“Boycotts work”: An interview with Omar Barghouti

Ali Mustafa, The Electronic Intifada, 1 June 2009

Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian researcher, commentator and human rights activist and a leader of the Palestinian campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to force Israel to uphold international law and universal human rights. Barghouti discussed the growing worldwide campaign with The Electronic Intifada contributor Ali Mustafa.

Ali Mustafa: Why do you characterize Israel as an apartheid state and how is it similar or different than apartheid South Africa?

Omar Barghouti: We don’t have to prove that Israel is identical to apartheid South Africa in order to [justify] the label “apartheid.” Apartheid is a generalized crime according to United Nations conventions and there are certain criteria that may or may not apply to any specific situation — so we judge a situation on its own merits and whether or not it fulfills those conditions of being called an apartheid state. According to the basic conventions of the UN defining the crime of apartheid, Israel satisfies almost all the conditions to be granted the label of apartheid. Other than the clear racial separation in the occupied West Bank between Jews and non-Jews (indigenous Palestinians) — separate roads, separate housing, separate everything — apartheid is also alive and well inside Israel despite appearances [to the contrary]. Unlike South Africa, Israel is more sophisticated; it’s an evolved form of apartheid. South African apartheid was rudimentary, primitive, so to speak — black, white, clear separation, no rights … The Palestinian citizens of Israel (the indigenous population) have the right to vote, which is a huge difference from South Africa. However, in every other vital domain, they are discriminated against by law, not only by policy. Therefore, it is legalized and institutionalized racism and that’s what makes it apartheid — there is racism in Canada and other western democracies as well, but the difference is that it’s not legalized and institutionalized, at least not any longer …

In Israel there are basic laws, meaning the equivalent of the constitution, as Israel does not have a constitution, where there is clear-cut discrimination between Jews and non-Jews. The most important rights that are given to Jewish citizens and not given to non-Jewish citizens are the right to automatic citizenship and nationality for any Jewish immigrant who comes from abroad to Israel. There is no “Israeli” nationality, but there is “Jewish” nationality — Palestinians as citizens can never get nationality in Israel … because there is no such thing as an Israeli nationality, whereas Palestinian refugees who were ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1948 and since then are not entitled to go back to their homes of origin as stipulated by international law simply because they are not Jewish — so this is the kind of apartheid we have.

Another very important point is that 93 percent land ownership in Israel by law is off limits to its so-called non-Jewish citizens — 93 percent is only for the benefit of Jewish citizens of the State of Israel — if this is not apartheid, I don’t know what is. Even in South Africa, the percentage of land that was off-limits to blacks was 86 percent, even lower than in Israel. But of course, many analysts would say that the Israeli occupation and denial of refugee rights is even much worse than anything South Africa had, which is true; South Africa never bombed bantustans with F-16s, they never had this level of outright violence and massacres. Of course, there was Sharpeville, so many massacres in Soweto, and so on, but it all pales in comparison to what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians and this is according to testimonies from Desmond Tutu, Ronnie Kasrils, and many South African leaders who should know.

AM: One of the most contentious aspects of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is the academic boycott. Can you clarify exactly what this means and why Israeli academic institutions are, as you argue, such a fundamental extension of the Israeli state and state policy?

OB: The academic boycott, which was called for by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel in 2004, is an institutional boycott — so it’s a call to every conscientious academic and academic institution to boycott every Israeli academic institution because of their complicity in perpetuating Israel’s occupation and other forms of oppression … Complicity in the case of Israel is different than academic complicity elsewhere. In Canada, for example, your biggest universities are certainly complicit in Canadian policy, especially since they’re all state-funded universities exactly like in Israel … But what’s different is that in Israel, they are in full organic partnership with the security/military establishment — so that most of the weapons developed by the Israeli army are done through the universities, most of the research justifying the repression of the Palestinians and denial of Palestinian rights is done by academics in the universities in academic programs; many of the colonization projects that are considered by international law to be war crimes have been produced by universities. The wall [in the West Bank] for example was produced in an academic environment; an academic at Haifa University claims that this is his brainchild and there is no reason not to believe him because he has produced other projects that were terribly involved in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians even inside Israel. At every level there is a very deep, entrenched complicity between the Israeli academia and the security/military establishment.

Also, all Israeli academics, like all Israelis within a certain age group, with some exceptions, serve in the occupation reserve army. They serve as occupying soldiers part-time every year, three months every year … í‚ You go and leave academia, your research, you leave everything, and you serve at a checkpoint or worse — so you’re either participating in committing human rights violations or war crimes, or at least you watch them with total apathy — in both cases you’re very complicit even at an individual level; the universities not only tolerate that, they promote that — this is part of the system. Despite this, we are not calling for boycotting individual academics but institutions. The only reason why our boycott is not individual is because otherwise it would be McCarthyist — it would involve some form of McCarthyism or political test: who is a good academic, who is bad, and who decides? And we don’t want to get into that because it’s a very troubling prospect to have political tests and in principle, we are against political tests, so that’s why we have an institutional boycott.

