The BDS Movement at 10: An Interview with Omar Barghouti
Mondoweiss co-editors Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss talk with Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement Omar Barghouti on the tenth anniversary of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
The BDS Call was issued by representatives of Palestinian civil society on July 9, 2005 with a goal of achieving basic Palestinian rights under international law. BDS calls for an end to Israel’s 1967 occupation of Arab lands, including East Jerusalem; an end to what even the US Department of State has criticized as Israel’s system of “institutional, legal and societal discrimination” against its Palestinian citizens, which meets the UN definition of apartheid, and an end to its denial of the Palestinian refugees’ UN-stipulated right to return to their homes of origin from which they were forcible displaced in the 1948 Nakba and kept from returning to ever since.
The BDS Call addresses all three rights because they correspond to the three main constituencies that make up the Palestinian people. According to the 2014 figures issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, of the 11.8 million Palestinians, those in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), that is Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are only 38% of the entire Palestinian people. Palestinian citizens of Israel are about 12%, and Palestinians in exile make up the remaining 50%.
Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss: Ten years in, how would you characterize the success of the BDS movement so far?
Omar Bargouti: BDS has played a critical role in changing the discourse on the question of Palestine after more than two decades of a fraudulent “peace process” that undermined Palestinian rights and served as a fig leaf for the expansion and entrenchment of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
Today, Israel recognizes BDS as a “strategic threat” to its entire regime of oppression for several reasons. BDS is mainstreaming the quest for the UN-stipulated but long ignored rights of the entire Palestinian people and is gradually and methodically succeeding in isolating Israel academically, culturally and, to a lesser extent, economically as well.
Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid struggle, BDS is also succeeding in exposing the toxicity of the “brand” Israel. The impact of the nonviolent, Palestinian-led, global BDS movement has grown steadily since BDS was launched in 2005. But in the last two years it has accelerated for various reasons. When you plant seeds and nourish them with care and consistency, they eventually yield good fruits. We are now beginning to harvest the fruits of 10 years of strategic, morally-consistent and undeniably effective BDS human rights campaigning.
BDS is winning the battles for hearts and minds across the world, despite Israel’s still hegemonic influence among governments in the U.S. and Europe.
The impact of BDS at 10 is now recognized by top Israeli political, security and business leaders and even a former CIA director.
A just published UN report shows that direct foreign investment in Israel has dropped by 46% in 2014 as compared to 2013. An Israeli co-author of this report has attributed this sharp decrease partially to BDS.
A recent Rand study estimated Israel’s economic losses in the coming 10 years if BDS continues at $47 billion. Thus the panic you see in Israel’s establishment.
Since June 2013, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has effectively declared the BDS movement a “strategic threat” by assigning the overall responsibility for fighting BDS to the ministry of strategic affairs.
Israeli president Reuven Rivlin has recently characterized the academic boycott of Israel as a “first-rate strategic threat” to Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid.
Israel’s election of a the most extreme, far-right government in its history, shedding its last democratic pretenses, and adopting unmasked colonial policies will increase Palestinian suffering, without doubt. But it will also enhance the already impressive growth of BDS.
The BBC Globescan poll of international public opinion has consistently shown in the last few years Israel competing with North Korea in popularity around the world, including among Europe’s largest nations.
When you issued the call how did you imagine the movement would proceed? What effect did you think it would have then?
The call was issued by 171 Palestinian political parties, unions, associations and organizations, representing the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people in historic Palestine and in exile. It is rooted in decades of Palestinian popular resistance and is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement and the US civil rights movement, among others.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the impact of BDS 10 years after its launch has gone well beyond our most optimistic expectations when we founded the movement in 2005.
Are you surprised by the growth in the movement?
I am not surprised by the growth per se but by its rate. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told me, BDS is growing considerably faster than the anti-apartheid boycott movement grew.
What has been the role of the Israel lobby in the opposition to BDS?
Israel’s earliest response to the initial phase of BDS, the 2004 establishment of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), was to launch its extremely well-oiled “Brand Israel” campaign. It exploits Israeli culture, academia and technology to re-brand the state and show its “prettier face” to the world, especially after every massacre Israel commits against the indigenous Palestinian people.
The lobby has always been an integral part of this dynamic. Israel’s lobby in Washington, in particular, is recognized today, as a recent poll shows, by 3 out of 4 “opinion elites” in the Democratic Party as wielding too much influence on US foreign policy. Whether one argues that the tail is wagging the imperial dog or the other way around, one cannot but accept that the tail and the dog are organically connected! US imperial interests and Israel’s massive influence go hand in hand.
