On Saturday 27th January, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti joined PSC members at the Annual General Meeting via Skype, where he spoke about the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, it’s successes and challenges, and the current global context of the movement. Below is the transcript of his speech.
Israel in the Trump Era: Challenges & Opportunities in the Struggle for Palestinian rights:
With Trump, Israel’s regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid has become so drunk with power that it is dropping its thin, worn-out mask of democracy, committing unspeakable atrocities against Palestinians, and forging unholy alliances with hideous far-right and fascist forces around the world, thus hastening its own demise.
In the midst of the darkness that the Palestinian people, in the homeland and in exile, is living through, the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement shines a path of inextinguishable hope and effective, strategic and ethically-consistent struggle towards freedom, justice and equality.
Israel is facing a serious dilemma. By indulging in its Trump-enhanced impunity, unleashing its unhinged criminality, fanatic fundamentalism and horrific system of oppression and repression, it is alienating the liberal mainstream that has for decades formed the backbone of its support base in the West that has shielded it from accountability to international law.
Globally, as Israel become more overtly associated with the global far-right, including xenophobic and anti-Semitic groups in the United States and Europe, its popularity is sinking fast. As a recent BBC poll shows, Israel has the fourth lowest popularity rating among many countries, with 66% of the UK public viewing it negatively, a fact that is entirely ignored by the Tory government, which is deeply complicit in Israel’s crimes.
Crucially, support for holding Israel to account is growing among Jewish Americans and the broader US public. A 2014 poll showed that 46 percent of non-Orthodox Jewish American men under forty support a full boycott of Israel to end its occupation, while a 2016 survey by the Brookings Institution reveals that almost half of all Americans support imposing sanctions or taking tougher measures against Israel to stop its illegal settlements.
Last year, Israel’s military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, turned 50. It was the second phase of a process of settler-colonialism that was propelled by the Balfour Declaration a century ago and that culminated in the 1948 Nakba–the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the indigenous Palestinians from our homeland.
Almost everything has changed in these past decades except for the yearning of millions of Palestinians to live in dignity, free from a brutal regime of military rule and apartheid controlling nearly every aspect of our lives and dehumanizing us.
Two million Palestinians have been living for more than 10 years under Israel’s fatal siege in Gaza, lacking basic necessities while Israel counts the calories that are allowed in to keep them at the edge of starvation, or to put them “on a diet,” as a senior Israeli official once admitted. The world, especially taxpayers in states that continue to arm Israel and cover up its massacres in Gaza, have a moral responsibility to stop Israel from committing a slow genocide there.
Time alone cannot heal Palestinians living in the shadow of Israel’s odious land-grabbing wall and hundreds of military checkpoints in the West Bank. It cannot dull the impact of Israel’s intensifying efforts to kick whole Palestinian communities off their land, especially in and around occupied Jerusalem, stealing it for the construction of illegal, Jewish-only settlements, in contravention of international law.
Palestinian communities in present-day Israel, who live under what even the US Department of State once characterized as a system of “institutional, legal, and societal discrimination” that enforced by more than sixty five racist laws, have faced a similar fate. Last year, for instance, Israeli armed forces demolished the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran to build on its ruins a new, Jewish-only settlement, eerily called “Hiran.”
Palestinians living outside of historic Palestine, predominantly refugees, account for 50 percent of all Palestinians and are denied their internationally-recognized legal right to return to their homes of origin.
Begun in 2005 by the broadest coalition in Palestinian civil society, the BDS movement calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation and apartheid regime and upholding the UN-stipulated right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were uprooted and dispossessed since 1948.
These three basic rights correspond to the three main components of the Palestinian people: those in the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (38 percent of the Palestinian people, according to 2016 statistics); Palestinian citizens of Israel (12%), and those in exile (50%). More than two thirds of Palestinians are refugees or internally displaced persons.
Anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, BDS has consistently and categorically opposed all forms of racism and racial discrimination, including anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. One’s identity, the movement upholds, should never diminish one’s entitlement to rights. BDS, as a result, targets complicity, not identity.
