Tel Aviv is today’s Sun City

February 11, 2013

Palestinian author and activist Omar Barghouti spoke at a forum at Brooklyn College February 7 as planned despite an enormous campaign against the event by pro-Israel advocacy groups. In fact, as an article in Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper noted dejectedly, the "heavy-handed campaign" against the meeting elevated the gathering into an event that grabbed headlines. "The result of all of this surfeit and excess was a clear-cut, perhaps unprecedented PR coup for BDS and a humiliating defeat for Israel's interests," wrote Chemi Shalev.

In second half of his interview with Peter Rugh, Barghouti discusses the corporate targets of BDS activists, addresses the role of international solidarity efforts, and takes on criticisms of the academic and cultural boycott. Read the first part of the interview here.

WHICH COMPANIES profit off of apartheid in Israel? You've mentioned cosmetic companies, Caterpillar and others. Which are the worst offenders?

I'M GLAD you added worst, because there are many companies involved in Israeli apartheid. Israel is entirely integrated into the world economy, and it's a strong economy. So obviously many companies are still doing business in Israel, and it's too early--seven years since the BDS movement started--to expect major corporate defections from Israel. But we are seeing some serious change.

Veolia is a French company involved with building a tramway connecting Israel's illegal colonies in and around Occupied Jerusalem with the city of Jerusalem. Veolia has been a target of the BDS campaign since November 2008. At present, Veolia has lost more than $16 billion in contracts around the world, mainly due to BDS activism. In Sweden, in the UK, in Ireland, in Australia and elsewhere, Veolia has lost contracts because of its complicity in an illegal Israeli project.

Demonstrators gather to call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel
Demonstrators gather to call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel (Kate Ausburn)

Caterpillar is selling bulldozers to Israel knowing full well that Israel is using them to demolish Palestinian homes--a form of collective punishment that is illegal under international law. These bulldozers kill Palestinian activists--and American activists such as Rachel Corrie, who was killed when an Israeli soldier drove a bulldozer over her body, backed up and ran over her again, smashing her as she was defending a Palestinian home in Rafah from being demolished.

Rachel Corrie was an absolute angel of the nonviolent movement, and she was killed by a Caterpillar bulldozer. Caterpillar is the company most responsible for demolishing Palestinian homes as a form of punishment.

There are other companies as well. Elbit Systems, an Israeli military company, is engaged in supplying Israel's illegal apartheid wall with surveillance equipment, but it's also responsible for supplying the wall between the U.S. and Mexico with the same equipment. So it's complicit in violating immigrant rights in this country. Latino communities are also mobilizing against Elbit in Arizona, California, New Mexico and elsewhere.

Motorola is very much involved in supplying the Israeli army and Israeli settlements with communication systems used in violating international law. HP has provided and continues to provide Israel with biometric equipment used at checkpoints to reinforce the occupation and deny Palestinians freedom of movement.

We also have a very strong, very global BDS campaign run by Code Pink, the U.S. antiwar group, against the cosmetics company Ahava. They are winning against Ahava in London and elsewhere, throwing their products out of supermarkets and big cosmetics stores.

There is also a vibrant campaign in the U.S. against Sabra and Tribe hummus, which are two Israeli brands of hummus, the parent companies of which are very deeply involved in human-rights violations.

SodaStream is a company that does all its manufacturing in a settlement in the Occupied Territories. SodaStream's response--"we are employing Palestinian workers so you can't boycott us"--is ludicrous at best. If someone is involved in an illegal business--for example, in sex slavery or the drug trade--and claims, "Oh, we're employing this many families, so you can't stop me or boycott me, because all these families would be thrown out of work." What kind of argument is this? Those families can seek better employment in decent jobs, not in illegal jobs.

Even if someone is so distraught, so poor, that they are forced to work in an illegal company, that doesn't let this company off the hook. This company is committing a violation of international law, and it must be held accountable. SodaStream is definitely 100 percent in violation of international law--by producing in an illegal Israeli colony in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It should be boycotted. That's a moral obligation to boycott SodaStream--whether or not there are Palestinians who might lose their jobs there.

