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Why Is BDS a Moral Duty Today? A Response to Bernard-Henri Levy

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In his angry attack on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, Mr. Bernard-Henri Levy desperately attempts to smear the movement by presenting a number of patently false, regurgitated, and misleading premises and reaching, as a result, unwarranted, even illogical, conclusions. What Mr. Levy peculiarly tries to hide or obscure are the real objectives of the movement, who stands behind it, and the reasons behind its spectacular rate of growth lately, especially in France and other Western countries.

The fact is the BDS Call was launched by a great majority in Palestinian civil society on July 9, 2005, as a qualitatively new phase in the global struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice, and self-determination. More than 170 leading Palestinian political parties, trade union federations, women's unions, refugee rights groups, NGOs, and grassroots organizations called for a boycott against Israel until it fully complies with its obligations under international law. Rooted in a century-old history of civil, nonviolent resistance against settler colonialism, occupation and ethnic cleansing, the effort recalls 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," calling 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). Anchored in deep respect for international law and universal human rights, the movement has spread across the world, empowering and mobilizing creative energies and emphasizing sensitivity to the particularities of each context. BDS activists anywhere select their own targets and set the tactics that best suit their political and cultural environment. The fact that BDS categorically rejects racism of all sorts, including anti-Semitism, has further increased its appeal among liberal and progressive movements everywhere.

While several leading BDS activists openly endorse the unitary state solution, most of the members of the coalition leading the movement still subscribe to the two-state solution. This is, however, an irrelevant issue, as the BDS movement, being strictly rights-based, has consistently avoided taking any position regarding the one-state/two-states debate, emphasizing instead the three basic rights that need to be realized in any political solution. Ending the Israeli occupation that started in 1967 of all Arab territories, ending Israel's system of legalized and institutionalized discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens, and recognizing the UN-sanctioned rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes of origin are the three basic principles of the movement. Everything else is secondary and tactical.

Mr. Levy completely misrepresents my position on the matter. Citing a 2003 article of mine, he outlandishly claims that I endorse a "two-Palestines" solution. Here are my exact words: "... one must not deny that the right of return of Palestinian refugees does contradict the requirements of a negotiated two-state solution. Israel simply will never accept it, making it the Achilles' heel of any negotiated two-state solution, as the record has amply shown." The point was that a negotiated two-state solution will de facto exclude the right of two-thirds of the Palestinians, the refugees, to return to their homes, as all refugees are entitled to according to international law.

For more than 27 years, I've consistently and openly advocated a secular, democratic state in the entire area of historic Palestine, where everyone enjoys equal rights, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or any identity attribute. This, to my mind, is the most ethically-consistent formula that can accommodate the inalienable Palestinian right to self determination, including the return of refugees, with the rights of all the inhabitants of the land to justice, peace, dignity and democratic rights. Regardless, even if my real position on this issue were presented by Mr. Levy, extrapolating from this alleged position of mine to implicate the entire BDS movement not only lacks intellectual honesty; it is logically equivalent to claiming that the anti-war movement in France, say, is plotting to replace the capitalist system with a socialist order based on having a communist (or one merely claimed to be a communist) among its leaders.

Like any large, democratic coalition of groups that is built on common principles but espouses and dearly respects pluralism, the BDS movement, as anyone can conclude from examining the huge record of official statements and documents issued in the last five years, does not endorse any specific political solution to this colonial conflict. The common denominator of the movement is upholding Palestinian rights in accordance with international law.

Another serious fallacy in Mr. Levy's article is his rhetorical characterization of Israel as a "democracy." South Africa was also the only "democracy" in Africa during apartheid. The U.S. was a "democracy," as well, when in the South millions of African-Americans were thoroughly segregated and racially oppressed. An ethnocentric state, like Israel, that discriminates by law against people who are not Jewish and that occupies, forcibly displaces, colonizes and commits what leading international law experts and human rights organizations describe as war crimes, cannot remotely be called a democracy. If France were to adopt laws discriminating against its Jewish citizens and favoring its Catholic citizens, would we call it a democracy?

Former South African government minister Ronnie Kasrils and British author Victoria Brittain addressed this point quite well. They wrote:

The desire for an ethnic-religious majority of Israeli Jews has seeped across from the occupied territories to permeate the Israeli 'national' agenda... The Palestinian minority in Israel has for decades been denied basic equality in health, education, housing and land possession, solely because it is not Jewish. The fact that this minority is allowed to vote hardly redresses the rampant injustice in all other basic human rights. They are excluded from the very definition of the "Jewish state", and have virtually no influence on the laws, or political, social and economic policies. Hence their similarity to the black South Africans.




Furthermore, at a time when a wave of popular uprisings is sweeping the Arab region, demanding freedoms, social justice and democracy, it is quite telling, if largely expected, to see Israel -- and the US government -- in such a panic and uproar, standing on the wrong side of history, with despots and authoritarian regimes against the people. Unnerved by the storm of criticism, albeit polite, of the Egyptian dictatorship by its hitherto European allies and even some in the US administration, Israel has launched a diplomatic campaign to convince key capitals to support Hosni Mubarak lest stability is lost and Israel's other despotic friends in the region feel abandoned.

In Tunisia, as well, the vaunted electronic surveillance apparatus of the former dictator Ben-Ali was run in close cooperation with Israel, as Tunisian civil society organizations systematically reported. With more of Israel's friends in the region being dethroned, it is becoming abundantly clear how much Israel and its Western partners have invested in safeguarding and buttressing the unelected, autocratic regimes in the Arab world, partially to make a self-fulfilling prophecy of Israel as the "villa in the midst of the jungle" -- the myth often repeated by Israel's lobby groups.

The fact that Israel was for decades apartheid South Africa's best friend, helping it to develop nuclear weapons, to crush popular resistance by the black majority, and to dodge the widespread boycott against it has not helped Israel's case in projecting a deceptive brand of democracy and enlightenment either.

Finally, regarding the patently misleading and unfounded claim that a boycott of Israeli products is tantamount to boycotting "Jewish merchandise," one can only ask whether a boycott of Sudan, or Saudi Arabia, for that matter, would be considered Islamophobic? Was the boycott against South Africa anti-Christian? Why the double standard when it comes to Israel? The BDS movement against Israel could not care less whether it is a Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or Hindu state; all that matters is that it is a colonial oppressor that persistently denies the Palestinian people their basic rights. Is this too difficult to understand? A boycott of Israel today is a moral duty for all those who care about the rule of law and universal rights for all humans, equally.

Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the BDS movement and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights," (Haymarket, 2011).