Since there is nothing Jewish about Israel’s regime of occupation, siege, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, there is nothing inherently anti-Jewish, then, about a nonviolent, morally consistent human rights struggle to end this system of oppression. Claiming otherwise, as Israel does, is the epitome of anti-Semitism.
BDS strengthens the organic intersectionality between the Palestinian struggle for justice and justice movements around the world. It draws a lot of inspiration from the growing bonds of mutual solidarity with movements defending the rights of refugees, immigrants, women, workers, Blacks, Muslims, indigenous nations and the LGBTQI communities.
In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives in the US adopted BDS in its platform, while a 2015 Black for Palestine solidarity statement, that was issued by one thousand Black figures and activists and endorsed BDS, highlighted the connections between the two struggles saying:
“We recognize the racism that characterizes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is also directed against others in the region, including intolerance, police brutality, and violence against Israel’s African population. Israeli officials call asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea ‘infiltrators’ and detain them in the desert, while the state has sterilized Ethiopian Israelis without their knowledge or consent. These issues call for unified action against anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and Zionism.”
Isolated, we fail. United, we prevail over all oppression.
The BDS movement for Palestinian rights has become today a key part of our popular nonviolent resistance and the most effective form of international solidarity with our struggle for self-determination.
But what makes BDS so influential that Israel began in 2013 referring to it and fighting it as a “strategic threat” to its entire regime of colonial oppression? I think there are four main reasons.
First, BDS is particularly effective because it is supported by a near consensus in Palestinian society at home and in exile. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), which leads the global BDS movement, is the absolute largest coalition in Palestinian society. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) days ago declared its support for BDS and called for sanctions against Israel.
Second, BDS is mainstreaming support for the UN-stipulated rights of all Palestinians. For example, Lorde in December 2017 cancelled a scheduled gig in Tel Aviv, becoming the most prominent and courageous artist of her generation to respect the Palestinian cultural boycott picket line.
In response to an ugly smear campaign against Lorde run by Israel lobby figures in the US, over one hundred artists, including Hollywood stars, signed a letter in the Guardian supporting her. A Washington Post report on the controversy concluded: “From now on, if it weren’t the case already, merely scheduling a concert date in Israel will be considered a political act.”
Also in 2017, the Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival faced a “wave” of cancellations by international filmmakers, and of the twenty-six Oscar nominees in 2016 who were offered $55,000 propaganda junkets paid by the Israeli government none has taken the offer.
Some of the largest churches in the US, including the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ, have divested from Israeli banks or complicit international corporations.
In the last few years, major multinational corporations, like Veolia, Orange, CRH and G4S, have suffered major financial and/or reputational losses, due to effective BDS campaigning in the UK and Ireland, across Europe, in Kuwait, the US, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or Latin America, leading them to end all or most of their involvement in Israel’s violations of international law. Hewlett Packard is facing a snowballing global BDS campaign, with many US churches and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in the UK announcing themselves HP-free.
Leading global investment funds in Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere have withdrawn their investments from Israeli banks or international corporations because of involvement with Israel’s occupation.
The municipality of Barcelona announced in 2017 measures to end complicity in Israel’s occupation and settlements regime and defended the right to pursue Palestinian rights through BDS tactics. This followed dozens of local councils across the Spanish state that have recently declared themselves “Israeli Apartheid Free Zones.”
Major international trade union federations, like the Norwegian LO, joined the BDS movement in 2017.
Third, Israel’s regime of oppression itself takes a lot of credit for the impressive rise in the reach and impact of the BDS movement. Israel’s 2015 election brought to power its “most racist government” ever, which has passed racist and patently repressive laws at an unprecedented rate.
Israel’s fundamentalist Chief Rabbi for the Sephardic community recently called for the ethnic cleansing of “gentiles” from “the Land of Israel,” reflecting the views of a majority of Jewish-Israelis, as polls show.
