Omar Barghouti is a co-founder of the Palestinian Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. His views and the BDS platform have provoked controversy and criticism. In his first visit to South Africa, RA’EESA PATHER sat down with the Palestinian-born activist from Ramallah, and discussed the role of BDS, anti-Semitism, and what he calls “inter-fail” dialogue.
There are differences between apartheid South Africa and Israel’s occupation over Palestine (for example, the ethnic tensions, the extent of Israel’s military rule and force, and the context as a whole). Why has BDS chosen to identify itself with the analogy of apartheid South Africa?
Okay, when we say Israel’s regime against the Palestinians amounts to occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid – not just apartheid – we’re not saying Israel and South Africa are identical in their apartheid regime. Apartheid was not just a South African crime, it’s a universal crime identified internationally since 1973 in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Israel does have an apartheid system because it has more than 50 laws that discriminate against its “non-Jewish citizens”: the indigenous Palestinians [both] Christians and Muslims. So Israel’s discrimination is not just by policy, it’s by law. That’s what makes Israel an apartheid state on top of the occupation and settler colonial state.
South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid belong to the same family of apartheid as defined in international law. The reason why we connect very strongly with the struggle in South Africa, why we are so inspired by the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, is because it’s a very clear model in modern history where the oppressed managed to succeed in dismantling a very, very powerful, almost invincible structure of oppression, which is the apartheid regime. The Israeli army is very powerful, one of the most powerful armies in the world, armed with nuclear weapons, and of course we cannot forget that Israel gave South Africa its nuclear weapons as well. Israel was the closest ally to South Africa when the whole world boycotted it, and this is an important message that’s lost on many young people in this country; they forget the history of Israeli support for the apartheid regime.
The BDS movement describes Israel as an apartheid state. How is BDS similar and different to the boycott campaigns during apartheid South Africa?
We don’t copy paste. In history, you cannot do that. We are inspired, we learn a lot of lessons from the South African struggle, but we’re not copying that experience. We developed our own strategy that is based on our own reality, our own particularities. So, there’s a difference in the strategy. We’re pursuing academic boycott, cultural boycott, military embargo, yes, some of the same campaigning, but we’re approaching it very differently. We’re in a different world, we don’t have the Soviet Union, we don’t have the same balances of powers that existed during apartheid South Africa. It’s completely different. So, we developed our own Palestinian strategy for boycotts, divestment and sanctions, that was inspired by the South African experience and also by the Indian anti-colonial experience, by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, but more importantly, the BDS movement is stemming from a history of Palestinian non-violent resistance.
We did not learn non-violence from anyone, with all due respect, we’ve always had it in the Palestinian struggle. BDS is a continuation of that long history of popular resistance in Palestine, and it’s based on a strategy of internal resistance in Palestine, and outside pressure in all fields on Israel.
Noam Chomsky recently said that BDS would not work using the South African apartheid parallel, because there are too many differences between Israeli apartheid and South African apartheid.
I’d rather not comment on Chomsky out of respect for his history, but I’ll respond to the argument in general. Such dogmatic arguments are very baffling for us. Sanctions are not used only against apartheid; sanctions were used against human rights violators around the world. Second, the argument that unlike the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the BDS movement is not yet as mainstream flies in the face of reality.
Yes, we’re not there yet, but we got Bill Gates to divest from G4S, a company involved in Israeli occupation. We got our partners in the Presbyterian Church to divest; we got the Methodist Church – the largest Protestant church – to divest. We got the largest pension fund in the world – the Norwegian pension fund – to divest. So, saying that it’s not yet there is accurate. Saying it cannot get there, close to the South African level, is just purely dogmatic and it’s a failure to understand reality, and, more importantly, how you move reality. If you look at the anti-apartheid movement in the United States, late 70s/early 80s, it looked hopeless, absolutely hopeless. Nothing was happening, we were not winning anything, but people forget that the boycott was called for by South Africans in the 1950s. Everyone forgets that, people like to remember the late 80s when divestment became popular in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and everywhere. But for thirty years, very little was being achieved. But human rights activists did not give up, struggling and struggling until it became mainstream. I comparison the BDS movement is merely 9-years-old, we’re certainly going much, much faster than South Africa. In 9 years, the South African boycott achieved almost nothing, we’ve achieved a lot in 9 years. We’re on the map, we’re on the mainstream map in the United States, across Europe, in South Africa, in India, in Brazil and elsewhere.
Is BDS anti-Semitic?
