June 23, 2014 Tarnishing the Israeli Brand part one

Our meeting with Omar Barghouti, one of the leaders of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, starts in a stairwell, since the office where we are meeting is locked. (Palestinian time runs, how do I say this? With less urgency? Perhaps related to the cycles of the moon? Still trying to figure this out as an obsessive Westerner.) He is talking about how the Palestinian Authority is “existentially necessary” for Israel, how a single democratic state is the long-term goal, not ideal but a more ethical solution than anything else.

We get ushered into an open office and Omar starts officially talking; words just pour out of him so rapidly, succinctly; I struggle to keep up. Things have really changed in the past year. What many do not realize is that BDS is now a mainstream Palestinian movement that is supported by almost everyone, it is not an isolated fringe activity. Even Fatah supports BDS. The strategy is anchored in international law and, Omar explains, “Targets Israel because it is a regime of occupation and apartheid. This is not about being Jewish.” The Israeli establishment clearly considers BDS a strategic threat. Netanyahu mentioned BDS eighteen times when he gave his talk to the UN; second only to Iran (but who’s counting?). Omar states, “Israel does not know what to do with nonviolent movements.” This defeats the narrative of the Palestinian as terrorist. I think of the Israeli official who admitted, “We do not do Gandhi well.”

While there are well funded, well organized efforts to Brand Israel as a “beacon of democracy” (to quote Netanyahu), to highlight Israeli artists, academics, gays, to present a “pretty face,” “all this washing [I.e., pink washing, green washing, etc.] gets wiped out by one massacre.”

In 2014, Omar asserts BDS is in a different place: the financial, economic sphere. The Gates Foundation recently divested from G4S, a private security company which is known to torture prisoners, builds the Israeli security apparatus, and is deeply involved in the occupation. The CEO of G4S committed not to renew the contract with Israeli prisons, the first time such a public statement has been made. It does not matter that BDS was not mentioned. It does matter that a large company decides that it is too (economically? Politically? Strategically?) costly to do business with the Israeli state. Obviously, pressure will continue until the company comes through on its promise.

Omar informs us that major banks and pension funds in Europe have divested from the top five Israeli banks involved in the occupied territories. Apparently the Dutch are saying that if these banks have operations with companies in the territories, they will divest from the entire bank. “Do not punish the crime, punish the criminal.”

It has always been difficult to figure out which products come from the settlements, and Omar agrees that it is too hard to boycott settlement products. They are often disguised or relabeled (like from the Netherlands), but it is very realistic to boycott companies that operate in the occupied territories, so the tactic should be boycotting companies rather than products. I take note of this development.

Unlike my Massachusetts governor, who is swooning over high tech ventures with Israeli companies, the German government announced that it will not work with all high tech Israeli companies including those in East Jerusalem. The European Union is not joining the BDS movement but implementing their own guidelines in response to grassroots pressure, so they will not give grants for research in the territories. The Luxemburg pension fund divested from the top five Israeli banks. The Norwegian pension fund divested from Israeli companies involved in settlements, but then they took Africa Israel off the list because the company denied involvement. The Israeli group Who Profits? Went to the Jewish settlement of Gilo and documented their presence, but Africa Israel said that Gilo is not in the occupied territories (you know, just part of the expanding Jerusalem neighborhoods). Organizers demanded that they consult the United Nations, who might know a bit more about international law, and the Norwegians got the message and divested. From 2013?14, four US academic organizations endorsed BDS. These are all major developments. Really big.

Omar has a subtle kind of sarcasm. He says that the Israeli government has been totally hijacked by the settler movement and this is new. The labor party is a kind of “smarter Zionism,” but the leadership is now a “dumber Zionism.” Israel is no longer even pretending to stand for peace, coexistence, etc. The academic and cultural boycotts have tarnished the Israeli brand. Even John Kerry acknowledged that there was something seriously wrong with settlement building. In much of Europe, people choose not to buy Israeli products. “We rely on the grassroots to build pressure,” even though in the international world, “the Israeli government is untouchable,” is not held accountable for obvious unjust practices.

So, “do one church, one university at a time.”

The delegates want to talk about the nitty gritty, on-the-ground issues that come up. Omar is asked if there are any mutual funds that are BDS compliant. “Not yet, but it is in process.” He explains that SRIs (socially responsible investing) do not use BDS language (though they traditionally avoid military and environmentally damaging companies), but the change is coming.

We then engage in a fascinating discussion that speaks to Jewish privilege and Jewish power on the left. At the Jewish Voice for Peace conference last year, Omar spoke. He notes that supportive Jewish voices on the BDS issue give it legitimacy and fend off the accusation of anti-Semitism. At the same time, Jewish voices run the risk of expropriating Palestinian voices, thus entrenching Jewish exceptionalism and maintaining the belief that only Jews are “allowed” to criticize Israeli policy. This actually is a form of anti-Semitism, a promotion of the fear of Jews; of powerful Jews who will destroy you if you criticize Israel (thus you need the cover of left-wing Jews). This is not good for anyone, but many Zionist groups thrive on this fear.

Omar maintains that while Jewish voices are critical, it is equally critical to work in coalition, such as with the American Friends Service Committee, the Presbyterians, Adalah New York, etc.

