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May 13, 2011

BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights

by Jason Kunin

Omar Barghouti

It says something about the colonial reality of Palestinians that as a Jewish supporter of the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, I am often accused by Israel supporters of “singling out” Israel – as if the idea were mine, something I picked up from left-wing kooks or “self-hating” Jews looking for an excuse to wear a kefiah.

The reality is the call for BDS comes from Palestinians themselves – particularly by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in 2005, which represents a huge swath of Palestinian civil society. Yet since colonial racism typically assumes the colonized lack both agency and reason – and that Palestinians are capable only of violent (i.e. irrational) resistance – the Palestinian origins of this non-violent and increasingly effective campaign rooted in liberal ideals and international law are often overlooked.

It is for this reason that we welcome Omar Barghouti’s Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (2011). Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), as well as the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. For several years he has been one of the most consistently articulate and prominent Palestinian spokespeople for a movement that so often turns to non-Palestinian voices – such as John Dugard and Richard Falk, the past and present UN special rapporteur for human rights – to legitimize its claims about Israeli oppression.

Like Primo Levi, whose training was also in the sciences, Barghouti describes the conditions of inhumanity under which Palestinians suffer with a precision that is both clinical and deeply moral. Not only does he provide detailed and irrefutable evidence of Israeli apartheid – a word that itself provokes Zionist outrage – but he does not shy away from using an even more loaded word: genocide.

Barghouti’s details about the deliberately induced health crisis in Gaza are downright chilling. Gaza residents – there are roughly 1.5 million of them – live in a deadly stew of radiation, toxins, nitrates, and raw sewage. Two savage bombing campaigns in 2006 and 2009 have left 90-95 percent of Gaza’s water supply unfit for human consumption and with dangerously high levels of radiation and toxicity in the soil. The results are predictably horrific: dramatic increases in cancers, especially among children; birth defects, miscarriages; infertility, and methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” syndrome, a blood disorder that affects young children leading to convulsions and death.

A particularly disturbing example of the deliberate cruelty with which Israel inflicts suffering on the people of Gaza is offered by the Israeli activist Jeff Halper:
In a policy [frighteningly] reminiscent of the dark regimes in which Jews suffered from controlled malnutrition, our government has imposed a regime of “counting calories” on the Gaza population – imposing a “minimal dietary regime” on a million and a half people who receive as little as 850 calories a day, less than the recommended daily intake. (207)

Getting Justice - not just ending Apartheid

Barghouti is not just interested in ending the siege of Gaza or ending the occupation of the West Bank. There can be no peace without justice and the BDS movement is very clear about what the minimum requirements for justice are:
  1. Ending the military occupation of lands seized in 1967 and dismantling of the apartheid wall.
  2. Granting equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  3. Respecting, promoting, and protecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
Israeli apartheid, Barghouti notes, exists not just in “the territories” but in Israel proper. “Racist walls have been erected in several localities inside Israel where Jews and Palestinians live. In Lydda, Ramleh, and Caesaria, walls and barricades of various forms were built to demographically separate the two communities” (220).

There is also no such thing as an Israeli “nationality.” Instead, “Israel has created a discriminatory two-tier legal system whereby Jews hold nationality and citizenship while indigenous Palestinians hold only citizenship.” This differentiated citizenship enables Israel to discriminate against Palestinian citizens in everything from jobs, to land, to basic services. Ninety-three percent of Israel’s land is reserved exclusively for Jewish use.

“Even in cancer research Israeli apartheid is strongly present” (69) because Israel excludes Palestinian communities in their cancer mapping data in order to cover up their criminal dumping of garbage and toxic waste in or near their communities. Yet an investigation published in Ha’artez and cited by Barghouti showed that “[b]etween 1980 and 2010, the rate of malignant diseases in the Palestinian population in Israel rose by 97.8 percent among men and 123 percent among women, as opposed to a rise of 39.8 percent among men and 24.4 percent among women in the Jewish population” (70).

