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PSC AGM – 25 January 2020

BDS and the struggle for Palestinian rights in the Trump era – Omar Barghouti*

With all the serious economic, social, racial and climate challenges the UK is facing, why on earth is Boris Johnson’s newly elected government so preoccupied with undermining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights? Why does it want to prohibit public bodies, including universities and local councils, from acting ethically by refraining from procuring from or investing in companies implicated in Israel’s far-right regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid? Johnson is not only following Trump’s footsteps by enlisting in Israel’s desperate war of repression against the advocacy of Palestinian rights, he is also following the example of Margaret Thatcher, who in 1988 banned local councils from boycotting apartheid South Africa.

But let’s be clear, if they succeed in suppressing advocacy for Palestinian rights, no other justice movement will be safe. Our collective struggles against racism, climate destruction, sexism and economic disenfranchisement would all be in danger. After all, progressive justice movements anywhere have always unsettled oppressive power systems everywhere.

As Israel becomes a role model for far-right, xenophobic or authoritarian leaders across the world, from Trump and Salvini to Orban, and from Bolsonaro and Modi to Muhammad Bin Salman, BDS is increasingly being recognized as a significant partner in a growing international progressive wave fighting for global justice against the forces of fascism, xenophobia and savage neo-liberalism.

Israel’s strong bonds with the global far right, including patently antisemitic forces in the U.S., Europe, Brazil, India and elsewhere, have alienated the liberal mainstream, including Jewish millennials in the US and elsewhere. As reported in the Israeli media last year, for instance, the Israeli government hosted the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, all accused of being antisemitic and anti-immigrant. In defense of this move, Likud member of parliament Anat Berko said, “They might be anti-Semites, but they’re on our side.”

Israel is therefore in no position to throw around false accusations of antisemitism. Its fraudulent antisemitism smears against human rights defenders in the anti-racist BDS movement, in particular, sound as credible as Donald Trump’s environmental protection credentials, or as Boris Johnson’s promises not to sell off the NHS after Brexit.

In May 2019, soon after the German Parliament passed a sweeping anti-BDS resolution that smears the movement as antisemitic, 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars, including world authorities on antisemitism and the history of the Holocaust, rejected the resolution’s “deceitful allegation that BDS as such is anti-Semitic.” Confirming that the “three main goals of BDS adhere to international law,” they wrote, “We are shocked that demands for equality and compliance with international law are considered anti-Semitic.”

Ironically, days before that resolution, a German government study showed that 90 percent of anti-Jewish attacks in Germany are, expectedly, perpetrated by the far right, even as some of its leaders were championing more extreme anti-BDS legislation in the Bundestag, ostensibly to fight antisemitism.

Later, five United Nations Special Rapporteurs wrote to the German government saying that the Bundestag resolution unduly restricts the rights to freedom of expression and engagement in political speech. Similarly, the British government is engaged in what Ben Jamal of Palestine Solidarity Campaign calls, “abandoning core values that are the glue of a decent society – upholding the rule of law internationally and domestically” and undermining “fundamental democratic principles.”

Begun in 2005 by the broadest coalition in Palestinian society, BDS has become a key part of Palestinian popular resistance and the most effective form of international solidarity with the struggle of the Indigenous people of Palestine for freedom, justice and equality. It calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation, ending its institutionalized and legalized system of racial domination and discrimination, which meets the UN definition of apartheid, and upholding the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were uprooted and dispossessed since the 1947-1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, or the Nakba.

The BDS movement is deeply rooted in decades of Palestinian popular nonviolent resistance and is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the US Civil Rights movement and, to an extent, the Indian and Irish anti-colonial struggles. Anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the BDS movement has consistently and categorically opposed all forms of racism and discrimination, including antisemitism. One’s identity, the movement upholds, should never diminish or restrict one’s entitlement to rights. Our movement targets complicity, not identity.

It is crucial to emphasize that since there is nothing Jewish about Israel’s regime of occupation, siege, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, there is nothing inherently anti-Jewish, then, about a nonviolent, morally consistent human rights struggle to end this system of oppression.

