BDS for Palestinian Rights: The Legacy of Mandela and Dr. King


Video and Edited Transcript
Mr. Omar Barghouti
Transcript No. 362 (24 February 2012)



24 February 2012
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC

Mr. Omar Barghouti:

Thank you Yousef, and thanks to the Jerusalem Fund for having me here. I will talk today about BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions], the global struggle for Palestinian rights, in light of the legacy of Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and [former South African President] Nelson Mandela.

Martin Luther King famously said, “The deep rumbling of discontent that we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses rising from dungeons of oppression to the bright hills of freedom, in one majestic chorus the rising masses singing…’Aint gonna let nobody turn us around.’“  This is the moment that we feel we’re at in the BDS movement, where we feel no one can turn us around. And Nelson Mandela said, “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” In fact, South African civil society has been the largest supporter of the BDS campaign in the world.

[Slide] Just a very brief history for those who are not as familiar, the map on the extreme left is the map of Palestine during the British Mandate, the yellow map. To its right is the [United Nations] Partition Plan with the yellow parts designated to the so-called Arab state, and the white part to the so-called Jewish state. But in reality, Israel established itself on the third map, on the entire white area, leaving the West Bank and Gaza which it later occupied in 1967. And now, we have patches of yellow, which is what’s left for the Palestinians, interspersed by the white parts which are Jewish-only colonial settlements.

According to the latest census, the number of Palestinians today is 11.22 million, 50 percent of whom live outside historic Palestine; that’s Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Twelve percent are Palestinian citizens of Israel, and 37 to 38 percent live in the occupied Palestinian territory. Why is this important? Because for those who say, “We support Palestinian rights and therefore we want to end the occupation,” they’re addressing the rights, some of the rights, of the 38 percent only. They’re ignoring the 62 percent. Why did I say some of the rights? Because the 38 percent in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem, 44 percent of them are refugees. So, put together, the number of refugees are 7.78 million out of the 11.2 million Palestinians, that’s 69 percent of the Palestinian population today are refugees. Only 31 percent are not refugees. Of course, the refugee population includes the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons in Israel itself; Palestinian citizens of Israel who are ethnically cleansed and not allowed to go home because they are the wrong type.

So, the BDS call, when it came out on 9 July 2005, specifically mentioned the three basic rights of the three main communities of the Palestinian people: ending the 1967 occupation and colonization, including the wall, and so on; ending the system of institutionalized, legalized racial discrimination which qualifies as apartheid, and I’ll get to that later. I’m not using the term in an inflammatory way. I’ll explain exactly why this is an accurate description of Israel’s regime within Israel’s pre-[19]67 borders; the third and foremost right, is the Right of Return for refugees. Again, as I said, 69 percent of the Palestinians would consider this their most important right.

The BDS call came out on 9 July 2005 specifically because that was the first anniversary of the ICJ, the International Court of Justice, ruling against Israel’s wall and colonies built on occupied territory as illegal.  A year after, Palestinian civil society saw that the so-called international community under U.S. hegemony was unable or unwilling to deliver our rights, to even make Israel stop constructing its illegal wall, let alone ending the occupation, apartheid or helping us achieve the Right of Return.

The main issue to us is that moral right can and should prevail over military might. This is the main lesson we learned from the civil rights movement in this country and from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, among other struggles around the world.

The BDS movement is a global movement, decentralized movement, rights-based movement that’s lead today by the BDS National Committee which is the largest civil society coalition among Palestinians; the absolute largest. It includes representatives of all political parties, trade unions, women’s unions, NGO [non-governmental organization] networks [and] refugee advocacy groups inside historic Palestine as well as outside.

The main slogans of the BDS movement are: Freedom, Justice and Equality. This is why we always say BDS is not a leftist agenda. Of course, we expect leftists to support it. But this is quite a liberal agenda. Any self-respecting liberal should be able to support freedom, justice and equality anywhere in the world.  So self-determination for the Palestinians, which is our inalienable right, constitutes ending all three forms of Israel’s oppression: occupation, apartheid and denial of refugee rights. The most important aspect is equality. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Very simple, but often forgotten principle.