Ten years of BDS have taught us that the Israeli regime’s last and toughest line of defense is the US Congress. I would not be revealing a secret when I say that most US politicians and elected officials are more accountable and responsive to their funders than to their constituents’ interests which they are supposed to represent. Many members of Congress are “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby,” as even Thomas Friedman admitted when explaining the peculiar number of yoyo-like standing ovations Congress gave Israeli prime minister Netanyahu in 2011.
Having failed to stand up to BDS in many battles for hearts and minds at the grassroots and civil society levels, Israel adopted a new strategy for fighting BDS in 2014 centered around lawfare. Israel’s lobby is leading that battle, getting anti-BDS legislation passed in several state legislatures and the US Congress.
But that is expected. What Israel may not have expected is the steady erosion of its standing in the Democratic Party and among African Americans, Latino Americans, women and young Americans, Jewish Americans included. Israel’s job is not easy, after all. It is arrogantly trying to delegitimize the boycott, a time-honored tactic of resisting injustice in the US and a form of protected speech, as decided by the Supreme Court.
Drunk with power, Israel and its lobby groups have forgotten what carrots look like; they are resorting to larger and larger sticks to beat critics into submission. But by increasingly allying itself to and animating the American far-right and creating a new McCarthyism of sheer bullying and intellectual terror where obedience to Israel’s regime is the litmus test of loyalty, Israel’s lobby is further alienating the liberal mainstream and losing the future leadership of the US, as former Israeli Mossad chief, Shabtai Shavit realizes.
So the daunting Israel lobby may score the mother of all own goals and end up accelerating the erosion of Israel’s shield of complicity in the US and beyond.
You say Israel’s toughest line of defense is Congress, but presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently promised mega-donor Haim Saban to help fight Israel boycotts. What ramifications do you see as BDS becomes an issue in the upcoming presidential race?
Hillary Clinton’s obsequious letter to her main donor takes the corruption of the US political system to the next level. This is somehwere between a plutocracy and an oligarchy in the making.
That’s bad not just for Palestinians, but for all those who care to defend and strengthen US democratic principles against the take over by the rich and powerful.
If Clinton turns opposition to BDS into a campaign slogan, she will further alienate herself from large Democratic constituencies and will further boost the profile of the BDS movement. Israel’s treatment of BDS as an “existential threat” and its summoning of all its troops in the US to fight it will create a new McCarthyism that will be as squarely defeated as the first edition was.
Did the charges of anti-Semitism surprise you? Do you see any indication that they’re losing their effectiveness? And how important has Jewish support been tactically to the movement’s growth?
Israel and the Zionist movement are aggressively trying to create a new definition of anti-Semitism that extends to anti-Zionism and advocacy of any boycotts against Israel. Moral principles aside, this is clearly dangerous for Palestinians and people of conscience standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for rights, as it is to Jewish communities the world over as it dilutes the notion of anti-Jewish racism beyond recognition.
Conflating time-honored, human-rights based boycotts of Israel’s violations of international law with anti-Jewish racism is not only false. It is a racist attempt to put all Jews into one basket and to implicate them in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. Israel’s charge of racism against the BDS movement is akin to the Ku Klux Klan accusing Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks of racism! It is ludicrously propagandistic.
Anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the BDS movement is a human rights based, non-sectarian, inclusive movement that rejects all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Israel’s tens of racist laws. BDS calls for equal rights for all humans, irrespective of identity. It targets Israel and entities that are complicit in its regime of oppression, not based on any real or claimed identity, but based on the fact that this regime of oppression denies Palestinians their UN-stipulated rights under international law.
If Israel were to identify itself as Christian, Islamic, or Hindu state, we would still strive to isolate its regime of oppression to achieve our rights.
BDS has never targeted Jews or Israelis as Jews; it struggles to end an unjust regime that enslaves our people with occupation, apartheid and denial of the refugees’ UN-stipulated rights. There are Jewish-Israeli partners in the BDS movement that play a significant role in exposing Israel’s regime of oppression and advocating for isolating it. Moreover, we are proud of the disproportionately high number of Jewish activists in the BDS movement, especially in Jewish Voice for Peace.
Israel and the Zionist propaganda machine immediately accuse any supporter of BDS of “anti-Semitism” as a form of bullying and shutting down all dissent. This smear tactic is particularly used against Europeans and Americans who support the boycott, given the guilt over the Holocaust and Israel’s relative success for decades in channeling that guilt into complicity in Israel’s regime of oppression against the Palestinians. But this anti-Semitism smear tactic does not work with Palestinians, the victims of Zionism and its settler colonial project who played no role in the Holocaust and should not be made to pay for it in their rights.
