In a poll taken by the Huffington Post UK, a staggering 79 percent of readers
believed that the world’s most famous living physicist, Stephen Hawking, was
right to boycott Israel. His decision has set off a wave of arguments both for
and against boycotting the Jewish state around the world.
In truth, the
argument for a boycott is not a new one; the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
(BDS) campaign against Israel has been running for several years now, though
with Hawking it has gained perhaps its biggest supporter so far.
understand the reason that the hard core of the BDS movement has highlighted
Israel, as opposed to any of the other countries in the world, it’s worth taking
a look at the Electronic Intifada website. The article “As Jews We Say
Birthright Trips Must End” provides as good an example as any of the way the
movement views Israel. The following paragraph from the article is telling:
“Settler-colonialism must be opposed, no matter where it takes place. For
non-Israeli Jews living in other settler-colonial countries, we must also be
accountable to other processes of de-colonization. No group of people have the
right to live anywhere that mandates the explicit exclusion of anyone
Journalist Ali Abunimah uses the same language in his most recent
article in the Guardian’s “Comment Is Free” section: “Palestinians are an
occupied, colonised people, dispossessed at the hands of one of the most
powerful militaries on earth.”
In other words, there are two sides in
this story: a colonial entity coming to steal the land of Palestine, versus the
weak, defenseless natives who have had their land stolen. Thus Palestinians take
the latter role, and Israelis that of the strong colonial power. Of course, if
the real colonial power, Britain, exists in this narrative at all, it is merely
as a disinterested referee.
This language of colonialism is especially
meaningful to the citizens of countries that once possessed empires and long ago
relinquished their hold on them. The Jews, who are depicted as white Europeans,
and the political ideology Zionism, which is constantly depicted as a European
colonial movement, make for exactly the kind of cause that would grab average
Europeans and draw them into the fray.
After all, they have learned about
the ills of colonialism their whole lives.
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Naturally the constant
comparisons between Zionism and colonialism ignore the fact that Jews weren’t
coming to Palestine to build some sort of Jewish empire and harvest the
resources of a new territory for profit, but to escape from the brutality they
were suffering elsewhere. Zionism was as popular as it was because of its
message that these oppressed Jews could take their lives into their own hands
and make their situation better through statehood.
For BDS, it follows
that the arrival of Zionist Jews in Palestine over a century ago was what
sparked off a crisis for native Arab Palestinians.
The way the Arab
Palestinian community chose to respond to these Jews’ arrival is entirely
ignored because it simply doesn’t fit the BDS narrative of events. If your view
of Palestinians is that they were and continue to be weak, uneducated natives,
the mere idea that they could have had some kind of response to the challenges
of the Zionist movement is both ridiculous and dangerous.
enough, these same views of “native populations” as illiterate peasants at best
and savages at worst are what led Europeans to believe that they had not only
the right but an obligation to colonize the world in the first place. Now, in
the 21st century, this view of the world is alive and kicking. Middleclass
Europeans and Americans feel the need to get involved in Palestine because if
they don’t step in to help them, how would these poor, weak Palestinian natives
be able to survive on their own against the European colonial oppressors, the
Zionists? Contrary to the BDS camp’s belief, Palestinians played a very active
role in the way Israel was formed, in the breakdown of relations between Jews
and Arabs and in the eventual war for Israel’s independence. The picture of a
powerful European invader armed with modern technology against which
Palestinians had not the slightest chance does not stand up to serious
examination, yet the BDS movement depends almost entirely on that perception to
make its own arguments work.
The campaign encourages a victim mentality
even as it talks a great deal about empowering Palestinians to take control of
their own destiny.
On the one hand, Abunimah argues that the IDF is “one
of the most powerful militaries in the world”; on the other, he tells
Palestinians that Israel can be made to disintegrate. I wouldn’t blame anyone on
the ground for being uncertain how to proceed. Palestinians are expected to see
themselves as weak, helpless, dispossessed victims, unable to control their own
destiny, and at the same time, they are expected to stand up to that
overwhelming power and destroy the whole country.
The end result is that
the Palestinian Authority comes under attack from the BDS movement whenever it
appears that the former is about to negotiate an end to the very issues that
Palestinians – those actually living under Israeli occupation – hate the most.
The checkpoints, settlements, IDF patrols and all other elements of the
occupation could be a thing of the past were the PA to feel secure enough in its
own base to talk to Israel.
Unfortunately the BDS movement, focused as it
is on Palestinians being victims, could never countenance the PA taking power
into its own hands and sitting across the table from an Israel the movement
continues to argue is nothing more than a relic from a racist, colonial European
past. In fact, BDS increasingly asserts that the PA has no legitimacy to
represent the Palestinians at all.
When the Guardian and Al Jazeera
leaked what became known as the “Palestine Papers” in early 2011, it became
clear that Palestinian negotiators were, quietly, well on the road to finalizing
a deal with Israel. The BDS faithful greeted this news not with happiness that
the hated occupation of the West Bank might soon be ending, but with horror and
Article after article on the pages of “Comment is
Free” and other media denigrated the PA leadership for having the nerve to make
a peace with Israel that might actually see the lives of Palestinians improve.
Writing in the Guardian
, Clayton Swisher, head of Al Jazeera’s Transparency
Unit, actually referred to the advanced state of negotiations as “a peace
process run amok.”
When there was a resumption of absolutely nothing in
the way of progress between the two sides, it suited the BDS narrative
perfectly. Why? Because calling for a boycott of Israel sounds like a more
rational position when there is no progress at the negotiating table than while
negotiations are taking place.
When public figures such as Hawking and
Roger Waters join with the BDS movement, they are perversely helping to ensure
that an eventual peace becomes harder rather than easier to achieve. As far as
the heads of the BDS campaign are concerned, this isn’t about campaigning for an
Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, nor about an eventual agreement that
results in a state of Palestine. This is a fight to the last Palestinian for
Hence the term “boycott, divestment and sanctions,”
rather than the “negotiate peace in Palestine” movement.
AS SOON as
Israel was born, Jews around the world were scrambling to get into it. The
population skyrocketed from 650,000 to over two million in a little over 10
years; 20 years after the foundation of the state, the population was up to
three million. No matter where in the world Jews were, they came to Israel en
masse. The BDS movement hates this fact. But even as it argues that Jewish
immigration to Israel must be forced to stop on the grounds of racism, it
advocates that Palestinians all over the world be able to do exactly the same
Ironically this almost instinctive dismissal of the arguments that
Jews make regarding their own hardships and human rights is what has ensured
that so many Jews believe strongly in Zionism to this day. Had Jews been treated
like regular people throughout Europe and the Middle East during the 1800s,
there is a good chance that Israel never would have come into being in the first
place, since Jews wouldn’t have felt the need for a state of their own or to be
in charge of their own destiny.
This mind-set of dismissal can be seen in
the BDS movement today: Forget the Jews, disregard that there are six million of
them living in their own country, that they have legitimate needs (not to
mention rights), that they only exist in a State of Israel because the world
savagely attacked them; argue instead that Israel is attacked today because it
exists in the first place.
In short, as far as the BDS movement is
concerned, the Jewish state should be forced out of existence by the more
“enlightened” nations of the world, because its establishment was tantamount to
a war crime.
This is the BDS movement. It cannot be bargained with, it
cannot be appeased, and it is fighting heart and soul to destroy Israel. ■ The
writer has written for publications including Jane’s Defence Weekly and The
Jewish Chronicle. He lives in Tel Aviv and blogs at www.marcswords.coms.
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