"We must counter Israel’s McCarthyism": Meet the Palestinian intellectual Israel fears most

Omar Barghouti has been denied free travel rights by Israel. Here's what he'd like to say to Americans

Published May 19, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Omar Barghouti   (AP/Nasser Nasser)
Omar Barghouti (AP/Nasser Nasser)

The time has long passed when one could dismiss the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement--calling for Palestinian rights as enshrined in international law and human rights discourse—as something “merely symbolic.”   The attacks on BDS evidenced in legislation pending in several states in America, in the criminalization of BDS in Canada and France and other countries, and Israel’s promotion of “civil targeted eliminations” of dissidents and human rights workers, only show how much fear the claim for Palestinian rights has struck amongst those who wish to deny those claims.

Amnesty International recently drew attention to Israel’s attacks on human rights workers:

An escalation of acts of intimidation by the government and attacks and threats by settlers and other non-state actors have created an increasingly dangerous environment for HRDs [human rights defenders] in Israel and in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories]. Israel is routinely violating Palestinians’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association in the OPT and are targeting HRDs, including by arbitrary arrest and detention, imprisonment, injury and torture.

Amnesty drew particular attention to Israel’s specific targeting of one of the co-founders of BDS, Omar Barghouti, who was granted a visa to travel to the US by the United States government but denied re-entry papers by Israel, in effect making it impossible for him to travel. This presents itself as a kind of house arrest, all for advocating, in a non-violent manner, for Palestinian rights. Such acts point out the vacuity of the anti-boycott argument that, rather than boycott, we should be engaged in “dialogue.” As Barghouti and others have constantly pointed out, BDS is all for dialogue, but under free and equitable conditions.   Now more than ever it is clear that “dialogue” is not on Israel’s mind, as it actively silences its critics and finds willing allies elsewhere to carry out its program of censorship and intimidation locally.

What is essential to remember is that, contrary to the claims of various lawsuits filed against organizations that have endorsed the boycott, such as the American Studies Association, boycotts are a form of protected speech. They are, in fact, a “weapon of the weak.” Rather than seeing a boycott of Israel as an “attack” on it, it is altogether fitting to see the boycott as a non-violent act of withdrawal, a refusal to go along with a set of practices that one feels are unjust, and with which one will not be complicit. Boycotts were one of the most powerful tools used during the Civil Rights movement, and the courts ruled that people should have that means of protest in a democracy.

The legality of boycotts was declared by the US Supreme Court:

In the landmark civil rights case NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., a local branch of the NAACP boycotted white merchants in Claiborne County, Mississippi to pressure elected officials to adopt racial justice measures. The merchants fought back, suing NAACP for interference with business. Ultimately, the Supreme Court found that “the boycott clearly involved constitutionally protected activity” through which the NAACP “sought to bring about political, social, and economic change.” Justice Stevens concluded that the civil rights boycott constituted a political form of expression under the speech, assembly, association and petition clauses of the First Amendment. This principle was recently applied to dismiss a lawsuit attempting to block a decision by the Olympia Food Coop to boycott Israeli goods. A court found the boycott to be protected by the First Amendment (or specifically, “free speech and petition in connection with an issue of public concern”).

Nevertheless, anti-boycotters persist in their attacks, regardless of the unlikelihood of success. Their intent is to harass, intimidate, make uncomfortable not only human rights activists but anyone who might even be thinking of endorsing the boycott, whether they be individuals or organizations. Guilt by association, something that we saw during the McCarthy era, is now being used to silence those with Palestinian “sympathies,” as pro-Israel groups draw up blacklists. Again, it is hard to sign on to the idea of “dialogue rather than boycott” when Israel and its allies engage in such overt acts of silencing. In this context it is patently clear that the appeal to dialogue is merely a stalling tactic. But it is hard to diffuse a sense of urgency as Israel continues and intensifies its bombing of Gaza.

