We Won’t Be Silenced About Israel’s Crimes

Interview by Peter Rugh Feb 7, 2013

Controversy continues to swirl around a planned forum scheduled to take place on Thursday, February 7, at Brooklyn College to discuss the growing global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

In a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, nine members of the New York City Council threatened to cut funding for the school if its political science department continued co-sponsorship of the event. As of the night before the meeting, though, Gould was defending the right to hold the meeting, stating that Brooklyn College's and her own "commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast." This week, two city councilors repudiated their support for the letter, and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the right of Brooklyn College and its students to hold a forum protesting Israel.

The man at the center of the storm is Omar Barghouti. In 2005, together with Palestinian unions and civil society groups, he helped to launch the call for an international BDS campaign to challenge Israel over its occupation of Palestine and its racism towards Palestinians. The campaign is modeled on the boycott effort against apartheid South Africa during 1970s and '80s.

Barghouti talked to Peter Rugh about the Brooklyn College controversy, the global BDS movement and the Arab Spring rebellions across the Arab world, among other topics. A segment of this interview aired on Free Speech Radio News. Below is part one of the interview–we'll publish part two next week.

What is BDS, and why has it prompted several pro-Israel advocacy groups and ardent Zionist Alan Dershowitz to stir up this "controversy" about your appearance at Brooklyn College?

BDS is a global movement that was formed in support of the Palestinian civil society BDS call issued in 2005 by the vast majority of Palestinian political parties, trade unions, women's groups, NGOs and so on.

The premise of the BDS movement is that given the international community's complicity with Israel's occupation and its denial of Palestinian rights, Palestinians cannot achieve our basic rights under international law without the mobilization of international civil society organizations. The basic tactic–which was also employed by the South African anti-apartheid movement–is to cut off links with Israel and institutions that maintain Israel's occupation and apartheid.

The BDS call specifically works toward achieving three basic Palestinian rights: one, ending the occupation of the 1967 territories (including the illegal colonies, the illegal wall, and so on); two, ending the system of racial discrimination within Israel against its indigenous Palestinians, who are citizens of the state of Israel but without equal rights; and three, establishing the right of return for Palestinian refugees who were expelled and ethnically cleansed from their homeland in 1948 and ever since. This right of return is guaranteed under international law.

So BDS is very much a rights-based movement that's anchored in universal human rights and international law. And it calls for boycotting, divesting from, and eventually sanctions against the state of Israel–as was done against apartheid South Africa–in order to achieve those Palestinian rights. It's the combination of internal popular resistance to Israel's occupation and apartheid with the external pressure of boycotts and divestments that can bring about the change necessary to guarantee our rights.

I spoke to a woman from the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York, and she had some choice words for you. She described you as an anti-Semite who has called for the destruction of the state of Israel, and she said the "one-state solution" you and the BDS movement advocate is a call for the extermination of the Jewish state. Another of her criticisms is that BDS creates an atmosphere of hostility that is counterproductive to peace and harming Palestinian workers. How would you respond?

This claim is anti-Semitic. Why do I say that her claim that a call for boycotting Israel is anti-Semitic is itself anti-Semitic? Because she is equating a boycott of Israel with a boycott of the Jews–an attack on Israeli policy with an attack on the Jews. Equating "the Jews" with Israel–as if they were a monolithic sum of people, without diversity, without human differences–is an anti-Semitic statement. Saying that Israel speaks for all Jews, and that all Jews are represented by Israel and carry collective responsibility for Israel, is a very anti-Semitic statement.

There is no one who monopolizes the Jewish voice–in the United States or anywhere else. There are diverse Jewish groups. Some of our best partners who are leading BDS campaigns in this country are Jewish, like Jewish Voices for Peace, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and many other Jewish groups.

If you go to any random campus across the United States, and you look at the divestment campaigns waged on those campuses, you'll find a disproportionately high number of Jewish activists. This is something we are very proud of–that many, especially younger, Jewish Americans are abandoning Zionism and are realizing what Israel is about.

It's a colonial state, it's an apartheid state, and they do not want such a state to speak in their name, to speak on their behalf. And they are increasingly joining the cause for justice and peace.