Palestinian unions are all within the BDS movement. They represent Palestinian workers, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers who have lost their jobs because of the occupation and the settlements. So yes, a few workers might lose their jobs temporarily, but that's better for the Palestinian struggle for freedom, so that all workers can work freely in Palestinian projects without having to be complicit in Israeli illegal projects.

WHAT ARE some ways that Palestinians within Israel and in the Occupied Territories are fighting back? Israel's Knesset (or parliament) passed a law in 2011 making BDS illegal in Israel, so how has that affected the struggle?

ISRAEL PASSED a law in July 2011 that makes supporting the boycott illegal for Israeli citizens. That means if an Israeli citizen were to advocate for the boycott, he or she could be held accountable and have to pay a heavy fine--without proving any correlation between their advocacy of the boycott and any damages--but that has not been enforced yet.

It was passed by the Knesset, but it's under appeal at the Israeli Supreme Court--not that we have any hope in the Supreme Court, because it's been a complicit component in the Israeli system of occupation and apartheid. Since Israel's establishment, the courts were part of the system of oppression, never a system where justice can be sought by Palestinians.

Despite this law, brave, principled Israeli citizens who have come out in support of the boycott continue to uphold it. The Coalition of Women for Peace, which is a left coalition of several women's groups in Israel, has endorsed BDS, and their website documents with meticulous research the companies that profit from Israel's occupation, whether Israeli or international companies. It's a very good resource for international BDS activists.

Also Boycott from Within is a group of predominantly Jewish-Israeli activists, academics, students, queer activists, feminists, labor activists and so on, who have come out since 2009 in support of the Palestinian BDS movement and our three demands of ending the occupation, ending apartheid and the right of return. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolition has also endorsed BDS.

Though these are admittedly small groups, they are growing, and their impact is growing. Otherwise, why would Israel pass such a draconian, anti-democratic measure that prohibits writing or speaking in support of the boycott? It's because our Israeli partners have played an indispensible role, particularly in the growth of the cultural boycott, which is another aspect of the BDS movement.

BDS is not just about an economic boycott; it's also about an academic boycott and a cultural boycott of institutions. It's not an individual boycott, but an institutional boycott targeting those institutions that are complicit in Israel's occupation, apartheid and denial of refugee rights.

For example, a number of wonderful musicians and very famous bands and artists--The Pixies, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron, Cat Power, Roger Waters, Ken Loach and so on--have canceled events in Israel. The Israeli component of the BDS movement played a very important role in convincing these artists to cancel their performances, in telling them--as people concerned about the Israeli people as well as the Palestinian people that they are occupying: "Don't play Israel."

Our Israeli BDS partners' message to artists worldwide has been: Just like you boycotted South Africa, just as you would not play Sun City, don't play Tel Aviv, because this is an apartheid reality, and we are oppressing the Palestinians as a state. Our state needs to be punished with punitive measures, nonviolent measures, as was done against South Africa to bring it to its senses. Otherwise, it will continue to occupy, colonize, ethnically cleanse and suppress the Palestinian people and their rights.

The Palestinian resistance to this system also takes many forms. BDS is clearly one form. It's very difficult to boycott every Israeli product in the West Bank because we are a captive economy, as I said earlier, and our economy has been largely destroyed sufficiently to make it totally dependent on Israel.

So for some basic items, we only have Israeli products. If you are a farmer in Jenin, you cannot get your fruit or your vegetables to Ramallah fast enough to compete on the open market. You are held up at checkpoints until your fruit rots. You are held up by many bureaucratic measures by the Israeli military occupation, making your produce non-competitive with Israeli products. This makes us dependent on Israel for some basic products. So the resistance to all this takes many forms, including BDS, including the popular resistance against the wall and the colonies.

