Foreword: five years of BDS

April 30, 2011
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This article was written in 2010 as a foreword to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other contributions.   Since it is in a concrete situation that the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is established, the resolution of this contradiction must be objectively verifiable.

This article was written in 2010 as a foreword to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other contributions.


Since it is in a concrete situation that the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is established, the resolution of this contradiction must be objectively verifiable. Hence, the radical requirement—both for the individual who discovers himself or herself to be an oppressor and for the oppressed—that the concrete situation which begets oppression must be transformed.1

-- Paulo Freire


First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

-- Mahatma Gandhi


After years of utter dereliction in meeting the challenge of the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, Israel and the Zionist movement have waken up, rattled and quite startled, to the bellowing sound of an alarm and started shouting: "existential threat!" This time around, though, hardly anyone is impressed. Israel's systematic violations of international law and the basic rights of the Palestinian people have helped create a fertile ground for the spectacular growth of this civil society campaign that has dragged Israel into a battlefield, so to speak, where the Palestinian moral strength largely neutralizes Israel's massive weaponry, including hundreds of nuclear heads, and even more massive lobby influence in the US and other Western states.


On July 9, 2005, Palestinian civil society launched what is now widely recognized as a qualitatively different phase in the global struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice, and self-determination against a ruthless, powerful system of oppression that enjoys impunity and that is intent on making a self-fulfilling prophecy of the utterly racist, myth-laden, foundational Zionist dictum of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” In a historic moment of collective consciousness, informed by almost a century of struggle against Zionist settler colonialism, the overwhelming majority in Palestinian civil society issued the BDS Call against Israel until it fully complies with its obligations under international law. More than 170 Palestinian civil society groups, including all major political parties, refugee rights associations, trade union federations, women’s unions, NGO networks, and virtually the entire spectrum of grassroots organizations, inspired by how people of conscience in the international community have “historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa,” have called upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to “impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.”


Since 2008, the BDS movement has been led by the largest coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations inside historic Palestine and in exile, the BDS National Committee (BNC).12


The BDS campaign is among the most important forms of collective struggle by the great majority of Palestinians, who resist the colonization of their land and minds and demand nothing less than self-determination, freedom, justice, and unmitigated equality. The BDS Call, anchored in international law and universal principles of human rights, adopts a comprehensive rights-based approach, underlining the fact that for the Palestinian people to exercise its right to self-determination, Israel must end its three forms of injustice that infringe international law and Palestinian rights:


1. ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands [occupied in 1967] and dismantling the Wall

2. recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality

3. respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194


The so-called international community, under the hegemonic influence of the United States, has not only failed to stop Israel’s construction of its wall and settler colonies, both declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, but has colluded in undermining hitherto UN-sanctioned Palestinian rights. This has prompted Palestinian society to reassert its basic rights. The BDS Call, with unprecedented near-consensus support among Palestinians inside historic Palestine as well as in exile, reminded the world that the indigenous Palestinian people include the refugees forcibly displaced from their homeland—by Zionist militias and later the state of Israel—during the 1948 Nakba[1] and ever since, as well as the Palestinian citizens of Israel who remained on their land and now live under a regime of legalized racial discrimination.[2]


Coming on the heels of its devastating war of aggression on Lebanon (2006), Israel's latest bloodbath in Gaza (2008–9) and its multiyear illegal and immoral siege of the Strip have stimulated a real transformation in world public opinion against Israeli policies and system of oppression. The United Nations and leading human rights organizations have amply documented the devastating consequences of the siege on the health of the Palestinian population, especially children among whom stunted growth and anemia have become widespread. A May 2010 report in the BBC in fact reveals how Israel, through its siege, is allowing only the “minimum calorie intake needed by Gaza’s million and a half inhabitants, according to their age and sex,” as a form of severe collective punishment.[3]


When the heart-wrenching images of Israeli phosphorus bombs showering densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods and UN shelters in Gaza were beamed across the world during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008–9, they triggered worldwide outrage which translated into sustainable, organized, and very promising boycotts and divestment initiatives in economic, academic, athletic, and cultural fields. Former president of the UN General Assembly Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, distinguished artists, writers, academics, and filmmakers, progressive Jewish groups, major trade unions and labor federations, church-affiliated organizations, and many student groups have all endorsed, to varying degrees, the logic of boycott, convincing many that our “South Africa moment” has finally arrived.


