Since the launch of the Palestinian boycott movement a few years ago, we have experienced an awkward phenomenon that demands urgent comment. Several organizations known for years — in some cases, decades — for their tireless Palestine solidarity work stood firmly against the Palestinian civil society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, BDS, issued on 9 July 2005, for various reasons. Some said such tactics were “harmful” to the Palestinian struggle. Others opined that BDS would undermine the so-called Israeli “peace” movement. Others, still, stated that boycotting Israel would invite accusations of anti-Semitism and betrayal of the Holocaust victims, thereby setting back Palestine solidarity work in a substantial way.
Many other arguments were written in thousands of articles over the years, but they were less significant or consequential, so I shall focus only on the above three.
Boycott is counter-productive?
Is it? Who is to judge? A call signed by more than 170 Palestinian political parties, unions, non-governmental organizations and networks, representing the entire spectrum of Palestinian civil society — under occupation, in Israel, and in the Diaspora — cannot be “counter-productive” unless Palestinians are not rational or intelligent enough to know or articulate what is in their best interest. This argument smacks of patronization and betrays a colonial attitude that we thought — hoped! — was extinct in liberal Europe.
Pragmatically speaking, the BDS process has proved over the past few years that it is among the most effective forms of civil, nonviolent Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonial and apartheid regime. The sheer breadth and depth of support this call has garnered among major trade unions, academic associations, church groups, and other grassroots organizations in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and even the United States, among others, attest to the efficacy and enormous potential of this campaign in resisting Israeli injustice. For the first time in decades, many movements in Europe, for instance, that have supported peace with justice in Palestine through demonstrations, public appeals and — mostly marginal — media work, discovered a process that they can actively and effectively contribute to and that promises to bring about concrete results on the ground, as proved to be the case in the struggle against apartheid struggle in South Africa. Judging by results so far, and as our South African comrades have told us repeatedly, our BDS campaign is moving at a faster pace than theirs ever did.
BDS undermines the Israeli “peace” movement?
What Israeli peace movement? There is no such creature. The so-called peace groups in Israel largely work to improve Israeli oppression against the Palestinians, rather than eliminate it, with their chief objective being the guarantee of Israel’s future as a “Jewish” — i.e. exclusivist — state. The most radical Israeli “Zionist-left” groups are still Zionist, adhering to the racist principles of Zionism that view the indigenous Palestinians as lesser humans that are an obstacle or a “demographic threat” to be dealt with. Specifically, they are opposed to the UN-sanctioned rights of the Palestinian refugees, ethnically cleansed during the establishment of the state, and ever since, to return to their homes and lands, simply because they are the “wrong” type. These groups also oppose ending the unique form of apartheid that dominates the entire State of Israel, where a decades-old system of racial discrimination, enshrined in the law, treats “non-Jewish” citizens of the state as second-class citizens who are not entitled to all the rights that Jewish citizens enjoy. If this is the Israeli “peace” movement, then no conscientious person should feel sorry about undermining it!
Those who claim that “most” Israelis simply do not know about the crimes of the occupation and need to be talked to, not boycotted, are not only assuming wrong premises, but also reaching a false conclusion. Most Israelis obediently serve in the occupation army without qualms or moral pangs, as part of the obligatory reserve duty. They, therefore, know first-hand about the occupation’s crimes since they either participate in committing them, directly, or watch them being perpetrated in silence, thereby indirectly colluding in them. Plus, the Palestinian BDS was never a blanket boycott against individual Israelis. It is consistently institutional in nature, targeting all Israeli academic, cultural, economic and political institutions, specifically because they are complicit in maintaining the occupation and other forms of racist and colonial oppression against the indigenous Palestinians. Finally, “talking” to Israelis, as in the flourishing “peace” industry’s dialogue groups, has not only been misleading and terribly harmful to the struggle for a just peace, giving the false impression that coexistence can be achieved despite the Zionist oppression, but has also failed to bring about any positive change in Israeli public opinion towards supporting justice as a condition for peace. The Israeli-Jewish public is steadily and dangerously shifting to the fanatic right, with a growing majority supporting fascist solutions, such as ethnic cleansing — called “transfer” in the sanitized Israeli mainstream jargon — of the remaining indigenous Palestinians.
