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The Boycott Debate

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Issue: 62 Section: Foreign Policy Geography: Middle East Ramallah Topics: Israeli Occupation

August 19, 2009

The Boycott Debate

Klein, Lerer, Baskin on the effects of internal, external pressure on Israel

by Carmelle Wolfson

The boycott called for by Palestinian civil society demands Israel end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands, dismantle the separation barrier, and recognize as equal the rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of refugees to return to their homes. Photo: Nidal Elkhairy

EAST JERUSALEM—"More than twenty-five people were arrested today in Beit Ummar," says a Canadian member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who sits behind me in a Ramallah auditorium in the West Bank. In front of me in the Friends School Hall, writer Naomi Klein prepares to speak to about 500 internationals, intellectuals, activists, NGO workers and journalists packed into the auditorium meant to seat 350. Spectators stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the back of the hall; a handful crouch in the aisles.

"Last week the same thing happened," explains the ISM activist.

The police had arrested eight activists from Ta'ayush, an Israeli human rights organization, although they had documentation from the Israeli Supreme Court proving the military isn't allowed to shut off agricultural areas. Bat Ayin settlers uprooted over 100 trees near Beit Ummar in late June, reported The Palestine Media Center. The Israeli Army's response was to name the area a closed military zone. Anyone going in and out of the area would be arrested.

The Bat Ayin settlement is within Gush Etzion, one of the largest Israeli settlement blocks. The region, southwest of Bethlehem, is the most agriculturally fertile land in the West Bank. According to the spiritual beliefs of religious Jewish settlers, all of British Mandate Palestine should be returned to the Jews. This includes the West Bank, or what they call by the biblical term Judea and Samaria. The settlement of Bat Ayin is home to the "Bat Ayin Underground," a group that plotted the bombing of a Palestinian girls’ school in East Jerusalem in 2002.

International Palestinian solidarity workers and Israeli human rights activists have been escorting farmers from Beit Ummar to their agricultural lands near Hebron to protect them from violent attacks by nearby Israeli settlers.

Settler attacks, military arrests, and uprooted trees (which are a means of sustenance, livelihood and spirituality) are daily realities for Palestinians since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and radical religious Jewish settlers began setting up outposts across the West Bank. Concurrently, on the other side of the separation barrier – which will stretch more than 700 km when completed – Jewish Israelis live without such disturbances. The Israeli Security Agency Shin Bet admitted in May that there is no security reason to continue building the wall, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice five years ago. Nonetheless construction continues.

Klein’s talk in Ramallah (full transcript here) heralds the first coordinated speaking tour in Israel/Palestine promoting the boycott of Israeli cultural and academic institutions. Palestinian civil society first called for a broad boycott, divestments and sanctions against Israel in 2005. The boycott demands Israel honour UN Resolution 194 and end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands, dismantle the separation barrier, and recognize as equal the rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of refugees to return to their homes.

Klein blushes as Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian Initiative lauds her as a woman of her word for participating in the weekly nonviolent demonstration against the separation barrier in the border town of Bil'in. The barbed wire fence annexes over 50 per cent of Bil'in's land to Israel. This has allowed two Canadian-registered companies, Green Park and Green Mount, to construct settlements on the annexed land. A Quebec judge is currently deliberating on whether to hear Bil'in's case against the companies, which argues that their actions violate international law by transferring civilians onto occupied territory.

"There is a debate among Jews – I’m a Jew by the way," Klein tells the audience in Ramallah. "Whether the lesson of the Holocaust should be 'never again' to anyone, or 'never again to us.'" For Klein the answer is clear. Growing up Jewish in Toronto, she first became active in the social justice movement as a student at the University of Toronto, where she occupied administrative offices to call for divestment from apartheid South Africa. "It is precisely because of what we experienced as Jews that we must denounce racism, denounce systems of segregation wherever they crop up, even and especially when they crop up amongst our own," says Klein.

As Israeli attacks on Palestinians have escalated, Israeli trade relations haven’t suffered, but deepened, says Klein. There's a reason there is no motivation for peace, she explains: People in Israel can live normal lives.

The economy, built on homeland security, is thriving, says Klein. "The Occupied Territories are the laboratory and [...] the Palestinian people are the test market for these technologies." Israeli companies like Elbit Systems, who built the "apartheid wall" in the West Bank, are selling their expertise to the US government. The main subcontract for a network of sensors, guard towers and electrified fences on the Canada-US and US-Mexico borders went to Elbit, Klein reports.

