Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions is an important and lucid argument in favour of the measures to be taken against the Israeli state; all those concerned with the future of Palestinians should take note.

Omar Barghouti, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket 2011), 312pp.

A few days after Christmas, the Jerusalem municipality approved the construction of 130 homes in Gilo, to the east of the city. The news of this latest expansion of illegal Israeli settlements came ten days after Israel included areas near east Jerusalem in plans to build 600 new homes. Since the beginning of November, according to Al-Jazeera, Israel has issued announcements for 2,057 new homes in Arab east Jerusalem and 1,241 in the West Bank.

In the same week, the Israeli Defence Forces’ Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, praised the attack on Gaza in 2008-9 as an ‘excellent’ operation. He was talking about the so-called Operation Cast Lead, in which over 1,400 people were killed, among them women and 300 children, and whole neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble. Amnesty International accused the Israeli forces of ‘war crimes and other serious breaches of international law’. Gantz threatened that another attack of this kind would be possible, and that it would be ‘swift and painful’ (ibid).

Israeli crimes of this kind do not occur in a vacuum, Barghouti writes in his recent book on the BDS campaign (boycott, divestment, sanctions) against Israel; ‘they are the products of a culture of impunity, racism, and genocidal tendencies that has overtaken Israeli society, shaping its mainstream discourse and “common sense” approach to the “Palestinian problem”’ (p.40). The forcible displacement of Palestinians has been intensifying in recent years, and the ‘fragmentation of the Palestinian people in dozens of isolated communities to obliterate their national and social coherence and common identity is escalating’ (p.47). The international community, thanks in large part to a policy of obstruction that the United States pursues, seems unable to prevent these crimes: Israel is acting with impunity.

This is the context in which Barghouti calls for BDS against the Israeli state. ‘Palestinians cannot wait’, he writes, because ‘[Israel] has embarked on what seems to be its final effort to literally disappear the “Palestinian problem”’ (p.47). Taking inspiration from the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the initiators of the campaign, Barghouti being one of them, call on civil society organisations all over the world to impose boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel. The aim of the campaign is threefold: ending the occupation of all Arab lands; recognising the full rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Barghouti carefully outlines the motivations behind the campaign, the way it has developed since its launch in 2005, and its various successes. Thus, he explains why it makes sense to adopt the South Africa strategy for Israel. The crimes of which the Israeli state is guilty may be even worse than apartheid, but it is beyond doubt that ‘its institutionalized and legalized system of racial discrimination, its denial of Palestinian refugee rights, and its two-tiered legal system in the occupied Palestinian territory constitute apartheid, among other serious crimes’ (p.64). What is remarkable about this is that, while these crimes go on, Israel seems to be able to project an image of enlightenment and democracy to the outside world.

Importantly, Barghouti tackles the key criticisms that have been directed at the BDS campaign, of which two should be mentioned here: the academic and the cultural boycott. In 2005, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) condemned the academic boycotts, the reason being that they ‘reject proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues’ (p.86). As Barghouti writes, this thinking is flawed. According to the UN, academic freedom includes ‘the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work … the enjoyment of academic freedom carries with it obligations, such as the duty to respect the academic freedom of others…’ (p.88, Barghouti’s emphasis). When, therefore, scholars neglect such obligations, they can no longer claim their right to this freedom, and this kind of neglect is widespread in Israeli universities. Thus, David Bukay of Haifa University could write in a book: ‘among Arabs, you will not find the phenomenon so typical of Judeo-Christian culture: doubts, a sense of guilt, the self tormenting approach … There is no condemnation, no regret, no problem of conscience among Arabs and Muslims’ (p.89). In this case, the Israeli deputy attorney general later did order an investigation on suspicion of incitement to racism. However, Barghouti argues that by privileging academic freedom above all other freedoms, the AAUP’s notion contradicts the UN norm that all human rights are universal and indivisible.

Criticisms of the cultural boycott often rest on a misunderstanding of the campaign. Nobody, for example, calls for the boycott of individual Israeli academics, writers or artists; the BDI initiative calls for an institutional boycott. And when critics say that cultural institutions will punish artists and academics who are progressive and in favour of Palestinian rights, they deflect attention from the fact that these institutions are a crucial component of the Israeli structure of oppression. ‘Not only do the oppressed lose nothing when people of conscience boycott institutions that are persistently complicit in the system of oppression’, Barghouti writes, ‘in fact, they gain enormously from the ultimate weakening of this complicity that results from an effective and sustained boycott’ (p.127). The book is both well-argued and well-written, and anybody concerned about the future of Palestine should take its lessons to heart.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.