perked when we were talking about cats. We are not boycotting him in this house.
Asa Winstanley: Oh, yeah, he’s Siberian.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: He’s a great, great guy. He always wants attention when the microphone is on. Finally, Olivia, what are some of the most significant BDS campaigns in the US and Europe around the world that the BNC is supporting? And what are you kind of anticipating in this, you know, next coming year of campaigning?
Olivia Katbi: Yeah, actually, I don’t know if you saw that some big news just came out this morning about the Deadly Exchange campaign, which is a campaign that was launched by Jewish Voice for Peace, to end police exchanges between US police officers and Israeli police and military. A lot of those exchanges are facilitated by the ADL. And the ADL had this memo from 2020 that was leaked, where they were really questioning, you know, continuing these exchanges, because of this campaign, saying, Oh, are we actually doing a bad thing? Are our US police officers coming back and instituting more racist, more harmful practices, because they have trained with the Israeli military?
And in that memo, they came to the conclusion that maybe we should end these trips, because there’s been so much controversy created by this campaign by Jewish Voice for Peace. Now, they have decided, because this memo has come out, they’re saying, No, we’re actually – we want to continue our commitment. We’re very committed to law enforcement. And we’re actually going to expand these programs. So they are doubling down,
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Of course, of course. Predictable.
Olivia Katbi: But you know, they did pause the exchanges for almost three years. And you know, of course, they’ll blame the pandemic. But it’s very clear that they were internally contemplating completely ending them because of this campaign. So I think it’s an opportunity now for us to escalate this campaign. And it’s just the ADL showing what their values are, you know, they’re doubling down their commitment to racist US police, and the ADL is actually the largest non-governmental trainer of US law enforcement, including ICE officers. And so I think it is a line in the sand, it should be a line in the sand for progressives that the ADL is not a progressive ally. And I think it is a big opportunity for the Deadly Exchange campaign.
Another big campaign happening in the US right now is a campaign called No Tech for Apartheid, which is being led by workers in Google and Amazon, who are opposing their employers’ contract – $1.2 billion contract for a cloud with the Israeli government. And over 1000 workers signed an open letter to their employers, which is, you know, very dangerous for them. Google has retaliated against some of them, but it’s it’s a really good opportunity to highlight the way that the tech industry at large is so complicit in repression of human rights and, and in apartheid in Israel. And it’s really cool that it’s being led by the workers in these companies who are saying, you know, we just want to make tech to help people we don’t want we don’t want it to be used for this horrible purpose. Yeah, there’s a lot of other campaigns happening locally in small coalitions around the US. And I think this is going to be a really good year to re-energize BDS campaigning.
Asa Winstanley: It’s amazing, like this. I mean, this is practically breaking news as we’re filming this. So it’s kind of going to date the episode when it comes out, but that’s okay. Yeah, I mean, it is amazing that this – I haven’t had a chance to actually read the details of it. But the fact that this was even contemplated by the ADL is massive, because, you know, this is, I mean, Nora, we should do a whole episode about the ADL.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Oh, yeah. We totally should, yeah.
Asa Winstanley: The history of the ADL. People don’t know that the ADL, I mean, we know, but I think, in America, the ADL is a very well-known organization publicly, as allegedly a group that stands for civil rights, as a group that defends, you know, Jewish people. But actually, it has this history of not only acting as a lobby group for Israel, but of literally operating, a spy ring targeting American citizens, and spying for Israel and spying in the 80s for the apartheid state of South Africa, you know, selling these files, this information on mostly American leftists and Arab groups and Palestine solidarity groups, Black activist groups in solidarity with South Africans living under the former apartheid regime, and they operated the spy ring.
You know, there’s a whole fascinating history there. So for a group that is so deeply in bed with Israel, to even contemplate ending these deadly exchange police training programs, I think if you know, it does show that – you know, there’s this cliche, they don’t call it the struggle for nothing. These kinds of long term campaigns are hard, like, people work on them for so long, and you just keep plugging away and plugging away. And, you know, as journalists writing about this area, as well, we’re always constantly repeating ourselves, and it gets weary. And it is a struggle. But it shows that struggle can work and struggle works. And it’s a long haul thing.
Olivia Katbi: Yeah. It’s interesting that you mentioned their long history of spying, because one of the things that police officers who went on these trips to Israel noted was like Israeli surveillance and how they use plainclothes officers in a way. Many of the police officers actually – the American police officer said, we can’t do most of the stuff that they’re doing because it’s – we would be in jail, it’s illegal, it’s unconstitutional. Not that ever stops US police officers from doing things but –
Asa Winstanley: In what way?
Olivia Katbi: They particularly commented on the brutal methods of arrest that Israeli police used.
Asa Winstanley: Undercovers.
Olivia Katbi: They commented on the Hollywood-style level of surveillance that they use against Palestinians, and specifically the way that they utilize plainclothes officers in addition to, like, all the crazy surveillance technology, just the way that they utilize officers for spying.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, like, I mean, as you will know, Olivia like, but to explain to our listeners and viewers that it’s very common for Israeli forces in the West Bank to use undercover officers to arrest Palestinians, who are dressed as Palestinians, as you know, consciously dressed up in a they infiltrate Palestinian communities in order to brutally arrest sometimes children, you know, for, for whatever it is on the pretext of whatever.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: And the ADL is going to be doubling down on you know, sharing those values with US police forces, just astonishing.
Asa Winstanley: Civil rights.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, exactly. For some, definitely not for all. Olivia, give us the details of how people can link up with the BNC and where they can find you on Twitter.
Olivia Katbi: Totally We have a lot of different BDS campaigns happening across the US you go to our website BDSmovement.net, go to get involved, you can find some groups that are working on BDS there. Follow the BDS movement on Twitter at @BDSmovement. You can follow me on Twitter at @OliviaKatbi. Thanks.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Awesome. Olivia, thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast and we will check in with you in the near future absolutely as these campaigns continue.
Olivia Katbi: Great. Thanks a lot.