Academic and Cultural Boycott

The most contentious plank of the BDS campaign has been its insistence on the importance of academic and cultural boycott. In response to those who oppose the academic boycott on the basis that it violates “academic freedom,” Barghouti points out not merely the hypocrisy of seeking to preserve the academic freedom of Israelis while ignoring the Israeli closure of Palestinian schools and universities and the prevention of Palestinian academics from studying abroad – to say nothing of its preventing children from going to school through road closures and checkpoints – but he further counters that it is hardly a moral position to privilege “academic freedom as a super-value above all other freedoms” (105).

Academic freedom, after all, is a privilege, not a right. Clean water, freedom of movement, freedom from persecution – these are rights, the denial of which constitute the daily reality of Palestinian life.

As for the cultural boycott – an issue that Barghouti, a professional choreographer, is highly sensitive to – he asks why people think that boycotting cultural production is political but supporting it is not.

Culture, in fact, is central to the Israeli government’s “Brand Israel” campaign, which was launched in 2005 to repair the country’s image abroad. As part of this hasbara (propaganda) effort, Israel has been sending abroad dance companies, poets, orchestras, and films in order to whitewash its image and deflect attention away from its sadistic siege of Gaza, its savage bombing of Lebanon in 2006, its massacre of Palestinian democracy activists on board the Turkish flotilla in 2010, its on-going demolition of homes, and its destruction of a Palestinian cemetery in Jerusalem to build a “Museum of Tolerance”. Indeed, as Barghouti reveals, artists and writers who receive funding from the Israeli state are required to sign a contract in which they pledge to “conform to and indeed promote state policies” (123).

Artists who agree to perform in Israel find their appearances spun by Israeli officials and media as political gestures of solidarity. As the singer Devendra Banhart astutely noted in explaining his withdrawal from a scheduled concert in Tel Aviv, “It seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own” (213).

Two States or One State?

While Barghouti supports the goal of a single unitary state in Israel-Palestine – a true democracy of one person, one vote, and total equality – he is careful to point out that this is his preferred solution, not the BDS campaign’s, which has abstained from the one-state/two-state debate. Supporters of Israel, including those on the Zionist “left,” frequently complain that the implication of the BDS demands, particularly the right of return and the full equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel, would logically lead to the end of Israel as a “Jewish state.” They are right, of course, and I’ve always been puzzled over the movement’s reluctance to stand firmly in support of an option that I, like Barghouti, regard as the most just.

But there are practical reasons for the BDS campaign’s refusal to take a position that have much to do with movement building. Barghouti welcomes groups that “for tactical reasons, support only a subset of BDS” and that such groups are still “partners” (218). Moreover, though BDS is widely accepted by Palestinian civil society (if not, unfortunately, by Palestinian leadership), a single-state solution is not - though the ground is shifting as it becomes increasingly obvious that Israel’s “facts on the ground” have made a two-state solution impossible.

At the end of the day, however, not all Palestinians are keen to live with their oppressors, and the example of post-apartheid South Africa shows just how easily apartheid can be continued through economic means even after its political and legal reality ends.

BDS: A wake-up call

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions is made up of previously published articles, interviews, and talks, and there is a fair amount of repetition, which makes this a book to dive into selectively rather than a cover-to-cover read. Mind you, most of what Barghouti has to say bears repeating, particularly since those who oppose BDS or tar it as “anti-Semitic,” despite the prominent activity of Jews in the movement, seem deaf to its message.

So who is BDS aimed at - activists, certainly, supporters of BDS who aim to sharpen their analysis, but also people of conscience, including ordinary Israelis for whom the occupation is off the radar. As Barghouti notes, “Israelis are simply apathetic; they could not care less what their state and institutions are doing to Palestinians so long as they can pursue as normal a life as possible without being bothered” (81). BDS is intended to make this normality impossible, to inflict a cost to the occupation and oppression of Palestinians, not through rockets or suicide bombs, but through shame. To that end, Barghouti has compiled an invaluable handbook for how to make this happen.