Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian commentator, human rights activist and author.
Omar Barghouti takes part in an exclusive interview with MEMO’s Dr Hanan Chehata in which he discusses the successes and challenges facing the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel. In the interview he remarks that:
‘Israel and its well-oiled lobby groups in the West have tried every trick in their book of vilification, intimidation, bullying and intellectual terror to deter or smear BDS activists and leaders everywhere. So far, they have miserably failed, however, as they themselves sometimes admit.’
‘Having lost the battle for hearts and minds in several key Western states, they have resorted to their ultimate weapon, criminalizing dissent and entirely muzzling debate.’
‘World renowned British writer, Iain Banks, wrote in the Guardian that the best way for international artists, writers and academics to “convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation” is “simply by having nothing more to do with this outlaw state.” This position was later endorsed by Stephane Hessel, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Holocaust survivor and former French diplomat.’
Interview with Omar Barghouti
Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian commentator, human rights activist and author. He is one of the leaders of the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and is one of the founding members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel which was launched in 2004. He recently wrote a book called “BDS – The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights”.
HC: You are one of the founding members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign which began in 2005. What inspired you to take part in this movement and was there any reason why 2005 seemed like the right time to launch the global BDS initiative?
OB: I have always believed that, given our very complex Palestinian reality under Israeli siege, colonial oppression and apartheid, popular and peaceful resistance is the most effective form of struggle to achieve our inalienable rights under international law. Aspiring to attain freedom, justice and equality — the ultimate objectives of the BDS movement — has always been our main source of motivation. After decades of Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing and dispossession of our people, Palestinian civil society saw that the so-called “international community,” under U.S. hegemony, cannot possibly deliver our rights or force Israel to abide by its obligations under international law. Inspired by a century of Palestinian civil resistance against settler-colonialism and expulsion and deeply influenced by the South African anti-apartheid movement, key figures in Palestinian civil society decided to launch the BDS campaign. Immediately, an overwhelming majority of Palestinian political parties, trade unions, NGOs, mass movements, refugee rights networks and others endorsed the campaign, underlining its uniquely unifying, empowering, morally consistent and widely representative platform.
We launched BDS on 9 July 2005, on the very first anniversary of the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that condemned as illegal Israel’s annexation wall and colonial settlements built on occupied Palestinian territory. The ICJ ruling specifically stated that all states were “under an obligation not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction; all States parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 have in addition the obligation, while respecting the United Nations Charter and international law, to ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law as embodied in that Convention.” When governments failed to fulfil this minimal obligation, Palestinian civil society opted to call on people of conscience, on citizens, on international civil society, to shoulder the moral responsibility of holding Israel to account.
HC: For those who don’t already know, what are the primary aims of the BDS movement and at what point will you be satisfied that your demands have been met and that you can call an end to the campaign?
OB: BDS aims to enable the Palestinian people to exercise our inalienable right to self determination by ending Israel’s three-tiered system of oppression that denies us our basic, UN-sanctioned rights. Specifically, we call for an end to Israel’s occupation of all Arab lands controlled by Israel since 1967, including East Jerusalem; full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and an end to the institutionalized and legalized Israeli system of racial discrimination against them; and respecting and enabling the internationally-recognized right of return for our refugees, ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces and then Israel during the 1948 Nakba and ever since.
HC: How swiftly do you think the BDS movement will take hold on a level akin to the global BDS movement which helped to topple Apartheid in South Africa? Do you think the BDS movement will take years/decades to make a difference or are you optimistic that it can make a difference sooner?
OB: The South African call for boycott came out in the late 1950s. The mainstream in the world’s most powerful countries, particularly in the West, effectively adopted boycotts and divestments against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s. In comparison, despite being less than six years young, the Palestinian-led, global BDS movement has already reached the mainstream in the West and achieved major victories in the economic, cultural, and academic boycott fields. The number of prominent cultural figures, intellectuals and artists who have either endorsed BDS or at least respected its criteria has grown at an impressive rate since Israel’s illegal and patently immoral war of aggression on the besieged and still-occupied Gaza Strip.
HC: There has been a lot of publicity around particularly musicians who have recently decided not to perform in Israel. How important do you think it is that celebrities also take part in the BDS movement?
OB: After Israel’s Freedom Flotilla massacre which led to the murder of 9 unarmed Turkish humanitarian relief workers and human rights activists — one with dual Turkish/US citizenship — and to the injury of dozens more from several countries, leading cultural figures and bands heeded our cultural boycott call.
World renowned British writer, Iain Banks, wrote in the Guardian that the best way for international artists, writers and academics to “convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation” is “simply by having nothing more to do with this outlaw state.” This position was later endorsed by Stephane Hessel, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Holocaust survivor and former French diplomat.
Many British literary and academic figures published a letter in the Independent that said, “We … appeal to British writers and scholars to boycott all literary, cultural and academic visits to Israel sponsored by the Israeli government, including those organised by Israeli cultural foundations and universities.”
