The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights

05/13/2015 01:49 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

The tenth anniversary of the BDS movement is fast approaching, inspiring hope and fear to the respective opponents and proponents of the ongoing domination of Palestinians. Omar Barghouti, an activist and strategist who issued a call reflecting the will of all civil society groups in Palestine and the diaspora to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel, spoke on May 6 at the Alwan Center for the Arts, along with Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the grassroots, pro-justice organization that has recently exploded with new members -- as yet more young American Jews, in particular, are coming around to what BDS demands: not only solidarity with Palestinians, but an increasing estrangement from a country that claims to speak in their name.

Before getting there, it is important to outline what BDS is about, and how significant it is that JVP recently arrived at full support of the entirety of "the call." Otherwise, the question asked last week -- Where does the global struggle for Palestinian rights go from here? -- cannot really be answered. The campaign is to boycott, divest, and sanction Israeli institutions that are "complicit" in the oppression of Palestinians. Barghouti spoke authoritatively and eloquently, constructing a picture of a growing movement that is non-sectarian and anti-racist, and did not condemn, much less "demonize," Israel as a whole. Benjamin Netanyahu had just put together a governing coalition, the most right-wing in Israeli history, as Barghouti spoke about the reasons for a cultural, political, and financial boycott of what he termed "Israel's regime of oppression," and emphatically rejected the tribalist, zero-sum formulation of our team versus their team.

"We believe that there can be a homeland for Jewish people that is not based on the systematic denial of rights of Palestinians," Vilkomerson told Evan Serpick of the Forward, which reported in March that her group's "full embrace of BDS includes endorsing a right of return for [Palestinian] Arabs and for descendants of [Palestinian] Arabs who fled or who were expelled by Israel's army in the 1948 war that established the state. That population, most of whom remain stateless refugees, now numbers more than 5.2 million."

The right of return for the refugees and their descendants is a prospect that fills many people with dread, since that would present a "demographic threat" to the only Jewish-majority country in the world. It remains very difficult to even broach the subject, since it continues to elicit sheer hysteria from some quarters. This blogger asked the hivemind for what people think about BDS, and one person let loose a torrent of agitprop, ascribing all the worst fears to the movement and to its "anti-Semitic" supporters.

An urgent dispatch from late February 2015 reported that JVP had "come out and joined the BDS movement, openly endorsing not only the goals but also the strategy of that movement, complete isolation and demonization of Israel as an apartheid state" (Jonathan Marks, Commentary magazine). Both Palestinians and Israelis have described as the "matrix of control" the infrastructure of apartheid in the West Bank, but that is irrelevant. Marks added, "The fact is, it's not necessary to point to the right of return to show that BDS has never acknowledged Israel's right to exist." Hysterical outbursts like this inadvertently help illuminate points Barghouti repeatedly made clear last week: Israel should be "taken off the pedestal" and the U.S. should cease "singling out" Israel with military aid and diplomatic cover, so it can be treated as any other country, "no better or worse."

Barghouti quoted Vladimir Jabotinsky as saying that the establishment of what would become Israel required "an iron wall" to keep out an indigenous population that did not want settlers. More crucially, Jabotinsky had also written that "the world has become accustomed to the idea of mass migrations and has almost become fond of them," referring to "the idea of transfer" as a solution to Israel-Palestine, "adding that 'Hitler -- as odious as he is to us -- has given this idea a good name in the world,'" according to an account by Israeli historian Tom Segev. Segev, in his book One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (2000), explained that "population transfer is deeply rooted in Zionist ideology, a logical outgrowth of the principle of segregation between Jews and Arabs and a reflection of the desire to ground the Jewish state in European, rather than Middle Eastern, culture." Further, "The Arabs' refusal to allow the Zionist movement to establish a state with a Jewish majority in any part of Palestine also fostered thoughts of transfer, as did the Arab terror campaign." It is worth noting that there were deadly reprisals launched by native tribes against the European settlers of North America, yet no one ascribes Indian resistance to "anti-Europeanness." What nation -- anywhere -- would accept to be ruled by an exogenous population that claims the same land? There is no need to justify anti-colonial violence; elucidating the context of what gave rise to it is considered controversial enough.

In an editorial for the New York Times on Jan. 31, 2014, Barghouti noted that John Kerry gave a warning in August 2013 that if "talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority fail because of Israel's continuing construction of illegal settlements, the Israeli government is likely to face an international boycott 'on steroids.'" Barghouti pointed out that the Israeli government "seems as terrified" by BDS "as it is by Iran's rising clout in the region." The BDS campaign "doesn't pose an existential threat to Israel; it poses a serious challenge to Israel's system of oppression of the Palestinian people, which is the root cause of its growing worldwide isolation." Barghouti continues,

Begun in 2005 by the largest trade union federations and organizations in Palestinian society, B.D.S. calls for ending Israel's 1967 occupation, "recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality," and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were forcibly displaced and dispossessed in 1948. Why should Israel, a nuclear power with a strong economy, feel so vulnerable to a nonviolent human rights movement?

The state of Israel, from the perspective of Barghouti and many others, "perceives as a profound threat the rising dissent among prominent Jewish figures who reject its tendency to speak on their behalf, challenge its claim to be the 'national home' of all Jews, or raise the inherent conflict between its ethno-religious self-definition and its claim to democracy." Vilkomerson, writing in Tikkun shortly after Barghouti wrote that op-ed, asked four vitally important questions: "Is it possible for Israel to be 'Jewish and Democratic' when already over 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian? Can Jewish self-determination legitimately be built on the denial of Palestinian human rights? As a people who have experienced over and over the trauma of refugee-hood and longing for homeland, how can we possibly deny the validity of the right of return for Palestinians? And which do we value more: our fears or our respect for the universality of rights for all people?"

At the conclusion of the talk last week, Barghouti demolished the accusation of anti-semitism by asking, "How can it be anti-semitic to hold a state -- any state, including Israel -- accountable for its human rights violations, for enforcing inequality and for its systems of oppression?" Barghouti added that the "misuse of the term anti-semitism makes a mockery of truly anti-semitic incidents and makes it dangerously possible for people to take true antisemitism less seriously."

Vilkomerson agreed. "This issue, like the anti-apartheid struggle before it," she said, "is the moral issue of our time. We urge those who want to be on the side of freedom and equality to join us in embracing and encouraging all forms of nonviolent pressure on Israel, including BDS. It is way past time. The tide is turning, and this is the opportunity to be on the right side of history."