Interview With BDS Co-Founder Omar Barghouti
Despite having lived in Israel for 22 years with no criminal record of any kind, Omar Barghouti (above) was this week denied the right to travel outside the country. As one of the pioneers of the increasingly powerful movement to impose boycotts, sanctions and divestment measures (BDS) on Israel, Barghouti, an articulate, English-speaking activist, has frequently traveled around the world advocating his position. The Israeli government’s refusal to allow him to travel is obviously intended to suppress his speech and activism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the world leaders who traveled last year to Paris to participate in that city’s “free speech rally.”
As the husband of a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Barghouti holds a visa of permanent residency in the country, but nonetheless needs official permission to travel outside of Israel, a travel document which – until last week – had been renewed every two years. Haaretz this week reported that beyond the travel ban, Barghouti’s “residency rights in Israel are currently being reconsidered.”
The travel denial came after months of disturbing public threats directed at him by an Israeli government that has grown both more extreme and more fearful of BDS’s growing international popularity. In March, Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri threatened to revoke Barghouti’s residency rights, explicitly admitting that this was in retaliation for his speech and advocacy: “he is using his resident status to travel all over the world in order to operate against Israel in the most serious manner. … he took advantage of our enlightened state to portray us as the most horrible state in the world.”
Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch told The Electronic Intifada that “Israel’s refusal to renew Barghouti’s travel document appears to be an effort to punish him for exercising his right to engage in peaceful, political activism, using its arsenal of bureaucratic control over Palestinian lives.” She added: “Israel has used this sort of control to arbitrarily ban many Palestinians from traveling, as well as to ban international human rights monitors, journalists and activists from entering Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.”
But the threats to Barghouti from the Israeli Government extend far beyond his right to travel. Last month, Amnesty International issued an extraordinary warning that the group “is concerned for the safety and liberty” of Barghouti, citing threats from Israeli Minister of Transport, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Yisrael Katz who called on Israel to engage in “targeted civil eliminations” of BDS leaders with the help of Israeli intelligence. As Amnesty noted, “the term alludes to ‘targeted assassinations’ which is used to describe Israel’s policy of targeting members of Palestinian armed groups.”
As The Intercept has regularly reported over the last year, the attempts to criminalize BDS activism – not only in Israel but internationally – is one of the greatest threats to free speech and assembly rights in the west. The threat has become particularly acute on U.S. college campuses, where official punishments for pro-Palestinian students are now routine. But obviously, the threats faced by Barghouti inside Israel are far more severe.
Regardless of one’s views on BDS and the Israeli occupation, anyone who purports to believe in basic conceptions of free speech rights should be appalled by Israeli behavior. I spoke with Barghouti yesterday about this latest Israeli attack on his core civil liberties, the growing extremism in Israel, and broader trends with free speech and BDS activism. “I am unnerved,” he told me, “but I’m certainly undeterred.” You can listen to the 25-minute discussion on the player below; a full transcript appears below that.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
GLENN GREENWALD: This is Glenn Greenwald with The Intercept. And my guest today is Omar Barghouti, who is a Palestinian human rights activist and one of the co-founders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, better known as BDS, which is designed to put non-violent international pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territories, establish equal rights for Palestinians and accept the right to return of Palestinian refugees who fled during and after the establishment of Israel.
BDS has gained considerable international support over the last few years as the West has watched Israel expand its occupation of the West Bank, while its army kills thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. And as a result of that success, BDS has come under a multi-pronged attack from Israel and its supporters around the world.
As part of that attack, this week news broke that Israel denied Barghouti an international travel permit. As a resident of Israel he is required to apply for this permit every two years to travel internationally. Human Rights Watch condemned the act “as something that appears to be an effort to punish him for exercising his right to engage in peaceful political activism.”
Before welcoming you I just want to say that I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the last several years who are probably subject to electronic surveillance on their telephones but I’m not sure I’ve ever spoken to someone who’s subject to as much surveillance as you are.