As even American audiences are now aware, in the village of Bil'in, Na'alin, Nabi Saleh and several other villages, there is a thriving popular resistance movement against Israel's illegal wall, its illegal colonies and its theft of Palestinian land and resources. That's a very prominent movement of Palestinian resistance.

It's important to note that Palestinian nonviolent and popular resistance is not just inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement of Nelson Mandela, or by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in the U.S., or by Gahndi. We are indeed inspired by all of those. But more crucially perhaps, it's a movement that's rooted in a very long tradition of popular nonviolent resistance in Palestine--against settler colonialism, against the British colonial mandate and so on.

So we have all these forms of resistance that we're carrying out, but I go back to the basic formula, which our South African friends have always taught us from their experience--you cannot do it alone. In today's globalized world, we cannot do it alone. Oppressed communities cannot fight back without the solidarity of people from around the world--or at the very least the end of complicity.

So when we ask U.S. churches, U.S. unions, conscientious people in this country to support the BDS movement, we are not asking them to leave everything they are doing and stand in solidarity with the Palestinians dedicating time or effort for our struggle. We would really appreciate if they can afford that, but we don't expect that from most people. What we do expect from most people is that you end your complicity in the occupation and apartheid.

HOW DO you response to the criticism that a cultural or academic boycott shuts down dialogue? I think some people might say, "I understand the boycotting of corporations that profit off the oppression of Palestinians, but a cultural boycott goes too far." Say I'm an academic, and I'm invited to Tel Aviv to give a speech, and I want to talk about peace and the oppression of Palestinians. Maybe if I go into the belly of the beast I can make a difference and speak directly to people?

THERE'S A big difference between complicity and the free flow of ideas. If I want to speak to Israeli academics, I don't have to be complicit with Israeli universities in order to do that. For example, if an Israeli academic is invited to speak at Columbia University or Hunter College, he or she would be representing themselves, not the institutions they are coming from. He or she would present their academic paper as academics. Nothing in the Palestinian academic boycott guidelines would prevent them from doing so. We do not target individual academics.

And we absolutely do not target the free flow of information or ideas. We thrive on the free flow of information and ideas as a movement, and on principle we support freedom of exchange and academic freedom. What we're saying here is that you can do that without supporting academic institutions that are complicit.

If you are an American academic going to Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University or really any Israeli academic institution, you are automatically allowing the Israeli system of oppression to use your name in order to normalize their occupation and oppression. You are just continuing business as usual with those institutions.

It should be noted that many of the people who are now voicing a criticism of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel had no problem when there was an academic and cultural boycott targeting South Africa.

Why is this so? Why was it legitimate in the struggle against South African apartheid to boycott academic and cultural institutions, but why is it not okay when it comes to Israel? Why is Israel treated as an exception? As Desmond Tutu once said, "Israel is put on a pedestal in this country," as if above the law of nations.

Israel really is treated as an exception in this country, not just through the billions and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars that go to support Israel and its complicit institutions, but also by Israel's enjoyment of complete impunity when it commits human rights violations and violates international law, as it does all the time. It's totally protected by the United States in diplomatic and political terms.

The academic and cultural institutions are part of that. They are not something above that. They are part of this system. In Israel, academia is one of the key pillars in the system of oppression. Academic institutions in Israel are guilty of planning, implementing, justifying and whitewashing Israel's apartheid and occupation. They are not casual bystanders that we are blaming without justification. They are very much part of the system of oppression. And they must be targeted in order to break the links of complicity that connect them with the Israeli state and its colonial system.

WHAT HAS been the response to BDS in South Africa among trade unions, from former anti-apartheid activists and within general civil society?

OUTSIDE OF Palestine, I would say South Africa is the world capital of BDS. South Africa is where the BDS movement enjoys its widest and most mainstream support. In December 2012, the African National Congress, which is the ruling party of South Africa, adopted BDS. This obviously caused enormous alarm and consternation within Israeli establishment circles, but this is something that gives us great pride.

