Ben Jamal is the Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
In a month where human rights activists across the world absorbed the shock of the election of Donald Trump, Israel’s relentless campaign to silence protest against its abuses of Palestinians continued apace. Last week on, Wednesday 16th November in New York , the Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, hosted hundreds of academics and lawyers who met to discuss how to use the law to render boycott campaigns illegal. Danon added that the struggle against BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns) was taking place in many countries but that mechanisms were being put in place to frustrate the movement’s initiatives.
“We are advancing legislation in many countries against the BDS, including in the US so that it will simply be illegal to boycott Israel,” he stated. “In my opinion the combination of the courts, legislative houses and students on campus is a winning combination. I sincerely believe that it is possible to beat the BDS movement. We need to raise our heads and fight against them.”
Earlier in the week on Monday 15th in Washington, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, a companion bill to one introduced in the Senate in September. The bills seek to impose financial penalties on entities boycotting Israel including those boycotting Israeli settlements.
On Tuesday 15th November in the House of Commons Eric Pickles MP, Chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, spoke at a meeting organised by a student group looking to promote pro-Israel activism on campus and suppress BDS activity. In his speech he compared activism on behalf of Palestinian rights to Nazi like behaviour, specifically equating BDS with the boycotts imposed by Nazis on Jewish shops in 1930’s Germany. This is a line Pickles has used before. In 2011 student activist at Kings College London protested against a visit by an ex-IDF general. The protest was loud and rowdy and a window was cracked when 3 or 4 activists banged on it as they chanted for a free Palestine. Speaking about the protest on Sky News, Pickles described it as like Kristallnacht, referring to the night in November 1938 when Nazis set fire to Synagogues, vandalised Jewish homes, and killed close to 100 Jews.
Meanwhile in Israel, on Monday 14th, a bill that would deny entry to Israel to individuals calling for a boycott of Israel or representing an NGO that does, passed its first reading in the Knesset.
And so over just a couple of days we see all the ingredients which have characterised the campaign Israel has escalated in the past few years designed to undermine BDS and to suppress wider activism on behalf of Palestinians. The tactics are simple: where possible introduce laws to render boycotts illegal; target campuses to stifle the growth of Palestinian activism; re-frame Palestinian activism as hostile, extremist, and antisemitic. Central to the latter tactic is the attempt to enforce the usage of a definition of antisemitism which explicitly incorporates criticism of Israel into its terms and thereby conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. PSC issued a press release about this process. Ben White has outlined the context of Israel’s policy to suppress BDS here.
So how do we as activists for Palestinian rights respond?
There seem to me to be some straightforward precepts which should guide our response:
- Be clear about the values of our campaign and ensure that our method of campaigning always reflects them. The campaign for justice for Palestinians is rooted in anti-racism and in a belief in the basic human rights of every individual regardless of ethnicity, culture or religious belief. We are anti-Zionist on the basis of understanding Zionism in the 21st century to mean the claim of the right of Israel to exist as a state which privileges the rights of a Jewish majority above those of non Jewish citizens. These principles should inform how we campaign, so that we avoid dehumanising those whose policies and behaviour we oppose – when they go low, we go high.
- Challenge directly the attempt to re-frame our movement and to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. PSC wrote about this last May in a Q and A which directly addressed the attacks on our campaigning and reaffirmed the principles which inform it.
- Recognise the strategy being employed to suppress BDS and counter it. PSC has directly addressed attempts to redefine antisemitism to suppress criticism of Israel. We also gave a submission to the Chakrabati report which covered these issues in more depth and a response to the Home Affairs Select Committee report on antisemitism. We are working with others to assess legal options for challenging the introduction of laws to prevent BDS actions. We are working with key partners to support students and provide them with the resources they need including planning a student conference in the New Year.
- Work with a broader range of allies who campaign for freedom of expression and civil liberties. I wrote earlier this month about how the attempt to suppress BDS represents a serious assault on freedom of expression. Earlier this summer PSC convened a summit of organisations campaigning for Palestine as the first stage in building a broader coalition to protect the right to Protest.
Fundamentally however we need to recognise that the escalation in Israel’s attempts to suppress activism for Palestine is a reaction to its concerns about the growing momentum globally for BDS. Israel has identified BDS as a strategic threat of the first order.
Therefore key to our response is not to be diverted or distracted from our campaigning. Last week, as Eric Pickles spoke in parliament, hundreds of PSC members and supporters were participating in the annual lobby of parliament calling upon their MPs to put pressure on the government to take action against Israel’s illegal settlement project. The ask was simple – stop talking about settlements as illegal and start treating them as such: banning the import of settlement goods and reviewing all UK financial relationships with settlements.
The 26th November saw the launch of an international week of action to protest technology giant Hewlett Packard’s complicity with the occupation. This follows a successful week of action in the UK in June which saw protests at more than 20 locations in the UK. At the time of writing the International week of action promises to be the largest ever coordinated BDS activity with nearly 100 events planned in 85 cities across 18 countries.
We are facing an enormously challenging climate with deep concern about the direction of global politics. Donald Trump’s election was welcomed by members of the Israeli government as providing a green light for Israel to drive forward the occupation and end any prospect of Palestinian self determination. From my early days as a political activist I have always held true Edmund Burke’s observation that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing” Israel’s illegitimate control over Palestinian lives is a modern evil and the forces sustaining it are powerful. Now, more than ever, we need to remind Palestinians that they are not alone and that across the world are allies committed to stand in solidarity and defend justice.