Based on this inclusiveness, BDS nourishes mutual solidarity with movements defending the rights of refugees, immigrants, Blacks, women, workers, indigenous nations, LGBTQI+ communities, ethnic and religious minorities, etc. A growing number of anti-colonial Jewish-Israeli BDS supporters play a significant role in exposing Israel’s regime of oppression and advocating for isolating it.

When faced with smears and intimidation, we should never fall into a defensive posture, because that’s exactly what our oppressors want. We must continue to defend our right to freedom of expression and against anti-democratic repression, but above all, our main response to their attempts to silence us must be to further grow our BDS campaigns everywhere. We’ve raised the slogan: They attack, we fight back. They oppress, we BDS.

Indeed, a few months ago, the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), representing millions of working people,  called for ending military trade with Israel and for pressuring corporations to end their complicity in its violations of Palestinian rights. In its 2018 conference, the Labour Party  adopted a freeze of arms sales to Israel. Unite the Union, voted last June to boycott HP-branded companies over their involvement in Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.

The cultural boycott of Israel is growing steadily. Celebrity singers Lana Del Rey, Shakira and Lorde, for instance, were among other top artists to recently cancel concerts in Israel, while more than 100 DJs and electronic music artists joined the cultural boycott of Israel under #DJsForPalestine.

Instead of attracting the anticipated 40,000 to 50,000 tourists, Eurovision in Tel Aviv last may attracted some 5,000 only.

Major corporations, like Veolia and Orange, suffered major losses or reputational damage due to BDS campaigning, forcing them to completely abandon their illegal projects in Israel. HSBC has divested from Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest private military company, following intense protests in the UK led by PSC activists. But HSBC is still invested in Caterpillar and other complicit companies, so the BDS campaign against it continues.

The city of Dublin in 2018 became the first European capital to adopt BDS for Palestinian rights.

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib made history by becoming the first 2 sitting members of the US Congress to publicly endorse BDS.

The largest farmers union in India, with 16 million members, and a major Indian women’s federation, with over 10 million members, have endorsed BDS.

Tens of cities, cultural institutions, and public spaces in the Spanish state, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Ireland and elsewhere have expressed support for Palestinian rights by declaring themselves Apartheid Free Zones, calling for an arms embargo on Israel, or excluding from public tenders corporations that are implicated in Israel’s human rights violations.

As Israel’s popularity continues to decline worldwide, defenders of Israel’s human rights violations have desperately invested massive political and financial resources in the last few years to suppress speech on Palestinian rights and demonize BDS. Through intimidation, spying, and weaponizing claims of antisemitism, they are trying to keep Israel “on a pedestal,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, above accountability and beyond censure.

At the root of the mushrooming false claims of antisemitism tossed about is a desperate attempt by Israel and its supporters to promote a new, anti-Palestinian definition of antisemitism that does nothing to fight the rising and very real anti-Jewish bigotry and violence and that “serves to shield Israel from being held accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law,” as stated last year by more than 40 international Jewish groups, led by Jewish Voice for Peace.

Israel and its supporters are desperately attempting to suppress support for Palestinian rights and to ensure impunity for its grave violations of those rights. From the start of the Great March of Return in 2018, which aims at ending Israel’s brutal siege of Gaza and to assert the right of refugees to return to their homes, Israeli army snipers have implemented what Human Right Watch calls a premeditated shoot-to-kill-or-maim policy. Israel has slaughtered dozens and injured thousands of peaceful Palestinian protestors, including children, medics, journalists, and people with disabilities, prompting UN investigators to conclude that Israel’s acts in Gaza “may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.”

Israel’s siege has included counting the per-capita calories that are allowed in to Gaza in order to keep two million Palestinians on the brink of starvation. It has reduced Gaza into not just a “prison camp,” as even David Cameron once described it, but into an unlivable territory this year, according to the UN.