"We are challenging the idea of normalization because when a film that you really want to see isn’t playing in the Jerusalem Film Festival, when a conference you wanted to go to isn’t going to happen in Tel Aviv because people have decided that they are not going to have it there, that challenges such a central part of Israeli identity," explains Klein. This, she believes, will pressure a part of Israeli society to say: "We need peace to have a normal life."

Klein thinks there has been a change within Israeli society after the 2008 massacre in Gaza and the election of the far right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. "Most progressive Israelis drew the line at calling Israel an apartheid state and calling for a boycott," but now, she says, a group of Israelis have come together to form Boycott from Within.

Israeli founder of Andalus Publishing and Boycott From Within member Yael Lerer. Lerer hopes that publishing Palestinian literature, challenging the cultural hegemony within Israel, will help end the normalization of the Palestinian occupation. Photo: Yael Lerer


Yael Lerer is the founder of Andalus Publishing and a Boycott from Within member.

The publishing company hasn't turned a profit. It can barely afford to translate The Shock Doctrine into Hebrew. Fortunately, Klein donated Andalus the publication rights. All royalties from Hebrew copies sold in Israel will go towards Andalus for translating Arabic literature into Hebrew. "I think that all our work is a work of resistance," says Lerer. She explains that publishing books in Hebrew by authors like Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury (both donated publishing rights to Andalus) is part of the fight against the cultural hegemony in Israel. Most Israelis "don't really want to be part of the Arab world," says Lerer. "They don't want to read Arabic literature or to be aware of what is going on around them."

From her home office in Tel Aviv, Lerer tells me, "With every book that I publish, I always have some moments that I think 'this is the last book that I publish'; and for what, for whom?

"But on the other hand," she adds, "I think that if there are a thousand Israelis that read Naomi Klein, like some of those that read our Arabic translations, it’s going to make some impact."

Lerer says boycotting Israel doesn't mean you must stop speaking to Israelis. Instead, she wants to end the normalization of the occupation. "I cannot bear this normality that Israelis live," explains Lerer. "Personally, I'm disturbed by all of these Israelis who think of themselves as enlightened people and at the same time don't do anything against the occupation, or do things, but in a very minor way." She hopes intellectuals won't be welcomed to international festivals if they're contributing to the portrayal of a "normal liberal Israel, when Israel is an apartheid state." Lerer thinks more academics who fear the repercussions of speaking against Israel might be motivated to speak out if they’re pressured by the international community.

Lerer has been an activist for nearly 30 years. "No-one could imagine then what is going on now. Nobody could imagine massacres like Gaza," she says. "With the slogans of peace Israel gets all this support and can continue to do what it wants." The Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the peace agreement with Egypt in 1978. And yet, says Lerer, "So much blood has been shed since then."

Lerer doesn't expect change from inside Israel anymore. "I need this boycott. I need external pressure." When I ask her if she thinks the boycott will further antagonize Israel she reminds me of the Tel Aviv University poll: 94 per cent of Israeli Jews supported the attack on Gaza. "What is more aggressive than this [attack on Gaza]?" she asks. "Concentration camps? Gas chambers?"


Some critics of the boycott believe the BDS campaign will only increase Israeli fears that they're being attacked. Very few Israelis, including those calling themselves peace activists, support the boycott.

"What we're going to do by doing that [boycotting Israel] is create greater anxiety amongst Israelis," says Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin. CEO and founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), Baskin believes that if there is still a chance for a two state solution—"the only solution," in his view—then the focus should be on that.

IPCRI is housed in a unique location inside the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, overlooking East Jerusalem. Down the road is the concrete wall and the checkpoint into Bethlehem. Across the street at the foot of the hill, an active construction site builds block houses in the settlement of Har Homa.

"I think it's using ammunition too early," reiterates the peace activist. "It won't get the support of governments around the world at this point. It'll be on the margins."

Baskin thinks the international community should instead employ a concentrated boycott of products coming from the settlements, focusing on Israeli policies in the settlements and the occupied territories. "That would have more support amongst ordinary Israelis and it would not be using a tool that might be important to use at a later stage, and we're not there yet," says Baskin.

"If you check you'll find a direct correlation between those who are using the language of apartheid South Africa and how they see the solution to the conflict. And I disagree with them entirely," says Baskin. "I think it denies Palestinian people the right to self determination. A large majority of Palestinians want an independent state. They don’t want to be part of a bi-national state, neither do Israelis." Furthermore, Baskin believes that one secular democratic state for all Israeli and Palestinian citizens will mean continuing the conflict. According to Baskin, "It means that we're going to be killing each other in much greater numbers with much greater intensity."


Nonetheless, Israel's assault on Gaza this winter has turned more people into supporters of the worldwide boycott, especially in Canada. Independent Jewish Voices Canada (including signatory Naomi Klein) became the first national Jewish organization to support the boycott in June.

