The EHRC overturned the French court’s convictions of 12 BDS activists for “incitement to discrimination” in a watershed ruling for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Mark Steiner: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Mark Steiner. Great to have you over with us once again. On Thursday, June the 11th, the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, France reversed the conviction of 12 BDS activists, and ordered them compensation from France, saying they were wrongfully charged, quote, “with incitement to discrimination” because of their BDS activism. Now, as a reminder, BDS is the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel. It’s a grassroots movement with millions of supporters throughout the world to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
The Israeli government has been pressuring governments to ban BDS and outlaw them as racist and antisemitic, despite the reality, that BDS stands against racism and apartheid and is committed to nonviolent protest, working within the boundaries of human rights and international law. Here in the United States, 23 states have passed anti-BDS legislation. The significance of the ruling of the European Human Rights Court is that it applies to all member nations of the European Union.
Now, while Palestinian and other solidarity groups and others celebrate the court’s decision, it’s unclear whether the French government will file an appeal and what that means. To wrestle with the significance of all of this, we’re joined once again by Sonia Feynman, who is a French activist. She’s been active in the progressive grassroots movements since 1968 against the occupation. She’s a member of the organization, Union of French Jews for Peace, and is also with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Sonia, welcome back; good to have you with us here on the Real News again.
So Sonia, let me start with this case itself. I mean, the 12 people convicted and now acquitted were charged the crime of distributing BDS flyers in front of shopping centers, and there were thousands of people in France who were doing this all over the place. What’s interesting is, BDS is made up of Jews and Christians, but the majority of people here who were brought to trial from France were Muslim or had Muslim names at the very least. So is it just a coincidence? Is something afoot here? I’m just curious about what you think about that.
Sonia Feynman: Well, I’m not sure they were the majority of the group. There were several of them who were Muslims. Most of them, French, but two of them non French. Well, it’s clear that Arabs and Muslim people in France are mostly in favor of Palestine and of the Palestinian rights. So it’s not surprising that in the BDS movement, there are so many Muslim people. But at the same time, there are also all other sorts of people and in particular, Jews, like me.
Mark Steiner: And like me. So this pushes a bit further. I mean, the French courts and parts of French government have really been pushing a very strong pro Israeli line. I mean, this decision, it seems to be pretty significant, in that it talks about everybody who’s a member of the European union. So in this [inaudible 00:03:18], first, the French courts fined the activists significantly. Then the European courts decided, no. Now we’re going to find France to reimburse and pay the people who were convicted. So, I mean, so despite the back and forth legally, what is really at the significance of the heart of this, do you think?
Sonia Feynman: First of all, what’s significant is the resilience of these 12 people who acted in front of justice for years, because they started in 2009 and they had two series of actions, in 2009 and 2010, and then all these trials and appeals and so on. The court of [foreign language 00:04:02] in France finally in 2015, confirmed the appeal and condemned them. So that’s a very important fact. Now we are all very pleased that they are released and that the European court gave them a justice.
At the same time, it’s important to see that the European Court of Justice [inaudible 00:04:34] this law for freedom of press, which dates back to 1881 in France, at least two specific articles, seven, and 10. After examining the whole affair, they decided that it was not a question of hatred, as the French government was saying, hatred and discrimination and racism against Israel and the Jews. No, it was a question of political expression, political freedom, and freedom of expression. So that’s important at a time when France is keeping this habit of pursuing. They have been not been convicted as the [foreign language 00:05:26] wants. So it’s important in France. It’s important in Germany too, because the German government is very hard against [foreign language 00:05:38].
Mark Steiner: So I want to pick up on that point. I mean, the difficulty here, so ways historically around the BDS movement, especially in Europe, and the United States as well, but especially in Europe, where the sensibilities and the sensitivities run deep on both fronts. I mean, Europe was the home of the Holocaust. Still clearly Germany is really always bending over backwards to say, “No, we’re not antisemitic, and we’re not going to allow antisemitism.” It spreads like Europe like that, and then you have the split inside the Jewish world as well in Europe and across the world, over what Israel is doing. So it’s sometimes a very, very difficult issue to address because of all of the kind of historical realities that we all face from the Holocaust of the occupation in this giant arc. So talk about that in terms of, in light of this decision and where do you think this takes this conversation in terms of really kind of getting underneath the pain that exists for many people in this.
Sonia Feynman: I don’t see exactly what you mentioned with your last words.
Mark Steiner: Pain? I mean the emotional pain that goes along with this movement.
Sonia Feynman: But whose emotional pain are you talking about?
Mark Steiner: I guess I’m talking about everybody’s emotional pain. Because it’s how you bridge that in saying that the occupation was in, BDS is not antisemitic, and how difficult it is to kind of bridge that conversation.
