Omar Barghouti is an activist and writer based in Palestine. He was one of the early advocates of a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions strategy against Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies. He was one of the headline speakers of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) 2009. I interviewed him in Toronto on March 2, 2009.
Justin Podur (JP): Perhaps we should start with an outline of the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), and the demands of the call.
Omar Barghouti (OB): The BDS call is based on an analysis that the oppression of Palestinians has three basic forms. First, the occupation and colonization of those lands occupied since 1967. Second, the denial of the right of return to Palestinian refugees forcibly displaced in 1948 and since. Third, the system of racial discrimination against the indigenous Palestinian citizens of Israel. The demand is to end these injustices: to end the occupation of the lands occupied in 1967, to allow the right of return to Palestinian refugees, and to end the apartheid system against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The call appeals to Palestinian society in all three segments of the Palestinian people, and is the first call in decades to get the approval of all these segments. Since the Oslo agreements of 1993, the "Palestinian people" has been redefined to include only the first segment, those living in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. But this excludes the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the refugees, who form the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. You will hear this exclusion when you hear poll results like: "60% of Palestinians support Hamas" – the poll will have only taken place in the West Bank and Gaza.
The BDS calls for institutional boycotts, divestment, and sanctions until Israel fully complies with international law and human rights principles.
An important part of the BDS call is that it adopts a rights-based, not a solutions-based approach. It does not endorse a one-state or two-state solution, only the accommodation of basic rights, without which there will never be a just and sustainable peace. That is why it is supported by all three components of Palestinian society.
Another aspect is that the BDS call appeals explicitly to conscientious Israelis to join us in the struggle to end injustice. It is nonviolent, but it has the support, at least on paper, of the entire political spectrum of Palestinian parties.
JP: Earlier today, you gave a presentation at York University’s Centre for International Security Studies (YCISS) arguing for an academic boycott. One of your arguments was that there are limits to academic freedom, that academic freedom is trumped by other rights, such as the right to life. Do you think this argument of limits to academic freedom is necessary to advocate the academic boycott? Does this mean that if you are an absolutist on free speech, you can’t endorse the academic boycott?
OB: Since it is an institutional boycott and not an individual boycott, there is no problem with inviting individual Israeli academics to express themselves. It would not prevent any individual Israeli academic from speaking his or her mind, or from going to a conference, so long as they do not officially represent any Israeli academic institution. So at face value it is not a problem. But it does seek the severing of institutional ties, research agreements, and exchange programs, so if you think that these exchanges are basic to academic freedom, severing them will curtail academic freedom in some way. So an absolutist would not be able to support it.
Interestingly though, the liberals who are so deeply opposed to BDS on academic freedom grounds did not make a peep when Birzeit University near Ramallah was closed for nearly four years. They did not say anything when the Islamic University in Gaza was bombed this last December. There is an outcry against BDS because of the hypothetical academic freedom that might be curtailed if the strategy is successful, but there is no such outcry from the same sectors when real suppression of academic freedom happens. There are two conclusions one can draw from this. Either these people are hypocrites, or they perceive Palestinians as not fully human and academic freedom is a monopoly for full humans, and "non-whites" need not apply. Those two are really the only possibilities.
JP: BDS, a strategy aimed at isolating Israel, comes at a moment when Israel is trying, with some success to isolate the Palestinians, and divide them.
OB: One argument by Israel’s apologists is, the real problem isn’t Israel, the real problem is that Palestinians can’t get it together. But colonizers divide natives to rule. So the divisions in Palestinian society are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Usually the criticism that we can’t get it together comes from people who wouldn’t support us anyway. When we were united, they weren’t with us. Now we’re divided, and they’re still not. Also, many of those calling for Palestinian unity now as a condition for lifting the criminal siege on Gaza are the same governments and politicians who rejected the outcome of Palestinian democratic elections in 2006 and struck us with a siege as punishment.
Regardless, this is one of the most difficult periods for the Palestinian movement because our official leadership is for all intents and purposes working for the other side. Every movement has quislings, but to have the official leadership on the other side, collaborating openly with the oppressor, we have never seen that.
Actually, BDS is helpful to the Palestinian movement in this sense as well. Besides its main effect, the desired effect of trying to make Israel a pariah and isolating it to force it to accede to respect international law and basic Palestinian rights, BDS unifies Palestinians on a civil resistance platform when they badly need points of unity. The consensus behind BDS is so strong that even the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah won’t attack it publicly. They imprison, arrest, and do much worse to Palestinians on Israel’s behalf, but they haven’t condemned BDS.
JP: Do they have any support to lose by doing something like that?
OB: Not very much, but yes.
JP: One thing that bothers me about the South Africa parallel is the centrality that is placed on BDS in the South African case. It seems to me that apartheid was ended by South Africans, and that international solidarity, including BDS, played a relatively small role by comparison.
OB: It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Without it you could not have ended apartheid. Apartheid was de-legitimized internally by what the ANC was doing, but without the international pariah status, the regime would not have collapsed. And remember that apartheid was at its worst towards the end.The last few years were the worst of all, very brutal and repressive.