The University of Toronto held the first Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) in 2005. This year, 40 cities participated in IAW and Hampshire College became the first American school to completely divest from Israel. (The institution has withdrawn its investments in six companies that supply the Israeli military with equipment and services in the occupied territories.)

Citing IAW events in Toronto, Canadian director John Greyson pulled his film from TLVFest in June, the annual LGBT film festival in Tel Aviv. "The Israeli apartheid forum this week, and particularly Naomi Klein's speech, helped clarify my thoughts. Her words took me back to the BDS movement of the Eighties, against South African apartheid, and the first 16mm film I ever made, which was in support of that struggle, clips of which are included in Fig Trees [Greyson's latest film]. The cultural boycott worked in South Africa's case, and lead directly to the sweeping changes and activism that Fig Trees celebrates in song. Therefore, in the spirit of the film, and those activists, I don't feel there's a choice any longer," explains Greyson in his letter to the director of TLVFest.

The Yes Men also chose not to screen their film at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July.

In Jerusalem, according to an Israeli currently organizing a social justice literature festival in the city, there is no place to hold an event where both Israelis and Palestinians will come.

Meanwhile, Ma'an News reports settlers from Bat Ayin set fire to fig, olive and grape trees in Beit Ummar, and ten more Palestinians from Beit Ummar were arrested in July.

Klein’s arguments for BDS are expounded on in her article for The Guardian, "Enough, it's Time for a Boycott.

Carmelle Wolfson is an independent journalist from Toronto currently based in Israel/Palestine, and a copy editor for Briarpatch Magazine.

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BAT AYIN Attacks on Beit Ummar (actually Tzafa)

I, with you, deplore the provocations rampage of destroying trees done by my neighbors.

I find it peculiar that your article does not mention that this quite unique (extreme) settlement was the site of a horrendous murder of a young boy (and another wounded) earlier this spring by a man who came from the Palestinian village.

While there have been plenty of bad things done by settlers, the solution is not to exasperate the problem by adding fuel to the fire..by more confrontation. Even as there is a serious divide about the future of this area, people can still and must still be expected to be sensitive to all sides. I am afraid that the left fails at this almost as much as the right.

You are bunch of fools, you

You are bunch of fools, you are not helping the Palestinians a single bit, it must be great to be arrested by Israel, you are "cool" indeed, real idiots.

The Boycot Debate

Like the writer of this article, I too, deplore the evictions, and the destruction of property and land. I am deeply addened by the injustice and humiliation that Palestinians in the west bank suffer under Israeli rule.
However, I don't agree with the equation of Israel and South Africa as Apartheid states. Israel is the leading democracy in the Middle East, and its Arab population has equal rights with its Jewish population including voting rights (not like women in many Arab countries). The population of the West Bank and Gaza strip is not part of Israel and is not ruled by the same law (as were the black people in South Africa). I find that naming Israel Apartheid country is misleading and confusing to most people that are not aware of the difference between the Arab Israeli citizens and the Palestinians in the West Bank.

In response to your comments

If you read past the first few paragraphs you would discover that the focus of my article is not settler attacks on Beit Ummar and the associated arrests of Palestinian solidarity activists in the West Bank. The article is a discussion, stemming from Naomi Klein’s presentation in Ramallah, about the cultural and academic boycott against Israel. The opening story was used to illustrate ways in which Israel’s military occupation affects the daily lives of Palestinians and those supporting their struggle for sovereignty over their lands. Given the length of the article, there is no need for more elaboration on that specific incident.

Perhaps the story could be taken out of the article altogether. It could instead begin with a quote from Lerer or Klein about their reasons for defending the boycott or simply by describing the hall in Ramallah where Klein spoke. Another section maybe could be inserted following the explanation of Klein’s talk, which would highlight some examples of the affects of occupation on Palestinians.

The beginning anecdote from the ISM activist was also a cultural reference used to paint a picture of the crowd at Klein’s talk in Ramallah. It is heartening to see that there are people around the world dedicated to putting their bodies on the lines in order to reduce the violence and repression Palestinians endure from settler attacks and soldiers. Getting arrested can be thrilling, but it is not going to affect change in and of itself. They do some important work too. But activists too often feel the need to prove themselves by getting arrested and eventually deported, leaving them useless to anyone who continues to live here. How connected are they to the struggle they came here to support a year after they’ve left?

Carmelle Wolfson

the new antisemetism

there is no other way to put this than anti-semetism.

this obsession with one small jewish country while insane barbaric actionscontinue unhindered is good old anti semetism and jew hatred.


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