Israel’s land-grabbing construction of illegal settlements and gradual ethnic cleansing, especially in occupied Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and the Naqab (Negev), are also accelerating. Israel’s increasing home demolitions, arrest and torture of children, and apartheid walls are designed to make our lives “so bitter” that we would “transfer” ourselves, as one honest Israeli minister once admitted.

South Africa’s Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, writes, “Apartheid in South Africa was a picnic compared to what we have seen in the occupied [Palestinian] territories.”

This is what the ongoing Nakba looks like.

Above everything else, BDS campaigns in the UK challenge the deepening complicity of the British government, corporations and institutions in enabling such Israeli crimes. With our UK partners, like PSC, we are calling for intensifying pressure on government, to end UK military trade and research with Israel and ban products of companies involved in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, and on city councils and public institutions, to exclude complicit corporations from all contracts. We are inspired by the growing support for the cultural and academic boycott of complicit Israeli institutions, and we are working to grow it.

Far from atoning for historical British crimes against the indigenous Palestinian people, these accountability measures would simply begin to fulfill the UK’s profound ethical and legal obligations to do no harm to us and our liberation struggle.

In this context, Israel is desperately trying to suppress the nonviolent BDS movement as a key source of hope for Palestinians. Hope, after all, associated with effective struggle for emancipation, is contagious and can upset the colonizers’ power supremacy. Cognizant of this, Israel has for decades relentlessly tried to colonize not just Palestinian lands, but also our minds. “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” writes the South African Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Indeed, as early as 1923, Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote with lucid honesty:

“Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised. […] Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”

Aside from its more recent concrete wall, Israel has incessantly been constructing its “iron wall” in Palestinian minds by trying to reduce us to lesser humans, or what I call relative humans[1], to sear into our consciousness, through sustained hegemonic violence, the imperative of submission to its indomitable power as fate.

Consequently, the struggle for Palestinian liberation has always required decolonizing our minds from the deeply seated powerlessness that may inhibit us and embarking on a praxis, as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire would say–a radical process of hopeful, globalized resistance, transformation and emancipation. Despite decades of ruthless Israeli ethnic cleansing and settler-colonial brutality, Palestinians remain steadfast in our commitment to fight not only repression and McCarthyism, but also apartheid and settler-colonialism.

To end, a few years ago, my younger daughter published an article about her haunting encounter with the Israeli military occupation at a very young age.  She wrote:

I was 5, in my family’s apartment in occupied Ramallah, and there were many Israeli soldiers at our doorstep shouting at my father, pointing their guns at him. He shouted back, “You will not take our home while we’re alive.” It was an invasion during the second intifada. They came to occupy our apartment and tried to expel us. “We are unarmed, except with our rights and our dignity,” my father told them. I did not understand what he meant then.

My knees started shaking involuntarily, and I thought I was ill. Mama explained to me that it was out of fear, suggesting that I walk up to the big soldier that my dad was confronting and look him in the eyes. I hesitated at first thinking mama must have gone crazy: “That soldier’s weapon is literally bigger than me!” I exclaimed.

I hesitated but eventually inched closer to the big soldier while my knees were dancing to the beat of my racing heart. I raised my head and stared right into his eyes. He saw me and tried to avert his eyes, but I kept my stare. He looked down. Whether he was embarrassed or ashamed, I don’t know. I triumphantly said, “Yes!” My knees stopped dancing. Dignified defiance works like a charm with dancing knees, I learned that day.

And my daughter is far from alone. Palestinians look evil in the eye every day. We speak truth to power every day. Centuries of resisting colonialism have taught us to steadfast, to resist, and to insist on nothing less than our comprehensive rights. No siege, smears, bullying or repression will ever deter us from pursuing our passionate, strategic and ethically consistent struggle for what our late poet Mahmoud Darwish calls, a life that is worth living.

United with people of conscience fighting for justice the world over, we can and shall prevail.


* Palestinian human rights defender, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, co-recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award in 2017.

[1] Omar Barghouti, Relative Humanity: Identity, Rights, and Ethics: Israel as a Case Study, PMLA, Modern Language Association. Vol. 121, No. 5 (Oct., 2006), pp. 1536-1543.