The issue is not about hummus, chocolate bars, or Dead Sea vacations. It is about civil society taking full responsibility for its own action (or lack thereof). The issue is not exactly about Israeli products either, but rather about how even a seemingly innocent decision like buying Israeli dates may enable the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people.
Because the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) highlights this, the reaction it often generates is charged and vehement. Many also react to the BDS because it actually works. Israeli supporters have every right to be concerned that their carefully customized discourse on Israel’s infallibility (juxtaposed with Palestinian depravity)—which has been promoted for decades in various media and political outlets in the US and Western countries—is now simply falling apart.
The recent University of Pennsylvania BDS conference, organized by a student group, PennBDS, was the latest example to illustrate both the effectiveness of the global movement and also of the real worry felt by supporters of Israel in the United States. Knowing fully that facing BDS allegations head on would most likely be unsuccessful, they organized around misinformation, name-calling, and intimidation. However, the tired strategy is no longer bearing fruit.
Israel’s Zionist supporters made every attempt to galvanize the Jewish community in Philadelphia into targeting the conference that called for Israel to be held accountable for its military occupation, racial discrimination and flagrant violations of international law.
One of those angered by the conference is Ruben Gur, a professor of psychiatry at the university. In an article published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, he likened the conference organizers to ‘Nazis’. “A relevant precedent for such a movement is the groups organized by the Nazis in the 1930s to boycott, divest and sanction Jews and their businesses,” he wrote, perhaps knowing fully the historical inaccuracy of his statement.
Penn President Amy Gutmann and Trustees Chair David L. Cohen insisted that allowing PennBDS to organize was merely a moral duty aimed at “protecting speech we may not like” (a strangely balanced statement, to say the least). “The University has repeatedly, consistently and forcefully expressed our adamant opposition to this agenda. Simply stated, we fundamentally disagree with the position taken by PennBDS,” they wrote in the Daily Pennsylvanian.
The debate registered in every available medium and extended far beyond the parameters of the university itself. Bizarrely, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia wished to counter the BDS conference by hosting none other than Alan Dershowitz to deliver an emergency speech on campus. Dershowitz, known for his inflammatory rhetoric and smearing approach to pro-Palestinian activists, was forced to change tactics, as the conference and the controversy it generated allowed BDS activists a platform to organize and convey a clear and peaceful message. “The BDS conference gives us an opportunity to respond to hate with positive messages,” Dershowitz said, as reported in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent newspaper.
Those involved in promoting causes of peace and justice know well that such hysteria is an indication of fear and palpable weakness. The pro-Israeli logic—justifying racial superiority, rationalizing military occupation, defending ethnic cleansing—is simply worthless in the face of an articulate opposing message. Therefore, whenever confronted by such events, Israeli-sympathizers resort to igniting ‘controversy’. This is fed mostly by biased reporting, inflammatory language and unfounded accusations. Professor Gur was unmatched in representing the model, as he attacked even the student newspaper itself: “I could barely believe my eyes. It is bad enough that Penn has allowed itself to be associated with this hateful genocidal organization, but for you to give room for their ‘explanation’ and then dignify this outpouring of misinformation and anti-Semitism…”
Still, “while the opponents of BDS were busy name-calling, the people at the conference were engaged in pointing out the facts on the ground,” according to Uri Hores, an Israeli peace activist (writing in +972 magazine). These include: “practical facts, historical facts and legal facts, presented by experts in international human rights law like Noura Erakat, who provided the conference with a comprehensive overview of the complex legal system under which Palestinians live.”
According to Hores, the Penn conference was “modeled after a similar conference held in 2009 at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.” This is very important since the success of these initiatives, despite the defamations and exaggerated controversy, invite discussions elsewhere. One such precedent was in April 2010, when the student senate at the University of California, Berkeley debated the issue of divestment from US companies that were “materially or militarily profiting” from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. A divestment bill was put to a vote. Notable individuals including Noam Chomsky, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, and Alice Walker issued statements in support of the bill, while Nobel laureates Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, and Jody Williams signed a letter echoing the outpouring of support: “We stand united in our belief that divesting from companies that provide significant support for the Israeli military provides moral and strategic stewardship of tuition and taxpayer-funded public education money. We are all peace makers, and we believe that no amount of dialogue without economic pressure can motivate Israel to change its policy of using overwhelming force against Palestinian civilians.”
It should be noted that the outpouring of support for BDS initiatives was hardly done at the behest of any individual or group. Rather it was a response to a call made by 171 Palestinian civil society organizations in July 2005.
The Middle East region is already testimony to the rise of people power which has inspired the world. BDS is a mere continuation of a global struggle for justice, and PennBDS are but mere facilitators of an expanding movement that will surely usher real change in a long-stagnant colonial paradigm. Prominent Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah told the conference in his keynote speech: “This insane hysteria about the conference tells us something about the moment we are in. In terms of the battle of ideas, we are in the end game.”
A growing number of people are already realizing this fact. One of the US’s most celebrated rock musicians, Cat Power, cancelled her Israel show, “joining a list of artists shunning the country,” according to the Washington Post (Feb 10). She canceled a scheduled Tel Aviv concert because she felt “sick in her spirit”. Numerous artists, companies and ordinary individuals also feel that way, proving that global solidarity is not a sentimental value, but real podium for those who wish to bring about positive change.