Although he was prevented from traveling, Omar Barghouti agreed to speak to an audience at Stanford via Skype on April 27. Here are some of the most important segments of his presentation and conversation—here is what you cannot hear Omar Barghouti say in person. Leading into the presentation, I asked him what his status was and how he was feeling, after being publicly named as a target of “civil elimination”:

Well, effectively I am under a travel ban. That’s why I couldn’t be with you in person. I am under surveillance. I have been under surveillance, so that’s to be expected. And the Israeli authorities are trying their best to revoke my residency permit in Israel. Other than that I’m undeterred. This is very unnerving, this experience that I’m going through, but I’m undeterred. My response is to go full steam ahead, continue to spread BDS as the most effective, most ethical way to fight for Palestinian rights under international law.

Barghouti then elaborated on what the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement was based on, and its goals:

As a human rights movement that is anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law precepts, we advocate the basic rights of all Palestinians. This is a movement that’s built on the premise that all Palestinians – whether in historic Palestine or in exile – are entitled by law and by ethical principles to participate in the right to self-determination.

To achieve those three basic rights: ending the Occupation, ending Apartheid, and the Right of Return, BDS adopted strategies and tactics that evolved from decades of Palestinian popular resistance. Also, we were inspired by the South African anti-Apartheid movement – very deeply inspired by that movement – and the U.S. Civil Rights movement. To achieve those three rights under international law we’ve called for isolating Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism, and Apartheid academically, culturally, economically, financially, militarily, and so on, as was done against the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

BDS is based on isolating a regime of oppression because it’s oppressing us and denying us our rights. BDS is based on complicity, not identity. We couldn’t care less about the identity of the oppressors so long as they are oppressing us.

He elaborated the comparison BDS to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, marking on the relative speed with which BDS has spread:

Since 2005 to the present day – almost 11 years – BDS has achieved quite a lot more than we had initially anticipated when we launched the movement in 2005. There are many reasons for that, but one important point to remember is that in comparison to the boycott against South African Apartheid, we are going much, much faster. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others have commented on the pace of growth and growth of the impact of the BDS movement.

Part of it has to do with learning the lessons of the South African example. Another has to do with technology, the Internet, social media and so on, the advent of which they did not have in South Africa. There are many other factors including the centrality of Israel in Western discourse, the protection Israel gets from the United States, from the governments of Western Europe and so on. Regardless, BDS has been growing at a very, very quick rate despite the massive obstacles that are on its path to freedom, justice, and equality for the Palestinian people.

Critically, aside from the effects of the academic boycott and cultural boycott of Israel, Barghouti keyed in on the growing economic effects of BDS:

Since 2013 Israel started to change its tone about the BDS movement. It started to see an impact on its economy for the first time. We started to see very large corporations considering pulling out of the Israeli economy because of their involvement in projects that violate international law. Israel started to see pension funds in Europe and increasingly in the U.S. as well pulling their investments out of companies that are involved in Israel’s occupation and violation of Palestinian rights.

This shift from the largely “symbolic” impact of BDS in the academic and cultural sphere, possibly some sporting spheres as well, into the economic sphere – the impact in the economic sphere – alarmed the establishment in Israel. So, as of 2013 they started to view BDS as “a strategic threat.”

I’ll just give a few examples for you to get an idea. In 2014 the second largest pension fund in the Netherlands, PGGM, pulled all its investments from the top five Israeli banks because of their involvement in Israel’s illegal occupation and settlements; so did the Luxembourg Sovereign Fund. And most recently the United Methodist Church pulled its investments in Israeli banks and put all Israeli banks on a no-investment list, which was an extremely important turning point for the United Methodist Church pension management fund.

We also saw in 2014 the Presbyterian Church divest from HP, Caterpillar, and Motorola Solutions and endorse a boycott of Israeli settlement goods. The United Church of Christ followed suit and several other church denominations in the U.S. started to adopt similar language as well as some churches in Canada. This is growing. This divestment from companies involved in the occupation has grown a lot.

