France's Shocking, Wrong-Headed Repression of Protests Against Israel's Violent Policies

This article was featured originally at Quartiers XXI, and is republished here with the agreement of the author. 

On March 8, a feminist demonstration in Paris was the site of an unexpected arrest. On the orders of the municipal police force, a demonstrator was arrested in the middle of the march for the offense of wearing a "Boycott Israeli Apartheid" T-shirt. After spending half an hour at the police station, being searched and interrogated, she was released with a summons for “incitement to hatred on the basis of one’s origins in writing.” This arrest was the logical consequence of the repressive policies undertaken by the two last French governments against the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign.

The judicial apparatus

The first stone in the edifice of the criminalization of the BDS movement came with Michèle Alliot-Marie who, with the memorandum of Feb. 12, 2010, allowed French prosecutors to take activists to court for calling for a boycott on the grounds of “incitement to hatred.” The government thereby seamlessly brought together activists who are making use of a traditional tool in the struggle for liberation, with those who hold antisemitic positions.

Several trials have followed. In 2011, 12 activists from the town of Mulhouse were taken to court for handing out flyers calling to boycott Israeli products in a supermarket. After being discharged in the lower courts, both their appeal in 2013 and their trial at the Supreme Court in 2015 led to them being sentenced for having “provoked discrimination, hatred or violence towards an individual or a group of people for belonging or not belonging to a certain ethnicity, nation, race, or religion,” on the basis of the 1972 law against racism, which allows for a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros.

They were sentenced to pay a fine of 30,000 euros. France, appealing to this 1972 law, is the only country that criminally penalizes the call to boycott, being even stricter than Israel, which does not allow for imprisonment in the fight against its own delegitimization. These convictions give support to Zionist organizations (such as BNVCA, the National Office of Vigilance against Anti-Semitism) or institutions (like LICRA, International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism) which are in the process of taking Toulouse-based activists to court for “obstructing economic activity” after handing out flyers in front of a supermarket. The trial will begin in June 2016.

An antiracist campaign prosecuted for antisemitism

The goal of the BDS campaign is to denormalize the state of Israel and put the idea of a democracy surrounded by barbaric Muslim states which want nothing but its disappearance into question. The campaign, beyond pressuring the state of Israel politically, economically and diplomatically, encourages a political reading of the conflict. It opposes millenarianism and theories of a clash of civilizations which see Israel as an ally in the confrontation between the Occident and Islam. BDS brings to light the colonial origins of the conflict, the apartheid policies and the violations of human rights since 1948.

The campaign, by calling not only for a boycott of the Israeli economy but of foreign companies concretely implicated in the regime’s politics, reveals the economic and political roles played by Western powers in the maintenance of the colonialist and apartheid projects. The strength of BDS, like all boycott campaigns, lies in reminding citizens of their collective power: they are more than just consumers and workers, they can participate, through actions which need not necessarily be radical, in a revolution and in a people’s struggle for liberation.

Dangers of criminalization

This campaign of criminalization of the BDS movement is intolerable for several reasons. First of all, this double-standard repression is dangerous since it feeds into conspiracy theories that consider the differential treatment shown toward boycotters of Israel as proof of “Jewish dominance” on French and international politics. As effective in terms of communication the Zionist lobbies may be, our governments are not under their control. If the Paris municipal authorities, past and present government ministers, prosecutors and judges turn out to be the defenders of colonialism, this is not due to the tireless efforts of the CRIF [the apparent representatives of the Jewish community in France] or others.

The defense of Israel is just the direct result of shared political interests and ideals. In the first instance because Israel is an extension of the European and American colonial project. Also, because Israel has been developing expertise in the field of high-tech repression and surveillance which Western states need to subdue their own populations. Israel spends millions in military innovations and Palestinians are not only their main targets, but also laboratory guinea pigs: techniques and weapons are tested on them in order to be sold on foreign markets. To the United states, where American and Israeli police forces have been able to train and exchange their ‘tried and tested’ tactics in repressing demonstrators. In Europe, Israel has been able to propose its services in controlling migratory flows of refugees.

Conflating Jews with Zionism is a practice of those who defend the colonial project, who prefer to play with fire rather than really fighting antisemitism. Israel was in part created by Western powers so as to send the Jews of Europe there. To present this state as the natural destination of all the Jews in Europe serves only to encourage a stigmatizing discourse which excludes them from the legitimate political corps. It is thus not surprising to see support for Israel among far-right political parties who were historically antisemitic. What’s more, these parties can only be seduced by a state which manages its population along religious and ethnic lines. All Jews do not have to be held responsible for the acts of the colonial state, nor is criticism of Israel an insult to the 14 millions Jews around the world.

Finally, the criminalization of the BDS movement brings about a double standard in free speech. Take the case of Bernard-Henri Lévy, who in 2010 signed an open letter in Le Monde titled “The Boycott of Israel is a dishonorable weapon” alongside French president François Hollande, Mayoress of Paris Anne Hidalgo, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Socialist party member of Parliament Jean-Marie Le Guen. Yet the same Henri Levy declared a year later, concerning the island of Corsica: “Is there not a reason to boycott the island as a tourist destination… If Corsica is like Sicily times ten, we must give them a serious blow so that the minority of this island, these gangsters who make their own laws and who turn politicians into puppets, understand that they cannot have it both ways.”

Replace Corsica with Israel and you’ll find him on the dock with the activists currently being prosecuted. Likewise, one cannot be certain that the magazine Le Point, which published a piece in 2008 in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing calling for the boycott of China, will need to worry about the criminalization of calls to boycott.

Paradoxically, BDS activists find themselves today having to fight both antisemitic conspiracy theories which take them to be victims, as well as the measures criminalizing the BDS movement, which claim that they are antisemitic persecutors. The trap is thus set: what place is left in the debate to criticize Israel? The criminalization of the BDS movement is essentially the criminalization of an antiracist and anticapitalist political protest. Those who demonstrate today against the State of Emergency and the banning of demonstrations need to remind themselves that the current French government did not begin banning political demonstrations with the State of Emergency following the attacks Nov. 13, 2015, but during the Israeli assault on Gaza in July 2014. In France too, the repression of pro-Palestinian movements serves as a laboratory of political repression. People spoke back then of antisemitic demonstrations and of attacks against synagogues, going so far as to dispute the testimony given by the rabbi of the synagogue on Rue de la Roquette and to go against videos taken and published on social networks.

The good news is to be found in the success of the campaign. From the beginning, all calls to boycott, as long as they are carried through, leaves the oppressing power in a truly bad position: not to denounce it is to let it develop, but to talk about it is to recognize from the outset its efficacy and to encourage its growth. There is no good counter-boycott measure and criminalization is certainly not one. The arrest of the BDS supporter on March 6 led to all the demonstrators showing their solidarity with their comrade, even those who were not aware of the campaign. On the backs of a feminist demonstration, BDS campaigners were thus able to spread awareness about the campaign and the government’s counter-measures. Not only does criminalization not intimidate activists, it also allows struggles against all forms of oppression to unite.


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