AM: One common argument against the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is that dialogue is more constructive than boycotts. How would you respond?

OB: That’s wrong factually and wrong logically. Factually, there have been so many attempts at dialogue since 1993 when the so-called peace process was announced at Oslo. There were many dialogue organizations and initiatives established; it became an industry — we call it the peace industry. You could get rich very fast by getting involved in one of those dialogue groups and you get to travel to Europe and stay in fancy hotels and get a lot of money in return, but otherwise it produces absolutely nothing on the ground. The main reason is because it’s morally flawed and based on the false premise that this so-called conflict is mainly due to mutual hatred and, therefore, you need some kind of therapy or dialogue between those two equivalent, symmetric, warring parties. Put them in a room, force them to talk to one another, then they will fall in love, the hatred will go away and you will have your Romeo and Juliet story. Of course, this is deceitful and morally very corrupt because the conflict is a colonial conflict — it’s not a domestic dispute between a husband and wife — it’s a colonial conflict based on ethnic cleansing, racism, colonialism and apartheid. Without taking away the roots of the conflict you cannot have any coexistence, at least not ethical coexistence.

There are many other issues related to this dialogue industry in that you don’t have dialogue between asymmetric parties, you have negotiations. To have a dialogue you have to have a certain minimal level of a common denominator based on a common vision for the ultimate solution based on equality and ending injustice. If you don’t have that common denominator than it’s negotiation between the stronger and weaker party and, as I’ve written elsewhere, you can’t have a bridge between them but only a ladder where you go up or down not across … I call this the master/slave type of coexistence … A master and a slave can also reach an agreement where this is reality and you cannot challenge it and you make the best out of it. There is no war, no conflict, nobody is killing anybody, but a master remains a master and the slave remains a slave — so this is not the kind of peace that we the oppressed are seeking — the minimum is to have a just peace. Only with justice can we have a sustainable peace. So dialogue does not work — it has not worked in reality and cannot work in principle. Boycotts have worked in reality and in principle so there is absolutely no reason why they cannot work, because Israel has total impunity given the official support it gets from the west in all fields (economic, cultural, academic and so on). Without raising the price of its oppression, it will never give up; it will never concede on any of our rights.

AM: There is the historical example of South African apartheid, but are there any other types of historical forms of nonviolent resistance — not necessarily boycotts — that the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) draws its inspiration from?

OB: Yes, from Palestinian nonviolence. For a hundred years, well before the South African inspiration, we have been mainly inspired by our own history and roots of civil resistance. In a hundred years of conflict with the settler-colonial conquest of Zionism, we have resisted Zionism mostly by civil resistance and not violent or armed resistance, unlike the common myth that Palestinian resistance is only armed. This is not true. For more than a hundred years Palestinians have resisted with cultural and artistic resistance, strikes, demonstrations, women’s and trade union organizing, and so on. The majority of people were involved in nonviolent resistance before the inspiration of Gandhi and that of South Africa.

AM: Many academics, even those generally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, argue that any proposed academic boycott jeopardizes the principle of academic freedom. Is there any truth to that claim?

OB: The claim is very biased in that it privileges Israeli academic freedom over any other, so they completely ignore that by denying Palestinians their basic rights — all of our freedoms, including academic freedom — Israel is also infringing deeply on our academic freedom. That doesn’t count, it seems. We never heard those liberal voices when Israel shut down Palestinian universities during the first intifada [uprising] — Birzeit University was shut down for four [consecutive] years, for example. We haven’t heard much of an outcry among those liberals who are now shouting academic freedom. Is academic freedom a privilege to whites only? Do we global southerners deserve academic freedom? Are we equally human or not? So those people who are shouting academic freedom are either hypocrites or racists, I’m sorry to say it. They are either hypocritical in that they only care about academic freedom for Israelis and they consider them white, European, Jewish, civilized and not for us Palestinians who are southerners and brown — this is at a theoretical level. In principle the academic boycott that PACBI is calling for and all our partners are adopting is institutional; therefore, it does not infringe on the rights and privileges of Israeli academics to go out and participate in conferences and so on so long as this is not the product of an institutional link — we are calling for cutting all institutional links, not to cut off visits by individual academics, or artists, or cultural figures to participate in events and so on — they can and they do and that will not stop — so it’s really very hypocritical and deceptive to call the academic boycott a form of infringement on academic freedom.

AM: Some have even claimed that such an academic boycott would actually enhance academic freedom of Israeli academics. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

OB: Professor Oren Ben-Dor, who is an Israeli-British philosopher who supports the boycott, argued this in an article early on a few years ago. He said that in Israel, there’s actually no academic freedom when it comes to the taboo issues such as the history of the conflict: the ethnic cleansing, the Nakba [catastrophe], the different sets of laws for Arabs and Jews inside the State of Israel. There are certain taboos that are untouchable in Israeli academia. Oren Ben-Dor’s argument was that the academic boycott would force Israeli academics and institutions to discuss those taboo issues — and finally they are discussing them. So in a way the boycott actually promoted a certain level of academic freedom in Israel that was missing.

