It’s not hard to imagine that anyone who skimmed the news this week might get the impression that something uniquely terrible is about to happen in Midwood, Brooklyn. “We’re talking about the potential for a second Holocaust here,” Assemblyman Alan Maisel warns. Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler and other New York City politicians write a letter to the Brooklyn College president threatening the school’s funding and claiming that their constituents feel “targeted and demonized.” “Jew-bashing grows in Brooklyn,” the New York Post proclaims. “Brooklyn College, a once-esteemed campus in the City University system, this week joins a long list of enemies — from lefty denizens of the Park Slope Food Co-op to Iranian madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who crave wiping the state of Israel from the map.”
Mental images of Ahmadinejad picking up some kombucha at the Park Slope Food Co-op aside, the level of hyperbole might make one wonder if Brooklyn College is hosting a neo-Nazi revival weekend or passing nuclear secrets to Iran.
Lighting a Torch Within: Anti-colonial Israeli Support for BDS
The historic call by Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it fully complies with its obligations under international law contains a rarely noticed dimension inspired by struggle against South African apartheid. It invites “conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace,” thereby confirming that principled anti-colonial Jewish Israelis who support the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination, and who uphold freedom, justice, and equality for all as the bases for a just, comprehensive, and sustainable peace, are regarded as partners in the struggle.
Principled Israeli anti-colonialists committed to Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law have played a significant and growing role in the struggle for Palestinian rights, despite their still small numbers. Many of them, aside from their unequivocal commitment to comprehensive Palestinian rights, realize that Israelis cannot possibly have normal lives without first shedding their colonial character and recognizing Palestinian rights. The words of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, on how the oppressed can also re-humanize their oppressors, are relevant here:
Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.
It’s time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa.
In July 2005 a huge coalition of Palestinian groups laid out plans to do just that. They called on “people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.” The campaign Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions—BDS for short—was born.
Every day that Israel pounds Gaza brings more converts to the BDS cause, and talk of ceasefires is doing little to slow the momentum.1 Support is even emerging among Israeli Jews. In the midst of the assault, roughly 500 Israelis, dozens of them well-known artists and scholars, sent a letter to foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel. It calls for “the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions,” and draws a clear parallel with the anti-apartheid struggle. “The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves ... This international backing must stop.”
Yet many still can’t go there. The reasons are complex, emotional, and understandable. And they simply aren’t good enough. Economic sanctions are the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal. Surrendering them verges on active complicity. Here are the top four objections to the BDS strategy, followed by counterarguments.
I have been a political activist for most of my adult life. In all these years, I have believed deeply that the unbearable and unacceptable reality of Israel and Palestine could only be changed from within. This is why I have been ceaselessly devoted to persuading Jewish society—to which I belong and into which I was born—that its basic policy in the land was wrong and disastrous. As for so many others, the options for me were clear: I could either join politics from above, or counter it from below.
I began by joining the Labor Party in the 1980s, and then the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), when I declined an offer to join the Knesset. At the same time, I focused my energies on working alongside others within educational and peace NGOs, even chairing two such institutions: the left Zionist Institute for Peace Studies in Givat Haviva, and the non-Zionist Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Studies. In both circles, veteran and younger colleagues alike sought to create constructive dialogue with our compatriots, in the hope of influencing present policy for future reconciliation. It was mainly a campaign of information about crimes and atrocities committed by Israel since 1948, and a plea for a future based on equal human and civil rights.
On August 2, 2009, after cordoning off part of the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, Israeli police evicted two Palestinian families (more than 50 people) from their homes, allowing Jewish settlers immediately to move into the vacated houses. Although Israeli police cited a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, the evicted Arab families had been living there for more than 50 years. This event which, rather exceptionally, did attract the attention of the world media, is part of a much larger and mostly ignored ongoing process.
Two years later, not much has changed. On October 16, 2011, Israel announced plans to build 2,600 new homes in southern Jerusalem, despite condemnation from the UN, the EU, and Britain. If implemented, the plans would not only divide the Arab section of the city from the rest of the occupied West Bank, but also severely undermine the chances of a viable Palestinian state and hamper the everyday life of Palestinians. The conclusion is obvious: while paying lip-service to the two-state solution, Israel is busy creating a situation on the ground that will render a two-state solution practically impossible. The dream that underlies this politics is best rendered by the wall that separates a settler’s town from the Palestinian town on a nearby hill somewhere in the West Bank. The Israeli side of the wall is painted with the image of the countryside beyond the wall—but without the Palestinian town, depicting just nature, grass, trees ... Is this not ethnic cleansing at its purest, imagining the outside beyond the wall as it should be: empty, virginal, waiting to be settled?