Boycotting Israel Isn't Anti-Semitic - It's a Response to a Government's Violent Tactics


The following is an excerpt from the new book  Language of War, Language of Peace: Palestine, Israel and the Search for Justice  by Raja Shehadeh (OR Books, 2015):

"Where should we go after the last frontiers,

Where should the birds fly after the last sky …"

-Mahmoud Darwish, The Earth is Closing on Us

It used to make me feel hopeful whenever I heard that the moderates in our region were gaining strength. It had always seemed to me a positive development when the power of rejectionists and hardliners is weakened. This, I thought, would remove the impediments to peace. But when, on 1 September 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu placed himself and Israel among the forces of moderation, I found yet another term that had been vitiated and stripped of its true meaning.

The initial sustained resistance to occupation during the first Intifada was mainly non-violent, but it was suppressed with such brutality that the sons who saw their fathers humiliated grew to be more violent. And the trend has continued ever since, with greater and greater levels of violence being used as Israel tries out more and more advanced and sophisticated weaponry that leads to more victims and more violence. Neither my father nor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was being naive when they proposed that the occupation should end and a political solution be found immediately after 1967, knowing as they did that time was of the essence. They realised that matters would only get more complicated as the years passed. New forces would arise and become entrenched and have vested interests in preserving the status quo. This is why they warned against waiting.

Nearly fifty years later, the violence continues, but new voices outside the area are beginning to be heard. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, ‘There is no military solution to the conflict in the Holy Land. Violence begets violence, which begets more hatred and violence. Nor have the world’s political and diplomatic leaders succeeded over many years to engineer a just and sustainable peace. Civil society must step into the breach, as it did in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid."

Civil society can lend its help by supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement’s campaign against Israel. The terrible suffering of the people of Gaza that was witnessed globally and on social media gave it a huge boost. As far afield as Oakland in the USA, in a show of solidarity for the people of Gaza port workers delayed the unloading of cargo from an Israeli Zim vessel for days after its arrival. The campaign was also effective on the home front in the West Bank, which constitutes a major market for Israeli goods. Previously, while the Palestinians were calling on the world to boycott Israel, back home the boycott of Israeli products was not successful. It was the war in Gaza that gave the extra impetus for that particular struggle. And the reason for that is because the struggle there proved that it is possible to win. Prior to this people were too defeated to even try challenging Israel. Placards in Ramallah called on people not to buy Israeli products, saying ‘Don’t pay for the bullets that kill Palestinian youth’ and showing photographs of the innocent young face of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and others.

A more correct term for the BDS Movement’s campaign is, I believe, a counter-boycott. We Palestinians in the occupied territories have been suffering from Israel’s boycott throughout the forty-seven years of occupation. This takes many forms, including restriction on movement and limitations on civil liberties, in addition to a number of specific prohibitions that complicate our lives and limit our freedom, such as the restriction on imports of Arabic books from Arab countries that have not made peace with Israel. Lebanon, which is the main producer of Arabic books, falls into this category. Except for those Palestinians living in Jerusalem, the city as well as the rest of Israel is forbidden to us. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been denied residency in Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza and are not even allowed in to visit. This is why we consider the boycott against Israel a counter-boycott.

Our hope must lie with people, not governments. Anyone with an iota of political sense would realise that governments are always the last to act. It has to be people who keep up the pressure and use their immense collective power, just as happened in the struggle to end the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Boycott is often harsh and indiscriminate, yet it is necessary. Palestinians inside Israel, who constitute 20 per cent of the population, might suffer if, out of the taxes they pay to the state, they manage to get subsidies for their cultural work. If Salim Dao and his singer daughter, Maysa, say, were to receive Israeli state funding and they wished to perform in Europe, the boycott would apply to them.

Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer who struggled for most of her life against apartheid, once told me that when she visited New York during the apartheid era she went into a shop on Fifth Avenue to buy some gadget her son wanted. She found what she needed and was about to pay when the shop assistant asked her where she came from. When she told him South Africa, he said, ‘I’m sorry, madam, I cannot sell you this.’ She had a bittersweet smile as she told me the story.

In a recent article Zeev Sternhell wrote: ‘The West’s political elite is not speaking out openly against Israeli colonialism, for fear of encouraging the anti-Semitic monster. But at the universities and in the schools, in the media and on social networks, they are already saying this explicitly: It is untenable that the Jewish past serve as a justification for cruelty in the Palestinian present.’

Many who are against the boycott claim that it is antiSemitic to call for the boycott of Israel. But is it? Is being anti-Israel the same as being anti-Semitic? When does antiIsrael become anti-Jew?