We also started to see some major corporations like Veolia, the large French corporation that’s involved in water, sewage, transportation and other areas, be affected. After seven years of campaigning against Veolia, in September 2015 Veolia pulled out entirely from the Israeli markets where it was involved in several projects that very obviously violate international law.

So, Veolia lost billions of dollars’ worth of tenders and contracts in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Norway, the United States, Kuwait, and other countries until it reached that decision that it was not worth it. This a very important point: large corporations that are starting to pull out of Israel they never say, “we’re pulling out of it because of BDS.” They say, “oh, we pulled out because of financial considerations.” Exactly--that’s what BDS does. We made it untenable for companies to continue profiting from denying our rights, from violating our rights.

With all of these pension funds divesting and banks in Europe pulling out of relations with Israeli banks we started to see a real impact. A United Nations report in 2015 revealed that foreign direct investment in the Israeli economy in 2014 plummeted in comparison to 2013 by about 46 percent. That’s almost half of the foreign direct investment dropped between 2013 and 2014. This is extremely significant because Israel’s economy relies tremendously on foreign investment.

Corporations like Rand in the United States are coming out with surveys and studies showing that BDS might cost Israel in the next 10 years one percent to two percent of its GDP annually. In 10 years that amounts to about $28 billion to $56 billion. That basically offsets the entire aid package US awards to Israel in 10 years. So, imagine that – this soft, non-violent human rights movement that’s global and led by Palestine civil society can affect Israel’s economy to the extent that we can offset the entire U.S. aid to Israel which is one of the main reasons why Israel’s regime of oppression is able to maintain its denial of Palestinian rights.

To conclude, here is what Barghouti had to say about what was new about the recent attacks on BDS:

The most alarming part is the legal warfare. Israel has been investing quite a lot in that in the last couple of years, especially in the last year. Israel, as many of you know, is trying to pass legislation in states across the United States making BDS basically illegitimate or trying to issue statements, if not laws, that condemn BDS with all sorts of smears and accusations. The most common is that it’s an anti-Semitic movement that discriminates against Jews, that it seeks the destruction of Israel, which is a U.S. partner and so on and so forth.

It’s amplifying this McCarthyism, trying to suppress the boycott as illegitimate. This goes against a very, very long heritage of boycotts in the United States as protected speech, as protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the 1982 case of Claiborne Hardware Company v the NAACP ended up with the NAACP asserting its right to boycott over its racist policies. That was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court that boycotts to affect economic, political, and social change are perfectly legitimate free speech that is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

That will be Israel’s main challenge. If we go to court it will reach all the way up to the Supreme Court. We shall win. They have no legal ground to stand on and that’s very important to remember.

What comes to mind is Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that a boycott at the basic level means withdrawing support from an evil system, withdrawing cooperation from an evil system. Think about that. That’s not heroic. That’s a profound moral obligation. So, we’re not asking you for charity when we say we’re appealing to you to support BDS. At the basic level we’re asking you to end the complicity of your institutions with the regime of occupation, settler colonialism and Apartheid that is denying us our basic rights.

That is a profound moral obligation: to counter Israel’s induced McCarthyism and to fight together against all forms of injustice, including racial, economic, social, and other forms of injustice. We’ve got to stick together because they are sticking together, our enemies: large corporations, the military, security, industries, and the oil companies – they’re sticking together. They know their interests and so do we. It’s time we worked together.

Building on the intersectionality that exists, that common understanding of a common enemy, and building organic relationships of common solidarity with various groups makes it incumbent upon us even after some of those companies abandoned Israeli markets and ended their involvement in violating our rights. We shall continue to work with groups like Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, and the various Latino and Chicano groups in the United States to fight G4S, to fight for the rights against those large corporations that are profiting from denying rights to the various communities around the world.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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Boycott Divestment And Sanctions Israel Omar Barghouti Palestine