The second point is that BDS does not take a position on whether a one-state or a two-state solution should be pursued in Palestine. So she's repeating a myth–it's a fabrication. Our movement is totally neutral on the terms of a political settlement to the conflict.

But each one of us, as a human and as an activist, has a position on this, and I'm not ashamed of mine. For 30 years, I've advocated for the one-state solution in my personal capacity. I've researched and written about the one-democratic-state solution in historic Palestine. That means equality for everyone–irrespective of identity, ethnicity, religion or any other attribute. And what's wrong with that? Why is one-person, one-vote good for every land in the world except Palestine? Why is it that democracy suddenly becomes a bad thing here?

Jewish Americans were at the forefront of the civil rights movement to overturn Jim Crow segregation in the American South. They stood alongside African Americans calling for equality for everyone, separation between religion and state, and equal rights for all humans. But in Israel, pro-Israel groups are defending an apartheid system.

This isn't something only the BDS movement is saying. The famous Jewish American writer I.F. Stone, as far back as 1967, said that Zionism and Israel are creating a schizophrenia among Jewish communities. On the one hand, they are defending civil rights and equality in the countries where they live, and in Israel, they are defending a set of laws that is racist, that doesn't allow mixed marriages, that frowns upon equality, that rejects equality in a categorical manner. This schizophrenia is more recognized by younger Jewish activists everywhere, especially in the United States.

Finally, the idea that BDS is counterproductive and that it hurts Palestinian workers who work in Israeli settlements. Let me start off by saying that this is an exceptionally patronizing, very colonial argument. For someone to have the chutzpah to claim that she knows what is in the Palestinians' best interests more than the Palestinians–that's the epitome of hypocrisy and condescension.

The assumption is that we–just because we're brown, just because we live the global South–somehow don't have the faculty to reason, that we cannot speak about nor understand how to defend our own best interests, that we need somebody from above, from the North, a white person, to tell us how to think, how to formulate our will, and how to express it. This is extremely racist.

But putting aside her patronizing outlook for a moment, that Palestinian workers have to work in Israeli projects, including illegal settlements, is a testament to the occupation's corruption and its strangulation of the Palestinian economy. Israel has systematically destroyed Palestinian agriculture and industry; it has systematically stolen the best, most fertile Palestinian land and water resources; and it has made the Palestinian economy completely dependent on the occupying power.

Those Palestinian farmers thrown off their lands when they were confiscated for Jewish-only settlements had no choice but to become workers. Given the total destruction of the Palestinian economy, the only option for many people is to work with Israeli projects. Is that ideal? Absolutely not.

Ending the occupation would allow the Palestinians to build our own economy and to have our own economic projects, where we wouldn't need to be dependent on a colonial power to sustain our lives. We can build, we can plant, we can produce, we can be creative–if given the chance. And to get this chance, we need the help of every conscientious person around the world, including conscientious Jewish persons around the world, to help us end Israel's occupation and apartheid, so that we can carry on with our sustainable development.

You've spoken at countless campuses across the U.S. and around the world. Have you encountered this kind of vitriol at your other events?

We so far have yet to experience any disruptions at our campus BDS events in the U.S. We hope Brooklyn College will be the first and last, but we're not assured of that because of the rabid anti-Palestinian sentiments that have been stirred up. There has been extreme racism and violent language directed at the event.

Some of the most extreme people behind these statements are supporters of Meir Kahane and his Kach Party, which is officially considered a terrorist entity by the U.S. government. Kach was even barred by the government of Israel at one time from standing in Israeli elections.

The supporters of this fascist and fanatical party are the ringleaders of the circus targeting the Brooklyn College BDS event. They are trying their best to suppress academic freedom in the United States by saying, "We, the pro-Israel lobby, get to decide who is allowed to speak on campus and who is not allowed, what subjects are allowed and what subjects are not allowed to be discussed on campus."

They're destroying the notion of academic freedom by twisting it around to serve their hard-right, anti-liberation and anti-Palestinian agenda. To be honest, it's been many years since I have faced such vile and violent racism as I have encountered around this Brooklyn College event. I've spoken on campuses large and small in the last couple years, and we've never had any disruptions.