Netanyahu and others have played into your hands, arguably, with some of their language, and response to the movement. Did this surprise you?
No. As racist, violent and ruthless as it is, the ultra-right in Israel is brutally honest, unlike the compulsive pretenders and liars of the so-called Zionist “left.” With Netanyahu, Israel has dropped the last mask of its never-existent democracy, exposing Israel’s true face to the world as a regime of colonial and racist oppression. Almost half the opinion shapers of the Democratic Party consider Israel racist, according to the poll I mentioned earlier. This is part of Netanyahu’s gift to the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
Have your tactics changed, and how? Once you were willing that American partners would “boycott an egg” if that was all they were willing to do. Are you frustrated by those who only want to boycott divest and sanction east of the Green Line?
The rights stated in the BDS call are non-negotiable, as they constitute the minimal requirements for the Palestinian people to exercise its inalienable right to self-determination. But the tactics and actions of boycott, divestment and sanctions are of necessity context-sensitive. Activists and partner groups in any given context decide what to boycott and how. Some partners, like the American Studies Association, adopt a full boycott of Israel in a certain field, while many others adopt selective boycotts of or divestment from companies illegally operating in the occupied Palestinian territory. As long as our three rights are upheld, we work with both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.
Boycotting an egg is always fine, as a first step, if this is all one can do and so long as our three basic rights are respected. But ultimately, BDS aims to turn Israel into a pariah state, as South Africa once was, and to isolate its regime of oppression in order to achieve our UN-stipulated rights.
Have you been surprised by the response of liberal Zionists in the U.S., and their refusal to join the movement? Will they join the movement ultimately?
Palestinian human rights activists are generally not over-concerned with what spokespeople for the soft Zionist camp in the US or elsewhere think or believe, despite their frequent bellicose tantrums against BDS. They are increasingly becoming irrelevant.
So-called “liberal” Zionists know as well as we do that the BDS movement, which is led by Palestinians, asserts basic Palestinian rights and gives voice to Palestinian aspirations, has effectively stripped them of their “gatekeeper” status. They also recognize, I think, that they are a fading phenomenon, not because they lack intelligence or resources, but because you can only get away with defending or obfuscating an oxymoron for so long before being exposed as a fraud.
Political Zionism is, again, being revealed to world public opinion as an inherently racist, exclusionary, colonial ideology that has always been the main source of legitimization for Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid against the indigenous people of Palestine. Zionism, in my analysis, also harbors anti-Semitic ideas and assumptions and thrives on anti-Jewish racism, which is rejected by the BDS movement.
We do not welcome racists of any type in our movement.
Our allies, whether Jewish Voice for Peace, American Jews for a Just Peace, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and several European networks of Jewish activists that support BDS, all fall outside the Zionist camp and recognize our basic rights, including our refugees’ right of return–the litmus test of morality and justice for anyone claiming to seek a just peace in our region.
What did BDS do wrong in the last 10 year? Where have the growing pains been?
I am sure we have done quite a few mistakes along the way. Some we prefer not to publicly discuss, to deny Israel the pleasure and keep it clueless. But some we openly admit.
We should have started focusing on the Arab world much earlier, but we lacked the necessary resources and wanted to make a splash in the center of Israel’s power in the west.
We also erred when we expected Israel’s anti-boycott bill not to pass in parliament due to its draconian, anti-democratic nature. That error was based on a false premise that the Israeli establishment is still partially ruled by reason. Now we’ve been disabused of this silly notion.
What is next for BDS? What stage of the struggle are we in?
It is hard to tell, but I think we are fast approaching our South African moment. In 2015, many in the Israeli establishment share this view.
Where is Israel going? Will there be a Jewish state in 25 years? 50 years?
We might be effective human rights activists, but we are not prophets! No one can accurately predict where Israel will be in decades, but one thing is sure, if current trends continue and internal and external resistance do not rise up to the challenge, Israel will fast descend towards fascism. Given its nuclear weapons arsenal and trigger-happy ultra-militaristic culture, this is bad for humanity, not just those of us under Israel’s colonial control. It is therefore the duty of people of conscience worldwide to support our struggle to prevent this from happening.
I strongly believe that BDS provides the kind of morally-consistent and effective struggle against Israel’s system of oppression that can “restore the humanity of both,” oppressors and oppressed, as the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire challenges us to do.