The Palestinian right to equality is neither negotiable nor relative; it is the sine qua non of a just peace in Palestine and the region. As Edward Said once said, “Equality or nothing!”
Anyone who supports Palestinian self-determination while calling only for ending the forty-five-year-old Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is only upholding most of the rights of just 38 percent of Palestinians while expecting the rest to accept injustice as fate. According to 2011 statistics, of 11.2 million Palestinians, 50 percent live in exile, many denied their UN-stipulated right to return to their homes of origin, and 12 percent are Palestinian citizens of Israel who live under a system of “institutional, legal and societal discrimination,” according to the US State Department. More than two thirds of Palestinians are refugees or internally displaced persons.
Equal rights for Palestinians means, at minimum, ending Israel’s 1967 occupation and colonization, ending Israel’s system of racial discrimination and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba. The 2005 Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) call was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians because it upholds all three. By appealing to people of conscience around the world to help end Israel’s three-tiered system of oppression, the BDS movement is not asking for anything heroic. It is merely asking people to desist from complicity in oppression.
Moreover, given the billions of dollars lavished by the United States on Israel annually, American taxpayers are subsidizing Israel’s violations of international law at a time when American social programs are undergoing severe cuts. Striving to end US complicity in the occupation is good for the Palestinians and for the 99 percent struggling for social justice and against perpetual war.
Building on its global ascendance, the BDS movement—led by the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society, the BDS National Committee (BNC)—is spreading across the United States, especially on campuses and among churches, scoring significant victories such as at the Olympia Food Co-op. Globally, trade union federations with millions of members have endorsed BDS. Veolia and Alstom, two corporations complicit in Israel’s occupation, have lost contracts worth billions of dollars. Deutsche Bahn, a German government-controlled rail company, pulled out of an Israeli project encroaching on occupied Palestinian land. The University of Johannesburg severed links with Ben Gurion University over human rights violations. World renowned artists—including, most recently, Cat Power and Cassandra Wilson—have canceled performances in Israel, heeding the cultural boycott and transforming Tel Aviv into the new Sun City.
BDS advocates equal rights for all and opposes all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. This universalist commitment has won hearts and minds globally, triggering panic and over-the-top bullying attempts to crush BDS in the United States, as witnessed with the national BDS conference at the University of Pennsylvania and the Park Slope Co-op ballot on boycotting Israeli goods, where almost 40 percent voted for BDS. Perhaps provoked by the mainstreaming of BDS, President Obama attacked it for the first time in his recent AIPAC address, joining numerous US politicians whose vehement vilification of BDS puts them on a moral plane with those white Americans who opposed the Montgomery bus boycott and/or the boycott of apartheid South Africa.
With impressive successes in the economic and cultural fields, and with the increasing impact of its Israeli supporters, BDS is viewed by Israel’s establishment as a “strategic threat” to its system of oppression—namely occupation, colonialism and apartheid. This explains the Knesset’s passage of a draconian anti-boycott law last year that drops the last mask of Israel’s supposed democracy. But multimillion-dollar campaigns by Israel’s foreign ministry to counter BDS by “re-branding” through art, science and cynically using LGBT rights to “pinkwash” Israel’s denial of basic Palestinian rights have largely failed.
Among international supporters of BDS, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is among the most eloquent in arguing that Israel practices apartheid. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine in its recent Cape Town session determined that Israel is practicing apartheid against the entire Palestinian people. Similarly, South African Christian leaders have condemned Israel’s apartheid as “even worse than South African apartheid.” And the publisher of Haaretz, an influential Israeli daily, recently described a fanatic Israeli ideology of “territorial seizure and apartheid.”
With its continued siege of Gaza; its untamed construction of illegal colonies and the wall in the occupied West Bank; its “strategy of Judaization” in Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Jordan Valley and the Naqab (Negev); its adoption of new racist laws and its denial of refugees’ rights, Israel has embarked on a more belligerent phase in its attempt to extinguish the question of Palestine through literally “disappearing” the Palestinians, as Said would say.
Israel and its well-oiled lobby groups, who Thomas Friedman charges with buying allegiance in Congress, have been trying to delegitimize the Palestinian quest for equal rights by portraying the nonviolent 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? Justice and equality only destroy their negation, injustice and inequality. The BDS movement’s effective challenge to Israeli apartheid and colonial rule petrifies Israel and its lobbies.
Desperate to “save Israel,” essentially as an apartheid state, and motivated by genuine fear of the demise of Zionism, “liberal” Zionists are under exceptional duress given the fast spread of BDS. Cognizant of its appeal to an increasing number of younger Jewish activists, some are muddying the waters by suggesting a Zionist-friendly boycott to undermine the movement. But BDS is an ethically consistent, rights-based movement that cannot coexist with racism of any type, including Zionism. A “Zionist BDS” is as logical as a “racist equality”!
BDS addresses comprehensive Palestinian rights, not simply ending the Israeli occupation of some densely populated Palestinian territory in order to save Israel as a “purer” apartheid. Even those who seek ending the occupation only, disregarding the basic rights of most Palestinians, struggle to explain their opposition to a full boycott of Israel, the occupying power, which under international law bears full responsibility for the occupation and its manifestations. The BDS movement calls for boycotting Israel just as South Africa was the target of boycotts due to its apartheid regime, China due to its occupation of Tibet and Sudan due to its crimes in Darfur.
Still, BDS is not a dogmatic or centralized movement—it is all about context sensitivity and creativity. BDS supporters in any particular context decide what to target and how to mobilize and organize their local campaigns. So long as they uphold the basic rights of all Palestinians, international partners may decide to selectively target companies implicated in Israel’s occupation or colonies only out of pragmatic considerations rather than approval of Israel’s other injustices.
A movement that dwells in citizens’ 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 Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. cannot be defeated or co-opted.
Our South Africa moment has arrived.