Friday, 5 June 2015

BDS – The Fear Behind the Bluster

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has stepped up the war against Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).  There was already a piece of legislation that made it a civil offence, which the Israeli Supreme Court ruled was compatible with free speech.

BDS is a strategic threat

Debate in Brighton's local Argus between Tony Greenstein and the Tory MP for Hove Michael Weatherley
Now Netanyahu has gone one further and branded BDS a ‘strategic threat’ alongside Iran’s nuclear weapons, Hamas and no doubt a few of Israel’s other enemies.  How genuine is this or is it another example of Netanyahu’s need for another ‘existentialist’ enemy?

Egyptian boy displays poster

There is no doubt, as Omar Barghouti says, that on one level it is absurd to equate a peaceful tactic of protest with the alleged Iran threat.  But on the other hand there is some substance to Zionist fears.

Brighton picket of the Sodastream shop
The movement for BDS has, in 10 years, come a long way.  What began in Britain with a narrow vote by the Association of University Teachers to boycott 6 Israeli universities over their complicity with the Occupation has mushroomed.  Virtually every trade union in Britain has a policy in support of BDS. 

A racist Israeli who called a Palestinian demonstrator a 'primitive' and a fundamental Christian were the only supporters of Brighton's Sodastream shop
The academic boycott is feared, rightly, by Israeli universities which have been complicit in the Occupation.  Only last week it was described as 'an iceberg' with a small part visible but a much larger hidden boycott which manifests itself in not holding conferences in Israel and other examples of non-co-operation with Israeli academia.

Picket of Brighton's Sodastream shop
The time when the trade unions were a bastion of support for Zionism are long since gone.  It was about 6 years ago that the then General Secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, went from the Trade Union Friends of Israel to the Trade Union Friends of Palestine to convey the message that BDS was wrong.  I remember heckling him and asking what he would put in its place.  I got no answer.  It was in 2007 and 2008 that I spoke in support of BDS to the Unison National Conference which voted by about 4-1 to support our motion.

Although so far the economic impact of BDS has been limited, Veolia has pulled out of the Jerusalem Light Railway and Orange, according to recent stories, wants to do the same and G4S has been forced to agree to stop maintaining detention centres, Israeli trade has largely been unaffected.  Europe has made noises but continued to trade in settlement produce.  In the UK we have forced the Ahava shop in Covent Garden to close and in Brighton the Ecostream/Sodastream shop to do likewise, despite a vigorous Zionist picket of far-right Israel supporters and loony fundamental Christians.

Protest in South Africa's Woolworth's shop
But the Cultural BDS has been far more successful with acts like Gill Scott-Heron, Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder and Roger Waters boycotting Israel.  The threat of this being extended to sport via a suspension by FIFA caused great consternation in Israel.  Stephen Hawking, who has spoken on 4 occasions in Israel, pulled out of a speaking engagement. 

Although it hasn’t had a massive economic impact, the campaign amongst students and at academic institutions has had an immense symbolic effect.  The vote by the National Union of Students Executive to support BDS was unprecedented.  It follows campus victories at places like Sussex University.  In the USA although no university has divested, there have been a number of victories on different campuses in secret ballots. 

It is arguable that until the very end, the Boycott in South Africa was also more politically than economically damaging.  It undermined the confidence of Apartheid’s supporters and their own faith in their system.  Israeli and Zionist arrogance knows no bounds, as is the case with most settler-colonial states.  Appeals to reason and their good faith fall on stony ground.  It is only through coercion that they can be forced to pull back.  The 67 year old Occupation has an Israeli wide consensus.   The 2-State solution, which was never a feasible option, since it didn’t deal with the core racism of Zionism, is now officially acknowledged as dead in the water.  That means that Israel faces the Apartheid scenario – it can accept that the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories are entitled to  full democratic rights, in which case a Jewish state is no more, or it can prioritise a Jewish state above everything else in which case Israel is an Apartheid state.  Although not saying so, Israel has already made this decision and it has chosen the latter option.

