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Samah Sabawi: a Palestinian woman’s response to Naomi Chazan on BDS

[Introduction to Samah Sabawi's piece by Ofer Neiman] There are good things to be said about Professor Naomi Chazan, a scholar of contemporary Africa and a former member of the Israeli Knesset (on behalf of the center-left Meretz party). When an extreme right-wing and US funded Israeli student group like "Im Tirtzu" runs a venomous campaign against her, smearing her (in the Israeli public eye) as "Naomi Goldstone-Chazan", it is safe to assume she has been getting some things right.

[Introduction to Samah Sabawi's piece by Ofer Neiman]

There are good things to be said about Professor Naomi Chazan, a scholar of contemporary Africa and a former member of the Israeli Knesset (on behalf of the center-left Meretz party). When an extreme right-wing and US funded Israeli student group like "Im Tirtzu" runs a venomous campaign against her, smearing her (in the Israeli public eye) as "Naomi Goldstone-Chazan", it is safe to assume she has been getting some things right. Indeed, signing a petition in demand of an "immediate halt to the attack carried out in Gaza by Israeli forces", just one day after Israel began its "Operation Cast Lead" war on Gaza's inhabitants in December 2008, was not a consensus act in her rather mainstream political circles. Prof. Chazan is also the president of the New Israel Fund (NIF). This self-proclaimed "leading organization committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis" has supported, through funding and consultation, numerous Israeli NGOs whose goals are to promote the rights of various minorities and disenfranchised groups in Israel.

In view of all this, local peace activists held high expectations ahead of Prof. Chazan's recent series of talks in Australia on behalf of NIF. Alas, her message to the Australian public and the local Jewish community was a bitter disappointment to many concerned Australians. In spite of NIF's credentials, many grassroots activists for the Palestinian cause have come to regard the fund as a significant part of the problem, and not just a part of the solution. All this is illustrated by Samah Sabawi's lucid critique, which follows. One of NIF's main efforts in the past year has been an aggressive campaign against the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) initiative. Started in 2005 by Palestinian civil society, BDS has already proven effective at several levels. So why does NIF oppose the BDS initiative? Surely this has a lot to do with the views held by its liberal Zionist donors, who tend to be hostile towards attempts to pressure Israel from the outside.

NIF could have reached a compromise between the desires of its donors and the urgent need to effectively address the reality of Israel's apartheid and occupation policies by opting for agnosticism on the issue of BDS. Instead of doing so, the fund has attempted to derail significant BDS initiatives. Moreover, it has campaigned against proposed measures that were extremely selective and restricted in scope. A primary example would be the fund's appeal to the University of California at Berkeley, against divestment from two American companies, General Electric and United Technologies, companies that sell Israel military equipment which is used in occupied Palestinian territory to sustain Israel's occupation and land grab policies (see the anti-divestment declaration co-signed by NIF). On top of its Berkeley anti-divestment campaign, NIF has announced recently that it would no longer allow its payment transfer mechanism to be used by US donors who wish to support the Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP), a vibrant women's rights and anti-occupation NGO. The decision was made due to CWP's support of the BDS campaign.

On Monday, the Knesset passed the ‘anti-boycott’ bill which renders boycott advocacy a tort. Peace Now, an Israeli group which is always willing to cater to the Israeli mainstream, has in defiance of the new law announced that it would promote a boycott of settlement products. So what is one to make of NIF's staunch defense of the American arms industries? Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa (who is also a Conservative, Pro-American politician) once stated, during a visit to Israel, that "only the dissidents will save Israel". Whether one is interested in saving Israel, saving Palestine, or just saving human lives and dignity, one has to ask which actions can bring about a change in Israel's policies, and which Israelis are true dissidents. It seems clear that Israeli governments will not be swayed by Israeli NGOs that, by their very nature, can cover only a narrow segment of the activism spectrum. It is evident that Israeli decision makers can be swayed by boycott, divestment and sanctions initiatives. If the New Israel Fund lacks the moral backbone to support such initiatives, it should refrain from undermining the attempts of dedicated human rights activists in Israel, Palestine and the entire world.

A Palestinian woman’s response to Israel’s Naomi Chazan on BDS

by Samah Sabawi

Naomi Chazan, the President of the New Israel Fund (NIF) gave a talk in Marrickville, New South Wales, during her recent Australian tour offering a critique of the Palestinian Civil Society call for Boycotts Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Although she presented herself as a veteran Israeli peace activist, Chazan’s mission here in Australia was ostensibly to promote NIF. This is important because everything she said about BDS must be understood within the context of her mission – to gather funds and support and to convince Jews in Australia of the need to continue to invest in Israel through NIF. This clear conflict of interest makes Chazan’s criticism of BDS far less credible.

Chazan named six reasons why she believed BDS was harmful.

BDS is not effective because Israel has a very strong economy: South Africa’s economy was also booming when the boycott movement against that regime began in the late 1950s. Decades later the movement succeeded in bringing down the South African apartheid regime.