In the world of performing arts, Massive Attack, among other top music bands, refused to perform in Israel in protest over its treatment of the Palestinians; the Klaxons, Gorillaz Sound System, the Pixies and other prominent groups cancelled scheduled concerts there. World best-selling writer, the Swedish Henning Mankell, who was on the Flotilla when attacked, called for South-Africa style global sanctions against Israel in response to its brutality.
The best-selling US author, Alice Walker, reminded the world of the Rosa Parks-triggered and Martin Luther King-led boycott of a racist bus company in Montgomery, Alabama during the US civil rights movement, calling for wide endorsement of BDS against Israel as a moral duty in solidarity with Palestinians, “to soothe the pain and attend the sorrows of a people wrongly treated for generations.”
In the weeks before the Flotilla attack, artists of the caliber of Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron and Carlos Santana all cancelled scheduled performances in Israel after receiving appeals from Palestinian and international BDS groups.
More recently, Roger Waters explicitly endorsed BDS in a long-awaited article in the Guardian. French singer Vanessa Paradis and German bass-baritone Thoman Quasthoff also cancelled gigs in Israel.
When celebrities of this caliber cancel events in Israel over its human rights record they help to reveal Israel’s true face as a state practicing occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid and contribute to challenging Israel’s impunity and infringement of international law.
HC: Your new book “BDS – The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights has received high praise from academics and peace activists such as Professor Ilan Pappé, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, and many others; but how has your book been received by the Israeli community and Israeli leadership in general?
OB: I have no idea, actually.
HC: You lived in America for many years and in fact got your bachelor and masters degrees from Columbia University in New York; you were due to go back to America for a book tour with your new book “BDS – The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights” and yet you have just been denied a visa. Were you given any reasons for the rejection of your visa application and what do you think is the real reason why America is refusing your entry to the States?
OB: My visa was “delayed” for many weeks, rather than denied. All what I was told is that further “administrative process” was required, even after the visa was approved in January, as I was officially informed by the US Consulate in Jerusalem. This long delay was, in the view of my publisher, Haymarket, and myself, politically motivated and deliberately designed to force us to cancel the book tour. One cannot but see direct Israeli influence on this “process” by the US Consulate. After massive letter writing campaigns, called for by Haymarket and also by Jewish Voice for Peace, the visa was issued, days before the scheduled flight to the US. In spite of this, we managed to pull through a very successful book tour that included major US universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Brandeis, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Rutgers. The wonderful resolve, commitment and creativity of Palestine solidarity groups on all these campuses are the key behind this tour’s success.
HC: How would you respond to those people who say that surely their decision to boycott Israeli goods will not make any real tangible difference to Palestinians on the ground because they are “just one person”? Can one person really make a difference when it comes to BDS?
OB: I was also “just one person” in the South African anti-apartheid struggle on my campus, Columbia University, in the 1980’s. I was also told by sceptics, “Stop dreaming! Do you think apartheid will be abolished in your lifetime?” And I always answered: “No, it most likely will not. But I still feel that participating in this struggle is a moral obligation to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.” But apartheid did collapse in South Africa! No one can take that away from me. Collective efforts by many persons can reach a qualitative leap, a tipping point, where the price for maintaining a system of oppression far outweighs its benefits, inducing its eventual undoing.
Besides, I think the foundational principle of international solidarity is to listen to the oppressed themselves, their needs and aspirations, not to think on their behalf, as if we cannot think straight or do not understand what is in our best interest. The latter attitude is colonial and patronizing, par excellence.
HC: In February, the Israeli Knesset voted to approve a bill that essentially criminalizes actions that support boycotts against Israel. If passed, citizens of Israel considered to be supporting BDS could face fines of around (the equivalent of) $8,200; while non-citizens involved in BDS activities in Israel could be banned from entry into Israel for at least 10 years. Surely, this demonstrates the depth of Israel’s fear over the impact of the BDS. How would you respond to Israel’s reaction to the BDS movement?
OB: Israel and its well-oiled lobby groups in the West have tried every trick in their book of vilification, intimidation, bullying and intellectual terror to deter or smear BDS activists and leaders everywhere. So far, they have miserably failed, however, as they themselves sometimes admit. Given its morally consistent, non-violent, human rights based agenda that upholds the rule of international law, full equality for all humans and a categorical rejection of all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, the global BDS movement has dragged Israel into a “battlefield,” where we maintain decisive ethical superiority and neutralize Israel’s daunting arsenal of weapons, including nuclear weapons.
