The Invisible and Voiceless Victims

“It’s not just about occupation; it’s also about the system of apartheid within Israel and the most important form of injustice, the denial of Palestinian refugees their UN-sanctioned rights to return.” — Omar Barghouti

Through reading the articles and arguments of the progressive community against BDS, one thing becomes quite clear. The commentators feel like their grand design for a perfect Zionist future has been hijacked and sullied by the settler movement and its government (and foreign) backers. These forward-thinking humanitarians believe themselves to be the victims of a right-wing conspiracy to dash the hopes of any peace agreement. This is absurd. These Israelis and Americans suffered no actual injustice. Nothing has, in fact, been taken away from them, save perhaps their own integrity. They have been oppressed by no one. Unlike the Palestinians.

And yet, the progressive discourse consistently omits Palestinian perspectives in their appraisal of the current situation. What do they want? Almost nowhere does the “Zionist left” of J Street and Huffington Post discuss what the actual victims of past and ongoing Zionist atrocities, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing want, or what tactic they believe would be the most effective to reach an acceptable, democratic, just, and peaceful solution in which all parties would be afforded equal civil and human rights, the same economic opportunities, and full political representation, as determined by international law. Apparently, these viewpoints — the voices of the victims and their descendants — are unimportant in the intellectual sphere of Ha’aretz and New York Times opinion. As Gideon Levy wrote a decade ago, “For most Israelis, the Palestinians are almost non-existent. They’re like thin air…” (‘An existential exercise,’ Ha’aretz, 16 October 2000).

In supporting the Ariel settlement boycott, the “Yes to Israel, No to settlements” crowd proves how easy it must be to praise the noble perpetrators and their subsequent beneficiaries, yet somehow not even give a moment’s thought to supporting the demands of the actual victims. To advocate for a “Jewish and democratic” state, created through colonization and ethnic cleansing, is to explicitly encourage the victims of such atrocities to voluntarily relinquish their rights, forget their history, and accept second-class citizenry in their homeland out of deference to the sensibilities and sensitivities of their colonizers and cleansers. Does this seem like a reasonable request?

It is precisely here that a closer look at the BDS movement is necessary.

As described in a recent statement by leaders of the campaign itself:

The BDS movement derives its principles from both the demands of the Palestinian BDS Call, signed by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in July 2005, and, in the academic and cultural fields, from the Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, issued a year earlier in July 2004. Together, the BDS and PACBI Calls represent the most authoritative and widely-supported strategic statements to have emerged from Palestine in decades; all political factions, labor, student and women’s organizations, and refugee groups across the Arab world have supported and endorsed these calls. Both calls underline the prevailing Palestinian belief that the most effective form of international solidarity with the Palestinian people is direct action and persistent pressure aimed at bringing an end to Israel’s colonial and apartheid regime, just as the apartheid regime in South Africa was abolished, by isolating Israel internationally through boycotts and sanctions, forcing it to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights.

As a result, the campaign urges “the morally consistent rationale and principles of the Palestinian boycott campaign against Israel,” when addressing the question of boycotting institutions inside the Green Line that support the systematic discrimination within Israel and the continued colonization of the occupied territories. The call for BDSaccording to PACBI founding member Omar Barghouti, “has as close to a consensus as you can get, and it’s not just among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, including East Jerusalem, but also Palestinians inside Israel, and the largest component of the Palestinian people, those in exile in the Diaspora.” The campaign focuses on affirming three basic rights of the Palestinian people, as already demanded by international law. These rights are: (1) Ending the 43 year old Israeli occupation and colonization of all Arab lands conquered in 1967 and dismantling the Apartheid Wall that illegally annexes large portions of the West Bank to Israel; (2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, thereby ending the system of racial discrimination within Israel proper; and (3) Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in United Nations Resolution 194.

The refusal of advocates of Liberal Zionism, those alleged progressives who profess to want change yet ignore or re-imagine Israel’s true history, to recognize the incompatibility of both a “Jewish” and “democratic” state or embrace the demands of the wronged party (Palestinians, not Israelis) in this conflict makes their arguments sound like little more than cowardly equivocation. They represent a sort of solipsistic intellectual narcissism, tranquilized by the “drug of gradualism,” and talking into an echo chamber of pragmatism and compromise.

“The academic community in Israel,” Omar Barghouti recently explained, is “very Israel-centric. I mean, the world revolves around them.” The BDS campaign, he said, is “about Palestinian rights and Israeli oppression and injustice and the role of the Israeli academy as a partner in the system of oppression. In fact, no Israeli university has ever come out against the occupation, ever.”

In Gideon Levy’s estimation, “they lack courage, some of them,” despite having good intentions. He elaborated, during a recent interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner of the New Left Project:

I think that Oz and Yehoshua and Grossman, who I know very well personally, mean well. But in many ways they are still chained in the Zionistic ideology. They haven’t released themselves from the old Zionistic ideology, which basically hasn’t changed since ’48 — namely, that the Jews have the right to this land, almost the exclusive right. They are trying to find their way to be Zionistic, and to be for peace, and to be for justice. The problem is that Zionism in its present meaning, in its common meaning, is contradictory to human rights, to equality, to democracy, and they don’t recognise it. It’s too hard for them to recognise it, to realise it. And therefore their position is an impossible position, because they want everything: they want Zionism, they want democracy, they want a Jewish state, but they want also rights for the Palestinians… it’s very nice to want everything, but you have to make your choice and they are not courageous enough to make the choice.

Levy, in contrast to commentators like Avishai, Taub, Rosenberg, and Ben-Ami, has the conviction to envision Israel as “a state for Jews that will be a just state, a democratic state, and if there will be a Palestinian majority, there will be a Palestinian majority. The idea is that Jews have to have their place, but it can’t be exclusively theirs, because this land is not exclusively theirs.”