British Writers In Support of Palestine

October 16, 2012

SOAS Panel Discussion on Palestine: 3 Questions about BDS

On Tues October 9th I appeared with British-Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh, British filmmaker and cultural boycott activist Miranda Pennell, and the British-Israeli-Iraqi-Jewish writer and journalist Rachel Shabi in a panel discussion at SOAS, organised by the Centre for Palestinian Studies and chaired by Bidisha. The discussion was wide-ranging and included the role of Arab women in political struggle, the question of ‘fashionable causes’ and the usefulness of comment threads.  Cultural boycott was also high on the agenda, and the subject of some disagreement on the panel and in the audience. I would therefore like to respond here to three questions raised during the evening.

1. Not all Palestinians support BDS, so why should I?

Rachel Shabi helpfully stressed that the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign is a Palestinian initiative. However, she counter-claimed that Palestinian society is diverse, and not all Palestinians believe in boycott. This statement is undeniably true. Leaving aside the question of militant resistance, some Palestinians believe in working within the Palestinian Authority and the UN, or with charitable NGOs. Others are simply trying to survive, and may place their faith in Allah, God, or the Shekel. So how does one, as a solidarity activist, decide which Palestinians to support?

The question is a political one, and must be answered politically. Only politically organised activity with strong and principled Palestinian leadership can bring positive, lasting change in the region. So, which such groups are reaching out to solidarity workers, and requesting our support?

We can immediately rule out the PA. Unless one is a UN representative, the PA is not reaching out to foreign individuals. In addition, the UN route to change is blocked by the veto power of America, and – as Wikileaks demonstrated – the PA is seriously compromised by corruption within the organisation. There is no way for solidarity workers to effectively help change this situation, apart from campaigning for UN reform.  While I do not disparage such a goal, to devote all one’s energies to it would be an incredibly indirect way of expressing support for Palestine.

One can of course join direct action groups, helping with the olive harvest, accompanying children in Hebron on the way to school, working with faith groups, or joining non-violent protests against the apartheid wall. But doing so will still leave you with the fundamental choice for peace campaigners in the region: do you support ‘dialogue’ groups or the boycott divestment and sanctions movement?  For many Westerners, dialogue seems instinctively attractive, but in my own view, careful thought and research must inevitably lead to the conclusion that it is not the option for the true solidarity activist.

The concept of ‘peace through dialogue’ appeals to many Westerners and left-wing Israelis because in our own personal experience we often need to engage in conflict resolution with antagonists in our families or workplaces, and this process is predicated on the understanding that both parties must listen to each other and take responsibility for their own failings.  However, it is a huge mistake to project this personal process between equals – or those in a mutually agreed power structure, such as a workplace – onto the Israel-Palestine conflict. While political and personal dialogue is indeed fundamental to the peace process, it is essential that this dialogue takes place within a framework that acknowledges the true scale and roots of the conflict: the occupation of Palestine; the apartheid nature of the Israeli state; and the Israeli denial of the refugees’ right of return.

In other words, in the case of Israel-Palestine, any dialogue that takes place is never between equal partners.  Analogies all break down at some point, but rather than a ‘bad marriage’ between incompatible people who have to co-parent their children, the Israel-Palestine conflict is akin to a highly abusive relationship where the abuser has huge wealth and social prestige, and the abused person has been disbelieved by the police for years – and in fact has been punished for resisting the attacks, or occasionally responding to them in a violent manner. Only if the authorities and the abuser finally recognise the nature of this abuse, is it safe or indeed worthwhile for the two parties to attempt any kind of dialogue. Think of the difference between divorce counselling and a bullying tribunal at work. In the former, a neutral mediator helps two people make compromises; in the latter, the victim and the bully have clearly differentiated roles to play in proceedings, and if found guilty the bully will be punished. Again, this is only an analogy, and I apologise to Palestinians who may find it ill-fitting or simplistic. But I think it is worth making because I believe that many Westerners think of dialogue mainly in personal terms.

The ‘dialogue peace camp’ does not offer solidarity to the Palestinians – not just because it does not start from the understanding that the conflict is hugely imbalanced, but because it explicitly forbids such an analysis.  A list of 66 Palestinian-Israeli ‘co-existence’ organisations can be found here, on the website of the British charity Children of Peace. I wish to stress that I am in no way judging the motives of the Palestinians involved in these grassroots organisations. I have not lived their lives, and I have not faced their choices. What I want to highlight here is the fact that Children of Peace only funds groups that sign up to its ‘non-partisan’ values.  These values are expressed in the charity’s claim that, in relation to adults, Israeli and Palestinian children have suffered ‘disproportionately’ from the conflict: to get funding from Children of Peace, organisations are not allowed to politically challenge the fact that, thanks to the occupation, Israeli apartheid and the refugee camps, it is overwhelmingly Palestinian children who have died or been maimed, and who suffer from poverty and lack of educational opportunities.