We continue to hope there won't be any disruption, but alas, we are very concerned for our safety. With such incitement to violence and such racial hatred as has been conveyed by figures such as Dershowitz and others, I fear for my safety, and I hope that Brooklyn College will take the necessary steps to prevent these rabid voices from attacking us and/or disrupting the event.

If they have arguments against BDS, let's address them in a civil way. Let them come to the event, let them listen to Prof. Judith Butler and myself, and then present their points in a rational, cool-headed manner. Let's have a proper debate about it. That's how rational beings settle and discuss differences of opinion. This is how society progresses, by discussing differences.

The U.S. is directly, immediately and deeply responsible for maintaining Israel's occupation and apartheid through the billions of dollars that it sends to Israel every year–at the expense of social justice, at the expense of health care, at the expense of education here in the U.S. Instead of spending in this country to improve education, employment opportunities, job training and environmental protections, the U.S. is sending billions and billions of dollars to Israel to buy weapons–to kill, to maim, to ethnically cleanse. This has to stop.

American citizens have an obligation, a duty and a right to question in order to stop this enormous flow of money as well as the complicity that goes with it. We also have a right to debate Israel in this country, and to stand up against Israel's policies of occupation and apartheid here in the U.S., especially in this country that is so complicit in Israel's colonial project.

No one can stop this questioning from happening. They may succeed with their violence–and the impunity that they've enjoyed so far–in scuttling one or two events, or in throwing an academic out of a university, or in haunting a dissenter or a journalist who dares to question Israel. Yes, they've succeeded before, and they still continue to succeed in some cases.

But they cannot hide the sun with the palms of their hands. They cannot hide the sun with this violence and their violent language and their incitement to hatred. The movement is growing. BDS is growing. Israel's accountability to human rights and international law is growing every single month, every single year, including in the United States.

Many Jewish students across the United States are abandoning Zionism, and if not yet joining the BDS movement, at least questioning Israel's policies and questioning whether Israel indeed speaks on their behalf. The winds of change are blowing, and Alan Dershowitz and others cannot stop them.

They are coming to understand this, and that's why they are so fanatical and violent in their reactions. They've been absolutely hysterical, and this is a sign of weakness. If they felt strong and confident, they wouldn't have to resort to such incitements to violence and racial hatred. They would come and face our argument with a counterargument, as any rational person would.

Can you describe how this apartheid system impacts the day-to-day lives of Palestinians living in Israel, in the West Bank and in Gaza?

First, let me explain why I use the term apartheid, because people are sometimes startled when supporters of Palestinian rights say that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. Israel's defenders and anti-Palestinian voices exclaim in anger, "How dare you say Israel is an apartheid state? Israel is so different than South Africa."

But this is a misunderstanding of what apartheid is. Apartheid is not just a South African crime. It's an international crime recognized and defined by international law, especially the 1973 UN Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Of course, South Africa was a very clear case of apartheid, but so were the Southern states in the United States before the civil rights movement. So what makes one racist system apartheid and another one not apartheid?

The difference is not that this is only a racist policy being adopted here or there, or racism existing here or there, it's when this racism is institutionalized and legalized, when you have systematic oppression of one racial group against another group in a legalized manner. That's when it becomes apartheid.

So just to give a concrete example: 93 percent of the land of Israel can only be used for the benefit of the Jewish population of Israel. Not for the inhabitants of the state of Israel, not for the citizens of the state of Israel in general. So any non-Jewish citizen of the state of Israel can't benefit from 93 percent of the land. In comparison, in South Africa, it was 86 percent for the benefit of the whites and the rest for the indigenous population.

There are literally dozens of laws in Israel that discriminate between its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. In that sense, Israel is clearly guilty of the crime or apartheid, because that is what apartheid is. That's how it's defined in international law. You have laws that discriminate between Jew and non-Jew, giving a distinct set of privileges only to Jewish citizens.

Another very basic reality that Palestinians in Israel face is that Israel is the only country on earth that does not define itself as a state of its citizens. It's a state of the "Jewish people." What does that mean? It means that even if you have lived in Palestine for generations, even if you were there before it became Israel, you don't receive the full set of rights if you are not Jewish. Israel does not belong to you; it belongs to the "Jewish nation." In fact, the very concept of a "Jewish nation" is controversial, and Jewish communities around the world have debated and continue to vigorously debate it.

