Interview: Will Caron and Cynthia Franklin on Understanding the Boycott of Israel


An informative interview on ThinkTech Hawaii with Professor Cynthia Franklin, member of the USACBI Organizing Collective.

Following is the transcript of the interview video clip (below) as posted on YouTube by ThinkTech on Aug 26, 2017 (originally posted with the title “Understanding the Boycott of Israel”).  The video tape begins with a black screen and a disclaimer by the management and staff of ThinkTech.  At minute 1:25, Will Caron provides background and context to the discussion of the Boycott Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement, beginning with the Zionist narrative of the establishment of Israel and then moving on to point out the “complications” attendant on this “great step forward for justice” by mentioning the Nakba of 1948 and military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and then mentioning the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (IABA): “The Israel lobby, one of the most powerful in Washington, has sponsored a bill that would make it illegal to US organizations and citizens to conscientiously boycott Israeli-made products, a form of First Amendment protected free speech.”  The interview with Professor Franklin begins at minute 2:45.


Transcript (lightly edited; read transcript in French here: )

ThinkTech disclaimer: Some people feel that USACBI is a rampantly anti-Semitic organization.  In these times of national controversy about racial schism and religious bigotry, this show gives us a certain level of concern, especially that it is taking place here in Hawaii.  So, while we allow these individuals to appear on Think Tech, we advise you that the views they express do not in any way ___ the views of Think Tech, its management, or staff.  Further, to provide balance, we will be broadcasting a Community Matters show, immediately after this show, to address anti-Semitism on campus 2017.  Please stay tuned to get that side of the story.

Will Caron:  It”s been nearly 70 years since the UN created the modern state of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust with the intention of providing Jewish refugees with a nation of their own with a historical map.  While this event has been championed by every US administration, hence a great step forward for justice, the reality is far more complicated.  The 1948 creation of Israel is known as al Nakba or catastrophe by Arabs as it resulted in the forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians, the military occupation of Palestinian land, and the creation of an apartheid system of laws to govern the Palestinians who remain within the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel proper.  Nevertheless, US support for Israel has remained unwavering and uncritical.  The Israel lobby, one of the most powerful in Washington, has sponsored a bill that would make it illegal to US organizations and citizens to conscientiously boycott Israeli-made products, a form of First Amendment protected free speech.  Hawaii”s Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa is a co-sponsor of the bill known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

My guest today is Jewish-American scholar and co-founder of the Hawaii Coalition for Justice in Palestine Cynthia Franklin, who visited Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2013 and who has worked extensively on the US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.  Cynthia, thanks for joining me.

WC:  The first thing I want to talk about is BDS a little bit.  There is a lot of misinformation now on what it is or why it is created, on the one extreme, and some people call it a terrorist organization–less extreme but just as unhelpful.  Some people call it anti-Jewish.  Can you tell us a little bit [about?] what BDS is all about and how you first got involved?

CF:  First, what is BDS?  BDS was founded in 2005; it was a call put out by Palestinian civil society by 170 organizations and groups, asking that people across the world observe a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel until three conditions were met.  The three conditions asked for are a way of applying non-violent pressure on Israel to comply with international law.  So there are three planks to BDS and when those are met, there will be no more boycott.  The three conditions are first of all to end the colonization of all Arab lands and to dismantle the illegal apartheid or separation wall.  The second condition is to provide equal rights to Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel who currently exist under a set of unequal laws–50 laws on their face discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.  The third condition is to respect and promote the right of return for those Palestinians who have been displaced from historic Palestine, and those refugees number over seven million. That is a UN-protected right of return.

WC:  And when you say illegal, you are talking about based on the UN?

CF:  Based on UN Resolution 194, that has stipulated that Palestinians have a right of return.

WC:  And that the settlements and wall are illegal as well.

CF:  Yes, those are illegal.

WC:  And how did you get involved with BDS?

CF:  I got involved with BDS as a result of a trip to Palestine in 2013. While there I observed for myself conditions that I had read about and heard about, and I met up with many Palestinians.  And one uniform thing that they said was: Please go back and tell people what you”ve seen, and also support the boycott.  And so, when I got back, I was invited on to the organizing collective for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, also known as USACBI.  I have joined that organizing collective and have been part of that for the last four years or so.