So with that, thanks very much for taking the time to talk with me, I really appreciate it.
Before I ask you to just talk a little bit about what happened with this travel restriction, I just want to give a little bit context and background for listeners. This didn’t really come out of nowhere; in late March, Israel’s interior minister was quoted as telling a conference that he was considering revoking your residency.
He said: “I was given information that his life is in Ramallah and he is using his resident status to travel all over the world in order to operate against Israel in the most serious manner.” He continued: “he was given rights similar to those of a citizen and he took advantage of our enlightened state to portray us as the most horrible state in the world.”
Amnesty has said that they’re actually “concerned for your safety and liberty” and they cited a quote from the Israeli minister of Transport and Intelligence and Atomic Energy, Yisrael Katz, who called on Israel to engage in “targeted civil eliminations” of BDS leaders with the help of Israeli intelligence.
So, with that context in mind, obviously the Israeli government has become obsessed with restricting and punishing BDS leaders. Tell us about this new travel restriction that Israel has imposed on you. How did you learn about it? What is it?
OMAR BARGHOUTI: Every couple of years I have to renew my Israeli travel document and without that I cannot leave or re-enter the country. Because I’m a permanent resident in Israel, I cannot leave on any other passport except the Israeli travel document.
GREENWALD: Do you have another passport?
BARGHOUTI: Yes, I have Jordanian citizenship.
GREENWALD: But in order to leave Israel, you need their permission every two years.
BARGHOUTI: Yes. On April 19th the Ministry of Interior in Acre where I live officially informed us that they will not renew my travel document, therefore effectively banning me from travel. This comes as you rightly noted in the context of very heightened repression against the BDS movement, which seeks freedom, justice and equality for Palestinian citizens. So it seeks Palestinian rights under international law. But because it has become so effective of late, because support has been rising tremendously in the last couple of years, we are in a way paying the price for the success of the movement.
Many people are realizing that Israel is a regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid and are therefore taking action to hold it to account to international law. Israel is realizing that companies are abandoning their projects in Israel that violate international law, pension funds are doing the same, major artists are refusing to play Tel Aviv, as Sun City was boycotted during apartheid South Africa.
So they’re seeing this isolation growing, they can see the South Africa moment if you will. And because of that, they’ve heightened their pression, including espionage on BDS human rights defenders, whether Palestinian, Israeli or international, surveillance of course, plus those latest threats of targeted civil elimination and banning us from travel, and so on.
So we are really unnerved, I am personally quite unnerved by those threats. We take them very seriously, especially in this context. We live in a country where racism and racial incitement against indigenous Palestinians has grown tremendously into the Israeli mainstream. It has really become mainstream today to be very openly racist against Palestinians. Many settlers and hard-right-wing Israelis are taking matters into their own hands – completely supported by the state – and attacking Palestinians.
So in that context I am unnerved, but I’m certainly undeterred. I shall continue my non-violent struggle for Palestinian rights under international law and nothing they can do will stop me.
GREENWALD: About the travel restrictions themselves, how long have you been receiving this travel permission? Did they give you any reason as to why in this case it was being denied? And did you have any problems in the past – from their perspective – that would justify this denial?
BARGHOUTI: No, actually I’ve been a permanent resident of Israel since 1994, so 22 years running and without any violations of the law – not even a traffic violation. So there’s nothing on my record that they can use against me.
Calling for a boycott until now is not a crime in Israel. It’s a tort – they can punish me in various ways – but it’s not a crime that they can revoke my residency right based upon. And they know that very well – they don’t stand on very strong legal grounds. So they’re looking for ways to intimidate me, to bully me, to silence me by other ways. And that doesn’t seem to be working, so now they’re working on revoking my permanent residency.
I have not had any problems in the past having my travel document renewed, for 22 years. So it’s just when BDS started to really become a very impactful, very effective movement with impressive growth and support, including among young Jewish Americans, young Jewish Brits, and so on – and that really alarms Israel – only then that they start taking such repressive, anti-democratic, draconian measures to the extreme against the movement, which is a non-violent movement, accusing us of all sorts of things.