So, let’s take the 1967 territory. [Slide] Israel’s occupation takes many forms and has many facets: from the colonization and settlement-building around occupied East Jerusalem to the siege of Gaza and the war against Gaza [at the] end of 2008 and 2009, which some international legal scholars like [United Nations Special Rapporteur] Richard Falk, called, accused of constituting acts of genocide, to the prevalent racist expressions of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, as this graffiti in Hebron, Al-Khalil, which says “Arabs to the gas chambers.”

[Slide] But in Gaza, this is where Israel crossed all hither to a red line in its attacks on Palestinian civilians, using white phosphorus on a UN [United Nations] building. This is a UN school used as a shelter, for mainly Palestinian women and children escaping the war. And it was bombed with white phosphorus.

Amnesty International focused on another aspect of the occupation. In a report titled “Thirsting for Justice” issued a couple of years ago, Amnesty accused Israel of denying water to the Palestinians as a means of expulsion. The West Bank was divided according to the Oslo Agreements to Area A, B and C; I won’t bore you with the details. But briefly, Area C is the largest, most fertile lands and the water aquifers are placed in that area. Increasingly, Israel is denying water access in that area to expel the Palestinians from that area. One example is you can not dig a well on your own land to collect rain water. Something Palestinian farmers have done for centuries. They rely completely on rain water and collecting rain water in the rainy season to survive the rest of the year. Now they are not allowed. Israeli bulldozers will go in and destroy any cisterns, any wells you dig on your own land because even on your land, you don’t own rain water that falls on it.

And the prevalence of racism within Israeli society, which has become really scary in the last number years. Various army platoons compete [for] who produces the most abrasive designs. [Slide] In this particular case, they have a Palestinian woman, pregnant woman, with cross fires on her belly and it says, “One shot, two kills,” in English.  And these are very popular t-shirts among Israeli soldiers. Another design has an Israeli soldier raping a young Palestinian girl and underneath it says, “No virgins, no terror attacks.”

And taking Palestinian children as human shields as was well documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty [International], among others. [Slide] And one particular case, that made it to the mainstream media, this thirteen year-old boy, whose arm was tied to the jeep so that his friends can not throw stones at the occupation jeep. And the infamous wall that is reproducing the ghetto.

But even if we move out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories of 1967 into Israeli itself, increasingly, scholars [and] pundits are recognizing Israel’s system of discrimination against its Palestinian population as constituting apartheid, which is a universal crime. Some people might jump and say, “Oh! But Israel is so different than South Africa.” We did not mention South Africa yet, it doesn’t have to be identical to South Africa to qualify as apartheid. Apartheid is a universal crime, defined in the 1973 International Convention on the Punishment and Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid, and defined in the 2002 Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. In both definitions, Israel’s system of legalized discrimination conforms to the definition of apartheid.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which is a civil society tribunal, in its latest session in Cape Town [South Africa] –with jurors such as Alice Walker, some of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa –reached the conclusion that Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people wherever they reside, collectively amounts to a single integrated regime of apartheid. The key point is wherever they reside; they are no longer talking about the West Bank and Gaza. They’re saying, Israel’s rule over the entire Palestinian people including those in exile, those in Israel, as well as those in the occupied territories, amounts to apartheid.

South African Christian leaders and their response to a Palestinian Christian document that I’ll refer to later called, “Kairos Palestine,” in their response they had this very interesting statement. They said, “From our own experience from apartheid we can clearly and without equivocation say that the Palestinian situation is in essence the same as apartheid, and in its practical manifestation even worse than South African apartheid.”

The late Edward Said had it all, “equality or nothing.” Equal rights becomes the most important aspect in our rights-based struggle for Palestinian rights.

One manifestation of Israeli apartheid is in land ownership. Through various mechanisms, mainly through a lot of power given to the Jewish National Fund in the Israel Land Administration bureaucracy, effectively, 93 percent of the land of Israel is off limits to non-Jews. So, Palestinian citizens of Israel born there, like my wife, cannot buy land, cannot live, and cannot rent on 93 percent of the area of Israel. In South Africa, in comparison it was 86 percent off limits to blacks.