WC:  So in that trip–in 2013, correct? –you were looking for contributing writers for a special Biography issue.  That”s correct?

CF:  Uh-huh.

WC:  And what were some of the things that you witnessed there and how did they change or solidify your understanding of the Israeli state and what”s going on the ground there?

CF:  Well, one of the things I really learned, I learned right from the beginning, before I left for the trip. Before I left for the trip, I was told make sure your computer doesn”t have anything on it that indicated you are going to the West Bank.  Make sure there are not texts on your phone that indicate you are going to the West Bank because you can get into trouble right at the airport and meet with obstacles there.  So right away I encountered a sense of the kinds of repressions at work.  On the way into the West Bank, there is a sign that says, if you are not Palestinian–I don”t remember the exact language, but basically, do not enter because this is dangerous, your life is in danger if you cross into the West Bank.  So I then crossed into the West Bank and was met with amazing hospitality, but again right away driving into the West Bank, I was going on roads with pot holes, badly maintained, and I knew there was a separate road for Israelis, for settlers who are living illegally in the West Bank.  So I immediately knew of two sets of roads.  I very quickly came to understand how to recognize who was an Israeli–or Jewish settler–and who was Palestinian, by the water tanks on their roofs, because one of the things Israel does is it takes water from the West Bank and it keeps about 80 percent–I am not totally sure of the exact percentage–and then it sells the rest of that water to the Palestinians and then delivers it once or twice a week to the tanks, so there is a perpetual water shortage.  I also experienced delays at check points and witnessed violence at check points.  One particularly horrific and memorable experience was seeing a small child run down by an Israeli settler at a check point, and I witnessed and heard about people”s difficulties getting to school or getting to the hospital because of the check points, because of the wall, making mobility very difficult.  I talked to students who had themselves been arrested or who had fiancés or friends arrested for things like setting up chairs for demonstrations to protest the wall.  So, I experienced the whole range of ways that the occupation affects people”s lives, including bureaucratic ways that endangered them physically or that are just exasperating. I think that the most dramatic experience I had was in Hebron, which is a place of really intense repression.  It”s one of the few places where settlers actually live basically right on top of Palestinians.  They”ve moved into Palestinian homes, and we were shown around Hebron by the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, who makes sure that we were kept safe from all the Israeli soldiers who were pointing their guns down at us on the street.  Palestinians cannot walk freely–there are streets they cannot walk on–they cannot enter the front door of their homes, there is netting …

WC:  We actually have a picture of that, one of the pictures you brought back in Hebron with the net covering that.

CF:  That netting protects them from things that are thrown down, but the people that are the international observers say that people will throw acid down on the street or that they will throw sewage down through those nets, and we observed evidence of that as we were walking through the streets.  So that was the most dramatic thing that we saw, but in addition to that, there was the kind of daily erosion of people”s rights and ability to function, and the kind of normalization of occupation that really makes life, even for the best-off Palestinians, quite difficult.  So, Hebron is an extreme example, but we were in the homes of quite wealthy people who made us these beautiful meals, but the stories that they told were ones of losing family and losing friends to violence from the Israelis.  What you have there is military rule so that even the best-off Palestinians still are living under an occupation that is quite brutal, and leaves them with a great deal of uncertainty about the most basic of things.

WC:  You”re Jewish-American, so can you talk a little bit about the difficulty of coming to terms, I suppose, with the fact that anti-Zionism is not opposed to being Jewish.  So quickly could you share with us about that in your experience?

CF:  Well, that”s such an important thing to really underline, that being Jewish and being Zionist are two different things, and for me Zionism is a political ideology; it”s a form of nationalism, it”s a form of settler-colonialism, and I don”t want anything to do with any part of that.  I work with Jewish Voice for Peace quite actively, and I think that they have been very clear-sighted in developing a position that very clearly lays out the fact that being anti-Zionist is not being anti-Jewish.  Israel depends upon these two being substitutable for one another, and the US State Department makes those two substitutable.  You are not allowed to criticize Israel”s most powerful way of keeping its human rights violations in check.  And it is one I think Jews of conscience have particular responsibility to refuse and to say that as Jews, we do not need to support Zionism, and that is in no way a reflection of being Jewish. We are not self-hating Jews.  We are not ourselves anti-Semitic.  We are just against settler-colonialism. We are against apartheid. We are against occupation, and not in our name.