What worries Israel more than anything else is that losing the argument on campuses, especially in the US, means losing the argument amongst tomorrow’s opinion makers.  Israel’s alliance with the USA relies on it being a strategic military ally.  In this it is correct and it will take a lot to shift the US from such a position.  But if there were to be a revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East, with the Saudi and  Egyptian regimes toppled, along with the client Gulf states, then Israel’s role might be perceived as very different.

Eighteen months ago Norman Finkelstein  foolishly described BDS as a cult.  It is clear that he regrets these remarks now and has fallen into line.  At that time he had, as he made clear in a talk given to a packed audience at the Institute of Education, illusions that John Kerry was going to be able to achieve a 2-State solution and he certainly did his best.  However the best efforts of the Obama administration foundered on the rocky shores of Israeli intransigence.  Today no one has such an illusion.  BDS is the only game in town.

It is noticeable that the softer non/anti-Zionist groups like Jews 4 Justice for Palestinians and Jewish Voices for Peace in America have also come out in favour of BDS.  As Netanyahu’s reaction has shown, the only thing that worries these racists is a movement which does indeed challenge the legitimacy of the Israeli state.  We should not be afraid of saying that the Israeli state is indeed illegitimate.  It is founded on the dispossession of the Palestinians, it is thoroughly racist to the core, it is willing to engage in limitless violence and should, like the equivalent Apartheid state in South Africa disappear into the mists of time.  That is not the same thing as saying that Israeli Jews don’t have the right to live in Palestine – clearly they do.  But they don’t have the right to do so as oppressors.

Despite the undoubted bombast and hysteria of Netanyahu’s campaign against BDS we should welcome the fact that we have at last found a tactic that has the potential to challenge the core racism of the Israeli state.

Tony Greenstein

Netanyahu and Israeli government turn up heat on BDS over its calls for Israel to be boycotted for its occupation of Palestinian territories

Members of the Israeli government - including prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu – have turned on the BDS, using language usually reserved for Hamas or Iran’s nuclear programme. Photograph: EPA
Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem
Israel and key international supporters have sharply ratcheted up their campaign against the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, with senior Israeli officials declaring it a strategic threat.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign picket of Sodastream
Using language the Israeli government usually reserves for the likes of Hamas or Iran’s nuclear programme, senior figures – including the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and a key backer in the US, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson – have turned on the movement, which is prominent on university campuses and among international trade unions.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with Heads of Israeli Universities
The moves came as the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) voted on Tuesday to formally ally itself with the aims of BDS. Following the vote, Hebrew media reported that Israeli MPs were due to hold a special session in the Knesset to discuss the issue.

The non-violent grassroots movement, founded with the support of dozens of Palestinian organisations, is modelled on South African anti-apartheid campaigns and calls for an end to the occupation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a resolution for Palestinian refugees of 1948.

Israeli critics point to the call for a right to return and the opposition of some leaders of the movement to a two-state solution – which they describe as a mistake – as evidence that BDS is antisemitic.
After years in which Israeli officials and commentators have loftily dismissed the impact of BDS – which seeks to persuade businesses, artists, governments and academic institutions to boycott Israel over its long occupation of the Palestinian territories – Israel’s new rightwing government has in recent days singled out the movement for criticism.

Roger Waters of Pink Floyd has been an important advocate of musicians boycotting Israel
The issue appears to have been given added impetus since Palestinian efforts to have Israel suspended from the scandal-ridden world football organisation Fifa failed on Friday.

An empty Sodastream shop in Brighton - no one but Zionists wanted to shop in it
Comments by senior Israeli politicians over the last week have been amplified in the Hebrew media by sympathetic commentary by columnists. Among those who have allied themselves with the latest efforts are the mass circulation Israeli paper Yedioth Ahoronoth – which earlier this week allied itself on its front page with “Fighting the boycott” – and its rightwing columnist Ben-Dror Yemeni, who has echoed the comments of officials.