Another aspect is churches, houses of prayers. As many of you know, during the Nakba of 1948 the systematic ethnic cleansing of the majority of Palestinians, many houses of prayer were destroyed by Israel: churches, mosques, especially mosques. [Slide] This one church was not destroyed but it was turned into a cattle shed. This is in Ma’loul, a village in the north of Israel today.  It’s a Roman Catholic Church. It was kept as a cattle shed, used by Israeli farmers, until 2005.

[Slide] This mosque in Ayn Hawd, near Haifa, was even less fortunate. It was turned into an Israeli bar/restaurant. But that entire village of Ayn Hawd was ethnically cleansed, it was not destroyed. And it was turned into an Israeli Jewish artist’s colony, with its residents mostly living not too far away, waking up everyday watching their beautiful houses and orchards occupied by strangers.  And, Al-Araqeeb, a village in the Naqab, the Negev desert in the south of Israel, it’s a Bedouin village that was destroyed literally dozens of times. And every time the residents rebuild it—with a lot of help from international solidarity activists, Israeli progressive activists and so on—and every time the bulldozers go back in and destroy it because it’s an “unrecognized” village.  Another aspect of the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing, that many people do not know of, and now we know in detail, is Israel’s destruction of tens of thousands of Palestinian books that it stole from private homes, from libraries, from public spaces, and destroyed systematically.

So we talked about occupation, we talked about apartheid. The third most important aspect of the BDS call, is the call for the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. Why should this concern the general American public? You have enough of your own problems, with the deteriorating infrastructure, health, education, you name it. You have enough problems in this country, unemployment and so on, poverty rates rising. Well, according to a Brown University study, recent study, the U.S. spent four trillion dollars in the last ten years on its wars in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan; decimating Iraq, decimating Afghanistan and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, including thousands of American service men and women who lost their lives in that war. And we all know what the money did in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In general, the idea is that we, in the Global South, are perceived as lesser humans or what I call, “relative humans.”  Humans only in the relative sense, like blacks were in the southern states of this country, like blacks were in South Africa, like the Dalits in India and so on. It’s viewing “the other” as a lesser human so you can do a lot of things against him or her because they’re not really fully human so they’re not entitled to the full set of human rights. And racism abroad feeds into and nourishes racism at home.

Where’s the Israeli connection to all this? According to [John] Mearsheimer and [Stephen] Walt, Israel’s lobby, particularly the neo-conservatives, were a critical factor behind the U.S. war on Iraq. But it would be inaccurate to claim that the U.S. went to war only because of Israeli interests. Because Israel does serve a lot of corporate interests in this country; all the military manufacturers, and the homeland security, and the oil companies, and the banks, all benefit from Israel’s wars and from continuous wars elsewhere. So yes, Israel was pushing for the war against Iraq, but it wasn’t alone. The 1 percent in this country that itches for wars every once and a while to sell hardware and to test its products and so on, definitely was in harmony with Israel on going to war. And they’re doing it again. We’re seeing Iraq 2.0 with Iran now, pushing, fabricating evidence of nuclear weapons that don’t exist and so on and so forth.

But in particular about the Iraq war, Philip Zelikow, executive director of The 9/11 Commission, said the “real threat” from Iraq was not a threat to the U.S., the “unstated threat” was the “threat against Israel.”  So certainly the Israel factor was an important factor, not the only one, but certainly a very important factor.  Despite that, the U.S. in 2009 decided to give Israel 30 billion dollars in military aid between 2009 and 2018.  This is extra military aid to what they get regularly. And as the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation research shows, if you break it down into states—I had a lot of presentations in Atlanta, so I presented the Georgia share of this funding—and it comes out to 755 million dollars. Georgia, the state of Georgia alone, would fund Israel extra military aid to Israel to the tune of 755 million instead of building 9,175 affordable housing units for Georgia alone or instead of providing 12,500 sustainable green jobs or instead of providing 612,000 primary health care for the uninsured. But why is that?

As Desmond Tutu says, because Israel is placed on a pedestal in this country, and to criticize it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic, as if the Palestinians were not Semitic, he says. People are scared in this country to say wrong is wrong, Desmond Tutu says. So they stay silent. But silence is complicity. Why is that? Because your tax money is what’s funding our oppression. Our oppression has “Made in the U.S.A.” written all over it. So silence, apathy, is not an option. Again, as Desmond Tutu says, if you’re neutral in a situation of oppression, you’ve sided with the oppressor, particularly if your money is what’s doing the oppressing.