GREENWALD: So as far as your status in Israel is concerned, and your right to travel, if I’m not mistaken you live in Israel with your wife who is an Israeli citizen, correct?
BARGHOUTI: Yes, correct, my wife is a Palestinian citizen of Israel.
GREENWALD: So does that give you entitlement to stay or are they actually able to revoke your permanent residency status?
BARGHOUTI: When it comes to non-Jews – as we’re called in Israel – no one knows what applies and what doesn’t apply. As you know there are more than 50 laws in Israel that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of the state, let alone Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who are non-citizens.
So, a Palestinian citizen of Israel does not get the full set of rights that a Jewish citizen gets because simply the Palestinian is not a Jewish national and only if you’re a Jewish national – whatever that means – do you get the full set of rights. This is an extra-territorial definition of nationality so Israel does not have Israeli nationality – there is no such thing.
The Supreme Court rejected that notion, the Knesset did, there is no Israeli nationality. There is Israeli citizenship but that does not entitle you to the full set of rights. So yes, my wife is an Israeli citizen and I got my permanent residency through that but what rights I’m entitled to and am not entitled to depends on the mood of the politicians and how much the courts are ready to go along with that.
GREENWALD: Let’s discuss the efforts against the BDS movement more broadly beyond Israeli borders. For a long time I think the tactic was to try and ignore BDS, to treat it as though it was so marginalized and inconsequential that it wasn’t even worth discussing or acknowledging let along taking action against. And, as you’ve suggested, as it’s become a much more widely accepted tactic, as the world watched in horror – I think one of the turning points of the last operation in Gaza that killed so many children and innocent men and women – it has become a tactic that in a lot of ways is starting to replicate, as you suggested as well, what happened in South Africa across lots of college campuses. Young American Jews who are fully now on board with BDS as a moral and necessary tactic.
And as a result you’ve starting to see more world leaders and people like Hillary Clinton denounce BDS in the most vehement terms, even equating it with anti-semitism and I think most disturbing of all, actual laws are now being issued, not just in the United States but throughout Europe, to criminalize BDS and make it illegal to advocate it or engage in activism on its behalf.
Talk about what you’ve witnessed as someone who’s been in this movement from the beginning, about the changes that are underway in terms of how the response is developing toward this movement.
BARGHOUTI: I think after years of failure in stopping or even slowing down the growth of BDS and the growth of support for BDS around the world, especially in the West, Israel is resorting to its most powerful weapon if you will, which is using its influence in the U.S. congress and through that its influence in Brussels and in the E.U. and so on, to criminalize BDS from above, after failing to stop it from below.
Because BDS is growing at the grassroots level – trade unions, academic unions, student groups, LGBTQ groups, women groups and so on, Israel is resorting to that attempt to delegitimize it from above.
So as you rightly said, they’re working on passing legislation across the United States and state legislatures to criminalize BDS or to “blacklist” individuals and organizations involved in BDS, reminding us of the worst days of McCarthyism. So really, Israel is fostering a new McCarthyism, and nothing less than that because it’s calling on governments that it deems friendly to punish speech, punish activism and campaigning to uphold Palestinian rights under international law.
So this is a non-violent inclusive movement that is anchored in the international declaration of human rights. It’s opposed to all forms of racism, including antisemitism. And we’re not shy about that. We’re very categorical about out opposition to all forms of racism. Because of that – not despite that – Israel is extremely worried. Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid is worried when this human rights inclusive movement is reaching out and appealing to a mass public, including many young Jewish Americans.
So it’s resorting to this new McCarthyism. In France it’s the worst, with government actually saying that calling for a boycott of Israeli products is now illegal in France. You can call for a boycott of French products in Paris and that’s okay, but not of Israeli products. Imagine the enormous hypocrisy.
GREENWALD: And people have been arrested wearing pro-BDS t-shirts in Paris.
