Israel’s apologists would call the BDS campaign “immoral”, but the slander is laughably false.
By Stanley L Cohen
Israeli think-tank fellow Yossi Klein Halevi, writing recently in the Los Angeles Times would have American readers believe that the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement is “immoral” and threatens the peace of “the region’s only intact society”, while simultaneously boasting it can’t touch Israel’s health and global economic integration.
Yet his reasoning from “morals” rings hollow, and amounts to little more than the shilling of the professional apologist industry deployed on Israel’s behalf throughout the Western media, in the never-ending defence of the oppressive status quo in Palestine.
Halevi excoriates BDS, disingenuously, for making the Jewish state “the world’s most pressing problem” today, while extolling Israel’s freedoms and national righteousness. Of course, his complaint manages to engage in both self-pitying and craven boosterism at the same time – a kind of perverse humble-brag.
No, Mr Halevi, Israel is not the world’s greatest problem – rather, Israel is Palestine’s great, existential, enduring problem for a people who have lived their whole lives under the constant, brutal and de-humanising occupation of this enlightened state.
Most of the world has been content to overlook Palestine’s ordeal – fatigued by 68 years of this conflict, and understandably inured to the epic suffering of its people, who understand that their tragic condition can only hold its attention briefly.
The endless failed international “peace” efforts, the vicissitudes of negotiations, and periodic spasms of violence have become like the weather – always there.
This is precisely why the BDS movement has come to figure so prominently in Palestinian hopes – it side-steps the moribund “peace process” and banks on people-power as leverage against state and institutional power, applied against a responsive economy, such as Israel’s.
In the view of Palestinians, the state of Israel has never possessed legitimacy, not by international standards, as it was founded on expulsion, land-theft and military occupation. The BDS movement approaches this abstract issue by offering practicable action for citizens in the West, while the official international community dithers away the decades, leaving Palestinians worse off than ever before.
That such leverage should be applied to Israel is entirely justified. After all, autocratic dictatorships with closed economies, lacking – in Halevi’s celebratory words – “an independent judiciary, a free press, universal healthcare and religious freedom” are not typically responsive targets to protest campaigns for justice, like that of the BDS movement.
Citizens in America don’t propose a boycott of North Korea – the US government does that for them, making it illegal to do business with that outlaw state: yes, the very same US government which blocks every effort by the United Nations and international courts to address the illegality of Israeli settlements, military occupation, collective punishment, economic enslavement, and wholesale destruction and murder of a captive population.
Advantages of Civil Society
If America’s obstruction of international law did not shield Israel from accountability, there would be no need for BDS.
Because Israel possesses all the institutions and advantages of civil society, then presumably its economy and citizens would therefore be responsive to an effective grassroots campaign of boycott and economic push-back.
And if the campaign were to succeed, this same society might be expected to search its collective soul over its choices – and challenge its government’s policies.
This obvious point seems to have escaped Halevi, and others, who brand the movement as “immoral, because it perpetuates the lie that Israel is solely or even primarily to blame” for the Palestinian condition. Yet if we look around the room, who else is there?
Who attacks Palestinians’ cities with warplanes and tanks, walls them in, isolates them from contact with the world, cuts off their electricity, destroys their infrastructure, takes their water, and builds on their land after evicting them?
Who puts their teenagers in jail, takes their farms, cuts down their olive trees? It isn’t North Korea; it isn’t Putin’s Russia; it isn’t a rapacious China.
Israel is the author of the present Palestinian condition, as it has been for decades, with its American backers, and there isn’t much point rehashing the failure of Camp David, or Oslo, or the Palestinian leadership since 1936, or 1948, or 1967.
BDS leaves that debate to “think-tank” intellectuals like Halevi and others. Justice for the Palestinians will not be achieved through debating societies.
BDS offers to its supporters a non-violent, crowd-sourced, material response to the intransigence of Israel and her rampant, continuing illegality.
Israel’s apologists would call the campaign “immoral”, but the slander is laughably false.
The Logic of Justice
BDS compels no one to join it; it constrains no one but by force of reason, and the logic of justice.
