Who’s afraid of BDS?

February 27, 2014

A movement to expose modern-day apartheid has pushed Israel onto the defensive.

THE MOVEMENT calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel to grant basic rights to Palestinians has suddenly moved from the margins to center stage.

Scarcely a year ago, knowledge that a BDS movement even existed was mostly confined to people who have spent years engaged in solidarity campaigns that were largely shrugged off by the mainstream media and the Israeli political establishment. When activism did take place, it was often in reaction to Israel's repeated military assaults and acts of repression.

But as 2013 drew to a close, the controversy swirling around a lucrative marketing deal between SodaStream, which produces a home carbonation machine in an illegal West Bank settlement, and Hollywood superstar and Oxfam ambassador Scarlett Johansson captured some headlines for the movement.

Then the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to honor the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The ensuing backlash against the ASA, including denunciations by high-profile university presidents and an ill-conceived attempt to punish the ASA, proposed and then abandoned by the New York state legislature (and now revised and reintroduced), gave the BDS campaign its highest profile yet and uncorked a fierce debate about academic freedom and Palestine.

BDS protesters march to build the movement
BDS protesters march to build the movement

There was more to come: Secretary of State John Kerry warned his Israeli counterparts that they needed to get serious about "peace" negotiations or risk facing a growing global boycott movement. On January 31, the New York Times ran an opinion article by Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement and one of its ablest spokespeople, breaking the Times' longstanding embargo against significant articles by BDS proponents.

In February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with three of his top cabinet ministers, including ultranationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to discuss strategies for containing the boycott threat. Pointedly, however, Netanyahu didn't invite two ministers--Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid--who have echoed Kerry's remarks.

In the U.S., a schism is likewise emerging between Israel's most reactionary defenders, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, and a more confident network of liberal Zionists who are sounding the alarm about the refusal of Israel's hardliners to make even token concessions that are fully within Israeli interests.

The arrival of BDS as a factor in the geostrategic calculations of American and Israeli policymakers is, in itself, a major accomplishment for this young movement. The call from Palestinian civil society for a global BDS campaign was issued in 2005, less than 10 years ago.

Everyone involved--from pro-Israel political leaders to the activists of the BDS movement--know full well the impact of the last solidarity campaign against an apartheid system. The divestment movement against South Africa's racist regime began in earnest in the 1970s and played an important part in galvanizing international sentiment and undermining the legitimacy of white rule. The fall of South African apartheid was a long time in coming, but it did fall.

Today, the BDS movement is poised to become the anti-apartheid movement of a new generation, capable of inspiring people around the world to speak out for justice for a historically dispossessed people--and in so doing, learn how to better speak out for themselves.

THE DEBATE inside Israel about how to contend with the challenge posed by the BDS movement has revealed fault lines within the political establishment that present opportunities for advocates of Palestinian liberation.

From the moment Israel and the Palestinian Authority entered the 1993 Oslo "peace process" to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Israel's political leadership sought to indefinitely postpone implementation of any plan, and make a viable Palestinian state a practical impossibility. Instead, Israel expanded its illegal settlements and moved ever-larger numbers of citizens into the West Bank, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Twenty years later, the in-your-face racism of Avigdor Lieberman stands as the purest expression of the drive to destroy Palestinian society altogether. This strategy has two faces--one is the effort to brand Israel as a tolerant and liberal society, brimming with high culture, fine art, and cutting-edge industry and technology. At the same time, Israel has carried out a series of massacres and war crimes, using its overwhelming military superiority--courtesy of the U.S.--to rain down terror and death on Palestinians.

The goal of these right-wing Zionists is to colonize all of historic Palestine--and that requires finding a pretext at some point to finish the job of ethnically cleansing those Palestinians who remain.

The liberal Zionist objection to the right-wingers is that the strategy of using naked force to seize an ever-larger share of historic Palestine has run its course. Instead, they propose to safeguard Israel from its critics, both internal and external, by ending the direct occupation of the West Bank, and perhaps loosening the siege of Gaza. "Jews," wrote New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, "[can't] keep their boots on the heads of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank any longer."

Cohen and his co-thinkers haven't suddenly been converted to a free Palestine--and they don't like BDS, either. They are willing to grant a Palestinian "statelet" in a shard of historic Palestine, and they even manage to convince themselves that such a "solution"--an economically devastated and geographically shattered West Bank--is an expression of their liberal generosity.

But what the liberal Zionists can't tolerate is the comprehensive nature of equality that the BDS movement seeks. "I do not trust the BDS movement," explains Cohen. "Its stated aim is to end the occupation, secure 'full equality' for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and fight for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees. The first objective is essential to Israel's future. The second is laudable. The third, combined with the second, equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is the hidden agenda of BDS, its unacceptable subterfuge: beguile, disguise and suffocate."

Consider what Cohen is saying here: Sure, we'll cede to the Palestinians the most hardscrabble desert lands in the West Bank, shorn of the water resources that Israel has already diverted into its municipal infrastructures. And yes, it's a worthy goal--at some point--to grant Palestinian citizens of Israel equal rights with Jews. But if Israel complies with international law, it's finished.

In other words: Equality and respect for international law threaten the very core of the Zionist enterprise.

Here is Omar Barghouti's response to Cohen's column:

Anyone who argues that Palestinians must continue to be denied their basic rights under international law, including the right to full equality and the inalienable right of refugees to return to their homes, in order to preserve Israel's 'right' to exist as a racist state, as a regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid, is a bigot, not a liberal.

Israel, as the most respected Israeli historians agree, is responsible for ethnically cleansing a majority of the indigenous Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba to create an ethnocentric, exclusionary state. Depriving Palestinians of their UN-stipulated rights to maintain the 'ethnocracy' that was created as a result of this crime of ethnic cleansing is immoral, illegal and most certainly illiberal.

THE BDS movement presents Israel with its worst nightmare: a nonviolent movement, basing itself on the principle of equality and international law, that can bring together activists in the streets, at workplaces and on college campuses.

Israel can no longer afford to ignore its BDS critics, but whenever it tries to answer them, it inevitably ends up having to explain how the "Middle East's only democracy" is based on an apartheid logic that would shame all but the most intransigent racists.

The growing movement in solidarity with Palestine is finding form in many ways. In countries around the world, for example, activists will again participate in Israeli Apartheid Week in March.

Many BDS campaigns are local, which gives them the capacity to touch people where they live, work, study and eat. At George Mason University, to take one instance, student activists organized a walkout during a graduation speech by Shari Arison, a billionaire Israeli businesswoman who profits from Israeli apartheid. They also succeeded in getting food services to provide alternatives to hummus made by Sabra, a brand with ties to the Israeli military.

There are also many opportunities to forge ties with other social justice causes, especially since the tactics of boycotts and divestment are familiar from many other struggles in history--the U.S. civil rights movement comes to mind.

It was precisely when the South Africa regime could no longer defend its legitimacy that it was clear that apartheid's days were numbered. The BDS movement is hastening the arrival of those same days for Palestinians, eager to live as equal citizens in their indigenous land.

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