by Kiera Feldman on August 19, 2011
Kiera Feldman conducted the following interview with Omar Barghouti over email in early August:
Kiera Feldman: How will the boycott law affect you personally? Are you changing your actions or speech in any way?
Omar Barghouti: We are all determined to carry on what we have been doing for years now: BDS. Far from deterring us, this law will only strengthen our resolve to continue to expose Israel's occupation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid and to demand accountability for them in accordance with international law.
The Israeli establishment is increasingly, though unwittingly, helping our campaign to spread by revealing Israel's true face as a rogue state that denies Palestinians their basic rights and freedoms with complicity from Western governments and international corporations. This law is among the very last veneers of democracy that Israel is now dropping, thus risking full exposure to, and dire consequences from international public opinion.
KF: As a prominent leader in the BDS movement, do you worry that you’ll be targeted?
OB: This is not about any individual activist; it is targeting the whole BDS movement as a global, Palestinian led campaign that raises the compelling slogan of freedom, justice and equality and that has broken through the barriers of the western mainstream, winning allies in trade unions, academia, cultural circles, faith groups, and, crucially, liberal Jewish groups. Israel's nuclear weapons and massive military might are deemed largely ineffective in countering this morally-consistent, nonviolent movement that is anchored in international law and universal human rights.
We are all concerned about Israel's intensifying repression, but we are determined to counter it with our own intensification of BDS, with the wonderful support of our principled, anti-colonial Israeli partners and our allies worldwide.
KF: What impact do you think the boycott law will have on BDS organizing within Israel? And outside of Israel?
OB: At first, BDS, like any Palestinian led resistance and international solidarity with it, is bound to enhance Israel's already tribal, paranoid consensus in support of apartheid and settler colonialism. But Israel is not unique in this; all colonial regimes, from South African apartheid to the French colonial rule in Algeria, go through this initial phase of "circling the wagons" when faced with resilient, rights-based and effective resistance. But as soon as this resistance starts exacting a heavy price from the colonial community, cracks start appearing in the wall of complicity and dissent takes off. We are not there yet, but we are headed without doubt in that direction.
BDS is clearly growing at an impressive rate, raising the cost of Israel's occupation and apartheid. The cultural boycott, in particular, has started biting in a very significant way, making more and more Israelis see their state's naked image in the mirror, and it is an ugly scene of war crimes, siege, militarism, vile colonial hubris, and power drunkenness that many cannot bear. Many do not like it and are already questioning whether this is the future they would want for their children.
These tendencies have not yet translated into a flood of support for BDS in Israel, but they have been reflected in the encroaching process of mainstreaming the idea of boycott in Israeli society. Hundreds of leading cultural figures, academics, so-called "peace" groups, among others, have already adopted partial boycotts against colonies, for the first time ever. This is a slippery slope, though. They start with a selective boycott first, largely to "save Israel," essentially as an apartheid state, but by doing so they inadvertently legitimate the tactic of boycott, thus opening the door for BDS to grow.
As the BDS campaign spreads steadily from Europe to Canada to the US to Asia, Latin America, Australia and Africa, we are witnessing a corresponding, gradual but steady erosion of Israel's standing in world public opinion and in its impunity as a state above the law. It will increasingly be seen as a world pariah, and that will eventually repel investments, joint projects and visits. A South Africa moment is reaching Israel, gradually but surely. The establishment establishment is keenly aware of this and is panicking, as a result, as its weapons of choice -- intimidation, vilification, racist incitement and blunt repression -- prove pathetically inadequate in its fight against BDS.
Two main corporate targets of the global BDS campaign, Agrexco and Veolia, just to give a concrete example, have suffered massive losses lately. While both corporations are desperately trying to hide or dismiss the impact of BDS on their bottom line, there is absolutely no doubt that the billions of dollars wroth of contracts that Veolia has lost in the last couple of years and the closing of markets in Europe and elsewhere in the face of Agrexco were to a large extent, but not exclusively, a result of BDS campaigns. Other management and financial factors have played a role as well, clearly. This will be a lesson to many corporations that are still profiting from Israel's occupation and apartheid. As in South Africa, when their profits start dwindling and their brands are sullied as partners in Israeli apartheid, these international profit-maximizing corporations will start abandoning ship much more rapidly.
KF: Within Israel, the boycott law has stirred up support for settlement boycotts among liberals. I wonder if it’s maybe less-than-helpful to have a renewed drive among liberal Zionists to keep fantasizing, “If only the Occupation were over, then everything would be better.” What do you make of this focus on settlement boycotts over the full call?
OB: This was mostly answered above but I'll add we welcome every partial boycott of Israel and its complicit institutions, despite the intentions of some of its initiators. Those calling now for a boycott of colonial settlements, after decades of silence in the face of a brutal system of occupation and apartheid, are obviously doing so to undermine or circumvent the wider, more principled, and by far more morally consistent BDS campaign. Rather than weakening BDS, though, they are really contributing to making the ground more fertile for its future growth.
Soft Zionists have always tried to maintain a gate-keeping role in channeling solidarity with Palestinians, specifically with a small subset of Palestinian rights, while suppressing any attempt to develop an independent Palestinian resistance strategy based on self determination and justice.
With BDS, this Zionist gate-keeper hegemony is largely in tatters, and soft Zionists are taking it quite harshly, acting out and throwing media tantrums here and there, accusing Palestinian civil society of "betraying" them and hurting in the process its own interests. In their twisted, self-centered world view, typical of apologists for colonialism anywhere, they think that if they withdraw their support, Palestinians would lose their only hope for emancipation. This racist colonial discourse, though, has been largely discredited and soft Zionists have increasingly been revealed to many as a fraud, purely interested in egotistic self preservation and in safeguarding Israeli apartheid.