As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) news service put it: “The fear is that Israel is subject to a growing tide of delegitimization that, if unchecked, could pose an existential threat. The nightmare scenario has the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement gaining more traction and anti-Israel opinion moving from Western campuses to governments, followed by a lifting of the protective American diplomatic umbrella.”[4] In the same vein, in May 2009, at a policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), executive director Howard Kohr warned that BDS was reaching the American mainstream and “laying the predicate for abandonment [of Israel].” Kohr added, “This is a conscious campaign to shift policy, to transform the way Israel is treated by its friends to a state that deserves not our support, but our contempt; not our protection, but pressure to change its essential nature.”[5]


Despite immense investments of money and projection of intimidating power, the Israel lobby has largely failed, to date, to quell the spread of support for BDS on campuses, especially in the US, as well as among faith-based organizations, cultural figures, and even progressive and liberal Jewish groups. Confronted with this failure to quash BDS in its infancy, Zionist groups everywhere, and especially in the United States, have resorted to naked bullying, intimidation, and other increasingly McCarthyesque measures, further alienating a fast-growing number of Jewish Americans, especially the younger generation.


The most consequential achievement of the first five years of the BDS movement was indeed to expose the “essential nature” of Israel’s regime over the Palestinian people as one that combines military occupation, colonization, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid.[6] Israel’s mythical and carefully cultivated, decades-old image as a “democratic” state seeking “peace” may, as a result, have suffered irreparable damage.


The September 13, 2010, Time magazine cover story, “Why Israel Doesn’t Care about Peace,”[7] may be the most prominent indicator yet of the growing feeling among many in the Western mainstream that Israel is a belligerent outlaw that has no interest in peace, particularly given that it is has not yet been compelled to pay a serious price for its crimes and persistent violations of international law.


It has become almost common in the mainstream Israeli media lately to read and hear the term fascism used by prominent figures to describe Israel, fueled mainly by the ever expanding hold of the openly racist, fanatic secular and Jewish fundamentalist parties on Israeli politics and entire body politic. For example, in a recent decision, the Israeli Supreme Court, in line with its long history of collusion in protecting and justifying racial discrimination and other violations of international law, sanctioned the construction of three apartment buildings for Jews only, slated to go up in the Jaffa neighborhood of Ajami, despite the fact that such a decision entails blatant racial discrimination.[8]


Hundreds of academics, artists, and other intellectuals signed a “Declaration of Independence from Fascism” right after the Israeli government overwhelmingly voted to adopt an amendment to the Citizenship Act, dubbed the “loyalty oath,” whereby “non-Jews” applying for Israeli citizenship would have to pledge allegiance to Israel “as a Jewish democratic state.”[9]


The by-now-customary calls by Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, even from the podium of the UN General Assembly,[10] for ethnically cleansing Palestinian citizens of Israel and rejecting any peaceful settlement demanding a significant withdrawal of Israel from occupied Palestinian territory have only accelerated the spread of the view of Israel as a world pariah.


A prominent Israeli academic commented thus on the far-right politics of Israeli cabinet ministers: “Israel is currently the only Western country whose cabinet includes the likes of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai. The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post–World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain.”[11]


This growing outcry about Israel "becoming fascist," other than being slightly exaggerated and rather alarmist, reflects an unprecedented level of anxiety among "liberal" Zionists in Israel and elsewhere about Israel's system of colonial and racist repression, under which the indigenous Palestinians of the land have suffered since 1948, finally coming home to roost and targeting Jewish Israeli dissenters and non-conformant organizations as well.


The facade of democracy is what is truly collapsing in Israel, not democracy, as the latter has never existed -- nor could have -- in any true form in a settler-colonial state like Israel.[12] Apartheid South Africa was a "democracy" for whites, after all, and the US was a "democracy" when Southern states were still holding on to apartheid laws against African-Americans and other non-whites. But when the facade of democracy and enlightenment collapses the entire Israeli regime of apartheid, settler-colonialism and occupation becomes at serious risk of collapsing as well, as it will be even less tolerated by the world and more likely to trigger even fiercer internal resistance to it.


