February 21, 2013

George Galloway can't take the foot out of his mouth.

George Galloway has a tendency to draw circles around himself and then argue that this is where the truth is. This time he took upon himself to define what BDS is, and did it in the Bull-in-China-Shop manner that is his trademark.

He was apparently invited to an Oxford debate club to debate a Zionist. He agreed. I have a lot of respect for people who are able to participate in such debates calmly. I don't. Of course it would be nice if we could just not talk to racists, but sometimes the situation requires engaging them, so one cannot strategically always avoid participating in such fora where racism is being defended and even with official representatives of the state.

Then it turned out that the person who was to take the other side of the debate is Israeli. Galloway stormed out, explaining later that,

I refused this evening at Oxford University to debate with an Israeli, a supporter of the apartheid state of Israel. The reason is simple: no recognition, no normalisation. Just boycott, divestment and sanctions, until the apartheid state is defeated. I never debate with Israelis nor speak to their media. (The Guardian)

Noble sentiment. Unfortunately pinned on the wrong argument.

Needless to say, that statement immediately prompted accusations of racism against him. That's a load of tosh. Racism is a structure of discrimination and the historic prejudices that accompany it. Israelis are not the victims of racism as Israelis. So being personally boycotted by Galloway does not make one a victim of racism. At worst it might be called "to be given a taste of one's own medicine".

The Western media however has a fetish with "reverse racism." so obviously they would echo those accusations and give them credibility. As activists, we should expect to be called "racists" at every opportunity when we challenge mainstream racism. That's a good reason not to make it too easy for those who want to misrepresent us.

And that's the problem, however, misrepresentation, and also lack of logic and consistency. Normalization is accepting the legitimacy of Israel's apartheid practices and adopting a "business as usual" attitude towards them. To the extent that a political debate is real, that is, that it takes place in a context with consequences (for example, reaction to news), it is not normalization even if one is debating the news with the IDF spokesperson. In so far that there was normalization involved in this particular case, it consisted in the form of this kind of club debate itself, a kind of sportive entertainment in which the audience comes to see two gladiators exchange blows and to judge who was a better "advocate." One could argue that participation in such a debate constitutes indeed normalization, because the form of the debate itself is apolitical, a form of entertainment. In that sense, such debates are no different than putting together an Israeli film and a Palestinian film and calling it a "multicultural" evening. But if that was the case, the debate constituted normalization because of the way it was structured, not because of the identity of the speakers.

Galloway however made it about that, defining normalization as "debating with Israelis." He further described the refusal to debate with Israelis as "Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions". The BDS National Committee issued a statement directly clarifying that neither boycotting Israelis for the fact that they are Israelis, nor boycotting racists for their racist views, was what BDS strategy consisted in (although, everybody can decide when, if and how they engage with either):

The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the largest coalition of Palestinian unions, mass organisations, refugee networks and NGOs that leads and and sets the guidelines for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, supports all principled action in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality that is in line with universal human rights and international law.
In its 2005 BDS Call, Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott of Israel, its complicit institutions, international corporations that sustain its occupation, colonization and apartheid, and official representatives of the state of Israel and its complicit institutions. BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals because she or he happens to be Israeli or because they express certain views. Of course, any individual is free to decide who they do and do not engage with.
The global BDS movement has consistently adopted a rights-based approach and an anti-racist platform that rejects all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
These guidelines and the fact that BDS has been initiated and is led by Palestinian civil society are major reasons behind the rapid growth and success that the BDS movement has enjoyed around the world. (http://www.bdsmovement.net/2013/bds-movement-position-on-boycott-of-individuals-10679 )

There may have been good reasons to agree to participate in that Oxford debate. And there may have been good reasons not to. Making it about the fact that the speaker has a certain passport, or about the fact that the organizers did not informe Galloway in advance about the nationality of the participants, is not a good reason for anything. It is an example of needlessly feeding the media reinforcement for its already existing prejudices, an own goal. It is still Galloway's right to choose to speak or not to speak on the same podium with whomever. But it would be nice if he didn't insist on confusing his personal flair for drama with principles.

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