Many Israeli leaders, including Ehud Barak, Ben-Eliezer, Shimon Peres and others, have already stated that BDS is a "strategic threat;" what they mean of course is that it is a serious threat to Israel’s system of occupation, legalized racial discrimination (conforming to the UN definition of apartheid) and denial of refugee rights. We only need to look at the millions of dollars the Israeli lobby groups in Western nations including Australia are spending in efforts to "sabotage" the movement to know that it is indeed effective. The fact that Chazan focused so much on BDS in her Marrickville talk confirms this.

There is other evidence of BDS’s effectiveness.

The Deutsche Bahn withdrawal from the Israeli rail project connecting Tel Aviv with Jerusalem has been a watershed for the movement. It was the first time that a German government-owned company withdrew from an Israeli project over concerns of violation of international law. The French company Veolia's loss of billions of dollars worth of contracts because of its involvement in the illegal Jerusalem Light Rail project also points to the impressive success of BDS campaigning, especially in Europe.

The fast growing list of superstars and prominent music bands heeding the boycott of Israel makes Tel Aviv look very similar to the South African resort of Sun City under apartheid. That city was a key target for the cultural boycott then.

The University of Johannesburg’s severance of ties with Ben Gurion University over the latter's complicity in violating Palestinian rights is the most concrete victory to date for the academic boycott campaign.

And, there has been sweeping trade union support for BDS in the UK, Brazil, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Belgium, India, Turkey, and elsewhere.

BDS undermines the existence of the state of Israel: The demands are clear - full equality in Israel for the Palestinian citizens of the state, an end to occupation and a fulfilment of Israel’s obligation towards the refugees. If these demands threaten to bring an end to Israel's "existence, we have to ask what does this really say about Israel?

A state that is truly democratic and built on the foundations of justice and equality would not be threatened by demands of equality and an end to occupation. Boycotts did not bring an end to South Africa’s existence, they did not destroy it, and they certainly did not "delegitimize" whites: they only destroyed South Africa’s system of injustice, inequality and racial discrimination.

BDS is actually “a code word for one state solution” which defies the right of Israelis and Jews to self-determination: BDS does not aim for either a one or two state solution, but for Palestinian rights. One of those rights is for Palestinians to be free in their own land without the yoke of Israeli occupation and system of racial discrimination. Whether that is in one state for both peoples or two sovereign, democratic states side by side has yet to be decided. The movement is consistently neutral on this, regardless of the diverse personal political views held by its various spokespeople.

BDS is counter-productive because it entrenches the victim mentality of those in Israel who believe the whole world is against them which inevitably strengthens the right wing in Israel while weakening the left: Right now, the fanatical right is taking over the entire Israeli society, but once boycotts begin hurting Israel’s carefully nurtured public image, dissenting voices will become much more vocal, as happened in South Africa. Then, the current consensus in support of apartheid and colonial rule will crack.

BDS is against academic freedom and singles out Israeli academics: Chazan is purposely misleading in this regard. As any relatively well-informed observer must know after seven years of the Palestinian academic boycott campaign and hundreds of articles written on it, the academic boycott is institutional in nature and has therefore never targeted individual Israeli academics. BDS has consistently been directed at academic institutions because of their persistent and grave complicity in planning, implementing and justifying Israel's violations of international law.

Chazan's claims that Israeli academics are progressive and opposed to the occupation have absolutely no foundation. In 2008, a petition drafted by four Jewish-Israeli academics calling on the Israeli army to allow access at checkpoints to Palestinian academics and students to reach their educational institutions was distributed to all 9,000 Israeli academics in the hope that most would sign this minimal expression of respect for academic freedom: only 407 out of 9,000 academic actually did so.

BDS singles Israel out: This criticism is so often tendered that one has to ask whether Chazan and others posing it want more action on other causes or silence on the Palestinian cause. In any case, people are rising up against tyrannical regimes and seeking change in just about every Arab state in “Israel’s neighbourhood.” Some of these governments are now being subject to international sanctions, so why not Israel which has for decades defied the UN and violated international law?

An equally important question to ask here is why not advocate for Palestinian rights? Indeed, why are Palestinians being singled out as the only people who cannot be championed? We can speak out for all other issues, so it is tendentious to suggest that speaking up for Palestinian rights singles Israel out unfairly.

The principled Israeli left camp which respects equal rights for all, the UN-sanctioned rights of Palestinian refugees, and an end to colonial oppression should – and indeed does -- invest its time challenging its government’s apartheid policies and oppression of the Palestinians rather than criticising the Palestinian non-violent resistance model that encompasses BDS.

Chazan’s efforts to undermine BDS need to be seen in context. At the end of the day, Chazan will go home to Israel where she is a privileged Jewish citizen with all her rights intact. She is part of and an enabler of the establishment that denies Palestinians their basic rights and freedoms, and as such, she is not in a position to be dictating to the Palestinians their methods of struggle or acting as gatekeeper for the international solidarity movements, preaching to them what is allowed and what is not in standing with the Palestinians. As in every human struggle for freedom, justice and equality, that right is the prerogative of those who live behind the walls, hindered by checkpoints and held captive to siege and military oppression.

Samah Sabawi is the Public Advocate of the Australian advocacy group Australians for Palestine.

Originally published on Jewish Peace News with Ofer Neiman's intro.



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