In Halevi’s topsy-turvy morality, it is the BDS movement that sins against moral law, in persuading people, institutions and governments to vote with their wallets and their consciences on the rights of Palestinians – rather than Israel, which claims legitimacy to the world, even as it continues to build new settlements on Palestinian land, and subjugates its people to military occupation, dispossession and violence, in violation of international law.
The propagandists of Israeli power understand all too well that BDS is the first clear-eyed, internationalist movement of people – not governments, not Western “quartets”, not the UN Security Council – to look at Palestine with fresh eyes and accurate information. It demands that until Israel ceases its occupation and oppression of millions of Palestinians, there cannot, and should not, be any “business as usual” with the regime.
If Israeli critics want to smear BDS as “bigoted” – a dog-whistle for “anti-Semitic” – because of its endorsement of the Palestinian Right of Return, let them address the historical truth: at least 800,000 Palestinians were expelled en masse, in the creation of the Israeli state – that number has since grown to 7,000,000 stateless refugees with another 4 million internally displaced within their own nation.
No effort has ever been made by official Israeli society to acknowledge and address this simple reality – that many elderly Palestinians living in UN camps, or Gaza City slums, or the West Bank, remember their homes in places such as Jaffa, Yibna, or the numerous towns and villages erased from the map.
It serves no use to deny this fact – perhaps a good starting point for intellectuals like Halevi would be in saying, yes, it is not too late to admit those rights and seek redress, together with the Palestinians.
BDS is brave enough to put the Right of Return up front, as a moral position; if Israel were ready to move forward, it could do the same. Who knows – perhaps good things could come from starting from the truth.
And what of Israel’s boast of its progressive freedoms? They do not withstand scrutiny in the slightest – religious freedom, for example, is under clear attack for every Muslim who wishes to worship at al-Aqsa, or travel to Jerusalem, or leave Gaza and return again, with access routinely denied.
Through Israeli military travel bans on Palestinians, families are separated, unable to worship or observe religious rituals together, or attend the mosque of their choice.
Likewise, any progressive Reform Jew or Jewish American visiting will tell you that Orthodox Judaism does not welcome them, either – Israel’s Rabbinate monopolises official control over the very legitimacy of being Jewish, and denies marriage rights to thousands of couples, even going so far as to jail couples marrying illegally, or rabbis conducting such ceremonies.
Orthodox Cultural Control
Under Orthodox cultural control in Jerusalem and elsewhere, women are subordinated literally to a “back of the bus” status, and segregated without access to full social freedom and the right to work.
As for an independent judiciary, Palestinians never see it, instead enduring the injustices of military courts and the state security apparatus leaving thousands of them including children as permanent political detainees denied the most fundamental rights, while its civil courts refuse jurisdiction over Palestinian complaints.
And Israel’s “free press” leaves much to be desired. Halevi appears to be ignorant of the targeting of Palestinian journalists in recent years for arrest and prosecution in military courts under “incitement” laws; or the Israeli Defence Forces’ censoring of social media in the Occupied Territories.
The absurd equivocation of Halevi and his colleagues in the “Love Israel” industry hits a shrill note, asking American readers to accept that the BDS movement “is itself a crime”.
But free and open debate of the true status of Israeli occupation in Palestine, and the organising efforts to convince states, businesses and people to stop investing in Israel’s bloody enterprise, is hardly criminal. In America, it is known as “the marketplace of ideas”.
We are all free to argue for justice as we see it, and BDS has had more than a decade of mounting success because its arguments convince reasonable people of the truth – no one is buying any more the tired, old brand of “Israel, the Enlightened Democracy”.
BDS is the brave and steady labour of people of conscience to move the stalled, bogus “peace process” forward by applying economic pressure, plain and simple.
The old narrative of a blameless Israel, fighting off Palestinian “terrorists”, is a hard sell, and BDS will continue to build on its successes because Israel’s defenders can no longer suppress the truth, or sweep it under some wishful fantasy of a benevolent, progressive Israel that doesn’t exist, and never has.
– Stanley L Cohen is a lawyer and human rights activist who has done extensive work in the Middle East and Africa. This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com. ((A version of this article was first published in Al Jazeera)