WC:  And so the situation on the ground being what it is, and the separation wall doing what it”s done to Palestinian land–and then on top of that you said 50 laws that are different that treat Palestinian citizens differently–what does all of that sort of equal in terms of like the Israeli state?  Is it an apartheid state would you say?

CF:  I think Israel is an apartheid state. Desmund Tutu is one of the people who supports the BDS movement and he has said that apartheid in Israel is worse than it was in South Africa when South Africa was an apartheid state.  I think one of the things that is often confused is that apartheid as a definition involves separation and discrimination.  It doesn”t have to look like it looked in South Africa for it to be apartheid.  And so, apartheid does look different in Israel and Palestine than it does in South Africa, and some South Africans have said it looks worse.

WC:  Before the break we were talking about the situation on the ground in Palestine that”s given rise to the BDS movement, a non-violent international protest against Israeli policy as it pertains to Palestinians.  Now we are going to switch gears a little bit to talk about the reaction to BDS here in the United States, where the government is still so uncritically pro-Israel.  So recently in the news there”s been talk of a bill going through congress, the Israeli Anti-Boycott Act, which would criminalize organizations and individuals who wish to participate in the BDS movement, either through boycotting Israeli products or through divesting from Israeli companies or products.  253 representatives in the House, including our own Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, have co-sponsored that version.  48 senators have co-sponsored the Senate version.  The ACLU, however, opposes the bill strongly.  So, can you explain a little bit about what the bill would actually do, and why it is particularly dangerous for free speech?

CF:  So, the bill is an amendment of a 1979 export administration act, and it is kind of technical, but basically what the bill does is to make it punishable for businesses or individuals, to be fined anywhere from 250 thousand dollars up to a million dollars and 20 years in prison for supporting the boycott.  It is often called a BDS bill, and in fact I was struck at the Town Hall meeting that Colleen Hanabusa referred to it as the BDS bill.  It is not technically a BDS bill in that what it says is that businesses that are supporting foreign entities or organizations that are calling for boycott of Israel, that you can”t listen to them, you can”t adhere to that boycott.  Now what that means is for example:  Let”s say Kokua Market says we are not going to stop boycotting Sabra hummus, because Sabra hummus violates the boycott, which it does–that means Kokua would be susceptible to these fines and to imprisonment.  Now if they said we are not stocking Sabra hummus because we think it tastes bad, that would be cool.  And so this is actually punishing businesses–and individual business owners, because of course it is not businesses that go to prison, it is people–for their political beliefs.  But that bill goes even further.  And what that bill says is that any individuals who are inciting, or even finding out or inquiring about this are also punishable.  So if I call Kokua Market and say which of your products are Israeli products, because I am not going to buy these products, and I don”t think you should sell these products, that bill would allow me to be eligible for penalization.  The reason why citizens have come out so strongly against the bill is that it is a direct infringement of First Amendment rights, and the right to boycott is a protected and long respected form of free speech, and so the ACLU has taken a position against it, as have even some Jewish Zionist organizations, including J-Street, and so there”s been some widespread resistance to this.  But as you mentioned, there is also bipartisan Congressional support for this bill, and that is why it is a very alarming bill.

WC:  So essentially, it”s seeking to criminalize and perhaps outlaw the BDS movement because, as you said, you can”t even inquire about it, you can”t even advocate on behalf of the BDS movement or you are susceptible to fines.  So, is that correct?

CF:  Yeah, I mean it amounts to that–so the European Union, for example, has a list of products that are made in the Palestinian territories, and they actually haven”t said don”t buy them, but it is a kind of implicit boycott.  So if you, as a business, boycott one of those products, or if you as an individual put pressure on a business related to that product, because the EU as an international entity has put that up on their list, then even if you are not saying the EU called attention to this and that”s why I am interested in boycotting it, if you yourself just say this is something I am interested in, you are still subject to penalization according to the lawyers who have looked at this very carefully, including ACLU lawyers.  And so that”s part of the reason they are so upset about this bill.

