“A world party and we are all invited”: BDS by Omar Barghouti

[The WRL blog is excited to feature a second book review by Jeanne Strole, co-director of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, with which the War Resisters League shares a long history, as well as the building at 339 Lafayette St. in Manhattan.]

BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights by Omar Barghouti (2011)

Review by Jeane Strole

Among the books we read, some go farther than others toward informing our thinking, opinions and actions in the world. These invariably become the books we read and refer to over and over again, the pages dog-eared, passages underlined, margins filled with notes.

BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights by Omar Barghouti, for me, is this kind of book. I purchased it already knowing that I would, in short order, mess it up; cracking the spine, marking passages and filling it with scribbled comments. It exceeded my expectations, proving to be a generously dense and invaluable source of information and inspiration about the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Omar Barghouti is a founding member of  both the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), begun in April of 2004, and the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, begun in June of 2005. He is also an independent Palestinian writer and human rights activist, part of a new generation of Palestinian activists, who have witnessed the effectiveness of global social justice efforts and who are now applying these strategies to the struggle for Palestinian rights.

The BDS call takes lessons from previous global grassroots successes, as well as the failed peace process, and also draws on decades of Palestinian civil resistance to the occupation. These myriad lessons have been distilled into the key features of the BDS movement, namely, an insistence on adherence to international law and universally-accepted human rights principles, a demand for moral consistency in this adherence, and a flexible strategic approach characterized by three main ideas: context sensitivity, gradualness and sustainability. All these combine to form a highly effective, flexible framework that enables people to honor the call and support it on many different levels. It encourages people and groups to think creatively, developing approaches to BDS that are best suited to the social, political and cultural specifics of their local environments.  As a result, the movement is growing in leaps and bounds and is accomplishing already in its short 6 years what took decades of organizing to accomplish in the South Africa boycott call.

As the intro to the BDS call states, “Palestinian Civil Society calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with International Law and Universal Principles of Human Rights.” Barghouti notes that Palestinian Civil Society encompasses Palestinians living in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinians living as refugees around the world. The BDS National Committee (BNC) is the largest representative Palestinian organization, encompassing these three segments of Palestinian society. The BDS Call demands: an end to the occupation of all Arab lands (occupied in 1967) and dismantling of the wall; the rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and the right of return of exiles and their homes and property (stated in UN Resolution 194). The call enjoys mass support from a broad spectrum of Palestinian political groups, union and civic groups and organizations.

With an emphasis on a rights-based vs a solutions-based approach, the BDS movement has successfully side-stepped the grindingly failed “dialogue” and “peace” processes with Israel and has far surpassed the Palestinian “leadership” in its demands and its successes so far. With the BDS call, Palestinian Civil Society has built for itself a platform from which to call on people of conscience world-wide to act in support of Palestinian rights where their governments and international institutions have categorically failed, offering some hope that Israel may finally be held accountable for its heinous human rights violations.

Adalah-NY creatively protests at Lev Leviev's store in Manhattan on Mother's Day 2011

Barghouti notes that the call does not originate from any political party or sectarian agenda, but rather from a broad base of Palestinians. It is not a “one size fits all” approach and can be easily adapted. In that regard, the open structure of the call is one of the main strategies learned from previous grassroots social justice movements. Barghouti outlines several examples of this approach in action, illustrating how it contributes to its accessibility, sustainability and effectiveness as a global effort. For example, Barghouti describes Adalah-New York and their inventive and, dare I say, fun campaign exposing the jeweler Lev Leviev, his dealings in conflict gems and his financial support of illegal settlement expansion in occupied Palestinian territory. A primary feature of this campaign are activist gatherings outside his jewelry boutique on Madison Avenue in Manhattan on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, etc., armed with custom-written holiday songs and meticulously researched fliers explaining Lev Leviev’s connection to Israeli human rights violations. This awareness campaign has led to major investors pulling out of backing Lev Leviev and his Israeli investments.