The litmus test for any Israeli group claiming to support human rights and a sustainable peace based on justice and international law is whether it is ready to support the most basic right to full equality for the indigenous Palestinians. If they do, this which would automatically translate to embracing the right of return for Palestinian refugees systematically and brutally ethnically cleansed during the Nakba and ever since. Calling for an end to the occupation alone, as if that would end Israel's multi-tiered system of colonial oppression, ignores the basic human rights of two thirds of the indigenous people of Palestine. No conscientious human rights advocate can be so selective, hence racist.
KF: The rights-based approach is, of course, a hallmark of the BDS movement. In a recent speech, you noted, “It is not a Jewish issue. It’s an Israeli colonial apartheid issue, and it should remain within those parameters.” At the same time, American BDS supporters (e.g. Jewish Voice for Peace) often invoke Jewish values and traditions in their organizing. In the BDS movement, what are the positives and negatives of the mobilization of Jewish identity?
OB: There is no contradiction between evoking the best in Jewish heritage to support the Palestinian struggle for justice and self determination on the one hand and the statement that BDS and Palestinian resistance in general should not be reduced to a Jewish issue or an intra-Jewish debate, as J Street has consciously -- yet abortively -- tried to make BDS, most recently, on the other. Universal human rights should be upheld for all humans and by all humans, regardless of ethnic, religious, national or any other identity attribute. The Palestinian civil society leadership of the BDS campaign, the BDS National Committee (BNC), has strongly endorsed the JVP-led campaign to pressure TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that are complicit in Israel's violations of international law. We see JVP as an important ally in the US. We also have partners in the US Jewish community that fully endorse BDS, such as such as the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, American Jews for a Just Peace, etc.
The fact the JVP, among other Jewish groups, resorts partially to the bright side of Jewish ethics is first up to them and second is something that they should be praised for. They do not attempt to privilege this dimension over human rights and international law. In other words, they do not endorse or try to impose what I call in this US context "Jewish privilege," whereby you cannot criticize or act against Israel and its policies unless you are Jewish, for fear of being labelled as anti-Semitic. We respect diversity and context-sensitive strategizing by our allies and partners. Our main concern is respect for the three basic rights listed in the BDS Call: ending occupation and colonization of the 1967 territory; ending the system of racial discrimination within Israel by establishing full equality; and the right of return for our refugees in accordance with UN resolution 194. JVP endorses these rights, clarity of language or lack of it notwithstanding, and this is the main foundation of our strong and strengthening relationship with them.
By putting tribal allegiance to Israel over fundamental commitment to universal human rights, however, Zionist Jewish organizations in the US and the West in general consciously abet in propagating the racist, indeed anti-Semitic, myth that Israel speaks on behalf of the entire world Jewry and that it is entitled to do so. Reducing Jews to a monolithic group that thinks alike and that is automatically expected to ignore suffering by other humans when the oppressors are themselves Jewish is not only anti-semitic; it is categorically false and deceptive. There is rich diversity among Jews worldwide; many in the leadership of BDS groups in the West as well as in South Africa and elsewhere are Jewish. Many leading cultural figures that have endorsed and advocated BDS are Jewish. All these insist that their humanity comes first and that no oppressor state like Israel can appropriate their wills or speak on their behalf.
KF: A few Jewish Israeli BDS supporters have told me that the tent protests feel like a game changer—that there is a kind of revolutionary feeling in the air. What do you think the tent protests might mean for the BDS movement? Do the demands of the BDS call feel any closer at hand or any more attainable?
OB: My overall assessment of this new Israeli initiative is that it is little more than a creative whitewashing, copycat movement with shallow roots and shallower commitment to real social-political transformation which must be based on justice and human rights. This whole reformist effort is largely led by middle class Ashkenazi Jews who prefer to polish the chains of Israeli apartheid, to borrow from Desmond Tutu, rather than breaking them altogether.
Demanding lower rents and affordable housing is a legitimate and justified demand in any normal country; the problem is, Israel is anything but. Diverting attention from the huge elephant in the room, Israel's occupation, colonialism and apartheid, to the narrow concerns of the Jewish-Israeli, colonial middle class cannot but be seen as an ill-conceived effort, at a minimum, or a downright racist and complicit effort that aims at perpetuating Israel's regime of oppression against the indigenous Palestinians, whether in Israel, in the shatat (exile) or in the occupied Palestinian territory. A struggle to maintain colonial privileges for the Jewish population of Israel at the expense of basic justice for the Palestinians is immoral and colonial to the boot.
Even if we put moral and legal considerations aside, you would think that an honest and rational social movement (if we can even call this movement in Israel that) that is trying to imitate the spreading Arab Spring, would figure out that Israel's military spending added to the overall cost of the occupation, the colonies, their infrastructure, the wall, etc. are the main reason behind the massive inequalities in Israel and the extremely unjust distribution of wealth (one of the highest in the developed world).
It is equivalent to Afrikaaners, say, demonstrating in Cape Town in the 1980s for better housing for the middle class (read: all white), while completely ignoring apartheid and its crimes. It would have been a joke then. It is a joke now--a nasty one. Most Arabs are watching this copycat Israeli attempt in amusement and a good deal of disgust. It is the epitome of hysterical denial of the colonial reality.