But some people might say, “Okay, this is fine, but we don’t want to go the boycott path.  We want peace. We want to pursue peace.” Well peace to the oppressed is absolutely meaningless if not associated with justice because without justice, it amounts to institutionalizing injustice. And no oppressed community is interested in that. So we don’t want peace, we want a just peace; there’s a huge difference. We want our basic rights.  And you can’t sugarcoat oppression, and expect a nice master will make us be more content slaves. It doesn’t work like that. We want to end oppression completely. We don’t want to sugar coat it or make it look nicer. As Desmond Tutu says, we don’t want our chains comfortable, we want them removed.

So the BDS movement is very much inspired by the legacy of Mandela, King, and [Mahatma] Ghandi’s non-violent resistance, but it’s deeply rooted in the Palestinian heritage of peaceful, civil resistance which is often not mentioned in this country. For a hundred years, facing settler colonialism, occupation and apartheid, Palestinians have predominantly resisted through non-violent peaceful means that took many, many forms from mass demonstrations in Jaffa as far back as 1933 against the British Mandate and the onslaught of settler colonialism to literary, artistic, musical resistance, cultural resistance, which Palestinians are very proud of, to this demonstration by academics and students of Birzeit University in the first intifada, popular uprising of 1987. [Slide] Some of you might recognize some faces there.  What they were protesting against, specifically, is the closure of universities.

After the breakout of the intifada in 1987, Israel shut down all Palestinian universities, soon after they shut down all Palestinian schools and then they shut down all Palestinian kindergartens. So Palestinian education became criminalized and went underground. A student carrying a textbook was arrested and her book confiscated because she was violating the law. YMCA classes, clandestine classes, were raided and everyone arrested because they were having an illegal class. And of course, Beit Sahour with its famous tax revolt, and they raised the same slogan “No Taxation without Representation” during the first intifada, refusing to pay taxes to the occupation authorities. Even middle class women who matched their scarves with their shoes participated. So education became a form of resistance. [Slide] Those girls in Al -Khalil, Hebron, were just trying to go to school, prevented at gun-point during a curfew, one of the many curfews struck in Al-Khalil.

And this Palestinian resistance, mostly civil popular resistance, was a prelude to the Arab Spring, and largely inspired the Arab Spring, as we hear often from leaders of the Egyptian, Tunisian and other Arab revolutions, which in turn inspired the Occupy movement in this country. So when Occupy Wall Street spread across this nation, everyone around the world was extremely excited. It’s not a small deal that the U.S. 99 percent is finally awakening; I wouldn’t say awake yet, but awakening, which is a great step in the right direction. So we raised the slogan, “Occupy Wall Street, Not Palestine” making the connection that our struggle is part of the 99 percent struggle for global freedom, justice and dignity and against the perpetual war inc., that benefits from ongoing wars.

But what about parity? We want to be neutral there. We don’t want to take sides, we want both sides. Nelson Mandela had a very good statement about this. He said we can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. And this is not only false, this is unethical.  So some might say, “You know, I’m against the occupation, but I’m not against Israel.” Let’s see what that would mean in the American slavery era. Imagine in the 1800s or 1900s somebody saying, “I support the U.S. but I’m against slavery.  This minor issue of slavery I’m against, but otherwise the U.S. is a fine country. ” Or in South Africa saying, “You know, I love South Africa but I detest apartheid.” This, again, minor problem with South Africa. It would be ludicrous, but in the Israeli case it’s normalized. People look at it as normal because you’re bombarded with it in mainstream media. I’m only against the occupation otherwise I support Israel. Well, guess what? Israel is the state that’s doing the occupation. In international law, we deal with the occupying power, which is Israel, the state that is performing this. So when the U.N. takes measures against the occupying power, it’s against Israel. It’s not the occupation, there’s no state in the U.N. called “The Occupation” that we can boycott.

