Last night was the last talk or panel event in this years Israeli Apartheid Week in Toronto, although the week goes on and includes the Great Indian Bus tour of Toronto happening this Sunday in collaboration between SAIA and the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. The event was called “State of the Siege, State of the Struggle” and covered stories about how different groups across North America are moving the BDS movement forward in different ways, as well as a critical analysis of Israeli apartheid, and Israel’s own BDS movement against Palestine and Palestinians.
Riham Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural boycott of Israel, as well as a founding member of Adlah – NY, the New York campaign for the boycott of Israel. She spoke about the state of the BDS movement, mostly across the United States. She pointed out that in only one decade BDS rose from nothing to a huge global movement, and that this has not happened haphazardly but as the result of hard work actively pursuing the end to the systematic oppression of Palestinians. Prior to the BDS movement, she argued, civil societies condemnation of Israel has been criticism of specific acts, but BDS and the framework of apartheid allows societies to criticize not only specific acts of violence but the systematic oppression that underlies them. It encourages us to look at the everyday experience of Palestinians, not only the most grotesque acts of murder and displacement. The response to BDS by the pro-Israeli community, on the other hand, has become increasingly reactionary and defensive. Initially their response was to ignore the BDS movement, then to denounce it (falsely) as anti-semitic, and then finally to take legal action against people engaged in Palestinian solidarity activism. This increasingly reactionary stance with the complete absence of argument is symptomatic of a movement which is ill, and which is increasingly grasping at straws to defend the occupation and differential treatment of people based on race.
Ali Abunimah is a Palestinian-American journalist and a co-founder of electronic intifada.net. He spoke about the failure of the peace process, which he said is as bankrupt as were the calls for “constructive engagement” with South African apartheid. Since the “talks” began, settler populations in the illegally occupied territories have tripled, and the recent Palestinian Papers release demonstrate that Israel has no interest in a peaceful settlement, even after extreme concessions were offered by the PA – concessions far beyond the mandate they have from the Palestinian population.
Abunimah emphasized that BDS is a technology not an end in itself, the goal is the outcome – the allotment of rights to all, and not on the basis of racial preference. BDS is not a campaign against the Israeli people, who like Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security, but not hte right to dominate and subjugate another people in conditions of apartheid. He added I think that the Israelis are also in need of liberation, although they may not all agree with us on this point.
The thrust of Abunimah’s talk, however, was an argument which turns around the criticism of BDS: he pointed out that Israel itself has its own BDS campaign. Israeli BDS targets academic institutions and academics – with bombs. Just this week Israeli F16s bombed buildings under construction at the University of Gaza. During the Gaza Massacre the University was also bombed, and more than half the public schools were either completely or partially destroyed by bombing, artillery, or other fighting. And, they even practice BDS against Palestinian academics when they are not at war – Palestinians who receive foreign scholarships are often forced to turn them down because they can’t get the visa to travel out of the country, or even if they do they don’t leave for fear of not being able to return. And, the BDS is not only against Palestinians in the territories – Palestinian citizens of Israel still do not have a single arabic language university. They can study alongside Jews, but only in Hebrew language universities, and funding for non-jews is significantly worse than funding attached to jewish identity.
Abunimah also enumerated on Israel’s Economic Boycott of Gaza, which is the blockade, and has been very successful – 90% of Gaza’s factories and workshops have been shut down due to lack of markets and/or materials. Moreover, Israel is engaged in the eradication of Palestinian Culture by supporting extremist settlers’ demands to occupy more of Jerusalem. Just this month an Israeli Court has ruled that a Palestinian family must share their home – must make one bedroom and part of the living room available – for an extremist settler family who will hire armed guards and make life intolerable for the Palestinian family. This same court does not allow refugees their right of return, and therefore Abunimah emphasized: this is the ruling of an apartheid court.
Abunimah then dealt with the idea that Israel is “singled out” by the international community. He agrees with the charge – Israel is singled out, but not singled out in the sense of condemned more strictly for the same crimes committed by others; rather, not condemned at all for crimes for which we refer other states to the ICC. For instance, he.asked why did it take the UN security council all of a few days to refer Libya’s war crimes in the current conflict to the ICC, whereas the UNSC still has failed to refer Israel to the ICC long after the publishing of the Goldstone report, which clearly outlines Israel’s war crimes in the Gaza massacre.
Michael Ignatieff was “singled out” for specific criticism by Abunimah: Ignatieff has recently condemned the use of the phrase “israel apartheid”, implying it is anti-Semitic and targets Jewish and Israeli students out for abuse. However, back in 2002 after a trip to Israel and helicopter ride above the West Bank, Ignatieff said this:
When I looked down at the West Bank, at the settlements like Crusader forts occupying the high ground, at the Israeli security cordon along the Jordan river closing off the Palestinian lands from Jordan, I knew I was not looking down at a state or the beginnings of one, but at a Bantustan, one of those pseudo-states created in the dying years of apartheid to keep the African population under control.
This statement, reported in the Guardian, April 19, 2002, shows Ignatieff’s hypocricy – he wants to claim he’s for democratic rights for all, and for criticism of the Israeli state, but in practice he condemns criticism of the Jewish state as racist – and by extension condemns himself (although he could come clean by explicitly retracting either statement).
Nick Day, the rector of Queen’s University has written a response to Ignatieff’s condemnation of Israeli apartheid week, which is worth looking at.
Continuing on the subject of anti-semitism, Abunimah pointed out that while Jenny Peto’s thesis was condemned by the Ontario parliament for being anti-semitic, when it is in fact not anti semitic, when was the last time you heard a Canadian legislature condemning an Islamophobic thesis? It is hardly even imaginable.
Finally, the argument was made that Zionism simply can not offer a universal vision for Israel, but only tribalism and dehumanization of the other. Whereas the BDS movement advocates rights for all, Zionists all advocate some form of differential rights based on heritage and/or race. Recently negative views of Israel have risen in Britain and the United States – and it is not difficult to connect that rise with the Gaza massacre and the release of the Palestinian papers, exposing the bankrupt “peace process”. There are many reasons to believe the ground for a genuine, civil society based peace movement is fertile at this time.