Sonia Feynman: Yeah. Well, I think in our organization, UCFB, we think that this whole affair of antisemitism, reproaching antisemitism to BDS people and to organizations that are critics of Israel, Israeli politics. Well, I don’t find the word, but it’s important because, well, it’s a way Israel has found in order to smear people criticizing Israel. So they kind of invented this thing of antisemitism. So of course there is emotional pain, as you say, on both sides, but mainly it’s important to show that Israel is not representing all Jews in the world, and that Israel has been keeping this Holocaust memory in order to invade Palestine and to oppress people in Palestine. So that’s very emotional, but we have to think politically more than emotional.
Mark Steiner: Yeah, Glenn Greenwald, who is also Jewish, wrote an article on the Intercept, called the greatest threat to free speech in the West is criticizing activism against the Israeli occupation. So you have this world now where far right wing leaders in the West have taken on really serious pro Israeli views. At the same time, they’re trying to crush democratic in their own country, and the president of the country that we’re broadcasting from, Trump is at the pinnacle of this in many ways. So, I mean, do you think that the court’s decision can change something for Palestinians? Can a protected free speech in Europe in general, will do anything to change the dynamic of the battle and the conversation?
Sonia Feynman: Yes. I think what it can change mostly is a recognition of the nonviolent character of BDS and the character of powerful way of showing the injustice perpetrated in Palestine, in Israel. So that’s a first fact. Also what’s important is to realize that Palestinians themselves are very resilient and are resisting for all this time. So, well, I think this ruling of the court can show the world that freedom of expression has to be respected. In that case, in the case of BDS, it significant pace to help people doing BDS and acting as BDS in the BDS campaign, to show them and to show the word that they can continue, that it’s justified, and that it’s a battle for justice and for the respect of international law. So- [crosstalk 00:10:34]
Mark Steiner: I’m sorry.
Sonia Feynman: Despite all the efforts Israel is making to smear academics, especially in the United States, because they are very, very active, some of them, in supporting BDS and Palestinians. So this minister of strategical affairs, which has been created in Israeli especially to, I would say, smear people, BDS activists, as well as academics all over the world. Despite this energy they’re making, and the big investment, they’re investing huge amounts of money. Despite all this, BDS is going on. Well, you mentioned at the beginning that several states in the United States have been declaring unlawful BDS, and that’s a pity. France has been trying to do that, but now they know they can’t, and it’s giving us strength to go on with boycott, divestment, and sanctions.
Mark Steiner: So finally, I’m curious, A, do you think that France will appeal and what that might mean? B, I’m just very curious, did you expect this to happen? When it did happen, what is it like for all of you in the movement in Europe, and France especially?
Sonia Feynman: Well, I don’t think France will go to appeal, but, well, I’m not sure. But I don’t think because now they’ve been all this process since 2010 and although the French government is very close to Israel, I think they are conscious, and there is a crisis in France too, with COVID and these urgent state depriving, people of kind of liberties. Now with the deconfinement, there are very many demonstrations, not only in support of George Floyd and against police violence in the United States and in France, because we have the same problem. There are also people in the health sector and many things happening against the government claiming having [inaudible 00:12:59] the government. So the government is kind of worried about so many things that I don’t think they will go to appeal this decision. Let’s see.
Among the Jewish communities, well, it varies because organized associations like ours exist also in other European countries. We have a grouping, a federation of groups which is called EJJP, European Jews for a Just Peace, which has been declaring also that the ruling was very good. Also there is a group of Palestine committee solidarities in Brussels. It’s all Europe. So it’s called ECCP, European Coordination of Committees for Palestine. Also, they are very pleased with the ruling and every group is expressing its satisfaction about what’s decided in the European court. But at the same time in Germany, in Britain, in France, there are these mainstream organizations, like the one which is called [FIEF 00:14:16] in France, which is a so-called council representing Jewish organization in France, which is a real ally of Israel. Not only an ally, but it’s like the voice of Israel in France. They reacted saying that it was too bad, but not very violently. So that’s also a reason why I can’t think, because at the same time, they’re close to the French government. So it’s another reason that makes me think that maybe there won’t be an appeal on the part of the French government. But I’m convinced, and Israel has showed it already, I’m convinced that Israel will continue harassing us and trying to prevent actions of the BDS and this divestment and so on.
Mark Steiner: Well, Sonia, A, let me just first thank you for all the work you do in this arena, and thank you once again for joining us here on the Real News Network. I look forward to talking to you again very soon.
Sonia Feynman: Okay. Thank you.
Mark Steiner: Thank you so much. I’m Mark Steiner here for the Real News Network. I’m glad you could join us, please let us know what you think and take care.
Sonia Feynman: Thank you.
Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.