A major part of BDS is the economic boycott, and I’m raising this because many people might say, “This is morally sound, it sounds great! But, can you have an impact? Israel is such a strong economy. ” Which is true.  It is such a powerful country with the fifth most powerful army in the world, with a massive nuclear weapons arsenal, that’s true. Can you ever dream of having an economic impact on Israel?  Well, first this movement is too young to judge. We are less than seven years old; BDS was launched in 2005. And, for those with short memory that always tell me, “Oh! But in South Africa, I mean, everyone was against apartheid: the churches, the unions and everyone!” Those people have very short memory. We’re talking about the second part of the 1980s. When I went to school at Columbia University, I remember how slow the process was. It was completely unfashionable earlier and that only towards the second half of the 1980s it became fashionable, where no one suddenly ever supported apartheid. Everyone was always anti-apartheid, born against apartheid. It became the fashion. But it took our South African comrades more than 30 years to reach the mainstream in the West. They started their boycott in the 1950s. So, let’s not forget that. In comparison, as Tutu and others, leaders of the anti-apartheid movement tell us, we’re going much, much faster.

Some examples of this economic impact. We targeted two specific companies: Veolia and Alstom, French companies involved in the Jerusalem light rail, which is a rail project connecting the illegal colonies around and in Jerusalem with the city of Jerusalem. One hundred percent illegal. Since we started targeting them in November 2008, Veolia lost contracts worth twelve billion dollars. In fact, more than that, mainly in the U.K. [United Kingdom], Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere. So, complicity is carrying a heavier price nowadays.

Alstom, just very recently in the end of last year, lost a massive contract in Saudi Arabia worth 9.4 billion dollars. And of course Alstom came out and said, “Oh, it was a financial issue. It had nothing to do with politics or the Jerusalem light rail or Israel or anything.” Until the Saudi embassy in Cairo issued an official statement saying, “We excluded Alstom because of its role in colonizing Jerusalem.” So, we rest our case.

Norway, which has the third largest sovereign pension fund in the world, we lobbied the Norwegian Pension Fund. Adalah-New York, which is a BDS group here, Stop the Wall in Palestine representing the BDS National Committee, and Who Profits, which is a project of the Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace, one of our partners in Israel. We have several partners in Israel supporting BDS: the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, the Alternative Information Center, the Coalition of Women for Peace, Boycott from Within, and so on. Together, we lobbied the Norwegian Pension Fund to divest from two Israeli companies: Elbit Systems in Africa/Israel, that are implicated in Israel’s violation of human rights in the occupied territories and we succeeded.

Agrexco, which was—now we can use the past tense—the largest Israeli company exporting produce in the world, for decades it was an iconic company in Israel, went bankrupt.  And we have reason to believe that this was largely due to BDS campaigns in France, Spain, Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere, especially in France. They established a coalition against Agrexco with five national parties and about 95 NGOs.

In the trade union movement, from Cosato in South Africa, the most solid supporter to the Irish, to the Scottish, to the Brazilian Cut, which has 22 million members, the British Trades Union Congress which has six and one half million members, and in France and in Italy, and in Canada, trade unions of very heavy weight started joining the BDS movement.

And when Israel committed its bloodbath on the Freedom Flotilla, which was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza on May 30, 2010, everyone got so angry. And the BDS National Committee and Palestinian civil society asked our supporters, “Don’t get angry. Do something! Hold Israel accountable.” Specifically, we called on dock workers to stop offloading and loading Israeli ships as a response. And we issued it expecting some symbolic sort of response. But, the response was anything but symbolic. The Swedish Dockworkers Union in fact did stop offloading Israeli ships for about eight days. In Cochin, India, the fourth largest port in India, in South Africa, in Turkey, in Greece and even in Oakland, California. Dock workers, with a lot of support from the community, stopped offloading a Zim [Lines] Israeli ship for 24 hours; a short period, but a historic 24 hours.

So, BDS has finally crossed the Atlantic, with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation playing the key role, the leading role, in BDS campaigns around the country. But, there’s a lot of creativity in the BDS world. From the Code Pink campaign against Ahava, the Dead Sea minerals cosmetics company that uses minerals from the occupied territories, which usually demonstrates in pink bikinis.  This time it’s black, I don’t know why. But, Ahava in Hebrew means “love” and their [Code Pink] slogan is, “No Ahava with occupation!” No love with occupation. And, they attract a lot of media attention with their very innovative methods. And Adalah-New York with their subversive Christmas carols calling for BDS.