Giving the red card to Israeli football at FIFA
“The success of BDS,” Yemini wrote earlier this week, “is particularly impressive because it is a movement that uses the language of rights, but deals in practice with denying Israel’s right to exist. The result is a major deception.”

The latest rhetoric has coincided with growing evidence of pro-Israeli activism over BDS, not least in the US. Last week, a new website emerged whose aim was to identify US college students active in the BDS movement with the explicit aim of identifying then to future possible employers. It was not clear who was behind the site.

This weekend, Adelson will reportedly convene a meeting of super wealthy pro-Israel donors for a summit in Las Vegas on countering the influence of BDS and similar movements on US campuses.
On Sunday, Netanyahu explicitly attempted to link boycott movements to historic “anti-semitism”, echoing remarks that Netanyahu made in his keynote address to the US pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC last year, when he described BDS as being on the “wrong side of the moral divide” while predicting that the “movement will fail”.

Website targets pro-Palestinian students in effort to harm job prospects

The latest rhetoric was immediately condemned by Barghouti, who dismissed the recent moves as a “panic-driven, racist and patently propagandistic Israeli attack on the movement”.

He told the Guardian: “Placing a non-violent human rights movement that seeks freedom, justice and equality on par with the so-called Iranian ‘nuclear capacity’ as a ‘first-rate strategic threat’ – as Israeli president Reuven Rivlin announced a few days ago or as the new minister of strategic affairs and public security in the far-right Israeli government Gilad Erdan tweeted on his first day on the job – reflects Israel’s failure in hindering the fast growth of BDS.

 “It also betrays Israel’s inherent inability to face such popular, anti-racist, human rights-based and nonviolent challenges to its regime of oppression.”

Israeli officials told the Guardian that the focus on BDS was not an acknowledgement of its success but rather the reaffirmation of a principal of “moral outrage” both over the recent move by the NUS and by efforts to have Israel suspended from Fifa.

That, however, has led to accusations from critics that Israel is deliberately conflating the BDS movement with separate Palestinian efforts to hold Israel accountable for the occupation.

Facing growing warnings of international isolation in the absence of a peace process with the Palestinians and amid continued settlement building in the occupied territories, the latest moves appear designed to conflate BDS with separate initiatives by Palestinian diplomats to internationalise support for the end to occupation and for the creation of a Palestinian state in global forums.

One Palestinian official familiar with efforts on the international stage said he believed the latest effort was aimed not only at BDS but at the wider Palestinian effort to promote its case in the international criminal Court, the UN and Fifa.

“They are trying to combine all the efforts to hold Israel accountable into creating a monster that is not there yet,” the official said. “If ask the Palestinian leadership, some love BDS as a movement, others hate it. I think what Netanyahu is trying to do is create an idea that even if you believe Palestinian moves in international forums are legitimate, they are undermined because BDS – in the Israelis argument - seeks to ’destroy state of Israel’.”

Netanyahu’s declaration of war on BDS is its

The fact that its BDS leaders object to Israel’s very existence doesn’t negate the direct contribution of Israeli actions to the movement’s recent surge.
By Chemi Shalev | Jun. 2, 2015 | 3:27 PM

A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010. Photo by Mohammed Ouda/Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Netanyahu with Sheldon Adelson, left Photo by Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

The international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement has just scored a tremendous victory.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issues a manifest in Jerusalem against the delegitimization of Israel and calls for a “wide front” to combat boycott, and then, within 24 hours, Sheldon Adelson convenes an emergency summit in Las Vegas to fight BDS on university campuses - as Nathan Guttman revealed in the Forward on Monday - BDSers can smugly tell themselves that they’ve finally made it. From a nuisance, perhaps even a danger, they have been elevated the status of existential threat, on a par, almost, with Iran and Hezbollah.

