BDS is harmful to Israel and Palestinians

Israel boycott a road block to MidEast peace

BDS is based on a false and offensive comparison and will only ever drive a wedge between the two sides and cause more conflict

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

The Drum, April 14, 2011

In light of the recent debate on the NSW Greens’ policy of boycotting Israel, many proponents of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign against Israel have been attempting to portray their campaign as something original, groundbreaking even. Lee Rhiannon even said that the Greens would have performed better in the NSW election of they did more to “amplify support for BDS and show that this is part of an international movement”.
In fact, far from breaking ground, the movement is simply re-hashing a 90-year-old policy that has failed before and will fail again.
Since 1922, when the Fifth Arab Congress proposed a boycott on Jewish businesses in British Mandate Palestine, someone has been boycotting Israel in one guise or another. The League of Arab Nations boycotted “Zionist entities” as one of its first points of business after it was formed in 1945 and before Israel even existed. Once Israel became a state, the boycott was strengthened to include all companies that have ties to companies doing business with Israel.
The aim of this boycott was never a peaceful solution to the conflict or the creation of a Palestinian state – in fact, the West Bank and Gaza were occupied by Jordan and Egypt for the first 20 years. The Arab nations invaded Israel as soon as it became a state in 1948 and continued to be officially at war with Israel at least until the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. To this day, all but two Arab states (Egypt and Jordan) do not recognise Israel to the extent that they do not allow tourists with Israeli stamps in their passports into the country.
The Arab boycott was aimed at the destruction of Israel as a state.
The boycott was never binding, however, and almost as soon as it was implemented, the Arab states set-about creating a series of loopholes and irregular application procedures in order to protect their economies from any actual harm whilst still paying lip service to economic belligerence against Israel. It all but collapsed at the fall of the USSR and today you will find Israeli companies trading in most Arab countries, albeit not especially openly.
This was not the last anyone heard of it, however.
In 2001, the UN determined to hold its “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” in Durban, South Africa. A few months before it was due to take place, a group of South African Muslims decided to form an organisation called the “National Consultative Forum on Palestine” (NCFP). In the words of spokesman Na’eem Jeenah, the NCFP activists, “most of whom were Islamists”, decided to “ensure they promoted the Palestinian cause as a broad human rights issue rather than as a Muslim one.”
In practice, this meant using the language of a movement familiar to them as South Africans – that of the anti-Apartheid campaign – to reframe an Islamist rejection of Israel into a human rights issue.

The NCFP successfully lobbied South African trade unions and NGOs through an organisation known as the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a far-left secular organisation, allowing them to hijack the debate in the Conference. As a result, the NGO forum in Durban managed to ignore the boundless discrimination around the world and condemn only Israel – apparently the Palestinians are the only group in the world suffering discrimination and Darfuris, Egyptian Copts, Iranian Baha’is, Turkish Kurds, Tibetans, Indigenous Australians, Native Americans and every other such group did not deserve a mention.
The arguments used in favour of this Apartheid comparison are spurious at best and downright racist at worst. It demands the return into Israel of every person descended from a Palestinian who fled the conflict in 1948 and compares Israel’s refusal to allow this to the Apartheid policy of herding black people into “Bantustans”. This overlooks the roughly equal number of Jews that were simultaneously forced to flee Arab countries with no compensation.
It claims that Israel is a “European colonial enterprise” that discriminates against non-Europeans and that it is a “theocracy” where Jews get special rights. This is a ridiculous claim – by law, every Israeli citizen has equal rights and Israel is one of the most multi-ethnic societies in the world, with Ethiopians, Russians, Indians and many Jews from around the Middle East and North Africa.
In fact, the 20 per cent of Israelis who are non-Jewish, mostly Arabs, are given the same rights under law as any other Israeli citizen and have sat on the Supreme Court, worked as ambassadors in the Foreign Ministry, served in the army, played for the national sports teams and in general been involved in all aspects of civil society. By comparison, in South Africa, black people, who made-up close to 80 per cent of the population, were not even allowed to sit on the same benches as white people, never mind any of the above-mentioned achievements.
This is not to say that Israeli Arabs do not suffer discrimination, but they are far better-off than Indigenous Australians, British Pakistanis and various other minorities in Western countries – and especially  in Arab countries, where they are not entitled to free speech, or freedom from persecution of women and homosexuals.
Nevertheless, BDS founder Omar Barghouti and a number of others seized on this comparison and formed an entire movement around it known as PACBI or the “Palestinian campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel”, launched in April 2002. PACBI was an attempt to target Israel with the kind of boycott campaign that had been waged against South Africa in the 1970s and 80s. It was met from the start with derision and condemnation and was marred by discrimination and racism.
PACBI saw Hillel, the Jewish students association at Concordia University in Canada being banned in 2002, as well as St Cloud State University in Minnesota paying $US365,000 in compensation in December 2002 as department administrators had tried to discourage students from taking courses taught by Jewish colleagues. It lost momentum in the UK when an Egyptian-English academic fired two Israelis from a journal she edited, one of whom was a former Amnesty International chair, purely because of the boycott. Because of incidents like this, PACBI died almost as soon as it started. Barghouti, a current doctoral student at Tel-Aviv University, has since claimed that it was started in 2004 – presumably to avoid embarrassing scrutiny of its failure.
However, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave a judgment against the security barrier that Israel was constructing (which successfully reduced deaths due to terrorism from 450 in 2002 to none in 2008), Barghouti and his allies saw an opportunity to compare it to a 1971 condemnation of South African Apartheid by the ICJ and re-launch their boycott effort, this time under the moniker of “BDS”. This is the policy that the NSW Greens endorsed in December last year, that Marrickville City Council implemented a week later – costing Fiona Byrne a seat in the NSW Legislative Assembly – and that is currently being pushed by various the hard left in Australia.
While some proponents of BDS have made the claim that it is “not anti-Israel” but looking, rather, for a “peaceful solution to the conflict”, even a cursory examination would say otherwise. The proposition that all of the descendents of the Palestinians who fled in 1948 should return – ie a sudden influx of millions of immigrants – would destroy Israel as a state. Similarly, the idea that Israel is a colonial enterprise denies the Jewish people their right to exist as a people and their right to self-determination, while ironically accusing them of doing the same to the Palestinians. Barghouti himself has coyly admitted on a few occasions that he does not believe Israel should exist as a state.
The worst thing, however, is that BDS actually hurts Palestinians and damages chances for peace. In 2002, as a result of the boycott, a Norwegian scientist refused to send genetic material to a Jerusalem hospital, which as it transpired, was intended for treating Palestinians with a blood disease.
While the BDS movement has used Israeli security measures in the West Bank such as checkpoints and curfews in order to drive recruitment, ironically these have been removed as a result of cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel – causing Barghouti, who believes that dialogue is “illogical” and “wrong”, to dub the PA a “quisling government”.
All serious policy on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict recognises two states for two peoples as a necessity and promotes dialogue and cooperation in order to achieve this. Initiatives supporting this need to be promoted – initiatives such as TULIP (Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine), which was formed by several trade union leaders including Paul Howes from the AWU.
BDS is based on a false and offensive comparison and will only ever drive a wedge between the two sides and cause more conflict; this is why Kevin Rudd called it “the stuff of foreign policy being made by pre-schoolers”. Tony Abbott called it “nonsense” and Business Council of Australia President Graham Bradley called it “an absolute joke”.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz is a policy analyst with the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council

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