Context, sensitivity and sustainability are the main principles, practical principles, for the movement. This is not a centralized movement, where some command decides what needs to be done.  Activists on the ground in every place decide what’s best to target and how to go about it.

Israeli Apartheid Week is an excellent example of that, which started in Toronto in 2005. And this year, which is happening now, it’s being held across 120 college campuses around the world; in more than 40 cities across the world. But some people might say, is this significant? I mean, does it really affect Israel? Well, Israel thinks so. This year, I don’t know if you’ve read, the Israeli foreign ministry hired 100 emissaries. One hundred Israelis are touring the world to combat Israeli Apartheid Week. They did not do this against Iran; they did not hire 100 Israelis to go around the world arguing the case doing a PR [public relations] propaganda stunt against Iran. But I guess [with] Israeli Apartheid week, they’ve done that. Imagine, 100 employees going around the world.

And of course, the Olympia Food Co-op was the first supermarket in this country to boycott Israeli goods completely. And Olympia, of course, is the hometown of Rachel Corrie, the great American rights activist who died defending a Palestinian home in Rafah from demolition who was killed, and the house was demolished ultimately by a Caterpillar bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier. [Slide]To flash mobs and this is the greatest I think, the one in Grand Central Station in New York City.

And we get to the serious business of churches. Churches must be the most important institution in this country, the largest at least. Despite their diversity, they’re extremely important. And, increasingly in the BDS movement, we’re working with churches to push forward divestment resolutions. The United Methodist Church is having its annual, its general assembly coming up in April, early May and the Presbyterians in July.  In both cases, they have divestment motions which are extremely important if either divestment motion passes. And they’re calling for divestment from American companies that are profiting from the occupation. So, very clear-cut. No difficulty there. If either motion passes, it will be a game changer for BDS in the USA; real game changer.  We will have crossed the threshold from the margins to the real mainstream in the U.S.

Until 2009, there was no unified Palestinian Christian voice calling for BDS. As some of you might know, our Christian denominations hardly agree on anything: Christmas, Easter, they don’t agree on anything. But, but on this one issue, they all agree. The representatives of the entire spectrum of the Christian denominations agreed on the Kairos Palestine Document, which is a theological document based on Christian theology that sees an obligation to resist injustice. And BDS is one of the measures that were recommended to resist injustice. But, they see it as an obligation, not a nice thing, not something you do on your spare time; it’s an obligation. That changed the discourse among many mainstream churches around the world.

In Europe certainly, and increasingly in the U.S., there’s still a lot of raising awareness to be done about the Kairos Palestine Document and how it calls for BDS. Last Christmas, the Kairos Palestine group issued the Bethlehem Call of 2011 which specifically and explicitly called for occupation no more and ending Israeli apartheid and demanding the Right of Return for refugees. So they adopted the three basic rights in the BDS call, explicitly. [Slide] And, for those who don’t read Arabic, the cartoon by Naji al-Ali says, “Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza,” and here’s Jesus kicking the occupation in the butt.  

What about Jewish groups. We’ve always heard, “Oh this can not work in the U.S. with all this Jewish support for Israel. You know, all Jews support Israel,” and so on. This was never accurate, and it’s certainly not accurate now. Israel never spoke on behalf of the entire Jewish community in the U.S. or anywhere in the world. Increasingly, especially after Gaza 2000 and 2009, we’re seeing Jewish groups getting off the fence and endorsing BDS or at least BDS campaigns. The Jewish Voice for Peace must be the most important example of that; with a mailing list of 110,000 members, it’s a huge significant organization. The Jewish Voice for Peace lead a campaign against TIA-CREFF to pressure this large pension fund to divest from five companies profiting from the occupation; French, American, and Israeli companies profiting from the occupation. And, there’s a big coalition that’s working on this. The U.S. Campaign is working a lot of that work, but also the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network is leading a campaign against the Jewish National Fund exposing it as a racist and colonial entity that should not get charity status in any country. And American Jews for Just Peace, and I can go on.

