Only a boycott will persuade Israel
by Ayala Shani & Ofer Neiman
“Israel won’t change unless the status quo has a downside” – these words were written by journalist Tony Karon, a Jew from South Africa. This sentence reflects the rationale behind the broad BDS campaign – which includes sanctions, institutional boycott, and divestment – which has begun trickling down into public consciousness in Israel. Instead of a defensive, self-righteous response along the general lines of “the whole world is against us”, it would be best to learn the facts about the campaign and peer into the collective mirror, which reflects grievous and systematic violations of human rights and international law.
The current movement originally started with a call to action issued in 2005, signed by more than 170 organizations from Palestinian society: citizens of Israel, refugees in exile, and Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and in Gaza. The call to action was published in Hebrew, too, and citizens of Israel are requested to express their support of it. It is for this purpose that the Israeli group “Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from within” was founded.
The BDS movement that has developed in response to the Palestinian call to action does not have any formal, focal leadership. Regular citizens around the world, including many Jews, initiate activities and take part in them. The goal of the movement is to demonstrate to Israel the international community’s disgust and rejection of its actions, so that Israel will act for the immediate termination of the occupation, for the end of discrimination against the Arab citizens of Israel, and for recognition of the refugees’ right of return, as phrased in United Nations Decision 194. Elements of the oppression which the movement wishes to put an end to match the legal definition of the crime of apartheid – systematic and institutionalized racial separation, as practiced in old South Africa.
The movement does not promote any specific political solution (one state or two, the return of any particular number of refugees), but rather, strives to change in a nonviolent way the balance of power that makes it possible for Israel’s governments to violently withhold the basic rights of millions of people, and to renounce their accountability with unfounded statements (“the Arabs are to blame for the refugee problem”, “the settlements are legal”, “there is no siege upon Gaza”.)
It will be stressed here that the boycott is not a personal boycott on Israelis but rather, a boycott of official Israeli institutions and of events taking place under their auspices. Thus, for example, there is no call to deny an Israeli researcher her right to lecture abroad. There is a call to avoid holding international conferences in universities in Israel which proudly proclaim their contacts with the military establishment.
Is Israel being singled out? As was true about white South Africa, the world is justly sensitive to situations where a population that has civil rights determines the fate of a population which has neither civil rights nor the right to vote. Fairness is not always a feature of international relations, but Israel enjoys many international privileges, such as membership in the OECD. The citizens of China, where grievous human rights abuses take place, have never been given the opportunity to express a lack of confidence in the government that forcibly suppressed the student demonstrations in 1989. In contrast, the citizens of Israel cast their votes again and again for parties (including Kadima and the Labor Party) and governments under whose administration settlements are built, people are tortured and arrested for years with no trial, unarmed citizens are shot, and land and water resources are plundered.
Many people around the world ask, therefore, whether there is good reason for a normalization with Israel. Port workers in Sweden and Norway, countries which have historically been very sympathetic to Israel, refuse to unload Israeli container ships. Artists wonder why they must perform here and enhance the sense of “business as usual” when the very fact of their performance will be portrayed as support of Israel’s policy.
A deep-reaching public discussion is needed at this time, not only about the question of whether the boycott is or is not justified but about Israel’s policy. Many Israelis acknowledge the heinous acts being done in our name, under our very noses. It is appropriate for an effective and nonviolent campaign against these actions should have their support.
The authors are active in the Israeli group: “Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from within.”
This article was originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz Online, June 22 2010.
Translated from Hebrew by Dena Bugel-Shunra, of Shunra Media.
UPDATE: Here's evidence of the persuasive power of BDS, in particular cultural boycott. The Jewlicious blog, whose founder is involved in Birthright and is to the right of the spectrum, runs an article on how deeply concert cancellations are penetrating the Israeli consciousness. It even has some pro-BDS quotes, certainly a first for a Jewlicious post: Cultural Boycott? Recent Cancellations by International Musicians Spur Debate in Israeli Public:
Yoana Gonen, from the Coalition of Women for Peace, voiced her support of the international musicians’ decisions to cancel due to Israel’s current political situation. “I hope that the BDS movement will succeed [...] If this international momentum is lost, maybe we all will be doomed to more decades of occupation, siege, poverty, bombings and separation,” wrote Gonen in a Facebook note that evoked massive feedback. “And maybe, [we] should all take a deep breath and stop blaming the artists who refuse to come here and the activists who wrote to them [...] and start crossing [our] fingers in hopes that this movement will succeed.”
Other publications have supported the cancellations as well as raised hope for a change in the political atmosphere within the Israeli public. A piece by Rogel Alpher, published in newspaper Ha’ir Tel Aviv was named, “The Pixies and Elvis Costello are right. We are the problem.” Alpher wrote, “Cultural terrorism? I’m for it […] it finally stimulates political thought that has disappeared from the Israeli public for too long, it takes out the apathy that has taken us over […] Cultural terrorism is a good thing: nobody dies from it. It’s effective. It works […] until now, leftists didn’t go out into the streets to demonstrate, to act […] now leftists will rise to fight for their right to be part of this world…”