By Kourosh Ziabari
The international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which emerged as a response to Israel’s contentious human rights record and its continued military occupation of the Palestinian territories, is seen to be gaining incredible momentum worldwide, while it has got its own detractors viewing the entire initiative cynically.
The advocates of the BDS movement assert that it will effectively bring to light the ordeal of the Palestinian people and the inequalities they struggle with on a regular basis. They hope by encouraging corporations across the globe to cut their trade with Israel or refrain from investment in the Israeli enterprises that have roots in the settlements or otherwise represent the occupation, the Israeli leaders would be alarmed and forced at some point to revise their policies.
The opponents of the movement, however, argue that the BDS campaign legitimizes the singling out of Israel as a sovereign state while promoting anti-Jewish sentiments. The charge of anti-Semitism has been a focal point of the skeptics’ case against the BDS movement. The Congress and state legislatures across the United States have been pushing hard to introduce bills that outlaw or proscribe BDS advocacy, raising the concern that even the criticism of Israel and sympathizing with Palestine might be criminalized or depicted as unlawful.
To discuss the global rise of the BDS movement, the challenges it faces to thrive and the common arguments against its integrity and fairness, Truth NGO arranged an interview with Prof. David Palumbo-Liu of the Stanford University.
David Palumbo-Liu is a Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He is the founding editor of the e-journal “Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities” and a contributing editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. Prof. Palumbo-Liu has founded and directs the Teaching Human Rights Collaboratory. As a contributing writer and blogger, his writings appear on Salon, The Huffington Post, Truthout, The Nation, AlterNet, Al Jazeera and AlterNet.
Prof. Palumbo-Liu is a member of the Organizing Collective of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and has published several op-eds throwing weight behind the BDS movement, underlining the potential role it can play in alleviating the misery and despair the people in Palestine suffer.
Q: You are advocating for the academic boycott of Israel as part of the global BDS movement, and the Modern Language Association has joined the effort. How do you think an academic embargo on Israeli institutions and individuals avowedly representing the State and linked to the occupation would affect the Israeli policies and serve the Palestinian cause?
A: The Modern Language Association has not yet endorsed the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. It is going through a deliberative process mandated by its rules and conventions. It is not clear what the outcome of those deliberations will be. But speaking in general terms, with regard to your question, I believe these efforts have already had an effect. At this point, Israel’s reaction has been to clamp down on BDS even more and increase its efforts to suppress these kinds of acts of protest. This shows that Israel understands the power and influence of protests coming from the world community. At the same time, endorsements of BDS of course help keep the issue in front of people and signal to the Palestinians that a growing number of people and organizations around the world support their rights and their demands that those rights be honored.
Q: The critics of the BDS movement opposed to economic, cultural or diplomatic pressures on Israel maintain that such restrictive measures against the Jewish state embody anti-Semitism and thus should be avoided. Do you believe there are traces of anti-Semitism in this academic movement you and your colleagues have initiated? Why do you think the critics of BDS movement raise such a charge and argue that it breeds anti-Jewish sentiments?
A: To start with, I want to be clear that while I am a member of the Organizing Collective of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), I am in no way a spokesperson for BDS. But I have learned a lot about BDS of course as an USACBI activist, and am happy to share my opinions.
Regarding anti-Semitism, this is an old charge that has increasingly been proven to be simply a diversion. Even The New York Times published a piece declaring it to be such. To say that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is anti-Semitic itself, as it is based on the assumption that all Jewish people feel the same – it objectifies and therefore dehumanizes Jewish people, and that process itself is the basis of anti-Semitism. In fact, a sizeable and growing number of Jewish people and organizations have come out in support of BDS and against the occupation.
But secondly, this charge aims to distract from the obvious, and this is why it is failing. What is obvious is that BDS is targeted at the source of oppression. The source of oppression is not “a people,” it is a regime and the oppressive and unjust practices of that regime. It is irrelevant what the ethnic composition of the regime is. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the Civil Rights movement in the United States was not anti-white, it was anti-apartheid and anti-racist. And in those cases as well, a number of whites were part of those respective anti-racist movements, including of course a number of Jewish Americans. But the charge is put out there because no decent human being would or should support anti-Semitism. BDS is against bigotry in all its forms, whether it be bigotry against Palestinians or bigotry against Israeli Jews. It is also fundamentally opposed to oppression and denial of rights based on bigotry. In my reading, the practices of the Israeli state are having enormously destructive effects on primarily the Palestinians, of course, but also upon Israeli Jews, many of whom in fact disagree with their state’s policies. The current regime thrives on violence and fear. What human society can sustain that without becoming psychotic?
Q: It’s often maintained that Israel enjoys a special impunity when it engages in military operations in the Occupied Territories, principally in the Gaza Strip, and this impunity doesn’t fade away even when Israel’s actions amount to war crimes, documented by such bodies as the Amnesty International. Will the BDS movement and its steady growth make Israel a transparent and responsible actor that is normally held to account when it commits something wrong, like all the other world nations that pay the price for their decisions?
A: In an ideal world, yes. But there is some distance to go before what you describe can come about. In fact, while Israel is probably one of the most “immune” states, nearly all powerful states have relative immunity from having to truly pay any price for human rights violations. I think it’s important in this case not to lose focus – our attention should remain on the three key goals of BDS. These are attached to specific rights guaranteed by international human rights law and discourse: the end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinians in Israel, and the right of return to Palestinians now residing outside of Israel-Palestine.
Q: Is Israel curtailing the academic freedoms of Palestinian students and scholars in certain ways? Does it need to change its approach so as to enjoy the benefits of collaboration with such institutions as the ASA or AAAS, which have eschewed it? Will the academic boycott of Israel also play a role in changing Israel’s implementation of policies seen to be discriminatory, including its siege of the Gaza Strip or settlement constructions?
A: Violations of the academic freedom of Palestinians have been well documented by reputable sources such as the United Nations, especially UNESCO, and Amnesty International. Within the stipulations of BDS, to enjoy the benefits you describe, Israel has to restore rights to Palestinians in the three ways I just mentioned. I do believe the academic boycott plays a role in what you describe, but it is essential to always remember that it is one tactic among several. We should neither downplay, nor inflate, the role the academic boycott plays. Every person or organization should reflect on how they can best support Palestinian rights – via an economic sanction, boycotts, or divestment.
Q: The United States is credited with its commitment to democratic and Western liberal values and the First Amendment-protected political speech. How much are the state-level and federal legislation targeting the BDS campaign and the companies divesting from Israel or refusing to do business with Israel consistent with the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s interests? Why are the Congress Republicans who introduced the Combating BDS Act of 2016 so concerned about some corporations limiting their trade ties with Israel?
A: The bills and resolutions that have been presented to harass and make illegal the boycotts proposed by BDS are utterly unconstitutional. The right to boycott has been determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. The issue of trade is of concern because antagonists of the boycott wish to make no distinction between refusing to do business in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and doing business with Israel. They seek to mask the illegality of the occupation with the legality of doing trade with Israel. Even the U.S. State Department says trading with Israeli businesses in the OPT is illegal. Yet even the Democratic Party platform refuses to even use the word “occupation.” This shows the distance we still need to travel in the struggle to make visible all the ways Palestinian rights have been hidden and distorted. But we are making great progress. I want to end by mentioning a wonderful and highly informative new film, “Gaza in Context.” It was officially released Tuesday July 19th. It contains a wealth of information about the broader context of the 2014 attack on Gaza.