AM: Another common argument made by critics of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is that only once Hamas ceases launching rockets into Israel will peace be possible. How would you respond to this claim?

OB: In the West Bank you have a largely quisling government that is completely supporting Israel in anything it wants to do. They get immediate support from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, which is an unelected authority imposed by an American general — despite that it has not stopped the construction of the wall (which is illegal according to the International Court of Justice at the Hague), or the construction of settlements (which are also illegal; they are considered war crimes under international law), or the checkpoints (there are close to 700 roadblocks and checkpoints preventing the freedom of movement of Palestinians), or the confiscation of land, or the indiscriminate killings (including of children), or the imprisonment of political prisoners, or all the other repressive measures of the occupation that are designed to ethnically cleanse the indigenous Palestinians in a very slow and gradual, but persistent, manner. So we have not seen any difference in the repression between the West Bank and Gaza, prior to the war of course, that can be related to Hamas or not to Hamas. In the West Bank, the PA is ruling, not Hamas, so clearly this is a policy of the State of Israel. It’s irrelevant if Hamas accepts Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or accepts the 1967 borders … Israel will never accept our rights unless it is forced to. Our 60 years of experience with Zionist colonial oppression and apartheid has shown us that unless we resist by all means — particularly through civil resistance — to force Israel into a pariah status in the world, like South Africa was turned in the 1980s, there is no chance of advancing the prospects for a just peace.

AM: Finally, you have argued numerous times in your published works that ultimately you would like to see in historic Palestine a binational, secular, democratic state.

OB: Not a binational state — I am completely against binationalism. A secular, democratic state, yes, but not binational. There is a big difference.

AM: What exactly is the sentiment on the ground in Palestine on this question?

OB: I must clarify that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement takes no position on the shape of the political solution. It adopts a rights-based, not solutions-based, approach. I am completely and categorically against binationalism because it assumes that there are two nations with equal moral claims to the land and therefore, we have to accommodate both national rights. I am completely opposed to that, but it would take me too long to explain why, so I will stick to the model I support, which is a secular, democratic state: one person, one vote — regardless of ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, and so on and so forth … Full equality under the law with the inclusion of the refugees — this must be based on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. In other words, a secular, democratic state that accommodates our inalienable rights as Palestinians with the acquired rights of Israeli Jews as settlers. Why do I see this as the main solution? Morally, it’s obviously the most moral solution because it treats people as equals, the two-state solution is not only impossible now — Israel has made it an absolute pipe dream that cannot happen — it is an immoral solution. At best, it would address some of the rights of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, while ignoring the majority of Palestinians — those in exile, the refugees, as well as the Palestinian citizens of Israel. There are three segments of the Palestinian people — unless you address the basic requirements of justice for all three segments than we will not have exercised our right to self-determination. The only way that we can exercise our right to self-determination, without imposing unnecessary injustice on our oppressors, is to have a secular, democratic state where nobody is thrown into the sea, nobody is sent back to Poland, and nobody is left in refugee camps. We can coexist ethically with our rights given back to us.

Now on the ground, back to your question, there is no political party in Palestine now or among Palestinians outside either calling for a secular, democratic one-state solution. Despite this, polls in the West Bank and Gaza have consistently in the last few years shown 25-30 percent support for a secular, democratic state. Two polls in 2007 showed two-thirds majority support for a single state solution in all flavors — some of them think of a purely Palestinian state without Israelis and so on — in exile it’s even much higher because the main issue is that refugees in particular, and people fighting for refugee rights like I am, know that you cannot reconcile the right of return for refugees with a two state solution. That is the big white elephant in the room and people are ignoring it — a return for refugees would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. The right of return is a basic right that cannot be given away; it’s inalienable. í‚ A two-state solution was never moral and it’s no longer working — it’s impossible with all the Israeli settlements and so on. We need to move on to the more moral solution that treats everyone as equal under the law, whether they are Jewish-Israeli or Palestinian.

AM: You hear a lot of academics and public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein saying that the two-state solution represents the international consensus, and that the one-state solution of the kind that you speak of is unrealistic.

OB: The siege against Gaza is also an expression of international consensus — that doesn’t make it right. It’s an international conspiracy that is a war crime — it’s a crime against humanity, despite support from the UN and all the powers that be around the world … It’s amazing for activists, and public intellectuals who are counted as activists, to support the international consensus when they like to, and they oppose it on every other account. When Professor Chomsky opposed the Indonesian occupation of East Timor there was an international consensus supporting Indonesia. No one raised, before Chomsky, the issue of freedom for East Timor — it was Chomsky first and foremost, and he single-handedly pushed this on the agenda until now we have the autonomy of East Timor and semi-independence. So international consensus often means that the main powers agree on an injustice because it fits their interests — that doesn’t mean that we have to accept that; we have to struggle to change that and the way we do that is on the ground. By proposing the more moral solution we are saying that this can mobilize universal support from around the world — except from those who are keen to maintain Israel as a racist, ethnocentric state.

Ali Mustafa is a freelance journalist, writer and media activist. He is a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) and currently resides in Toronto, Canada.

Comments are closed.