Leading Israeli political and military figures have publicly expressed concerns about Israel’s descent into the abyss. Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who is accused of committing many war crimes against Palestinians, warned that Israel has been “infected by the seeds of fascism,” and the current deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, has compared “revolting trends” in Israeli society to Germany in the 1930s.
Having lost many battles for the hearts and minds at the grassroots level, Israel adopted in 2014 a new top-down strategy that employs legal warfare, espionage and intensified propaganda to undermine or outlaw BDS advocacy. One desperate Israeli government minister has publicly threatened BDS human rights defenders, including myself, with “targeted civil assassination,” while another established a “tarnishing unit” against us. Amnesty International has condemned these threats.
An Israeli anti-BDS law now denies entry to anyone associated with an organization that endorses boycotting Israel or its illegal colonies. Israel’s anti-BDS Ministry of Strategic Affairs has not only banned from entry leaders of many organizations, like PSC and War on Want, that support Palestinian rights through BDS; it is also working on listing Israelis who are active in any boycott activity.
A city in Texas a few months ago implemented anti-BDS legislation by conditioning humanitarian hurricane relief on a promise not to boycott Israel or its illegal settlements. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) condemned this as “an egregious violation of the First Amendment [of the US Constitution], reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths ….”
The British government — for some peculiar reason, the most enthusiastic of all western government in fighting BDS — has tried to restrict local councils from observing their legal and ethical obligation to divest from companies involved in Israel’s human rights violations. Thanks to a legal challenge led by PSC and its partners, the government’s repressive campaign was halted.
Anyone who has watched the Aljazeera’s four-part documentary, The Lobby, realizes how subversive, corrupting and bullying Israel’s lobbying machine in the UK has been and how it gets away with it. Imagine how the proud British government would react if an Iranian intelligence officer in the UK were the one to threaten to “take down” one of its ministers!
According to a recent Israeli media report, Israel has secretly hired a large Chicago-based law firm to help it silence BDS activists in North America, Europe and beyond. Eitay Mack, the Israeli lawyer at the center of this revelation, told the paper that Israel may be crossing “criminal lines.”
Fourth, BDS strives to maintain a golden balance between ethical consistency and strategic impact. It simultaneously upholds the rights of all Palestinians, adhering to morally-consistent, inclusive, anti-racist principles, and engages in strategic, context-sensitive, winnable, gradual and sustainable campaigns to advance on the ground the struggle to attain those rights.
Human rights defenders often face the dilemma of whether we should in our campaigning prioritize ethical principles over goal-oriented efficacy. While there is a sort of trade-off between the two, they are not mutually exclusive, and opting for one extreme or the other can be detrimental to any social movement.
If we set our objectives too high in order to meet our utmost ethical and political standards, we undoubtedly condemn our struggle to ineffectiveness and, in some cases, turn ourselves into fatalistic addicts to marginalization. We lose sight, then, of the real objectives we had set out to achieve, of the mainstream that we had hoped to win over, and we become delusional, celebrating every noise we make in our comfortable, “revolutionary” bubble as if it were the roar of a nearing victory.
On the other hand, if our objectives are designed to conveniently respond only to the requirements of current circumstances without much consideration to our principles and long-term goals, we run the risk of cooptation by hegemonic forces of oppression. While basking in the limelight of their recognition that we have become “moderate” and “responsible” enough to be granted a low seat at their high table, we disconnect at once from our roots of struggle and our vision for a just, dignified future. We settle in effect for the more “comfortable chains,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu would say, while convincing ourselves that we are breaking the chains altogether.
Being revolutionary, in my view, is not about raising the most radical slogans that are not implementable and that therefore have little chance of contributing to processes aimed at ending the reality of oppression. What is truly revolutionary is raising a slogan that is principled and morally consistent and yet conducive to action on the ground that can lead to real change towards justice and emancipation.
Our South Africa moment is approaching, but much needs to be done first to get there.