Increasingly, they’re saying not in our name. Israel does not speak on our behalf and cannot represent us. Pinkwashing, which is one of the most important tactics used by Israel since the BDS movement was established. Increasingly, Israel is using its relatively relaxed acceptance of gay rights, compared to Arab countries in the neighborhood, to say that, “Why are you boycotting us? We’re gay-friendly!”  South Africa was much more gay-friendly than the rest of the African countries, but was that an excuse to maintain a system of apartheid? In Israel, they seem to think, “Yes. We should be exempt from boycott because we’re gay-friendly.” Of course, many in the queer movement, many leaders like Sarah Schulman who got this op-ed in the New York Times, started exposing this pinkwashing tactic.  

Another important aspect, and I’m reaching the end here, is the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Unlike the South African campaign for academic and cultural boycott, the Palestinian campaign does not target individuals. It’s not a blanket boycott, in South Africa it was. We target institutions only. Which means that, any Israeli academic, artist who’s coming independently, to teach, to tour, to exhibit, so long as there’s no foreign ministry money, Israeli foreign ministry money funding him or her, there’s nothing against them. We’re targeting institutions due to their grave and long, prolonged complicity in Israel’s violations of human rights.

Our main partner in the U.S. in the academic and cultural boycott is the U.S. ACBI, the U.S. Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which has hundreds of academics and artists supporting it. One of the early results was Hampshire College divesting from Israel. With a lot of work from students at Hampshire, they divested in 2009 from six companies that are profiting from Israeli occupation. And [University of California at] Berkeley, voted, the Student Council voted, to divest from Israel, and we had a huge majority but not the two-third majority needed to override a veto by the president of the student council. Very undemocratically, he vetoed the resolution and it did not pass. And students at UPenn [University of Pennsylvania] just organized the first national BDS conference at the University of Pennsylvania and, as many of you might know, it was severely attacked in the mainstream media, bringing a lot of awareness. You know, the lobby shoots itself in the foot quite often.

And now we have the support, we’re very proud of the support of major cultural figures, literary figures in this country and around the world. From Alice Walker, who famously said that Rosa Parks would support BDS to sooth the pain and tend the sorrows of the people wrongly treated for generations; to Angela Davis who said it’s not the image of the Israeli government that needs changing, but rather its racist and repressive policies and practices of apartheid; to Naomi Klein who took a very pragmatic angle and said boycott is not a dogma, it’s a tactic. The reason the strategy should be tried is practical. In a country so small and trade-dependent as Israel, it could actually work. And Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, “I’m against Israel,” he says, “for exactly the same reasons that I was against South Africa. It’s a two-tiered racist system. I’m calling on my fellow musicians and artists to join the BDS campaign against Israel. Enough is enough.” And Stephane Hessel, a living legend, a Jewish holocaust survivor who is the co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who said, “BDS campaigns around the world present the most promising way to overcome the failure of world governments to stand up to Israel’s intransigence and lawless behavior.”  And finally, Judith Butler, who said “BDS is the only way that citizens can call for the enforcement of international law.”

Cultural boycott really spread in the last two years, with many artists refusing to play Israel, and Tel Aviv looking increasingly like Sun City. From Gill Scott Heron, to Elvis Costello, to The Pixies, Ken Loge, Vanessa Parade, to even Snoop Dog, and many, many, many more headed our call not to play Israel. And when one South African company violated the boycott, Archbishop Tutu said, “Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa, in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel.”

Finally, the Israeli establishment is increasingly looking at BDS, describing it as “a strategic threat.”  An exaggeration, no doubt, but it indicates the impact. For those skeptics who are still saying, “Okay, we don’t believe it will ever have an impact,” clearly the Israeli establishment feels it will and it is having an impact. At the very basic level, what we’re asking people to do, especially in this country, to do no harm. By doing nothing, you’re doing harm because your tax money is funding our oppression. We’re asking you to withdraw your support for evil, as Martin Luther King has it. That’s a very profound moral obligation, it’s not heroic. We’re not asking you to come down to the garrisons as it were, and fight against the wall in Bil’in and so on.  At the very basic level, know, just withdraw your support for evil. At the very basic level.

And as Martin Luther King said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless you’re back is bent.” And in the BDS movement, our back is anything but bent; we’re walking with straight backs towards freedom, justice, and equality. This is what Mandela and King would have done.

Thank you.


Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian researcher, commentator and human rights activist committed to upholding international law and universal human rights. He is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.