In Israel, the sudden upsurge of public alarm and media hype is connected, no doubt, to the near-death experience that Israelis went through on Friday as FIFA came perilously close to expelling them from international soccer. In Israeli political parlance, it also represents a certain switching of roles: Hitherto it was the left who was cast as Cassandra, issuing repeated warnings of impending condemnations and boycotts in the international arena, which the right shrugged off as no more than transparent political scaremongering. In a 2014 Peace Index poll published by the Guttman Center, 71% of left-leaning Israelis described boycott as a clear and present danger, compared with only 42% of those on the right. Now – perhaps in preparation for the post-Iran-nuclear-agreement era - it is the right that looks to turn BDS into a new rallying cry that proves that the whole world is against us, while the left will inevitably claim that this is a cynical ploy aimed at diverting attention from right-wing policies that are the root cause of Israel’s dismal situation in the first place.

In the United States, at least, the boycott movement has yet to register even one major achievement, outside of co-ops or supermarkets here and there, where the short-lived boycotts were mainly symbolic anyway. Student bodies in 29 universities have voted on divestment from Israel, with some measure of success for BDS, especially in California: not one academic institution, however, has decided or is even weighing to adhere to these decisions. Some states, such as Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee, have already adopted anti-boycott legislation, with several others expected to follow suit.
What is troubling for many Jewish Americans, especially parents to students, is the increasingly virulent debate on camps, which, in some cases, has deteriorated from criticism to loathing, from anti-Israeli sentiments in particular to anti-Semitism sentiments in general. Jewish students have also expressed apprehension about the hostility of lecturers, whose academic unions are increasingly preoccupied with arguments for and against boycotts. But contrary to the functionaries for whom this battle is also a livelihood, most parents don’t care so much about Israel winning or Palestine losing: they just want their kids to be left in peace so they can finish their degree.

There is no denying that the BDS movement is picking up steam. And Netanyahu is right in saying that those running BDS don’t object to Israel’s deeds but to its very existence. But his claim that Israeli actions and policies don’t nourish the boycotters, don’t facilitate its enlistment of new recruits and don’t make the defense of Israel that much harder is both disingenuous and childish. Regardless of background and cause, it’s hard to claim with a straight face that the cessation of the peace process, the death and destruction in Gaza, the campaign against African migrant workers, the Tel Aviv riots of Ethiopians, Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, and, perhaps, most injurious of all, his miserable appeal against Israeli Arabs on Election Day – that all these haven’t provided highly combustible gasoline to BDS propaganda in the past year alone.

And this, before we have mentioned the occupation, which will soon mark its 50th anniversary. Israelis and Americans have learned to conveniently repress awareness of the ongoing denial of political rights from the Palestinians or to view it as a force majeure. They can no longer fathom its malignant influence on young and impressionable hearts and minds that are looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from afar.

That does not negate the right or the duty of the government and its supporters abroad to fight BDS before it becomes a real danger – the question is what is the best way to go about it.  The emergence of a controversial figure such as Adelson on the front lines, for example, cannot but paint the summit he is convening as a right-wing, conservative even Republican effort, even if other partisan figures, such as the pro-Democrat Haim Saban, are involved. According to report last week by Rosie Gray in Buzzfeed, Adelson and his wife Miriam are looking to appoint their favorite Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to lead legions of boycott-fighting students tentatively known as “Campus Maccabees”.

Adelson’s generous funding could ensure that such a group would be able to organize impressively massive events – like the one put on by the Adelson-funded Israeli American Council (IAC) in honor of Israeli Independence Day in New York on Sunday – but it would equally also deter moderate students from joining the cause. In several campuses, BDS campaigns have been beaten back only with the help of students identified with J Street U, whose parent group is ostracized and shunned by most of those identified with, or dependent on, Adelson.

In a May 29 article in JTA, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman warned against quick fix solutions. “This fantasy of a magic wand will sap the energy from what is truly needed: a comprehensive approach”. Foxman says the American Jewish community should “reward universities and institutions who stand up to the boycott” and work to deepen the trade, cultural and scientific ties between Israel and academic and other institutions. Foxman makes no mention of the fact that the Israeli government could take steps that could dramatically impact the fortunes of BDS, either because he doesn’t think this is the case, because he doesn’t think it is his role to say so, or because he is biding his time until the end of his 28-year stewardship of the ADL in July.

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