Israel Fears the Boycott Movement as an ‘Existential Threat’
Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah says Israel’s real problem isn’t BDS; it’s the increasing international isolation due to the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory and other abuses
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, also known as BDS, is taking a greater grip on the Israeli economy, and now on its favorite national sport, soccer. A committee is still monitoring Israel’s fans’ behavior on the soccer stadiums where some of them were seen recently shouting, “death to Arabs”. Given all of this, the Israeli government is taking steps to crack down on the BDS, and efforts to boycott goods made on occupied territories. On Wednesday the Knesset held a discussion to talk about the delegimization of Israel by international bodies with a special reference to FIFA expulsion to jab Israeli soccer fans. Netanyahu has already appointed Gilad Erdan, a minister for public security, strategic affairs, and public diplomacy, with the task of leading Israel’s fight against BDS. As well this weekend, Sheldon Adelson will be hosting an anti-BDS summit in Las Vegas to fund strategies to counter the success of BDS at university campuses.
Joining us now to discuss all of this and the future of the BDS movement is Ali Abunimah. Ali is co-founder of the award-winning online publication the Electronic Intifada, and he’s the author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine.
Ali, as always, thank you for joining us today.
ALI ABUNIMAH, CO-FOUNDER, ELECTRONIC INTIFADA: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: Ali, Netanyahu referred to the BDS as an existential threat. He must mean the financial threat it’s having on Israel’s economy, and obviously political ones, as well. What do you make of it?
ABUNIMAH: I think we should begin by just stepping back and just spelling out very clearly what BDS is for people who may be unfamiliar with it. BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. And very simply, ten years ago in July the Palestinian civil society, some 170 Palestinian political parties, trade unions, and other civic organizations, put out a call to people all over the world. And they said that Israel is violating our rights, it’s occupying us, it is denying us self-determination. And so, and the world is doing nothing about it. The UN passes resolutions but nothing happens. World governments are complicit in what Israel is doing. So we’re calling on people around the world to boycott Israel, to divest from Israel, and to call for international sanctions just like the ones that were applied to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and helped end apartheid, racial segregation, and official white supremacy in South Africa a generation ago.
That’s the background. For many years a lot of people dismissed BDS. They said this will never take off, Israel is different from apartheid South Africa, Israel has a lot more support. What we’ve seen in the past few days is a real panicked reaction from the Israeli government and the Israeli prime minister saying that BDS is now an existential threat to Israel, almost the way the Israeli government talks about Iran. And I think the reason for that very simply is that people around the world are recognizing that Israel has no intention whatsoever of respecting Palestinian rights, and that it is absolutely legitimate to boycott Israel and to campaign for divestment as people are doing on college campuses and other places, and to call for international sanctions. And Israel recognizes the power and potential of this movement.
PERIES: Now Ali, the appointment of Gilad Erdan, who is the minister for public security, strategic affairs, and public diplomacy, how is this a threat to public security?
ABUNIMAH: Well in the past few days, you mentioned in your introduction some of the steps Israel and its supporting lobbies are taking. The appointment of Erdan as minister with responsibility for fighting BDS, Sheldon Adelson the billionaire and others throwing more millions at trying to fight against Palestine solidarity activism on campus. This represents sort of a stepping up of what Israel has been doing, but none of it is actually new. The Israeli state since at least 2010 has been trying to organize efforts to fight against BDS, to delegitimize the Palestine solidarity movement around the world.
And I think what Netanyahu’s latest claims about BDS, about how it’s growing, what that shows is that Israel recognizes that this effort has failed. And the Israeli columnist, he is sometimes called Israel’s Thomas Friedman, Nahum Barnea, wrote the other day that Israel’s real problem is not BDS, it’s not misperceptions about what’s happening. It’s the fact that many of Israel’s friends in the West, even its friends, can no longer morally or politically defend Israel’s policies and actions towards the Palestinians. That’s really what is driving BDS, and I think the reelection of Netanyahu back in March really helped many more people reach the conclusion that simply pretending there’s a peace process, going back to more empty rounds of negotiations, is not going to get the Palestinians their rights. That there needs to be pressure on Israel, and that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions are legitimate, nonviolent means of pressure that have been used against apartheid in South Africa, that have been used as part of the civil rights struggle in the United States, and have a long history in just and legitimate popular struggle.
Of course it’s no surprise that Israel, just like the apartheid regime in South Africa, tries to represent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and the people who support it as terrorists, or supporters of terrorism or extremism. That’s exactly what South Africa did in the 1980s when it actually made it illegal to call for boycott or sanctions on South Africa. And just recall that a few weeks ago the Israeli supreme court upheld a law that was passed by the Israeli parliament that actually introduces legal punishments and sanctions for Israelis or anyone in Israel who calls for boycott. So they’re really going down a very similar path.
PERIES: Do we have a sense of how successful the BDS campaign has been?
