AT THE core of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy lies the categorical imperative, which implores us to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This categorical imperative informs our moral consistency in the BDS movement. As human rights activists we will that the slogans of our BDS movement, namely freedom, justice, equality, should apply universally to all humans, irrespective of color, ethnicity, religion, or any other identity attribute.
BDS, then, is primarily about FJE—freedom, justice, and equality. The BDS movement, which is led by the BDS National Committee (BNC), the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society, is today challenging Israel’s multi-tiered system of oppression against the Palestinian people, which constitutes settler-colonialism, occupation, and apartheid.
Not only has the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in its recent Cape Town session, with its luminary set of jurists, reached the conclusion that Israel is indeed practicing apartheid against the entire Palestinian people; leading South African Christian voices have also told their Palestinian counterparts:
From our own experience of apartheid, we can clearly and without equivocation say that your situation is in essence the same as apartheid and in its practical manifestation even worse than South African apartheid.
In Israel, talk about apartheid has also become far more public. The owner and publisher of the influential Israeli daily Haaretz has recently written that a fanatic ideology of “territorial seizure and apartheid” has “established the concrete basis for the actions of [successive Israeli] governments.” He further says:
This ideology views the creation of an Israeli apartheid regime as a necessary tool for its realization. It has no difficulty with illegal actions and with outright criminality, because it rests on mega-laws that it has adopted and that have no connection with the laws of the state, and because it rests on a perverted interpretation of Judaism.
This extremist ideology has taken over Israel, leading to what some international law experts have termed, “acts of genocide” being perpetrated by Israel in the occupied and brutally besieged Gaza Strip. It has also fed the intensifying and ongoing Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians in the Naqab (Negev) desert and in the occupied West Bank, especially in and around Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley; the passage of racist laws by the Knesset at an unprecedented rate, effectively dropping Israel’s last masks of democracy; and the perpetuation of Israel’s decades-old policy of denying Palestinian refugees, who are the great majority of the Palestinian people, their UN-sanctioned right to return to their homes and lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the Nakba—and ever since.
Today, there are 11.22 million Palestinians, 50 percent of whom are outside historic Palestine (the Occupied Palestinian Territory, OPT, and Israel). Only 38 percent of the Palestinian people today live in the OPT and 12 percent, that is 1.37 million Palestinians, are citizens of the state of Israel, living under conditions that conform to the UN definition of the crime of apartheid.
So those who assert that they support Palestinian rights under international law cannot reduce those rights to merely ending the occupation, as that would address most of the rights of only 38 percent of the Palestinian people, given that the majority in Gaza and a large minority in the West Bank are also refugees whose basic rights include the right of return.
Israel and its very well-oiled lobby groups, as well as some of the closet supporters of Israeli apartheid in the “soft” Zionist camp, have been trying to delegitimize our quest for equal rights under international law by portraying the BDS call’s emphasis on equal rights and the right of return as aiming to “destroy Israel.” If equality and justice would destroy Israel, what does that say about Israel? Did equality and justice destroy South Africa? Did they destroy Alabama? Of course not. Justice and equality only destroy their negation, injustice and apartheid, and this is precisely what Israel and its lobbies are running scared of, the effective and sustainable challenge of Israeli apartheid and colonial rule.
But what about the anti-Semitism charge thrown recklessly and maliciously at BDS activists? This venomous and patently false smear remains a potent weapon deployed by Israel and its lobby groups to silence dissent and muzzle debate about Israeli occupation and apartheid. This time around, though, with the BDS movement’s solid human rights and international law credentials and track record, the anti-Semitism bullying tactic is hardly working. It has failed to impress anyone, really, given the widening support for BDS among Jewish students, academics, artists, and other activists. Regardless, calling BDS against Israel anti-Semitic is itself an anti-Semitic statement as it reduces all Jews to a monolithic sum that is absolutely equivalent to the state of Israel, is entirely represented by Israel, and holds collective responsibility for Israel and its policies. Any statement that ignores diversity among Jewish communities, like in any other human group, and that claims that all Jews are…, regardless what comes after that, is by definition an anti-Semitic statement.
A quick survey of BDS campaigns throughout the Western world will immediately reveal the disproportionately and refreshingly high number of Jewish activists, intellectuals, artists, students, feminists, and others in every campaign. We are proud of the fact that an increasing number of young Jewish Americans is seeing Israel for what it really is, a colonial state that is gravely and persistently violating international law, and refusing to have anything to do with it. In a way, they are showing the world that Israel does not, indeed cannot, speak on their behalf or in their names.
But it is imperative for those in the BDS movement to think out of the Jewish box. BDS is about justice for the Palestinians and civil opposition to Israel’s system of oppression. It is not about Jews or Judaism, no matter how loudly Israel and its influential lobby shout to the contrary. Palestinians could not care less what religious or ethnic identity their oppressor carries—all that matters is that oppression prevails and therefore our most basic duty is to resist it and bring about a better future for all, based on justice and full respect for international law and human rights.
