by Samah Sabawi
Naomi Chazan, the President of the New Israel Fund (NIF) gave a talk in Marrickville, New South Wales, during her recent Australian tour offering a critique of the Palestinian Civil Society call for Boycotts Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Although she presented herself as a veteran Israeli peace activist, Chazan”s mission here in Australia was ostensibly to promote NIF. This is important because everything she said about BDS must be understood within the context of her mission – to gather funds and support and to convince Jews in Australia of the need to continue to invest in Israel through NIF. This clear conflict of interest makes Chazan”s criticism of BDS far less credible.
Chazan named six reasons why she believed BDS was harmful.
BDS is not effective because Israel has a very strong economy: South Africa”s economy was also booming when the boycott movement against that regime began in the late 1950s. Decades later the movement succeeded in bringing down the South African apartheid regime.
Many Israeli leaders, including Ehud Barak, Ben-Eliezer, Shimon Peres and others, have already stated that BDS is a “strategic threat;” what they mean of course is that it is a serious threat to Israel”s system of occupation, legalized racial discrimination (conforming to the UN definition of apartheid) and denial of refugee rights. We only need to look at the millions of dollars the Israeli lobby groups in Western nations including Australia are spending in efforts to “sabotage” the movement to know that it is indeed effective. The fact that Chazan focused so much on BDS in her Marrickville talk confirms this.
There is other evidence of BDS”s effectiveness.
The Deutsche Bahn withdrawal from the Israeli rail project connecting Tel Aviv with Jerusalem has been a watershed for the movement. It was the first time that a German government-owned company withdrew from an Israeli project over concerns of violation of international law. The French company Veolia’s loss of billions of dollars worth of contracts because of its involvement in the illegal Jerusalem Light Rail project also points to the impressive success of BDS campaigning, especially in Europe.
The fast growing list of superstars and prominent music bands heeding the boycott of Israel makes Tel Aviv look very similar to the South African resort of Sun City under apartheid. That city was a key target for the cultural boycott then.
The University of Johannesburg”s severance of ties with Ben Gurion University over the latter’s complicity in violating Palestinian rights is the most concrete victory to date for the academic boycott campaign.
And, there has been sweeping trade union support for BDS in the UK, Brazil, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Belgium, India, Turkey, and elsewhere.
BDS undermines the existence of the state of Israel: The demands are clear – full equality in Israel for the Palestinian citizens of the state, an end to occupation and a fulfilment of Israel”s obligation towards the refugees. If these demands threaten to bring an end to Israel’s “existence, we have to ask what does this really say about Israel?
A state that is truly democratic and built on the foundations of justice and equality would not be threatened by demands of equality and an end to occupation. Boycotts did not bring an end to South Africa”s existence, they did not destroy it, and they certainly did not “delegitimize” whites: they only destroyed South Africa”s system of injustice, inequality and racial discrimination.
BDS is actually “a code word for one state solution” which defies the right of Israelis and Jews to self-determination: BDS does not aim for either a one or two state solution, but for Palestinian rights. One of those rights is for Palestinians to be free in their own land without the yoke of Israeli occupation and system of racial discrimination. Whether that is in one state for both peoples or two sovereign, democratic states side by side has yet to be decided. The movement is consistently neutral on this, regardless of the diverse personal political views held by its various spokespeople.
BDS is counter-productive because it entrenches the victim mentality of those in Israel who believe the whole world is against them which inevitably strengthens the right wing in Israel while weakening the left:Right now, the fanatical right is taking over the entire Israeli society, but once boycotts begin hurting Israel”s carefully nurtured public image, dissenting voices will become much more vocal, as happened in South Africa. Then, the current consensus in support of apartheid and colonial rule will crack.
BDS is against academic freedom and singles out Israeli academics:Chazan is purposely misleading in this regard. As any relatively well-informed observer must know after seven years of the Palestinian academic boycott campaign and hundreds of articles written on it, the academic boycott is institutional in nature and has therefore never targeted individual Israeli academics. BDS has consistently been directed at academic institutions because of their persistent and grave complicity in planning, implementing and justifying Israel’s violations of international law.
Chazan’s claims that Israeli academics are progressive and opposed to the occupation have absolutely no foundation. In 2008, a petition drafted by four Jewish-Israeli academics calling on the Israeli army to allow access at checkpoints to Palestinian academics and students to reach their educational institutions was distributed to all 9,000 Israeli academics in the hope that most would sign this minimal expression of respect for academic freedom: only 407 out of 9,000 academic actually did so.
BDS singles Israel out: This criticism is so often tendered that one has to ask whether Chazan and others posing it want more action on other causes or silence on the Palestinian cause. In any case, people are rising up against tyrannical regimes and seeking change in just about every Arab state in “Israel”s neighbourhood.” Some of these governments are now being subject to international sanctions, so why not Israel which has for decades defied the UN and violated international law?
An equally important question to ask here is why not advocate for Palestinian rights? Indeed, why are Palestinians being singled out as the only people who cannot be championed? We can speak out for all other issues, so it is tendentious to suggest that speaking up for Palestinian rights singles Israel out unfairly.
The principled Israeli left camp which respects equal rights for all, the UN-sanctioned rights of Palestinian refugees, and an end to colonial oppression should – and indeed does — invest its time challenging its government”s apartheid policies and oppression of the Palestinians rather than criticising the Palestinian non-violent resistance model that encompasses BDS.
Chazan”s efforts to undermine BDS need to be seen in context. At the end of the day, Chazan will go home to Israel where she is a privileged Jewish citizen with all her rights intact. She is part of and an enabler of the establishment that denies Palestinians their basic rights and freedoms, and as such, she is not in a position to be dictating to the Palestinians their methods of struggle or acting as gatekeeper for the international solidarity movements, preaching to them what is allowed and what is not in standing with the Palestinians. As in every human struggle for freedom, justice and equality, that right is the prerogative of those who live behind the walls, hindered by checkpoints and held captive to siege and military oppression.
Samah Sabawi is the Public Advocate of the Australian advocacy group Australians for Palestine.