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2010-03-04

Boycott, Divest From, and Sanction Israel?: A Debate on BDS with Omar Barghouti and Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Guests

Omar Barghouti, founding member of the BDS campaign and a Palestinian human rights activist and commentator.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, longtime antiwar and civil rights activist who is the founder and director of the Shalom Center.

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In 2005, a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups called for people all over the world to engage in a nonviolent campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until it complies with international law. The call was inspired by the international boycott and divestment initiatives applied to South Africa in the struggle to abolish apartheid. We host a debate between Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS campaign and a Palestinian human rights activist and commentator, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a longtime antiwar and civil rights activist who is the founder and director of the Shalom Center. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Indirect negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders are expected to begin next week as US Middle East envoy George Mitchell returns to the region. The Arab League has agreed to back the US proposal for four months of indirect talks.

While many observers are skeptical of these so-called proximity talks succeeding, when years of direct negotiations have failed to produce an equitable and lasting peace, meanwhile Palestinian civil society and international solidarity activists are using very different tactics to push for a just resolution of the conflict.

In 2005, a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups called for people all over the world to engage in a nonviolent campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until it complies with international law. Inspired by the international boycott and divestment initiatives applied to South Africa in the struggle to abolish apartheid, the new movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, for short, was born.

AMY GOODMAN: This week marks what many BDS campaigners call "Israeli Apartheid Week." First launched at the University of Toronto in 2005, it now includes events at university campuses in more than forty cities around the world.

Several Israeli officials and diasporic Jewish organizations have criticized the events, and a recent report by an Israeli think tank highlights the BDS movement as part of a "deligitimization network" that Israel should treat as a "potentially existential threat."

Well, today we’re going to host a debate on the BDS movement, the call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the BDS campaign. He’s a Palestinian human rights activist and commentator. He’s joining us from Berkeley, California. And for an anti-BDS position, we’re joined from Philadelphia by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a longtime antiwar and civil rights activist, founder and director of the Shalom Center, theshalomcenter.org.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Omar Barghouti, why don’t you lay out why you established the BDS campaign, why you want people to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign is a call by Palestinian civil society. It’s supported by almost the entire Palestinian civil society, political forces, NGOs, women’s organizations, unions, and so on.

It’s calling upon people of conscience around the world to boycott Israel and institutions that are complicit with Israel, including companies and so on, because of its three-tiered system of oppression against the Palestinian people: its occupation, 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and that includes East Jerusalem; as well as its system of racial discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens, the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the third and foremost is its denial of the right of return for the refugees, Palestinian refugees, in accordance with UN Resolution 194. So these three forms of injustices are exactly what we’re targeting. We’re targeting Israel because we want to end its impunity, and we want to end complicity of the world in this system of injustice.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rabbi Arthur Waskow, could you explain to us why you think this is a wrong approach to the problem?

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: So, first let me say shalom and salaam and peace to you, Amy and Juan, and to Mr. Barghouti, and to say, to begin with, that in a sense I think the question, yes or no on BDS, is the wrong question. The right question is, how do we bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the blockade of Gaza, and of East Jerusalem? And it seems to me that when you put the question that way, BDS really becomes an ineffective and, in some ways, unethical way of going about it, that the major change that needs to happen is a profound change in the actions of the United States government, and that there were hints of that, more than hints, in the rhetoric of President Obama, but a total failure to carry through in policy on the rhetoric of the Cairo speech and some work since then.

The real question is, can the United States — will the United States — it can, for sure — will the United States use its enormous influence and power to end the occupation, to end the state of war between Israel and the entire Arab world except for Egypt and Jordan? Can the United States bring about a full-fledged peace treaty between a new state of Palestine, the state of Israel, and the Arab states. The Arab states have, in fact, proposed this. The Israeli government and the last US government, the Bush administration, totally ignored the proposal. There are hints that that’s what the Obama administration wants to bring about.

But it won’t happen unless there is a public movement in American society to demand that. It won’t happen otherwise. And when I ask the question, so what’s the most effective way of bringing that about, it seems to me an alliance of the three groups of people in America who care passionately about the peoples of the Middle East — Muslims, serious Christians and serious Jews — an alliance of those in those three camps who are committed to peace is now possible. In the Jewish community, there are now organizations and commitments and human beings ready to act on this, even though the classic, formal, institutional structure of the established Jewish institutional system doesn’t. But the Jews do, and among Muslims and among most Protestant and Catholic Christians — not some of the right-wing fundamentalist Christians, but the rest of the Christian community. But they have not come together in any way to make this happen. And that’s what needs to happen.