There are many points to answer that. BDS is a human rights movement that believes in equal rights for all humans, irrespective of identity. Being anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we reject all forms of racism. Islamaphobia, anti-black racism, and anti-Semitism. We absolutely, categorically reject anti-Semitism. We will not accept anti-Semites in our ranks, we will never accept any anti-Semitic language, even hints of anti-Semitic language or actions within our platform. In the 9 years of BDS, the Israeli government, the Israel lobby and the Israeli-run media could not find one iota of proof of anti-Semitism. They’re using this to shut down the debate, because our boycott against Israel has absolutely nothing to do with the identity – whether Jewish or other identity. It has everything to do with Israel being an oppressive, colonial, and apartheid regime. We couldn’t care less if Israel were Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu or Atheist. It matters very little to the oppressed the identity of the oppressor. You don’t care if somebody’s stepping on your neck, whether he’s white, Christian, Muslim, Jew or not. All you care about is his foot is on your neck, and you want to remove that foot off your neck. That’s all that we care about.
Second, saying that a boycott of Israel is anti- Semitic is an anti-Semitic statement itself. It assumes that Israel and the Jews are one and the same. If you’re boycotting Israel, you’re boycotting the Jews. That would be an anti-Semitic, because reducing all Jews to Israel and saying Israel and the Jews are equivalent, is saying that all Jews are monolithic sum that have no human diversity. Anyone who puts all Jews in one basket is an anti-Semite. And, of course, there are many Jewish figures around the world – cultural figures, artists, philosophers, writers, film-makers – who have come out in support of BDS.
There was a BDS rally at Wits University in Johannesburg where people began shouting the slogan “Shoot the Jews”. You can understand why that may rouse an idea that BDS may be anti-Semitic.
That had nothing to do with the BDS movement. We learned about that, it was a couple of activists unaffiliated with the BDS group in South Africa, and of course you can never prevent everyone from saying what they want. The main point, is that we condemn such utterances, we do not tolerate any anti-Semitic utterances at a BDS event anywhere in the world. So, our position is very clear, you cannot control masses if you have mass demonstration and somebody comes up with a very radical slogan, or even a racist slogan, that does not fit within the platform of a human right’s movement. We come out and say that this does not speak for us, this does not represent us, and we condemn it.
Why is there a need for BDS to exist as a unified movement, rather than an encouragement of individual choice to boycott?
BDS movement unifies Palestinians, but within Palestine the BDS national committee – the leadership of the global BDS movement – is the absolute largest coalition in Palestinian society. It includes all political parties, all trade unions with no exception, all women’s unions, all farmers’ unions, NGOs networks, refugee networks, they’re all part of the BDS movement. There are groups that are not affiliated with the BDS movement but almost everyone is. The BDS call of 2005 was signed by more than 170 of the most important Palestinian groups and parties, so it is a unifying movement among Palestinians.
Around the world we work with partners, who might agree with us 10% or 100%. What we ask of partners is to accept the three rights: end the occupation, end racial discrimination in Israel, which amounts to apartheid, and the right of return for refugees. This is our human rights platform. If you respect our basic rights under international law, we have absolutely no problem with you boycotting one product, or a university, or boycotting the whole state of Israel. We work with partners with different political programmes, in fact the most important operational principle in the BDS movement is context sensitivity, which means we defer to our partners what to boycott, what to divest from, how to do it. We work with many diverse partners and some partners who are not even affiliated with the BDS movement like the Presbyterian Church.
South Africans who travel to Jerusalem often visit Al Aqsa mosque for religious purposes. Should they be boycotting Israel altogether?
Al Aqsa mosque is occupied, it’s not Israeli. It’s occupied Palestinian territory, we do not consider that Israel.
What about the restrictions that are placed on Palestinians who wish to enter the mosque by the Israeli military? There are times when certain Palestinians can’t go inside. From a BDS perspective, should that affect international boycotts?
Palestinians are not allowed there, but when internationals want to visit Jerusalem, when Muslims want to go to Al Aqsa mosque from South Africa or elsewhere, we have nothing against that. What we ask is to make your pilgrimage or your visit ethical, which means not to use Israeli airlines, not to use Israeli hotels, not to use Israeli restaurants, or other complicit institutions. Not to use travel guides who are Israeli because they destroy the history of Al Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem in general. So, it is occupied territory and we appreciate solidarity from groups that have relations with Israel. South Africa has diplomatic relations with Israel, we hope at one point it will sever those links with Israel. But so far as it already has those links with Israel we don’t call on South African Muslims not to visit Al Aqsa mosque, no, we call on Christians, Muslims, whoever is going on pilgrimage, do your pilgrimage ethically. We call on tourists, who are going for tourism, to do it ethically. Not to help sustain Israeli institutions who are complicit in human rights violations.
Recently an article was published in Time magazine, where a journalist wrote about her experience on a trip to Israel, which was funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute’s programme, where they invite people to come visit and –
Yes, it’s a propaganda programme. I am aware of it.