In this context, the BDS movement has played a major role in intensifying the now public fear in Israel of becoming the world pariah, as South Africa was, with all the expected consequences. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, reacted angrily to a boycott call issued by prominent Israeli artists, supported by academics, in August 2010 against performing in Israel’s illegal colonies:[13] “The State of Israel is under an attack of delegitimization by elements in the international community. This attack includes attempts to enact economic, academic and cultural boycotts. The last thing we need at this time is to be under such an attack—I mean this attempt at a boycott—from within.”


The term delegitimization was first used by a Tel Aviv think-tank that described the international boycott of Israel as “increasingly sophisticated, ripe and coherent,” warning that the boycott is a “strategic threat,” even a “potentially existential threat,” to the state.[14] Indeed, BDS strives to delegitimize Israel’s settler-colonial oppression, apartheid, and ongoing ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian people, just as the South Africa boycott was aimed at delegitimizing apartheid there.[15] In no other boycott against any state has the preposterous claim been made that this nonviolent tactic is intended to end the very physical existence of the target state.


The “delegitimization” scare tactic further failed to impress any reasonable person because its most far-reaching claim against BDS is that the movement aims to “supersede the Zionist model with a state that is based on the ‘one person, one vote’ principle”[16]—hardly the most evil or disquieting accusation for anyone even remotely interested in democracy!


In this context, UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, argues:


At the present time I’m very sceptical [whether] inter-governmental diplomacy can achieve any significant result. And the best hope for the Palestinians is what I call a legitimacy war, similar to the [South African] anti-apartheid campaign in the late-1980s and 1990s that was so effective in isolating and undermining the authority of the apartheid government. I think that is happening now in relation to Israel. There’s a very robust boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign all over the world that is capturing the political and moral imagination of the people, the NGOs and civil society and is beginning to have an important impact on Israel’s way of acting and thinking.[17]


Figures as diverse as Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and former Israeli attorney general Michael Ben-Yair Israel have described Israel as practicing apartheid against the indigenous Palestinians.[18] Characterizing Israel’s legalized and institutionalized racial discrimination as such does not attempt to equate Israel with South Africa under apartheid; despite the many similarities, no two oppressive regimes are identical. Rather, it stems from the argument that Israel’s system of bestowing rights and privileges according to ethnic and religious identity fits the UN definition of the term as enshrined in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and in the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The disingenuous or manifestly misinformed argument that rejects the apartheid charge on the basis that Jewish Israelis form a majority, unlike the whites in South Africa who were in the minority, ignores the fact that the universally accepted definition of apartheid has nothing to do with majorities and minorities.


Significantly, the BDS Call invites “conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace,” thereby confirming that principled anti-colonial Jewish Israelis who support the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination, freedom, and equality in the pursuit of a just, comprehensive, and sustainable peace are partners in the struggle.


Principled Israeli anti-colonialists committed to full Palestinian rights have truly been partners in this struggle for Palestinian rights. Many of them, aside from their unequivocal commitment to Palestinian rights, realize that Israelis cannot possibly have normal lives without first shedding their colonial character and recognizing those Palestinian rights, paramount among which is the right to self-determination.


Since 2009, Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within (or Boycott from Within, BfW, for short),[19] a growing movement in Israel, has fully adopted the Palestinian BDS Call and adhered to its principles, showing the way for genuine Israeli opposition to occupation and apartheid. Israeli groups that have endorsed the BDS Call include, among others, the Alternative Information Center (AIC),[20] the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD),[21] and Who Profits from the Occupation? (a project of the Coalition of Women for Peace),[22] all of which have played key roles in providing political, moral, and often logistical and information support to the BDS movement. Who Profits? has been quite distinguished. It keeps an updated database of Israeli and international corporations involved in the occupation, a list that is exceptionally useful and is indeed often used by stockholders of pension funds, banks, and international institutions to select their BDS targets and build their cases against them.


In contrast to this principled Israeli support for BDS, some Jewish writers and academics on the Zionist "Left", in Israel and the West, have taken a "save Israel" approach to the boycott. Rather than focusing on the true objectives of the BDS movement—realizing Palestinian rights by ending Israeli oppression against all three segments of the indigenous Palestinian people in order to achieve a just and lasting peace—they try to reduce the struggle to ridding Israel of “the occupation,” to preserve it as an exclusivist, apartheid state. A common factor in their work is the omission or sidelining of the Palestinian reference of the movement, the BNC and the BDS Call, and attempting to set their own, self-styled guidelines for applying the boycott with a hard to miss, entrenched colonial attitude. No matter what tactical gains can be made from their partial and skewed endorsement of some limited form of boycott, such figures cannot be strategic partners in this movement, nor should they speak on its behalf.