There are reasons that I think BDS is a mistaken approach. And I’ll explore those —-

OMAR BARGHOUTI: If I may interrupt?

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: —- but I wanted to make clear that I think there is another way to go at this.

AMY GOODMAN: Before Omar Barghouti responds, I wanted to stay with you, Rabbi Waskow. You supported the anti-apartheid movement. You supported the divestment movement and the sanctions movement against South Africa. But you call the BDS movement against Israel, as you were just saying, perhaps unethical. What do you see as the difference?

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: Well, one major difference is a strategic difference. The enormous support for the South African apartheid regime did not come from governmental sources. It came from private banks. I did a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1965 to demand an end to its loans to the apartheid government. In this situation, the enormous economic support is not coming from private banks and industry. There’s some, but that’s not the big support. The big support is from the United States government. That’s totally different from the South African situation. If you apply the kind of basic issue in South Africa, how do you change the economic relations, with the unjust behavior of the Israeli government now and the unjust and violent and occasionally vile behavior of some Palestinian leaders? How do you change that? It’s the United States government you’ve got to look to, not private industry or private commerce. So that’s one really big difference simply at strategic and tactical levels.

Ethically, the problem is that there is a real Israeli society with a decent substructure: culture, economics, life process, the revival of Hebrew, the creation of novels, etc., etc. The trouble with the BDS, across-the-board sanctions and boycotts and so on, vis-à-vis Israel is that it demonizes Israeli society. It does not say there is an Israeli government which is behaving badly, and therefore we need to bring pressure to bear on the Israeli government, as, by the way, and not so by the way, the folks who actually did the Gaza Freedom voyage found that when they got into Gaza, Hamas acted unjustly and repressively toward them. It didn’t want them to make contact with the Palestinians of Gaza, the real folks in the streets. So there is not just the demonization of a whole people and the sanctification of another people. The Israeli government, overwhelmingly, some Palestinian leaders, less powerfully, because they have less power, are acting unjustly and oppressively. And that’s where the focus needs to be. BDS demonizes a whole society.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Omar Barghouti, what about the issue, one, of whether the campaign demonizes an entire society? And also, if you can speak about the similarities that you see between the anti-apartheid boycott campaign and this one, especially in the situation where states, the existing states in the world, were unable to remedy either the South Africa situation or the current situation in the Middle East?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: OK, there are obvious similarities, but this is not just about similarity between the Israeli apartheid and colonial system and the South African apartheid system. This is about whether Israel is indeed practicing apartheid and colonial rule against the indigenous Palestinians. And it is. And this is according to the UN Convention on the Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid. We don’t have to prove that Israel is identical to South Africa to prove that Israel is practicing apartheid. We’re saying that it conforms to the UN definition of the system of apartheid.

What do we mean by that? Inside Israel proper — forget the occupied Palestinian territories of 1967 — inside Israel, there are two systems of laws: one applying to its Jewish citizens, who are also nationals, and another applying to its non-Jewish citizens. So there’s clear discrimination. Even the US State Department, in its annual human rights reports, accuses Israel of institutionalized legal and societal discrimination against the Palestinian Arab citizens of the state of Israel.

So how do we end the occupation, apartheid, as well as denial of refugee rights? It’s through boycott, divestment, and sanctions as an empowering tool that can have the masses, that can have the social movement acting to change US policy, exactly as we did — and I was in the anti-apartheid movement in the South African case — as we did against South African apartheid.

Of course there’s complicity from Western governments, but so was the case in the South African apartheid case, and companies and institutions. The most important way to challenge this system of complicity and to challenge Israel’s impunity and exceptionalism — Israel is put on a pedestal, and it’s not treated like the rest of the world when it comes to its violations of human rights and international law — we need to take it down from that pedestal and treat it like every other offender, every other system, that creates such injustices.

This is not about demonizing Israel as in an abstract term. What BDS is delegitimizing is delegitimizing racism, apartheid and colonial rule, exactly what BDS in the South African case was delegitimizing. It was not delegitimizing white people or Christians; it was delegitimizing apartheid. So this is what we are against. We’ve never come out and said we’re against this or that group of people based on their identity. We’re against Israeli apartheid and colonialism. We couldn’t care less if Israel were a Jewish state, Catholic state or Muslim state. So long as it’s oppressing us, we will continue to resist it.