The struggle of the people of Palestine for selfdetermination has become one of the greatest issues of our time. As such, and like many a popular international struggle, it attracts all sorts of people, not least anti-Semites. To most people involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights, the distinction is clear. Not every Jew is a Zionist and not every Zionist is actively involved in supporting Israel or is uncritical of its treatment of Palestinians. Over the years, large numbers of Jews from all parts of the world have been actively involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights. Israel does its best to conflate the two and claim all Jews for its cause, much to the distress of many Jews around the world who want to be left alone and should have the right to stay away from the entire conflict and not be implicated, if they so choose.

This is not to deny that many Jews around the world who do not necessarily see themselves as Zionists still feel a certain affinity with Israel. This is their choice and they should not be held accountable for Israel’s behaviour. However, to the extent that they support Israel by money or in other ways, they cannot escape taking responsibility for its violations of the rights of Palestinians; the same holds true for American evangelists who support settlements in the West Bank. Anti-Semitism has a long history and is a vicious type of racism, but that does not mean that Jews who actively support Israel with money or otherwise are not complicit in Israel’s racist policies.

What should also be recognised is the way Jews in Europe and the US, after the rise in secularism in these societies, have been raised to understand the meaning of being Jewish in terms of the Holocaust and its relationship to Israel, seeing the country as a response to the worst manifestation of anti-Semitism. So when those who suffer the excesses of Israel criticise its actions, many Jews feel this is an attack on their Jewish identity and therefore call these attacks anti-Semitic.

I believe that it is part of Israel’s psychological war against the Palestinians to portray the country as standing not alone but with the active support of Jewish communities all over the world. The implication then is that it’s unrealistic for the Palestinians to believe that they can defeat Israel and its mission of settling all the land of Greater Israel with Jews. Rather, Palestinians should submit to the Israeli view that the occupied territories do not belong to them but to Jews all over the world.

The resolution of these fundamental issues is necessary for the position of Israel to be normalised, enabling it to be accepted in the region. But if there is to be peace in our region the Palestinians also need to come to terms with the existence of Israel and accept that its people are here to stay. What we should seek is not the destruction of Israeli society, but ways to forge a new relationship that would make it possible for both of us to have a full life based on justice and equality in this beautiful but tortured land which we share, for both of us – Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews – live here.

The Gaza war was the first time that Palestinians stood their ground, despite the massive assault, and succeeded in inflicting harm on Israel by fighting back. Jenin’s resistance during the 2002 Israeli invasion of the West Bank was another example, but on a much smaller and more limited scale. After the attack on Gaza Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon said, ‘The fact that a 20,000 strong terror group has endured for 50 days against the strongest army in the Middle East and has stayed in power – it bothers me very much.

How the success of this Islamic group will affect Palestinian young people is yet to be seen. Will it perhaps mark the beginning of a belief that militarisation is the only way to force Israel’s hand? Much will depend on Israel.

As the war was still raging, Hamas and the people of Gaza said they were tired of conflict and were exhausted, but they did not want to stop before the ordeal of their siege ended. The pain of this latest round of aggression will remain with us for many years. Those who lost loved ones or were maimed in the fighting might never forget. Their only solace would be if their suffering was not in vain, because it ushered a period of peace.

The future is for the youth on both sides. On the Palestinian side, the coming generation will have so many memories of shameful defeats and instances of discrimination and humiliation. They will perhaps draw strength from the brave resistance that Palestinian fighters put up in Gaza in the summer of 2014. If Israel refuses to withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967 and negotiate with the Palestinians about all outstanding issues and rights, the Palestinians will have to choose between life without land and rights, or life with dignity. If this is the choice and the other side refuses to let go, they will eventually do what it takes, fighting to the bitter end. The Israelis also have the choice of either remaining eternally mobilised for war or coming to terms with the existence of the Palestinians and recognising their right to self-determination.

Children and poets should be trusted more than politicians. They are better at imagining a better future. An eleven-year-old Israeli girl called Ohad, who spent most of her summer holiday in 2014 in bomb shelters in Sderot, in the south of Israel, drew a simple comic with five panels. In the first a plane bearing the colours of the Palestinian flag is flying in the sky. In the second a plane bearing the colours of the Israeli flag is flying in the sky. In the third the two planes have a head-on collision. In the fourth the explosion results in many hearts that fall to the ground. In the last drawing the multicoloured hearts are collected by Palestinians on one side of the border and Israelis on the other.

In conclusion, here is a piece by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, written before his country, Northern Ireland, managed to find reconciliation:

Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard. 

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols

Beat on their bars together.

A hunger-striker’s father

Stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term.

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