While the BDS movement is not an ideological or centralized political party, it does have a Palestinian leadership, the BNC, and a well-thought-out and clearly articulated set of objectives that comprehensively and consistently address Palestinian rights in the context of upholding international law and universal principles of human rights. The heart of the BDS Call is not the diverse and contextualized boycotting acts it urges but this rights-based approach that addresses the three basic rights corresponding to the main segments of the Palestinian people. Ending Israel’s occupation, ending its apartheid, and ending its denial of the right of refugees to return, together constitute the minimal requirements for justice and the realization of the inalienable right to self-determination. Endorsing BDS entails accepting these irreducible rights as the basis for a just peace.


Moreover, BDS is categorically opposed to all forms of racism and racist ideologies, including anti-Semitism and Zionism. Individuals who believe that some are more human or deserve more rights than others based on differences in ethnic, religious, gender, sexual, or any other human identity attributes cannot belong to this strictly antiracist struggle for universal rights.


At a practical level, after the principles in the Call are accepted, activists and solidarity groups set their own BDS targets and choose tactics that best suit their political and economic environment. Context sensitivity is the overriding principle for planning and implementing successful BDS campaigns.


BDS, as a distinctly Palestinian form of struggle that is rooted in a century of civil resistance against settler colonialism, inspired by the South African anti-apartheid struggle and the US civil rights movement, and supported by a global solidarity movement, is effective, flexible, and inclusive enough to welcome all those committed to the irreducible entitlement of all humans to equal rights.


Gandhi was right, when they start fighting you, "then you win."


Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

[1] For more on the planned and systematically executed Zionist campaign to dispossess and uproot the Palestinian people, see Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006).

[2] There are at least twenty Israeli laws, including Basic Laws (equivalent to constitutional laws), that legalize and institutionalize the system of racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens of the state for being “non-Jews.” See Adalah, “Major Findings of Adalah’s Report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” presented in Geneva, March 1998,

[4] Leslie Susser, “As Israel’s Image Sinks, Whither Israeli PR?” JTA, July 6, 2010,

[5] Howard Kohr, address to AIPAC Policy Conference, May 3, 2009,

[6] For a thorough study of Israel’s three-tiered system of oppression, see Palestinian Civil Society, “United against Apartheid, Colonialism and Occupation: Dignity and Justice for the Palestinian People,” October 2008, position paper for Durban Review Conference, April 20–24. 2009,

[8] Noah Kosharek, Supreme Court okays Jewish-only buildings in Jaffa, Haaretz, November 8, 2010.

[10] In his September 28, 2010, speech before the UNGA, Lieberman stated: “Thus, the guiding principle for a final status agreement must not be land-for-peace but rather, exchange of populated territory. Let me be very clear: I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities.”

[11] Zeev Sternhell, “The Obligation of a True Patriot,” Haaretz, February 19, 2010,

[12] For an insightful critique of the Zionist "left" initiated "Declaration of Independence from Fascism," see: Gabriel Ash, On the loyalty oath and the wretched Zionist "Left," Jews sans Frontieres, November 1, 2010.

[13] Benjamin Netanyahu, quoted in Rebecca Anna Stoil, “PM Blasts Artists Boycotting Ariel Culture Center,” Jerusalem Post, August 29, 2010,

[14] Reut Institute, “The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall,” February 14, 2010,

[15] South Africa–based economist Patrick Bond writes: “It was only by fusing bottom-up pressure with top-down international delegitimization of white rule that the final barriers were cleared for the first free vote, on April 27 1994.” Bond, “Palestine Liberation Recalls Anti-Apartheid Tactics, Responsibilities and Controversies,” ZSpace,  October 13, 2010,

[16] Reut Institute, “Delegitimization Challenge.”

[17] Richard Falk, interview by C. Gouridasan Nair, The Hindu, September 24, 2010,

[18] Michael Ben-Yair wrote: “We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities. . . . In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories.” Ben-Yair, “The War’s Seventh ay,” Haaretz, March 3, 2002,


April 30, 2011
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