The month of January has seen a burst of energy on the academic and cultural front of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement with worldwide and mainstream media attention. BDS news has been covered in the Washington Post, Financial Times, Bloomberg, New York Times, CNN, and other media where BDS advocates have previously been ignored or censored. The world is beginning to understand that Israel cannot be treated with exception while it continues to violate international law, and that criticism and resistance against Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid cannot be silenced. We have indeed arrived at a tipping point where the taboo of standing up to the Israeli system of oppression is being shattered.
On the academic front, after four associations in the USA have now come out in support of academic boycott, these being the Association for Humanist Sociology (AHS), Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), American Studies Association (ASA), and Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), the unfounded veneer of academic freedom that supporters of Israel have used to challenge boycotts is peeling away. Scholars who have led the charge against BDS have been exposed for mixing academic privilege with academic freedom and using the idea of “academic freedom” with double standards to shutdown criticism of Israel.
New York University was quick to speak out against the ASA for its adoption of the academic boycott of Israel, which targets institutions, not individuals, yet it has thus far said nothing as Israel has denied a Palestinian the right to travel to attend an academic event on its campus in New York.
And the New York State legislature is debating a bill to boycott (defund) academic associations that pass resolutions in support of boycotting Israel, all in the name of being opposed to boycotts and wanting to protect academic freedom. The hypocrisy is out in the open for all to see. A New York Times editorial was the latest to attack the New York State bill saying that it would “trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent.”
In early January, on the cultural front, Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson, at the time an Oxfam Global Ambassador, announced that she had agreed to serve as the media face of SodaStream. SodaStream, as is by now clear to everyone, operates out of an Israeli settlement in Occupied Jerusalem, which is illegal under international law. Johansson’s move mobilized conscientious people around the world who called on her to drop SodaStream or, alternatively, on Oxfam to drop her. This episode highlighted the intersections of cultural and economic boycott, and the roles and responsibilities of cultural figures in the political/public sphere. Oxfam subsequently distanced itself from Johansson’s support for illegal settlements and said that her role with settlement profiteer SodaStream was “incompatible” with the charity’s human rights principles. As a result, Johansson decided to quit her position with Oxfam and keep the lucrative SodaStream contract instead. The message was sent to people around the world that one can continue to support Israel’s violations of international law and breaches of Palestinian rights, but one can no longer get away with this with impunity.
Although Oxfam does not take a stand on BDS, it recognized that its credibility was on the line should it continue to do business as usual with Johansson. More importantly, with the mounting pressure on SodaStream and a blow to its image, the company’s stock plummeted further.
BDS diehard skeptics are advised to think long and hard about the significance of these boycott successes. Years ago, and especially at the height of the Oslo years’ so-called “peace negotiations,” when dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians was popular under the illusion that it may lead to ending the occupation, Israel could get away with its crimes and intensify its colonization and ethnic cleansing in the occupied Palestinian territory. During those years, supporters of Israel’s regime of oppression could continue their complicity with Israel and its complicit institutions without tarnishing their image. In fact, one could even be proud of such relations and gain legitimacy from them. What the Johansson episode shows is that those times are long gone and the isolation of Israel is gathering steam.
At PACBI, we want to reiterate to all our partners around the world our deepest respect and gratitude for all what they have done, sometimes at great personal cost, to further our struggle for freedom, justice and equality. We remain surprised and humbled by what we have accomplished together in a relatively short time. Together we move forward and learn from each other.
Everyday new people are being won over as supporters, and they ask us for ways to contribute. We call on these dedicated and conscientious people to contact their local Palestine solidarity chapters and our partner organizations, or to start their own if none are active. PACBI is here to ensure that the collective position agreed upon by Palestinian civil society is maintained, but the movement’s leaders are to be found in every community where you will find a BDS campaign. Our decentralization, that is based on upholding the three rights of the BDS Call while being as creative and context-sensitive as possible in local targeting and campaigning, is our strength. This is how we, collectively, have achieved our most significant successes over the years, and this is how we will continue to work into the future.
The Palestinian struggle against occupation, apartheid, and colonialism is fed and nourished mainly from within, from the collective Palestinian will to resist against all odds, but we cannot do it alone. People around the world continue to inspire us, to show us we are not alone, and that we are not screaming in the dark. Their struggle to end their institutions’ and states’ complicity in Israel’s oppression is essential in this struggle for rights. Our call is being answered. Our South Africa Moment is arriving.