Jewish Voice for Peace, who initiated the TIAA-CREF divestment campaign, pressuring the company to divest from companies that profit from occupation in their SRI portfolio, now works in a wider coalition called WE DIVEST; they are careful not to monopolize the movement but are ready to counter the charge of anti-Semitism.

The recent success in Boston with ending a Veolia contract is related to a large coalition that included union groups as well as Jewish and other faith-based organizations who brought a wide variety of complaints against the company, one of which included its behavior in the occupied territories.

Another delegate wonders how to work in academic institutions like Brandeis University that are largely hostile to the BDS movement where there are something like eight “pro-Israel groups,” (I would like to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel, but that is for another conversation.) Omar explains that he went to Columbia University in the 1980s, where there were twenty “pro-Israel” groups from right to left, and six “pro-Palestinian students.” They felt completely isolated, so they found coalitions with Blacks, Latinos, feminists, and liberal Zionists who were opposed to the occupation (which was a radical idea back then).

They worked on mutual interests such as opposing war, improving the environment. He reminds us that now as well as then, it is important to select a target that makes sense within your community, look for levels of complicity in international law for instance, and potential for cross-movement work; the company’s offenses have to go beyond oppressing Palestinians. Thus it makes no sense to go after a company that makes some great cancer drug in Israel or the settlements, but it makes a lot of sense to link the activities of G4S in building the US-Mexico wall and walls in the territories.

“Trying and failing is not okay unless it leads to education, otherwise it is not strategic.”

But what if there are no Palestinian-led BDS organizations, like in Boston, where there is a lot of BDS activity? Omar advises that we must fill the vacuum until the Palestinian community becomes more active. There are lots of challenges that discourage Palestinians in the United States, from fears related to targeting post-9/11 to Islamophobia. Omar remarks that many in that community are not politically active, but their sons and daughters are.

He notes that campus based Students for Justice in Palestine (SJPs) are no longer having Jewish leadership and that leadership is often coming from Palestinian women. “I understand having Palestinian voices up front, but this is a universal issue. I do not believe in identity politics. The anti-apartheid movement was my movement.

I was doing something right as a human, I own this as my own struggle.” Focus on effectiveness, the quality of the work, anti-racist principles.

In response to another question about how to work in progressive community organizations that partner with Israeli groups on community development, racial and economic justice issues, etc., Omar suggests that we need to broaden the conversation, to “South Africanize the issue.” As an example he asks, what would we have done if Boston University was working with a South African university on cancer treatment during the apartheid era? Yes, that is good for humanity, but the research institution is also complicit within an apartheid system, and this collaboration would have been inappropriate.

He suggests we ask Palestinians about joint research projects with, for instance, Tel Aviv University. It is fine to do research with Israelis but not with Israeli funding (I.e., institutions). So, in our hypothetical case, Boston University should fund the research not Tel Aviv University, thus not legitimizing a university that is complicit in the occupation. In the same vein, Israeli filmmakers, artists, and poets can be invited to festivals in a “BDS friendly way.” For instance, at the Edinburgh festival, the Israeli embassy in London paid a filmmaker to screen her film. The festival was told that if they accepted this money, people would boycott the festival.

The festival returned the money from the Israeli filmmaker and paid for her to show the Israeli film; “there must be no institutional links.” In another example, Omar explains that a Canadian LGBT artist in a Scottish festival found out that an Israeli artist was sponsored by the Israeli foreign ministry. The Canadian put pressure on the festival, wrote a letter to every artist. The Israeli embassy said the artist is pro-Palestinian, this is a dissenting voice, etc. “But we do not care about content; this is not about censorship, it is about funding.” The Israeli sponsorship was cancelled and the artist came to the festival.

A particular challenge involves communities of color, who often come to Israel on religious pilgrimages or as cultural exchanges.

Omar explains, “It is easy to get a free trip to Israel, so South Africanize the issue.” If you want to come on a “fact finding mission, then do it without complicity, do not cross the picket line. This is happening more and more. Israel helps us to convert people, if they come on an honest fact finding mission, they see what is going on.” We talk about our African American governor, Deval Patrick, as a particularly challenging case. Omar advises that the “the black community is key to BDS, we need to win them.” There is already a high conversion rate among young Jews (see the work of Peter Beinart), who at this point are largely somewhere between apathetic about Israel to supportive of Palestinian rights, but clearly different than their Zionist parents and grandparents. The Israel machine focuses on African Americans, Native Americans, the Asian community, framing the issue as, “Jews are the indigenous people!” “Join us in our struggle.” Colonialism is conveniently overlooked.

African Americans, students, women leaders, are invited to Israel to promote an historic Jewish?Black alliance, we led the civil rights movement and we can do it again.

Friends of Sabeel, the Kairos document, and Christian liberation theology work to counter this Zionist ideology, but it is a frustratingly slow process. Omar advises us that, thinking of the recent alliance between Cornell University and the Technion, the Israeli establishment will continue to score big successes at high levels; the US establishment is profoundly “pro-Israel,” (in the classic use of that word). “Forget the big elephants, chip away, and attack smaller things. The Technion was not selected because it was the best, there was a well-planned conspiracy and work was done before to make it happen.”

I am beginning to feel like a white civil rights activist working in the Deep South in the 1960s. The parallels are striking and the historical connection revives me. Time to take all of this conversation home.