JP: What about the argument that BDS is premature until the groundwork has been done, until there has been enough education?
OB: This neglects the fact that it is easier to educate when you have the right campaign. If you have no clarity of goals or tools or endgame, your educational campaign will be ineffective. With BDS, you have a clear endgame – the recognition of full inalienable rights for Palestinians – and you have a clear strategy, nonviolent BDS. That is why the movement has grown the way it has. In the Palestinian context, the BDS movement has grown rather quickly. It started at Durban in 2001, but it really grew considerably in 2005 with the BDS call from more than 170 civil society organizations, political parties and unions. Today it is starting to reach the mainstream, you have the UN, the General Assembly President, Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, actions in dozens of countries. This is becoming a mass movement now.
JP: Another objection that is raised is that BDS shuts down dialogue and weakens the Israeli left, which will be needed if any progress is to be made.
OB: It does not make sense to have illusions about an Israeli "left." By international standards of the term, there is no left in Israel. There are leftist individuals and tiny, marginal, but very principled groupings, but no movement that can be called left. Those groups in Israel that identify themselves as "the left" are Zionist, therefore racist, and are opposed to almost all the 3 basic rights of the Palestinian people, as mentioned above. There is an overwhelming consensus among Jewish Israeli political parties against granting Palestinian their inalienable rights. I will give you a specific example. There was a petition that circulated to every single one of the 9000 Israeli academics. The petition was not about BDS, or apartheid. It was simply about basic academic freedom. It simply urged the Israeli authorities to allow free movement at the hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank for all Palestinian academics and students going to their schools and universities. No demand to lift the roadblocks. No demand to end the occupation. An easing of the checkpoints, for the sake of academic freedom, a freedom that supposedly trumps all other freedoms. Only about 400 out of the 9000 Israeli academics signed it. Imagine if the petition had called for ending the occupation!
JP: And what about the argument that rather than working for BDS on campuses, students should work to create affiliations with Palestinian universities?
OB: We can’t accept wheeling and dealing. The BDS movement is principled. We can’t break it for bribes. There is no symmetry in principle – an affiliation with an Israeli university is not balanced by an affiliation with a Palestinian university – because there is no symmetry in reality. There is no middle ground between the oppressors and the oppressed. Treating Palestinian and Israeli institutions on equal footing means accepting Israel’s racist and colonial policies and whitewashing the complicity of Israeli institutions in maintaining the Israeli occupation and other forms of oppression.
I will give you an example. Sting came to Israel. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) wrote to him to ask him not to perform in Israel. He didn’t cancel, but he offered to come to Ramallah. We wrote, during apartheid, would you have balanced a performance in Sun City by going to Soweto? He conceded that he wouldn’t. But by the time we had the exchange he had already performed in Israel. Ultimately, he promised to "take into consideration" our position if he is ever invited to perform in Israel again.
Roger Waters from Pink Floyd was going to perform in Tel Aviv, but, after amicable negotiations with Palestinian artists and PACBI, and as a compromise, he moved the concert to Peace Valley, a village in Israel with a semblance of equality between Palestinian and Jewish citizens. He negotiated with us for months, which told us something about him: that he’s a person of principle. We organized a tour of the Apartheid Wall for him and urged him to make an explicit statement, before and during the concert, against the occupation and the Wall. He agreed. He went to Bethlehem, and spray painted "Tear Down This Wall" on the Wall. It was covered by AP, Reuters, and media outlets that ignored the concert. It was a major victory for us, and he delivered on all his promises. The point is, we can’t accept the idea that there’s symmetry. What Roger Waters did was acceptable because it was not symmetry. He publicly recognized and condemned the occupation and its manifestations.
JP: Could artists, like academics, claim that they should be above BDS and above politics? It seems to me that if they want to, they have to be artists first, and reject their own position in the system.
OB: Speaking as a choreographer, I don’t see any reason to exclude the cultural. If they want to be above politics, they should be against occupation and colonial oppression. It is a no brainer – occupation infringes all rights. There is no free expression under occupation. Here’s an example. Ohad Naharin, the famous Israeli director of Batsheva dance troupe, said something like "I continue to do my work, while 20 km from me people are participating in war crimes … the ability to detach oneself from the situation – that is what allows one to go on." He is apathetic to war crimes done by his government, in his name, but says I am an artist, so it is beneath me. I ignore it. He doesn’t ignore it, though. When dancers in his troupe are sent on reserve duty, they go and serve in the occupation army. Batsheva has never condemned the occupation. In fact, no Israeli cultural institution has ever called for ending the occupation.
JP: Are there any other objections to BDS that you would want to answer?
OB: I am always eager to debate with anyone but I have been getting very few good rebuttals. It has come down to just bullying. Zionists have lost the ability to persuade; all they resort to now is bullying, smear campaigns and intellectual terror to suppress dissent and muzzle all serious debate on Israel. These are their weapons of choice. The main one being the smear of anti-Semitism. But even that is being so over-used, and falsely and illegitimately used, that it is also losing its sting. The truth is Israel and the Zionist movement have failed to produce any effective weapon to counter BDS. They realize this, and they are in panic.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.