Imagine the equivalent here. Imagine if the U.S. declared itself a "Christian state"–a state of the Christian nation. Any Christian around the world would have full rights in the United States, but not its Jewish, Muslim or other non-Christian communities. Would anyone accept such inequality written into the laws themselves? Would anyone accept unequal treatment based on their identity? Why then is it acceptable that Israel has dozens of laws that discriminate against its non-Jewish citizens?

In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in Gaza, such apartheid treatment is obviously much more pronounced than within Israel. At least Palestinian citizens of Israel can cast a vote. Yes, all parties have to take a loyalty oath to the state as "a Jewish and democratic state," but this is, of course, an oxymoron: a state cannot be both a Jewish exclusivist supremacist state and democratic.

If we go to the West Bank and Gaza, we see that apartheid is concrete. Israel's "separation wall"–Israel's apartheid wall–lies predominantly within the Occupied Territories, and it has been ruled a violation of international law by the International Court of Justice.

You also have colonial settlements in the Occupied Territories that are for Jewish Israelis only. They are considered a war crime, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. Transferring part of the occupying state's population to occupied territory is considered a war crime, and that's exactly what Israel has done. Since 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it has transferred part of its population to the occupied territory in violation international law.

This means that those settlers have full citizenship privileges–they are part of the Israeli legal system, and they get to vote for the Israeli parliament–while Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are a totally different franchise. They are not part of the system, and they don't enjoy any rights under Israeli military law. The settlers get their settler-only roads, which serve Jewish Israelis only, whereas the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza quite often are not allowed to use those roads.

After Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005, it doesn't have any settlers there, but Gaza is still under occupation. Israel is in full control of passage into Gaza, whether by air, land or sea. Israel is in full control of the territory, which under international law makes it the occupying power. Israel surrounded the West Bank and Gaza with walls and fences and hundreds of military checkpoints, which prevent freedom of movement for the Palestinians. So the reality of apartheid is extremely pronounced there.

In what ways have the uprisings that began shaking the Middle East in 2011 changed the situation on the ground?

The Arab Spring has opened up a huge opportunity for building support for Palestinian rights in the Arab world. Across the Arab world, support for Palestinian rights has always been a de facto reality, a consensus. Every single citizen of every Arab state–with very few exceptions–supports Palestinian rights.

However, in countries run by dictators and non-democratic governments, this support has never led to any effective change. And a successful BDS campaign requires a certain minimum of democracy and of civil rights in order to succeed.

It's not enough to have a million Moroccans demonstrating against Israel's bombing of Gaza, as they did during Israel's bombing of Gaza in late 2008-early 2009. We indeed had 1 million people in the streets of Rabat demonstrating for Palestinian rights. This was an extremely important display of solidarity.

But did that translate into effective campaigns against Caterpillar, against Veolia, against international companies that are violating Palestinian rights in their complicity with the Israeli occupation? No, it did not. And it couldn't in a country that lacks basic democracy.

With the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, we are seeing the dawn of freedom and the beginning of democratization, and we're not saying that it's a mature democracy yet. But despite the turbulence, despite the struggles that people have to go through to really build their democracies, this has already created a huge opening for Palestine solidarity efforts to become effective and sustainable campaigns that can lead to concrete results by holding corporations and institutions accountable to basic principles of human rights.

It hasn't been even two years since the beginning of the Arab Spring, so it is too early to expect big results. Revolutions take a long time to get past internal conflict and build a stable democracy. It will take some time until Egyptians, Tunisians and others sort out their internal strife and build their own systems on the foundation of social justice, freedom and rights for all citizens–and until they are able to address their obligation to stand with the Palestinians.

When we talk about Arab solidarity, solidarity is not even the most accurate term, because it's a family. That's how Palestinians feel–we're part of this family of Arab nations and Arab states. It's not like asking a neighbor for help. It's asking your father and mother and sister and daughter for help.

That's how we feel when we ask Egyptians to support our rights. We're not asking our neighbor for help, we're asking our brother for help. But the brother is in a lot of trouble at this point and is still trying to get his or her house in order so we need to wait patiently until they can stand on their feet. Then we're sure to have massive support.

This interview was originally published on

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