And BDS is a very nonviolent and effective form of resistance. It is growing tremendously. No one can speak on behalf of the Jews of the world, as if they’re are all in one basket. I think that’s completely inappropriate. There are many Jewish groups that do support the BDS movement, including inside Israel, including in this country. And increasingly in Western Europe, many Jewish groups are joining the BDS movement, because they see it as one that’s very morally consistent. It’s based on international law and universal human rights. It does not distinguish between people based on their identity, as the Israeli system does.

Second, the Israeli state is not standing alone in space. It is completely supported by the institutions of the state of Israel, including academic and cultural institutions. No amount of rebranding and dance groups and music and poetry can cover up Israel’s apartheid and colonial system. So this rebranding effort is exactly unethical, because it’s trying to whitewash this system of oppression.

And the last point I want to mention is that it’s a very opportune time to debate this, at a time when the University of California students are striking against the incredible rise in the tuition fees and the privatization, so to speak, from the back door, of college education in this country. Why should the University of California raise the fees by 32 percent, while Israel is receiving from the United States more than $5.6 billion a year in military aid as well as other forms of aid? Why should Israel, an apartheid and colonial system, continue to receive this huge subsidy, tens of billions of dollars over the years of the occupation and apartheid, while the health system, education system, infrastructure in this country are crumbling, and education, college education, is again becoming a privilege of the rich? Education should be available to everyone. And to do that, we really need to address where the priorities are in US funding.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Barghouti, what about Rabbi Waskow’s point that it matters less to target Israel, it’s the United States that’s the real power in this situation in its huge support for Israel? And also, in your BDS movement, which companies would you be targeting?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: OK. But precisely because it’s the US that’s the sponsor of Israeli oppression and apartheid, we are indeed trying to change US policy. The issue is how to do that. We have the South African precedent, a very good lesson to learn from, that this is the way of changing policy in the US. It’s not through begging. It’s not through writing letters to Obama that he would ignore. It’s through mass movement, social movement at the grassroots level, students and churches and unions and women’s groups and feminists and so on, all of them acting together on a platform that’s anti-racist, progressive, and wants to end injustice.

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: I agree with that, but the question is whether BDS is the way to bring that social movement together.

OMAR BARGHOUTI: So I think — I think — I think this is the point, that we have to act from the grassroots up to pressure and change.

The companies — your second question is what companies we do target in the BDS movement. It varies. BDS is not a one size that fits all. It’s context-sensitive. In every situation, we target companies that are complicit in Israel’s apartheid and occupation that we can win our battle against. So in the US, many American military companies are being targeted. In Sweden, a French company was targeted. In Britain — and so on and so forth. So it’s Israeli companies as well as international companies that are complicit in Israel’s apartheid and occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Rabbi Waskow, your response?

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: Well, first of all, it’s interesting that Mr. Barghouti focuses on the certainly unreasonable military aid the United States gives to Israel — and, by the way, to Egypt, as well — as the problem for the University of California, when in fact ten or twenty or thirty times that amount of money is being spent on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s where the huge amounts of money that should be going to American schools, universities, infrastructure, ought to be coming from. And by that standard, it’s almost — it’s a dangerous and poisonous drop in the bucket, but it is a drop in the bucket, the aid to Israel and to Egypt for — with military aid to them. The big question in American society ought to be the overwhelming distortion involved in the massive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the American military that is engorged even aside from and beside those wars.

But secondly —-

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Which is the same agenda.

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: —- the question is, indeed, how do you create a mass movement? How do you create a social movement? And what I said is what I think needs to happen. Mosques, churches, synagogues, and, yes, feminists and students and so on, ought to be gathering around a demand that the United States government insist on the Palestinian independence, on the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, all of it, in approximately the 1967 boundaries, and a full peace treaty for Israel with the Arab states. That is an ethical demand. It doesn’t demonize anybody. It ends the oppression of the occupation. It ends the danger —-

OMAR BARGHOUTI: But you’re ignoring the majority of the Palestinians.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well -—

OMAR BARGHOUTI: You’re ignoring the majority of the Palestinians.

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: No, it doesn’t ignore the majority of the —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Rabbi Waskow, the issue of -— Israel is obviously worried about this delegitimization campaign, and one of the Israeli think tanks, Reut, issued a whole analysis and a strategy for combating it. And it talked about the fact that generally Israel has concentrated on state-to-state relations to achieve its ends. Here in the United States, you say that we should be focusing, or the people should be focusing on effecting government policy. But doesn’t the fact that both the Democrats and Republican parties, virtually all of the leadership of both parties has lined up for decades behind Israeli policy, indicate that perhaps a different direction, a civil society approach, as this one represented by the BDS campaign, is a new way to go and that precisely it’s the fact that it is a non-state movement that is developing under BDS that has some sections of Israeli society worried about its effectiveness?