Children of Peace is a throwback to Empire. The charity is operating like a group of secular Victorian missionaries, providing vital aid only to those who are willing to subscribe to its world-view.  Given the fact that Israel chronically underfunds education, health and basic social services for Arab-Israelis, and systematically attacks the basic infrastructure of Gaza and the West Bank, there is huge financial incentive for Palestinians to sign up to such deals. But without the ability to name the conflict for what it is, such organisations will never be able to effect substantive and lasting change.   As Faris Giacaman argues here, Palestinians have long known that what they call ‘the peace industry’ has not built up significant Palestinian power or leadership:

Based on an unpublished 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last October that “between 1993 and 2000 [alone], Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups.” A subsequent wide-scale survey of Palestinians who participated in the dialogue groups revealed that this great expenditure failed to produce “a single peace activist on either side.” This affirms the belief among Palestinians that the entire enterprise is a waste of time and money.
The survey also revealed that the Palestinian participants were not fully representative of their society. Many participants tended to be “children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only seven percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population.” The survey also found that 91 percent of Palestinian participants no longer maintained ties with Israelis they met. In addition, 93 percent were not approached with follow-up camp activity, and only five percent agreed the whole ordeal helped “promote peace culture and dialogue between participants.”

By insisting on a narrative of two equal parties to conflict, and by making financial aid dependent on Palestinian acquiescence to this narrative, the ‘peace industry’ only reinforces the imbalance of power in the region. This is the process of ‘normalisation’ that the boycott movement decries.

In contrast, the assets of the BDS movement are limited to moral capital only.  And yet it has attracted the broad support of 173 Palestinian grassroots organisations, including many unions, and a growing group of Israeli activists, Boycott from Within. PACBI has the express support of over 60 Palestinian cultural and academic organisations. The BDS movement has not bought this support: on the contrary, boycott advocates within Israel now face severe penalties from Israel – heavy fines or imprisonment – for expressing their views. A solidarity activist can therefore support BDS knowing that the movement represents not only an accurate analysis of the conflict, but also the free and principled self-expression of a huge range of community and professional organisations. No external authority or funding body is dictating the operating terms of these groups. Unlike the ‘dialogue peace camp’, BDS is a purely Palestinian-led political movement with a huge base of mobilised popular support, and is therefore the only option for international activists who wish to work in solidarity with Palestinians.

2) Isn’t cultural boycott ‘a bit witch hunty’?

Rachel Shabi expressed support for divestment, but stated that she felt cultural boycott in particular could be ‘a bit witch-hunty’.  This is not an uncommon reaction to boycott campaigns; I therefore wish to take this opportunity to expand on what I said at SOAS and entirely reject the comparison.

Political witch-hunts involve substantial punishments: the loss of employment, the destruction of one’s career, perhaps even imprisonment.  Modern day ‘witch hunts’ also often involve smear campaigns. The subjects of cultural boycott campaigns are never remotely in any such dangers.

To start with, the boycott targets institutions, not individuals.  When boycott activists direct campaigns toward individuals, it is simply to ask them not to appear in Israel or at Israeli-funded events. If they insist on crossing this picket line, then boycott activists may protest against their activities on that particular tour of the region. Otherwise, activists have never called for the ‘boycott of boycott busters’

Crucially, boycott activists cannot force writers, musicians or artists not to take a gig in Israel: any loss of employment that results from respecting the boycott is entirely voluntary, and amply offset by the reward of right relationship with one’s own conscience.  The only pressure that boycott activists can apply is sustained moral pressure, and to suggest that we should not be doing so verges on questioning our right to protest. I personally have led campaigns politely but persistently requesting high-profile writers not to appear in Israel. These writers are wealthy professionals with teams of publicists, editors and festival staff to support them. If they make a decision to take money from an apartheid state, they ought to be prepared to face a rational public debate about it.

It constantly disappoints me that British writers who appear in Israel do not want to participate in that debate.  I do not possess a tall black hat, a ducking pond, or any kind of power or desire to wound these writers. I just want them to change their minds about shaking hands with ethnic cleansers, and if they cannot do that, then I believe they should at least answer all the questions the BDS movement lays at their doors.

3) Can BDS lead to peace, and if so, how?

This was a question from the audience, and it is a good one. BDS is obviously a controversial strategy because it strikes at the heart of neo-liberal values, and the concept of unlimited free speech; its detractors therefore sometimes argue that adopting BDS only inflames the conflict. I obviously do not agree.

In South Africa, sustained international pressure played a huge role in bringing apartheid to an end. How BDS can help do this in Israel is suggested by a recent article by Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf: the reason the peace process has stalled, he argues, is because for the average Jewish Israeli the status quo is preferable to either the one-state or the two-state solution. The one-state solution would involve the kind of demographic and democratic shift Zionists most fear, and the two-state solution would involve giving up settlements, land and resources.  I am grateful to Boycott from Within activist Ofer Neiman for sending me the link to this article, and for his succinct summation that what boycott does is make the status quo uncomfortable.  BDS is a constant reminder that the world does not approve of the political choices Israel is making.  BDS may in the short-term add to friction, but this friction is necessary grit in the process of real change: change that results in the priceless pearl of justice.

I hope that these responses flesh out my comments on the night. I will also post them on the BWISP FAQs page for ease of future reference.

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