WC:  So, the Israel lobby, like I said at the beginning, one of the most powerful in Washington–so what does it say about the fact that they are leveraging Congress so hard, because they came out and sponsored this bill, they helped draft it I believe, AIPAC in particular, what does it say about the state of things that are so intent on making it difficult or in some ways outlawing the BDS movement in the US?

CF:  Well, I think for me it speaks to the success and power of the BDS movement and the fact that you can”t really stop it in any legitimate way, because it is a non-violent movement and it is grassroots and it is principled. It”s basically a liberal movement. It”s true that the result of it would be quite radical, but to say obey an international law–that”s all we are saying.  These three international laws should be upheld. So, in fact that”s all it”s doing; it is saying these three precepts of international law should be upheld. And so, the fact that there is not really a principled way to stop that leads to a kind of backlash right now, and Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has declared BDS the largest strategic threat facing Israel.  He has poured 25 million dollars into stopping it, and Israel is very much working in tandem with Zionist groups in the US to promote this kind of legislation, and the Israel Anti-Boycott Act that we have been talking about is not the only recent legislation.  Some of it has passed–about 26 states have passed some form of legislation–and cities, too.  So, this is part of a kind of panic response, I think, to the fact that BDS has been working.  There are companies that have been pulling out of their investments in Israel and there are others that are scrambling right now, figuring out what to do. So, I think it”s both a kind of success, but also a kind of evidence of the fact that Israel is not a democratic state, and those supporting it are having trouble finding ways to support what is not a democratic state.

WC:  So, speaking of support for Israel.  Last year, under the Obama admiration actually, the US and the Israeli governments signed a 38-billion-dollar military aid deal, spread out over a decade.  I want to ask you how US military money impacts or affects the situation on the ground in Palestine, and what needs to change in US policy or in terms of just social movements in order to change that situation on the ground.

CF:  I think it is very clear this has to be grassroots, so this involves mobilizing and saying no.  I think we see support for Israel in every administration and now we have Kushner leading peace talks, and I think it is safe to say, that”s not going anywhere. So it really is up to individuals to say to the representatives this is actually wrong, this is not okay, we don”t want this.  Because I think unless there is this kind of pressure, it will continue.  The 38 million aid packet is up from what was three billion dollars a year to 3.8 billion dollars a year.  What does that money do?  That money creates a lot of misery.  Gaza is bombed approximately every two years.  2014 was the last all-out assault on Gaza.  It is, according to the World Health Organization, deemed to be unlivable by 2020.  There is unsafe water; they have rebuilt almost nothing from a ravaged infrastructure because there is a blockade; building materials cannot enter, people cannot enter in and out of the world”s largest outdoor prison.  That is what the US money is doing; it is supporting that, but it is also complicated because Israel also uses Gaza and the West Bank as testing sites to develop weapons and to test technology.  There is a film called The Lab that talks about this, made by an Israeli–a Jewish-Israeli filmmaker.  And so there is big money involved in this and it is not just us helping them.

Our police are trained by Israel, which is part of the reason that Ferguson and Gaza had a lot of exchange going during the summer of 2014 when people in Gaza were oh, we know what you guys are going through with the tear gas, this is how you deal with that.  So, there is a lot of violence. Basically, we are supporting a violent occupation with that money is the short answer.

WC: So, for viewers who are interested in pursuing this further, who are interested in learning more about the action of either supporting or opposing legislation – what can they do?

CF: Well, one thing in terms of this IABA Act is write to your legislators – if you are in Hawaii, write to Colleen Hanabusa, maybe she won”t answer you; she has yet to answer me or any of the 20 people or so that I know have written to her, but it is important that she listen to her constituents, and at least know if she is not going to answer to us.  More importantly, you can support the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).  Learn more about BDS.  The BDS website has more information about how to do that.

WC: Thanks so much Cynthia

CF: Thanks for having me.



Comments are closed.