BARGHOUTI: Exactly. The measure of repression in France is unprecedented. We have not seen anything like that. Paris has really become the capital of anti-Palestinian repression of late. Imagine – the city of freedoms, supposedly, has become the city of darkness for Palestinians.
GREENWALD: There was a huge free speech march there just over a year ago.
BARGHOUTI: We don’t see this anti-Palestinian repression as isolated. Israel is fostering this but there is a lot of repression already in the West. There’s already an attack on unions, an attack on free speech, on social justice, racial justice movements, there’s enormous militarization and securitization of society in the West .
And Israel is benefitting from this enormous homeland security and military market – it’s great business for Israel. It’s training police forces across the United States, from Ferguson to Baltimore. London police, Paris police.
GREENWALD: One of the criticisms of BDS opponents, when they hear things like what you just said, denouncing this erosion of civil liberties throughout the West including in Europe is, they say, it’s kind of ironic, maybe even hypocritical of you, as an advocate and proponent of Palestinian rights, to be critiquing civil liberties erosions in the West when throughout the Palestinian territories there certainly are no rights for LGBTs, or very few, and that there are far fewer rights for women for civil liberties in places like Gaza and certain parts of the West Bank. How do you respond to that? Is that something you address in your activism for Palestinian rights?
BARGHOUTI: Sure. As an inclusive movement, we call for equal rights for all humans, irrespective of identity. So absolutely, we oppose every form of discrimination against anyone based on any identity attribute. Now, do we have repression in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza? Absolutely.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are under Israeli military occupation so they’re suffering denial of all rights, from freedom of movement to the right of free speech, to all kinds of rights, to the right to life in some cases, as we’ve seen in Gaza. But yes, on top of that, there is social repression, of course.
GREENWALD: Imposed by Palestinians on other Palestinians.
BARGHOUTI: Imposed by the Palestinian authority, by the authorities in Gaza and that’s yes, Palestinian repression on Palestinians. But the authority in Ramallah is buttressed, is supported entirely by western governments, by The United States, by European governments and to a large extent, by Israel.
So it’s not like the European and American funders are pushing for more democratization and free speech and civil liberties. They’re accepting the growing repression of the Palestinian authorities so long as it does the job, carrying some of the burdens of the occupation while Israel continues to colonize and ethnically cleanse and commit war crimes.
GREENWALD: You talked a little earlier about what you say now is this open racism and even supporters of Israel, people who openly self-identify as Zionist, have sounded these alarm bells about the deterioration of civic discourse on Israel, about how things that were once unthinkable or relegated to a fringe have now become mainstream.
You’re somebody who has lived in Israel since 1994, so 22 years now – how do you describe the changes in terms of what has taken place in Israel domestically? Is it something you regard as a radical departure from what has taken place or is it a natural evolution of something that was a little bit more hidden, that people were maybe a bit more polite about 20 years ago, but is now just made a bit more explicit?
BARGHOUTI: I think racism is inherent in any colonial society and Israel is no exception. As a regime of settler colonialism, occupation and apartheid, racism is not coincidental. It’s a pillar of the system. Look at how Israel treats BDS. BDS calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions to achieve Palestinian freedom, justice and equality and they see that as a major threat. But freedom, justice and equality only threaten lack of freedom, injustice and inequality. It doesn’t threaten anyone else who isn’t premised on the existence of racism.
Certainly, as you rightly said, Israel has dropped the mask. With the last elections in 2015, Israel elected its most racist government ever and we have the most racist parliament ever. The most racist Knesset ever, as Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper calls it. To the extent that, a couple of days ago the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli army said that racism is growing to an extent that reminds people of 1930s Germany. This is the Deputy Chief of Staff in Israel – this is not some nobody on the streets of London or Paris. This is an extremely important statement by one of the top generals in Israel. He is very alarmed that those symptoms of extreme racism are appearing everywhere and are becoming prevalent in Israeli society. And that is really, really scary.