They call it an inter-faith dialogue. What do you make of these inter-faith trips?
Inter-faith has been terribly abused. This isn’t inter-faith, this is inter-fail. This is failing to uphold human rights and justice, and looking at cosmetic relations between different faith groups. To my understanding, for inter-faith to be ethical, it’s got to be based on the common humanity and common human rights. Not to be based on suppressing discussions about human rights. Saying that let’s have inter-faith dialogue, but talk about everything except justice, except oppression, that’s unacceptable. That’s inter-complicity, that’s not inter-faith. That’s agreeing to be complicit in silence about injustices. Imagine inter-faith discussions in the United States during apartheid in South Africa, where you can talk about everything except apartheid. That wouldn’t have been accepted by anyone. Or interracial dialogue between blacks and whites in the United States about difficulties about difficulties in South Africa and communal hatred, and all that nonsense, and not mentioning apartheid: thou shalt not mention apartheid. That would have been absolutely unethical and unaccepted. Why is it acceptable to have such inter-faith nonsense when it avoids any discussion of the serious issues facing Palestinians, the injustices? We don’t have communal hatred, we have oppression by one group against another. Remove oppression, people can coexist.
But how would you know, for example, that they don’t discuss apartheid at the Hartman Institute?
That’s a propaganda institute. I mean, that’s one of the Israel lobby institutes. Their open programme is to bring Muslims, brainwash them, and to break any solidarity between Muslims and Palestinians – Muslims around the world and Palestinians – through trying to whitewash Israeli apartheid, through whitewashing Zionism, making Zionism look better, and hiding its racist character that seeks a Jewish exclusionary, a Jewish ethnocratic state that excludes non-Jews from equal rights.
That’s what Zionism is, and Zionism is not only an ideology for us, it’s a lived reality. We’re living under Zionism in Palestine, we’re living under apartheid and occupation, we don’t need any brainwashed Muslim in the United States or elsewhere to tell us: oh, Zionism is misunderstood. You’ve got to be more tolerant of Zionism.
Thank you very much, we’re living Zionism, and we don’t want it.
Does BDS have trips for journalists to make it more understandable?
We’re not the state of Israel. We don’t have billions of dollars to spend on propaganda. We’re a human rights movement, grassroots, that has very little funding. We cannot afford propaganda tours like Israel does, neither are we interested in propaganda tours. We invite anyone to come at their own expense, and we would host them and show them the reality and they can see it for themselves. We always welcome fact-finding delegations to see all sides for themselves, but we cannot afford to bring people and pay for that. But we call on people to be aware of Israeli propaganda programmes, like the one mentioned, those are meant to be whitewashing programmes. They’re trying to work with black American in the United States, with Muslims, with Latinos, with Asians, and so on, to try and whitewash Israeli apartheid and occupation. To show Israel’s “prettier face” as they put it between quotes. That’s something that undermines our struggle for rights. We differentiate between such propaganda tours, and fact-finding missions. We receive many, many fact-finding missions from around the world who almost invariably after visiting the occupied territories, after seeing refugee camps, they almost all go back with a changed view. All that they’ve seen in the media, all that they’ve seen on CNN, is shattered by the harsh reality on the ground.
What are your views on the three Israeli teenagers who were killed, and the death of Mohammed Abu Khdair, which is alleged to be an act of retribution?
I take offence to the question, because from a very Zionist point of view, it just begins with three Israelis killed. Hundreds and hundreds of Palestinians were killed before that, let’s talk about the entire series of killing. All violence starts with the initiation of oppression, with the occupation, with ethnic cleansing, that’s the initiation of violence. The violence of the oppressed is a reaction to violence of the oppressor. Those who want to end all violence, must end oppression.
Sanctions in apartheid South Africa came into effect at a certain stage – when international outcry was at its peak. Using the South African analogy, at what stage is the BDS movement at in terms of coming into effect?
We’re already seeing some form of sanctions, Europeans are not calling them that, but they are if you look at them. European governments in the last number of days, 12 governments – and before that three governments – in Europe’s largest countries have adopted punitive measures against Israeli entities operating in the occupied Palestinian territories. That is the definition of sanctions. Basically, they’ve advised their corporations and their citizens not to do business with Israeli entities in the occupied territories. True, it’s not obligatory, so it’s not 100 percent sanctions, but it’s in the spirit of sanctions. That’s today, nine years after we started. So, I remind readers and listeners that this is much, much faster than the South African boycott.
When will BDS play the role of tipping the scales?
You can never decide that. There are many realities on the ground that change, no-one knows when the absolute tipping point will be reached, but with four American academic associations adopting full academic boycott of Israel, with Bill Gates divesting from G4S, with major churches, major pension funds, major banks divesting from Israeli companies, we’re getting there.