Institutions ranging from Harvard University to the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church, to the national pension funds of Norway and Sweden have all, in some form, observed the BDS call. Adalah-New York, fresh from their victory over Lev Leviev, have now turned their attention to the U.S. pension fund TIAA-CREF, hoping to pressure them to honor the call. And despite efforts to prevent it, a recent TIAA-CREF shareholder meeting was dominated by discussion of divesting from Israel.

The BDS movement does not address the issue of what form the solution should take. Its focus on a rights-based approach allows people of varying opinions on the one-state-vs-two-state debate to still support the call. However, “On a personal level, not as a representative of the BDS movement,” Barghouti writes, “I have for over twenty-five years consistently supported the secular democratic unitary solution in historic Palestine, based on justice and equality.” He goes on to outline the flaws in the two-state solution, namely that the current conditions in the OPT make a viable two-state solution unlikely and that a two-state solution would do little or nothing to address the human rights concerns of Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens within Israel.

Barghouti expertly dismantles the criticisms and arguments against the BDS movement. Abraham Greenhouse, co-founder of the Palestine Freedom Project, says it best in his book review on Electronic Intifada, noting that Barghouti “hones in on their inherent flaws like a hypocrisy-seeking missile.”  For instance, the author inverts the charge that the BDS call is anti-semitic, stating that “characterizing actions and positions that target Israeli apartheid and colonial rule as anti-Semitic is itself anti-Semitic, for such arguments assume that Jews are a monolithic sum that Israel represents and speaks on behalf of and, moreover, that all Jews per se are somehow responsible for Israeli crimes, a patently racist assumption.”

The parallels between the BDS movement for Palestine and the boycott call against South African apartheid are many. The situations in the two countries at the time of the calls were similar in some ways and different in others. In both cases, the oppressed segment of the society was herded into bantustans, illegitimate “homelands”, which were difficult, if not impossible, to constitute as viable states and institutional violence and denial of human rights were the norm. There are also differences in the two systems but, as Barghouti points out, Israel’s system meets the internationally recognized criteria of an apartheid state. It is also a more deadly form of apartheid, including a process of slow genocide being committed in the West Bank and Gaza, with the later enduring a form of collective punishment of civilians on a level that is almost unimaginable.

Despite having an expensive public relations machine and powerful lobby groups in the U.S. and Europe at its disposal, no amount of spin or bullying has enabled Israel to hinder the BDS campaign. On the contrary, Barghouti points to several examples, including the grotesque Cast Lead assault in the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008/2009 and the attack on the unarmed Freedom Flotilla in late May of 2010, to illustrate how Israel’s actions have helped the BDS movement mushroom. Immediately after Cast Lead, for example, in early February of 2009, in Durban, South Africa, the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (SATAWU), refused to unload an Israeli cargo ship. It was a poignant act of empathy and solidarity and a powerful reminder of South Africa’s own struggle against apartheid. This action was in turn immediately endorsed by unions and union leaders in both Australia and the United States. And only last week, on the heels of the Palmer-Uribe report outlining the Israeli assault on the Mavi Mamara, a boat in the 2010 flotilla, resulting in the deaths of 9 Turkish nationals, Turkey announced that it would impose economic sanctions on Israel and will be increasing its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish government is not only demanding that Israel apologize and compensate the families of the victims, they are also demanding an immediate end to the siege of Gaza.

The BDS call, like the South Africa boycott call before it, is an invitation to honor our consciences and exercise our moral obligation to uphold human rights. This is a movement that has a great chance of success, with odds that are, frankly, improving every day. Omar Barghouti’s book is a powerful and comprehensive tool toward that end and is necessary reading for anyone seeking to learn more and get involved in this global solidarity effort.

Having been lucky enough to participate, in small ways, in both of these boycott calls, I’m excited by what I see happening in the current BDS movement. It’s a chance to heed our instinct for justice and stand on the right side of history, joining with millions of people world-wide in what is arguably one of the most important struggles for justice in our time. To paraphrase a favorite 80’s lyric, BDS is a world party and we are all invited. How can we say no?

To learn more about Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, visit: www.bdsmovement.net

Jeanne Strole is an artist and social justice activist living in New York City. She is currently a co-director of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s