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: No, that’s not the reason. They’re upset because there is some organizing going on. I assure you that if, in American cities, mosques, churches and synagogues, together, said — together said, “We are going to demand that our members of Congress insist — and the President — insist on a full peace treaty for an independent Palestinian state, alongside Israel, and a full peace treaty with the rest of the Arab world,” that the Israeli — present Israeli government would be a great deal more scared, and the Israeli people would become excited at the idea of, at last, at last, a peace treaty that ended the pressures on Israel, with the only tradeoff — and for many Israelis, it would be a good tradeoff — being getting off the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

And in the American Jewish community, which has been hostile to any kind of arrangement that the Israeli government didn’t like, such an approach, which included a full peace treaty for Israel, as well as a full peace treaty with Palestine, that would appeal to a huge proportion of the American Jewish community. And organizations that didn’t support it would fall into line or would fall apart as a result. It’s the social — I agree about the social movement being necessary, but it’s not going to get there by BDS. It’s going to get there by targeting the most important target —-

OMAR BARGHOUTI: But it’s happening.

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: —- the government of the United States.

OMAR BARGHOUTI: It is happening.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Omar Barghouti, your response?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Yeah, well, first, it is happening. I mean, the rabbi is denying that this is happening. BDS is indeed spreading tremendously. We have major support from large trade unions in Britain, Norway, Spain, France, Italy and many, many countries, Canada, of course. And increasingly it’s entering the United States, slower than the rest of the Western world, but it’s happening. There’s a huge movement supporting BDS that includes several Jewish groups, and that’s being ignored. There’s a disproportionately high number of Jewish — conscientious Jewish citizens of the Western countries that are not just acting, but leading some BDS movements around the Western world.

But again, let’s go back to the issue. This is not just about ending the occupation. There are three basic rights for the Palestinian people. The majority of the Palestinians happen to be not in the occupied Palestinian territories; they happen to be refugees, ethnically cleansed, during the creation of the state of Israel in and after 1948. These are completely ignored in addressing — reducing Palestinian rights to self-determination to simply ending the occupation will not do. This is simply unacceptable. We have to address Israeli apartheid, the system of racial discrimination, and we have to address the UN sanctions rights of the refugees.

But the most critical issue to address now — not strategically, now — is ending the siege of Gaza. There’s a criminal siege of Gaza. The Goldstone report, the UN rapporteur for human rights, all of them describe the war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. And the siege is certainly a big form of collective punishment, which is a crime against humanity. People are dying. Real people are dying. This is not an abstract notion. The siege must end.

So we’re reaching a stage where Israel is committing slow acts of genocide against 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. This is extremely critical, and it demands people of conscience around the world to act, and act very effectively. And the BDS movement offers them an empowering, nonviolent tool through which they can impact policy in the US, in the Western world, and certainly in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel, Rabbi Arthur Waskow —-

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: Well, I agree that the -—

AMY GOODMAN: — there is a point — Rabbi Waskow, is there a point that you would support — a point at which you would support BDS? What would — what do you think has to get worse?

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: No, it’s not a matter of what has to get worse. The question is how to end the worse. And I don’t think BDS is going to end it. And if BDS spreads in Western Europe, it isn’t going to matter. It’s the United States that has the actual power to make a difference. And BDS is not going to engage enough of the American population to matter. What is going to matter is the structure of American military aid and the structure of American diplomacy toward Israel, toward Egypt, toward the Arab world. That’s what matters. And BDS in Western Europe is not going to matter. So it’s not a matter of what gets worse; it’s a matter of how to end the worse.

And I say again, the — yes, there needs to be a social movement. There now is — in the Jewish community, there’s not only J Street having absorbed and empowered the folks of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, there is also movement inside the Reform Jewish movement. There is movement among Jews who, in theory, are unaffiliated, but care about this issue, and who feel unrepresented by most of the American Jewish established institutions. That’s where the change has to include, and along with that, it has to include the Protestant and Catholic churches, it has to include Islam in America. And the working together is what’s going to make the difference. Those are the only Americans, aside, I guess, from the big oil, who care about the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have — we’re going to have to leave it there for now. We want to thank Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of the Shalom Center, and Omar Barghouti, who is one of the founding members of the BDS campaign, the boycott, divest from and sanction Israel campaign.

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: And I want to end by saying again, shalom and salaam and peace to all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.

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