On the other hand, by dropping the mask, Israel’s regime has in a way accelerated the growth of movements like ours. Boycott has grown tremendously – I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat it – we can attribute part of the success, part of the credit, for the growth and impact of BDS to the Israeli government’s far-right policies and their dropping the mask of enlightenment democracy and so on. They’re doing away with that, with the Ministry of Education instilling extreme racist notions in textbooks, with the Minister of Culture requiring Loyalty Oaths by artists who want to perform in Tel Aviv.
It’s really reaching an unprecedented level of bare racism. Racism was always there but it was always very couched, very hidden by a supposedly liberal Zionist façade that projects to the world Israeli scientific miracles and cultural miracles and whitewashing very well Israel’s deeply rooted racist colonial society.
GREENWALD: My final question is about a couple of reservations or criticisms or objections toward the BDS platform that come not from the obvious opponents of BDS but from people who are generally very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause who even are very harsh critics of Israel. A lot of the time people in that camp will say the following: “Why is it that Israel specifically should be boycotted for its human rights violations when so many other countries in the world including the United States are guilty of at least equal if not greater human rights violations and yet there’s no boycott movement for them?”
And then the other related criticism is that the platform of BDS itself – by including a right of return to Palestinians which would, if accepted, essentially result in the end of Israel as a Jewish state and is something that Israel will never ever accept – makes the BDS movement something designed to achieve a goal that can never actually be achieved and therefore, less effective.
How do you respond to those two concerns or criticisms?
BARGHOUTI: It’s funny when people on the fringe talk about effectiveness, when Israel is fighting BDS with such immense resources around the world, inducing governments to pass laws to fight it, using its intelligence sources to spy on citizens around the world – human rights activists involved in BDS. It’s very strange to hear anything about the effectiveness of the movement. I think that’s settled by now. Companies are abandoning Israeli projects, pension funds are abandoning Israeli projects, major churches, major academic associations across the world, especially in the U.S., are taking action.
GREENWALD: But when they do that, they’re doing that – at least in terms of what they’re expressing – in opposition to the occupation.
BARGHOUTI: Not just that. When you look at academic associations and trade unions, Glenn, they’ve gone way beyond that. Churches, yes, they’ve stuck to the occupation only, but when you look at academic associations – the American Studies Association, the Anthropological Association, Women’s Studies and so on, they’ve gone for a full academic boycott of Israel which targets all Israeli academic institutions because of their complicity in planning, implementing and whitewashing Israel’s regime of oppression.
GREENWALD: What I meant was not that their boycott is directed only at Israelis in the occupied territories but rather that their objective in supporting the boycott is not to secure right of return for the Palestinians, as they describe it, but instead is to end the occupation. Would you agree with that?
BARGHOUTI: In fact, most partners and supporters of BDS completely support the three planks in our BDS call of 2005, which is ending the occupation, ending the racial discrimination in Israel and the system of apartheid and right of return. So we’re not aware of partners who do not support the right of return as a basic UN stipulated right.
All refugees, be they Jewish refugees from World War II to refugees from Kosovo, have that right. This is in international law and Palestinians should not be excluded. It’s quite racist to say that the return of Palestinian refugees would end Israeli apartheid and that’s bad because? What is so wrong about refugees having the right to return home? If that disturbs an apartheid system that’s premised on being exclusionary and racist and that does not want to see people gain their rights, what’s the argument there?
GREENWALD: Just to be clear, the argument that I’m describing here – and by the way this isn’t my argument, I’m not advocating it, I’m simply articulating it – it’s the objection that comes not from right-wing critics of BDS but from a lot of allies and a lot of people who are long-time supporters of Palestinian rights, such as Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky.
The argument is not that the right of return is not justifiable, morally or ethically, in fact I think both of them – and pretty much everyone would agree with them – would say that in an ideal world Palestinians would have the right to return. Their argument is a tactical or pragmatic one: that if you allow Palestinians the right of return it would essentially mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state which in turn means that Israel will never ever agree to it. And so you’ve essentially created an unattainable goal, one that can never happen and isn’t realistic and is therefore designed not to help Palestinians, but to be this objective that is inevitably destined to fail.