Dialogue and joint Palestinian Israeli struggle can only be justifiable, constructive and conducive to just peace if directed against the occupation and other forms of oppression and based on international law and basic human and political rights, particularly our inalienable right to self determination.
Based on the above, the only true fighters for peace in Israel are those who support our three fundamental rights: the right of return for Palestinian refugees; full equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and ending the occupation and colonial rule. Those are our true partners. They ALL support various forms of BDS, not only out of principle, but also because they realize that genuine, sustainable peace and security for all can never be achieved without justice, international law, universal human rights and, most crucially, equality. BDS will only strengthen that true peace — with justice — movement in Israel and everywhere else.
European solidarity groups that consciously allow Zionist left figures and movements to dictate their agendas, steering them away from coordinating with Palestinian civil society and understanding its real needs, rather than committing themselves first and foremost to human rights and international law, hardly deserve the name “solidarity” groups.
On the other hand, groups that, for tactical reasons, support only a subset of BDS, or a targeted boycott of specific products or organizations in Israel or supporting Israel, are also our partners, of course. Boycott is not a one-size-fits-all type of process. It must be customized to suit a particular context to be most effective. What is important to agree on, though, is why we are boycotting and towards what ends. BDS is a rights-based approach with clear objectives that ought to form a common denominator for all groups in solidarity with Palestine. Ending the three main forms of Israeli injustice and advocating the corresponding Palestinian rights are the basic requirements for this international campaign to be effective and in harmony with the express needs and aspirations of Palestinian civil society.
BDS promotes anti-Semitism?
Rather than reinventing the wheel, I shall just copy here some of what I wrote earlier, in a longer article refuting the main anti-boycott arguments:
As the French philosopher Etienne Balibar says, “Israel should not be allowed to instrumentalize the genocide of European Jews to put [itself] above the law of nations.” Beyond that, by turning a blind eye to Israel’s oppression, as the US and most of official Europe often do, the West has in fact perpetuated the misery, the human suffering and the injustice that have ensued since the Holocaust.
As to the anti-Semitism charge, it is patently misplaced and clearly used as a tool of intellectual intimidation. It is hardly worth reiterating that Palestinian calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions do not target Jews or even Israelis qua Jews. They are strictly directed against Israel as a colonial power that violates Palestinian rights and international law. The growing support among progressive European and American Jews for effective pressure on Israel is one counter-argument that is not well publicized. (“Israeli Apartheid: Time for the South African Treatment,” pacbi.org, 26 January 2006)
Moreover, considering actions and positions that target Israeli apartheid and colonial rule anti-Semitic is itself anti-Semitic, as was argued by many before me, for they assume that all Jews, per se, are somehow responsible for Israeli crimes, a patently racist assumption that belongs to the “collective responsibility” school of thought — criminalized at Nuremberg — and directly feeds anti-Semitism.
BDS is a civil form of struggle against Israel, regardless what religion most Israelis follow. It hardly matters what faith your oppressors belong to, really — whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Hindu is almost irrelevant! The only thing that matters is that they are illegally, immorally oppressing you.
Projects supporting Palestinian steadfastness under occupation, whether in the health, education, social or even political domains, are crucial and always needed. Many Palestinians, particularly the most vulnerable, cannot survive the cruelty of occupation without them. We appreciate the support for these projects tremendously — at least those of them that are not corrupt or corrupting, as many are. But this does not mean that we are for a moment convinced that such projects alone, plus token support for some abstract notion of “peace,” can advance our struggle for freedom and justice. Only by ending the occupation and apartheid can we get there. And, experience tells us, the most reliable, morally justifiable way to do that is by treating Israel as apartheid South Africa was, by applying various, context-sensitive and evolving measures of BDS against it. There is no better way to achieve just peace in Palestine and the entire region.
Omar Barghouti is an independent political analyst and founding member of the Palestinian BDS Campaign.