BDS is categorically opposed to all forms of racism, including Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, and, of course, anti-Semitism. Anchored in international law and universal principles of human rights, BDS calls for equal rights for all humans, without discrimination. This makes BDS, in fact, a liberal, not a leftist agenda. Yes, we expect all coherent leftists to support it, but we also cannot see why any self-respecting liberal should not. BDS is today spreading at a spectacular rate within the mainstream of Western societies, chalking up one high-profile success after another, in the economic, academic, and cultural boycott spheres. Israel is conceding that it is losing the battle for hearts and minds not just in Europe but also on US campuses; thus the panic, the vilification, and the over-the-top bullying attempts to crush your timely BDS conference at UPenn. When I think of the organizers of this great, historic, conference, the following words of Martin Luther King come to mind:
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
Not only is BDS growing on US campuses; it is also taking root among faith groups, minority rights organizations, indigenous communities, labor activists, academics, LGBT advocates, and human rights groups, among others. Today, BDS in the United States boasts the support of Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Judith Butler, Sarah Schulman, Adrienne Rich,1 and many other prominent figures—including men, too. Today, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, with its almost 400 member organizations, is advancing the military embargo against Israel, connecting it with the domestic agenda for sustainable jobs, affordable housing, and dignified health care. Today, Jewish Voice for Peace leads a campaign to pressure TIAA-CREF to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation and violations of international law. Today, Code Pink is globalizing its highly creative campaign against Ahava and is advancing its “Occupy AIPAC” campaign. Today, Adalah-New York’s campaign against Lev Leviev’s diamond empire is reported in Vogue, the New York Times, and other influential media outlets. Today the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network is leading a campaign against the JNF. Today, major churches are considering divestment from companies that are complicit in Israel’s violations of international law. Today, we have the Olympia food Co-op as the first US supermarket to implement a boycott of Israeli goods. Today, we have the example of Hampshire College as the first US college to divest from companies implicated in Israel’s occupation, just as it was the first to divest from South African apartheid. Today, BDS in the United States is no longer on the margins; it is increasingly being welcomed into mainstream circles.
In light of the evolving popular revolutions across the Arab region and the Occupy movement that is largely inspired by them, it is crucial to effectively and consistently present the fact about BDS as being part of the global 99% movement for freedom, justice, and equal rights. It is vital to reveal how Israel is right at the center of the 1% agenda, the Perpetual War Inc., that thrives on ongoing armed conflict, militarism, and instability with all lucrative profits that are generated as a result, and not just for the arms industry, but also for banks, oil companies, homeland security outlets, all financiers and perpetuators of global misery and pillage. Israel’s endless wars are good for business, if you are in the death business; they provide rare opportunities to US arms manufacturers to test their latest hardware and to demonstrate its potency “in the field” in order to sell.
It is hardly a secret that Israel’s lobby groups, particularly Netanyahu’s neocon partners, played an instrumental role in prodding the United States to wage war on Iraq, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, mass destruction of Iraqi society, and the loss of many thousands of US lives, not to mention trillions of dollars. This phenomenal sum came out of your tax money, the taxes of the 99%, to feed the insatiable greed of the 1%. So when people say Israel is worth the billions of dollars and the vetoes that the US showers it with every year because it “serves US interests,” I can only ask which US interest does Israel really serve? Certainly not yours!
With its massive nuclear weapons arsenal, ongoing militarism and warmongering, Israel and its apologists are at it again, advocating a US war against Iran, in total harmony with the same US interests that Israel has always served, the military contractors and others who stand to gain handsomely from a protracted war and large deployment of American troops.
The 1% is united, and so must we unite, the global 99%. Our aspirations overlap, our struggles converge. Unity is now a necessity, not a nicety. We must strengthen our alliance with African American and Latino communities, indigenous groups, labor, LGBT rights groups, human rights groups, faith organizations, and progressive Jewish organizations, among others. As a BNC statement read, “We can no longer ignore our obligations to join hands in the struggle against wars and corporate exploitation and for a human-friendly world community, not a profit-maximizing jungle.”
To the US public that your conference will hopefully reach, I have the following appeal: As taxpayers who are inadvertently implicated in supporting, to the tune of billions of dollars each year, Israel’s fanatic and ever more isolated regime of occupation, apartheid, and denial of our basic rights, we appeal to you to join the BDS movement and similar, morally consistent struggles for justice and rights; we urge you to end your complicity in Israel’s injustice. This is not something heroic that we are asking of you. Ending partnership in crime is a profound moral obligation that every conscientious person must heed; it is not heroic.
Nouwen, McNeil, and Morrison, authors of Reflections on Christian Life, wrote:
We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys. We cannot profess our solidarity with those who are oppressed when we are unwilling to confront the oppressor. Compassion without confrontation fades quickly to fruitless sentimental commiseration.
Solidarity with the oppressed, then, must entail confronting the oppressor and disengaging from financial, academic, cultural, and other institutions that are complicit in the system of oppression. At the very least, it entails, as King said, withdrawing your support from an “evil system” of oppression.
You and your frustrated detractors equally know, I believe, that BDS today is growing beyond their reach, and nothing they can do will stop its tide. A movement that grows in people’s consciences, that is rooted in an oppressed people’s heritage of struggle for justice, and that is inspired by the rich and diverse legacies of Mandela, Tutu, and King cannot be defeated or co-opted. From Johannesburg to Cairo, from London to São Paulo, from Delhi to Pennsylvania, from Melbourne to Toronto, our South Africa moment has arrived! With your determination, wisdom, courage, moral power, and boundless creativity, we shall prevail over apartheid just as South Africans have.
February 1, 2012
1. Adrienne Rich, the US poet and feminist, died on March 27, 2012, after this was written.