Ending Balfour’s colonial legacy demands putting an end to the deep and ongoing British complicity in maintaining and entrenching Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid. This is not a quest for charity or even for principled solidarity. It is a reminder of a profound moral obligation to do no harm.
Minimally, this entails pressuring the British government to stop military trade with Israel – as well as with other regimes committing heinous war crimes, like Saudi Arabia and Myanmar – and to ban the products of all companies that are complicit in Israel’s settlement enterprise and included in the about-to-be-published UN Human Rights Council list. Can we mobilize mass support within Labour to publicly support such basic demands for ending UK collusion in serious human rights violations? This is a litmus test for any alternative foreign policy that claims to respect international law.
It entails student and academic activists jointly raising awareness about the struggle for Palestinian rights and the crucial connection to domestic struggles for justice, while pressuring universities to end all links, especially joint military and “security” research, with the severely complicit Israeli universities. In parallel, as Prof. Karma Nabulsi and War on Want’s Ryvka Barnard never tire from repeating, we need to protect the shrinking space of Palestinian activism on UK campuses against the insidious tools of anti-democratic repression, like Prevent, instrumentalized to shut us down.
It entails artists and cultural activists pressuring cultural institutions, writers and artists to stop art-washing Israel’s occupation and apartheid, as is being done by our indefatigable partners in Artists for Palestine UK.
It entails trade unions, city councils and churches adopting ethical procurement and/or investment guidelines that exclude the complicit companies on the UN list, among other corporations that violate human rights here in the UK and around the world.
It also entails pushing back, as our partners in Free Speech on Israel and PSC are doing, Israel’s attempts to conflate opposition to its criminal policies and racist ideology with anti-Semitism. This sinister conflation is not only racist in denying Palestinians our very right to have equal rights and to resist our oppressors because of their oppression, not identity. It is also deeply anti-Jewish, as it reduces all Jewish persons to a monolithic sum that is equated with and represented by Israel, thereby denying Jewish diversity and undermining the ongoing struggle by progressives worldwide against real anti-Jewish racism and discrimination.
In this Trump-Netanyahu era of naked racism, militarism and the shattering of decades-old principles of international law, we are faced with grave challenges and, with them, rare opportunities. We are obliged as a matter of principle and practical necessity to build strong intersectional coalitions with other justice movements, while growing our own grassroots BDS movement and multiplying its impact.
To do that, we must defend BDS against the draconian and McCarthyite attempts by Israel and its lobby in the UK and elsewhere to criminalize it or chill support for it, as we must fight every attempt to colonize our minds with the futility of resistance or hope in the face of their hegemonic power of intimidation. All the while, we cannot afford to fall into the defensive trap. The best defense is to keep organizing and advancing our strategic BDS campaigns to reach the mainstream, as was done in the movement against apartheid South Africa.
I shall conclude by citing something I read last year at a Yale University ceremony while receiving the Gandhi Peace Award, which I dedicated to Palestinian political prisoners who were on hunger strike then.
The great Palestinian poet, the late Mahmoud Darwish, once wrote that he wished he could be liberated of Palestine so he could write poems of love and life and mundane topics, but so long as Palestinian liberation itself remained elusive, Darwish said, he had no choice but to write about Palestine.
Inspired by Darwish, I have a deep desire to end my BDS activism, indeed to see the BDS movement itself come to an end. For this to happen, though, we first need to attain our rights, to live in dignity.
When — not if — this happens, I’ll be exhilarated to redirect my deep commitment to human rights to other struggles that I am particularly passionate about, especially the struggle by Blacks for racial and economic justice and the struggle of indigenous communities around the world for reparations.
When — not if — we attain our comprehensive UN-stipulated rights, I’ll be delighted to fulfill my other passions in life, especially philosophy and choreography.
But until then, I have no choice but to continue my modest contribution to this most noble struggle for a life that is worth living, as Darwish puts it, and that can only be a life of freedom, justice and unfettered equality.
* Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights defender and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. He is co-recipient of the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award.