BARGHOUTI: Well actually that’s a very dogmatic objection. Saying that it will never happen ignores history, ignores that major empires have collapsed in our lifetime that were thought to be invincible just years before collapsing. Who would have thought a country as powerful as the Soviet Union would collapse? Who would have thought in the 1980s that apartheid in South Africa would collapse? Who would have thought that East Timur would have autonomy when 20 years before no-one knew where East Timur was?
So it’s really quite dogmatic for people to say only when it comes to protecting Israeli apartheid you cannot question it – if you dare, Israel will bring down the house on everyone.
Israel depends tremendously on public support from the outside, from complicity from Western governments. As that erodes, as BDS grows and public support for BDS grows, and Israel gets isolated in the academic, economic, cultural and military sphere, eventually, it will have to abide by international law, and we will see dissent growing in Israel like any other colonial state.
We will not see dissent as long as the price is not high enough. When it becomes high enough we will see growing dissent and more Jewish Israelis joining the ranks of BDS so that we can both ethically shape a future together based on justice, freedom and equality.
Going back to the first point which was why target Israel and not the United States. Archbishop Desmond Tutu had a very similar argument with this issue when it was brought up about South Africa. He said certainly apartheid Africa was not by far the most evil system of oppression around, but you could not ask South Africans – the black majority – why are you fighting apartheid? If you’re sick with the flu you don’t fight another illness, you fight the sickness that you are suffering from.
The Palestinians are under an Israeli regime of oppression so naturally we have to fight this immediate oppressor. Now the fact that Israel is completely supported by the United States – sponsored, bank-rolled, protected – that doesn’t mean that we should not fight our immediate oppressor. That’s how you effectively make a change and achieve your rights.
This is not an intellectual exercise. Yes, one can call for a boycott of all governments that support Israel’s oppression – the United States and so on – but that’s intellectualism that leads to no action. If we follow Paulo Freire’s reflection and action model, that you have to reflect and then act, you’re not acting by calling for a boycott of the United States because it’s the only surviving empire. It’s invincible at this point in time, in 2016. It would be completely ridiculous to call for a boycott of the United States.
As Naomi Klein said, it would never work. Boycotts are not just intellectual exercises, they have to work. We’re not in it for fun, we’re not in it to make a point. We‘re in it to gain our freedom and rights under international law and for that we have to be very strategic.
GREENWALD: I said that would be my last question but I actually have one more – a very narrow, specific question about the news of the denial of your travel permit. Are there appeals available to you? Do you have legal recourse that you can seek in order to get the decision reversed and do you intend to do that?
BARGHOUTI: I cannot speak a lot about our legal strategy but certainly we’re exposing this around the world. We rely on action by citizens of the world, not on the governments because governments are very complicit in Israel’s regime of oppression, but Jewish Voice for Peace, U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, and other groups have started campaigning in the U.S. against this travel ban against me. And many, many groups are working for the right to BDS. Even if you disagree with some of the tactics of BDS, on purely free speech grounds you’ve got to support our right to call for BDS.
In the United States in particular it’s protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution so even the New York Times at one point defended our right to advocate for BDS while being completely against BDS.
I think Israel will face a problem that it is alienating the liberal mainstream and that will be really the final stroke in its wall to wall support in the United States.
GREENWALD: Well, there are loads of people who love to wrap themselves in the flag of free speech rights, including supporters of Israel, and hopefully those people will have the courage of their convictions that even if they don’t agree with your positions on BDS and Israel generally in the occupation, that they would nonetheless see it as highly objectionable that you should be denied the most basic right of international travel simply because the Israeli government wants to punish you for your political views or constrain you from engaging in activism internationally. And hopefully this interview will help to bring some attention to what has been done to you.
I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
BARGHOUTI: Thank you so much Glenn.