Dear Jake Wallis Simons,
We thank you for your reply to our request to boycott the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival in Jerusalem this month. We regret, however, that The Telegraph declined to publish our Open Letter, and that you and the paper have ignored our requests for a blog spot to respond to your arguments. We find it ironic that you charge us with hypocrisy for supporting a boycott of Israel, but deny us space to express our views on this controversial issue to your readers. Are only anti-boycott voices to be allowed access to the mainstream media, in your view? As such appears to be the case, we address you again, therefore, from our own website, in conjunction with our colleagues in Israel, members of the activist group Boycott from Within.
To further address your charge of hypocrisy: yes, human rights violations occur all over the world, but there is a crucial difference between boycott as a personal moral decision and as a strategic political tool. The grassroots-based Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli state and all companies profiteering from its human rights violations is an organised call from Palestinian civil society: it comes with specific demands and the significant potential to create change. Just as in apartheid South Africa, an international BDS campaign is called for because Western governments, including the current British government, have armed and supported the country in question. Building on the South African precedent, BDS could eventually become more widely used to combat international abuses of power, including those by Western governments. To be both morally compelling and effective, however, the call must come from the exploited. BDS is like a picket line that internationals are requested not to cross. Still a personal moral choice, but with the added freight of knowing that a rejection of boycott is not neutral: it is a conscious choice to refuse the call of the oppressed, and therefore stand with the oppressor against them.
It is clear that you do not wish to see Israel in this light. In lieu of addressing our central concern – that the state-funded literary festival you are attending openly celebrates Israel’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem – you attempt to portray Israel as a victim of constant attacks by Arab countries. You neglect to mention that Israel was founded at gun point, armed Zionist militias committing the 1948 Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’: massacres, terrorist acts and the ethnic cleansing of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians. Israel has never honoured the right of return of the now over six million refugees who live in desperate poverty around the Middle East – the most horrific example being the starvation we see now in Yarmouk. We acknowledge, of course, the misery of Syrian refugees, and also the suffering of Jews over the centuries. But compassion for victims of war and persecution should not mask the fact that by establishing an expansionist state – one that has persistently seized far more of the land gifted to it by the UN – Israel has created a situation of permanent conflict, in which it is clearly the aggressor.
You also present Israel as a free and democratic society with difficulties like any other. In fact, it is a violent and discriminatory regime far unlike the UK. The “societal disadvantages that confront minorities in Israel” include an ethnic-supremacist plan to uproot tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens within Israel’s 1967 borders, to make way for communities built by the Jewish National Fund, an organization which serves the Jewish people, rather than Israel’s citizens. As for the West Bank, the situation there is not simply “disturbing”, but a full-fledged settler-colonial occupation, enforced by an illegal, land-grabbing wall, which public opinion all over the world has come to detest. Finally, comparisons to British treatment of political prisoners must fall: for all its many grievous faults, Britain never blanket bombed West Belfast with white phosphorous, while the commonplace Israeli practice of ‘administrative detention’ – jailing people for years without charge – is not a feature of the British justice system. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have gone on hunger strike to protest this and other grave abuses. Are you aware that a Palestinian can be arrested for pouring a cup of coffee for a neighbour? And while it is certainly distressing for those who have lost loved ones, as in the case of Northern Ireland, the release and reintegration of political prisoners is a normal and essential part of a peace process.
Your choice of euphemisms to conceal the reality of Israeli apartheid and ongoing war crimes – as well as the inflammatory choice of a photo of a blazing Star of David to illustrate your article – are typical pro-Zionist attempts to evade a comprehensive discussion of Israel’s policies and aims. You call on us to boycott the Palestinian government, as if Palestinian state violence were equal in kind and ferocity to Israeli aggression. The deaths of all innocents are to be grieved, and never condoned. But Palestinian violence is a symptom of the occupation: a desperate effort to resist annihilation by an infinitely superior military force – against drones, F-16s and nuclear weapons, Palestinians own not one tank. Close tracking of incidents of rocket fire indicates that attacks on Israel generally occur after IDF incursions and deaths in Gaza – including the killing of children on a football pitch. Charges of terrorism against Hamas must be placed in the context of the death of over 400 Gazan children during Operation Cast Lead alone, not to mention the many Palestinians denied medical treatment thanks to the cruel and inhumane siege of the strip.
To de-escalate the cycle of violence, Israel must take a long hard look in the mirror, and acknowledge that in fact it has always abused its powers in the region, and has inflicted far more pain than it has itself endured in reply. Only by admitting that central truth, and asking forgiveness for the Nakba, can it begin to participate in real dialogue with its victims. Perhaps then we as human rights activists might be able to support Israel – but much as we wish for peace for all peoples in the region, we can never find it in our hearts to support an expansionist apartheid regime, even if, for some of us, it is our home.
Jake Wallis Simons, you claim to have sympathy for the Palestinians. Again, we urge you to take one more step toward the truth of their plight – to acknowledge that Israeli aggression is at the root of the conflict, and putting pressure on Israel to honour international law is the best way to resolve it. At this eleventh hour, we ask again you not to go to the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival – not to allow a government which is kidnapping and detaining children in the middle of the night in occupied east Jerusalem to pay for your comfortable hotel room just minutes away from the crime scene. Why not instead politely decline, and make a statement in solidarity with Sarah Ali, the young Gazan writer Israel recently refused to allow to attend a writers’ tour in America? We are not saying never visit Jerusalem, but when ordinary Palestinians cannot travel freely, then yes, we are all called upon to justify our own trips to Israel, and ensure they are undertaken in ways that do not celebrate or normalise a situation of gross and continuing injustice.
If you cannot do this, we call on you to at least engage with our reply, allow us equal footing at The Telegraph, and avoid the stain of the charge of hypocrisy on your own reputation.
Prof Mona Baker
Dr Les Levidow
(Boycott From Within)