ABUNIMAH: Well, it’s been tremendously successful. But it’s also important to talk about how we measure success. A very important point of BDS, of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, is to bring attention and pressure on Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and to raise the profile of Palestinians’ demands for their self-determination and for Israel to respect all of their rights. And by that measure, BDS is a tremendous success. And it’s also important to remember that there are BDS campaigns in a number of spheres. There’s academic boycott. Cultural boycott. Economic and consumer boycott. Divestment from companies that operate in Israel and assist its violations of Palestinian rights.
So there’s a vast array of campaigns, and we’ve seen huge successes, for example in pension funds, major pension funds in Europe that have divested from Israeli banks and weapons companies because of their involvement in human rights violations. That’s been happening for years already. Just the other day in Haaretz there was an article that says that Israeli academics are saying that they’re facing a much bigger boycott than is even publicly realized. That much of the boycott is like an iceberg. You know, one small part of it is visible, and that people will say, we’re boycotting Israel. But most of it is what they call a latent or a quiet boycott, where people just won’t go to Israel, they won’t take part in conferences, they won’t do joint projects with Israeli institutions.
And in the cultural sphere it’s been very, very successful as well. We’ve seen a lot of high-profile international acts just in the past few months and weeks publicly pulling out of performances in Israel. And again, the model here is back in the 1980s when artists were called upon not to go to Sun City, Sun City being the resort in apartheid South Africa which was sort of the showcase. And today the artists who defied the boycott on South Africa are really remembered with ignominy and shame. And today many, many high-profile acts are pulling out of gigs in Tel Aviv after Palestinians approached them and explained the reasons why Palestinians believe this is the better way to support justice and equality for everyone.
PERIES: Now, the counter-BDS strategy now being implemented by the state, I guess that’s having some effect and impact worldwide. As we spoke about just two weeks ago the Illinois state passed legislation to ensure that BDS is not adhered to, at least by the state apparatus and pension funds. What other impacts is the counter-BDS strategy having?
ABUNIMAH: Well, the main strategy that Israel is using is one of various forms of repression. So repression at home in the forms of the anti-boycott law, which effectively makes it illegal. I have contacts who say look, we can’t come out anymore and say that we support boycott, because we don’t know what the legal consequences would be. There’s people who have said that. There are others on the other hand, I’ve noticed many more Israelis saying actually, you do need to boycott Israel to the world. So the law is having a mixed effect. It may be making some people more cautious, but I think it’s making others more courageous.
So repression at home, repression overseas in terms of the laws that we talked about last time and other legislative efforts around the U.S. and around the world, and this massive smear campaign by the Israeli government and Israel lobby groups to try to smear anyone who supports BDS as an extremist, as a terrorist, as a supporter of ISIS, and so on and so forth.
I think the lesson from history is that a campaign against a movement that most people see as just–there are very few people in the world who think Palestinians shouldn’t have the full menu of human rights. A campaign against such a movement which is entirely negative, entirely based on demonization and slander, really can’t win any supporters.
And I think that’s what we’re seeing. I’ve written about and looked at opinion polls over the past few months and even years which show that there’s a marked shift among young people, among communities of color in the United States, where they’re much, much less receptive to Israeli propaganda than earlier generations, and much less receptive than older and more conservative segments of U.S. society. So the message is getting through, and Israel doesn’t have a counter-narrative. Israel cannot explain to young people in Europe or the United States or South America why Palestinians should continue to be denied the basic rights that people everywhere in the world demand and expect to receive themselves.
PERIES: Now Ali, at the same time we’ve seen an increase of attacks and isolation of BDS advocates, particularly young people that are working on this campaign. How do you respond to them? What should they do in order to resist all of this?
ABUNIMAH: You know, we’ve seen attacks in the form, for example, of websites which try to name and shame students and faculty, and say these people are radicals because they support Palestinian rights. And those kind of McCarthy-ite smear tactics to try to prevent Palestinian rights, to prevent BDS from going mainstream. It’s to try to scare people into silence.
And you know, it’s possible that one or two people look at that and say, you know, I don’t want my face on a website. But I think that it is really too late. It has gone mainstream. It’s gone mainstream in Europe and I think it’s going mainstream in the United States. People just–it’s a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t Palestinians have full, equal rights, even if they’re not Jewish? That’s something that Israel just can’t explain. And so it’s not a hard case to make.
So I think efforts that aim at preventing the mainstreaming of support for Palestinian equality, for an end to occupation, for an end to Israeli apartheid, have already failed. And I think a lot of people look at these McCarthy-ite tactics and they say actually, this is a reason for more people to speak up. Because if everyone speaks up, nobody can be isolated. Nobody can be singled out. And you know, Israel and its lobby groups cannot smear everyone in the world.
PERIES: Ali Abunimah, thank you so much for joining us today.
ABUNIMAH: You’re welcome. Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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