We are extremely proud of the support that the BDS movement has in South Africa--from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which in 2005 was the very first trade union federation to adopt BDS, to the South African Council of Churches to many great South African leaders, such as Desmond Tutu, Ronnie Kasrils (who happens to be Jewish) to many other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.

This is an extremely important base of support. In March 2011, for example, the University of Johannesburg was the first university in the world to sever links with an Israeli academic institution--Ben Gurion University--over the latter's complicity in human-rights violations. That set an extremely important symbolic precedent for us, and we are very proud of that.

There's an Artists Against Apartheid in South Africa. It's extremely ironic and extremely important that now South African artists who have enjoyed the solidarity of many Artists Against Apartheid groups around the world during the fight against apartheid are now themselves organizing against Israeli apartheid.

Another example of a wonderful and effective expression of solidarity from South Africa is the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who it's safe to say is the most important international figure in the BDS movement. His support is boundless and extremely effective. When we ask Archbishop Tutu for help, whether it's a divestment campaign at UC-Berkeley or convincing Stevie Wonder to cancel a benefit concert in LA for the Israeli army. Since the massacre committed in Gaza, Archbishop Tutu has never once said no to us. He has always been extremely generous with his time, his guidance and his moral leadership in supporting nonviolent measures to bring Israel to account before international law.

In addition, key South African Christian leaders have in the last couple years published documents explaining why they think Israel is an even more ruthless form of apartheid than South Africa ever was. They've written in very explicit language that Israel's apartheid against the Palestinians is even worse than the worst moments of South African apartheid against the Black majority in South Africa. This is a key message that those South African Christian leaders have sent to the rest of the world.

And then there are Jewish leaders in South Africa, such as Ronnie Kasrils and others, who published a document years ago that states that as Jewish activists in South Africa who have fought apartheid in this country, we will never defend Israeli apartheid, and we want to tell the Israeli state that whatever crimes you commit, we are against you and you do not speak on our behalf.

WHAT GIVES you hope in this struggle going forward?

WHAT GIVES me hope is when I see the children of Gaza. In late 2008-early 2009, Israel carried out a massacre of 1,400 Palestinians, predominantly civilians, in Gaza. Schools, UN shelters, ambulances and hospitals were demolished by Israeli fighter jets. Yet a day after the ceasefire, a day after Israel stopped attacking Gaza, the first priority for families and for children was to get the kids to school. Families put them in any school uniform they could get ahold of, gathered their books and whatever was left of their bags, and sent them off to school.

Our people in Gaza insisted that our kids will get an education, that we will continue hoping for a better future, for freedom and justice and equality. Despite the massacre, despite the enormous and intensifying repression of all Palestinians--from the youngest child to the village elders, from the Palestinian worker to the Palestinian farmer and the Palestinian professional--we are not losing hope.

We've understood the lessons of history well enough to know that the light eventually appears at the end of the tunnel, through the struggles of committed, principled and ever-growing movements.. We are in an extremely dark tunnel. We are occupied by a very powerful army, the fifth strongest army in the world. It has its teeth--its weapons of mass destruction, its nuclear weapons and so on. But we've seen big empires being undermined by the soft power of popular resistance, by nonviolence resistance, by international solidarity. It happened in South Africa; it can happen again.

I personally was active in the movement against apartheid in South Africa when I was an engineering student (no one is perfect!) at Columbia University. When I held up signs saying "Abolish apartheid" at demonstrations, I was asked by my colleagues at Columbia, "Do you seriously believe this will happen in your lifetime?" My answer was always no. It may not happen in my lifetime, but who cares. I'm doing it out of international solidarity, and out of a moral obligation to stand up for justice.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." We all have an obligation to fight injustice everywhere because we've got to make those connections. What gives me hope is that increasingly movements for rights around the world, for social justice, are connecting the Palestinian struggle with theirs--be they environmentalist groups, African American organizations, Latino groups, LGBTQ groups and so on. The connections are evolving and being revealed, and this gives us a lot of hope.

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