Having lost the battle for hearts and minds in several key Western states, they have resorted to their ultimate weapon, criminalizing dissent and entirely muzzling debate. This is the logic of this new draconian measure that the far-right Israeli government hopes to pass in the no less fanatic Israeli parliament. Their only problem is pragmatic. If this anti-BDS measure passes into law, Israel will have dropped one of its last veneers or masks of “democracy,” fully exposing itself as an irreparable system of colonial and racist oppression that requires much of the same treatment used against South African apartheid: BDS. Far from deterring BDS or checking its impressive growth, this anti-BDS law may in fact backfire and give a strong boost to BDS around the world. Monitoring the Israeli establishment’s habit of late of shooting itself in the foot, one cannot put it beyond them to pass this law irrespective of the above compelling pragmatic consideration.
Israel and its lobbies are repeatedly saying that BDS, with its emphasis on the three basic Palestinian rights, “de-legitimizes” and seeks the “destruction” of Israel. Specifically, they refer to the second right, the right to full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. One can only wonder, if equality “destroys” Israel, what does that say about Israel? Did equality “destroy” South Africa? Did it “delegitimize” whites in the Southern states of the U.S. after segregation was outlawed? The only thing that equality, human rights and justice really destroy is a system of injustice, inequality and racial discrimination. We in the BDS movement are open and quite proud to target Israel’s occupation, apartheid and denial of our UN-sanctioned refugee rights and to pursue the slogans of our movement: Freedom, Justice and Equality.
HC: How do you respond to the criticism that an academic boycott restricts the freedom of speech and scuppers opportunity to debate serious issues in an academic forum?
OB: The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is a key part of the BDS campaign, due to the entrenched and persistent collusion of Israel’s academic and cultural institutions in maintaining and whitewashing Israel’s occupation and apartheid. It is important to emphasize that our campaign targets Israel’s academic and cultural institutions, not individuals, so the claim that our boycott would prevent Israeli academics or artists from interacting with their counterparts worldwide is simply false and intentionally misleading. Regardless, those who oppose the boycott because they erroneously think it infringes Israelis’ freedom of speech seem to forget that Palestinians, too, deserve that right. The fact that Israel’s decades-long system of colonial oppression denies Palestinians all our fundamental rights, including the right to free speech and often the right to education, appears to be less worthy of those critics’ interest. When Israel criminalized Palestinian education and shut down all Palestinian universities (some for four consecutive years), schools and even kindergartens during the first intifada, which was overwhelmingly peaceful, we did not hear much protest from many of those who are currently attacking the academic boycott because of its alleged impact on Israeli academic freedom. It is this hypocrisy that makes us wonder whether those people truly believe that all humans deserve equal rights, regardless of their identity.
HC: What is next for the BDS movement? Pro-Palestine groups are already doing their best to spread awareness of the campaign by protesting (successfully) outside shops like Ahava (which make beauty products from stolen resources in illegal Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land); or by petitioning celebrities not to take part in concerts and award ceremonies in Israel and so on. What is the next big step that BDS campaigners need to take to really see the movement achieve its maximum potential?
OB: We need more of the same, as it is working rather well. The BDS movement is growing impressively since Israel’s deadly attack on the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip (called “prison camp” by British premier). Its main engine is the creativity and moral commitment of many conscientious citizens of the world who are sick and tired of Israel’s impunity and exceptionalism and the role that their own tax money plays in maintaining that unjust, oppressive system. We need even more creativity, perseverance and wide networking to spread the movement further into the mainstream. Based on the three basic rights at the core of the BDS call and on the crucial need to design and implement BDS tactics and strategies at the local level in the most effective, nuanced and context-sensitive fashion, we can expand BDS further into international civil society. While our rights under international law are non-negotiable, implementing the boycott and selecting the most practical targets are certainly decisions to be made by activists on the ground in every particular setting.
The near future will see an increase in divestment campaigns targeting companies benefiting from Israel’s occupation and other violations of international law. The campaign led by Jewish Voice for Peace in the US to pressure the large pension fund, TIAA-CREF, to divest from five companies profiting from Israel’s occupation and crimes is a fine example of a growing trend of BDS activism, especially in the US. The work led by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK to win trade union support for BDS and to implement effective campaigns in this regard is another example of a very important BDS effort that is particularly promising and inspiring for Palestinians. The huge Anti-Agrexco/Carmel Coalition in France, with partners in Italy, Belgium, Spain, the UK and elsewhere, is a true model of BDS activism that is targeted, smart and quickly evolving based on wide support from civil society. The establishment of the European Platform for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, with representatives from many Europe-wide campaigns, promises to raise the level of coordination between national campaigns to have more impact on EU policies. The global Derail Veolia/Alstom campaign with its most impressive success of costing Veolia billions of dollars worth of contracts over its involvement in the patently illegal Israeli colonial tram project in the occupied Palestinian territory is perhaps the most significant case study to date in corporate BDS campaigning. The recent decision by the University of Johannesburg to sever its ties with Israel’s Ben Gurion University over the latter’s complicity with the state in violations of international law is arguably the first concrete and practical success for the academic boycott campaign worldwide.
All these and many more examples of BDS successes, from Brazil to India to Norway to Canada underline that our South Africa moment has finally arrived.