The cynic might say that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement got what was coming to it when Israel recently banned its activists from visiting the country. You can’t, surely, be advocating the cutting of ties with a country and not expect the government of that country to do the same back to you.
This is what Richard Falk called a “legitimacy war” that needed to be fought, peacefully, with Israel, “combining the mobilisation of a movement from below with global solidarity.” What Falk was less clear about, in an article that was later removed from the Stop the War Coalition’s website, was that war generally has two sides to it. If it doesn’t, it’s commonly called a massacre. Rightly so, the BDS movement should not be in the business of massacres.
Strategists behind BDS might even say that this ban works in their favour; it proves that they are onto something, and it proves that Israel is more authoritarian than it likes to make out. Israel, in fact, is increasingly illiberal and BDS seem to be among the enlightened minority of international observers who have realised this. The delicate sensibilities of neoconservative and muscular liberal supporters of Israel, who are in love with the idea of the state but aren’t too plugged into its political realities, don’t like to use the word “apartheid,” upon which the case for BDS rests. According to them, apartheid is a ridiculous term, because Muslims live alongside Jews in Israel. They do, kind of, but it turns out that not only are there a number of discriminatory laws now in place which affect the non-Jewish minorities, but also quite a few Israeli dignitaries who happen to think that Israel is indeed practicing apartheid.
Shulamit Aloni, who served as Minister for Education under Yitzhak Rabin, said in 2007 that, “Yes, there is apartheid in Israel.” With considerable insight, she added that, “It’s simply inconceivable that the ultimate victims, the Jews, can carry out evil deeds.” It is this awkward truth – that the self-styled Jewish state, created because so many Jews were persecuted for centuries, has now become the oppressor — that makes “the A-word” so hard to use in polite society. BDS, which is undoubtedly a radical movement, is also by this radical nature brave enough to make this association, something that the chattering classes of London are far too prim to engage with.
That Israel has become the oppressor is a particularly awkward truth to acknowledge, if you are observing from a country where Jews do still face hate. Only this week, a fake road sign was found in a proudly Jewish area of north London stating pictorially, “Beware of Jews“. This turned out to be a tasteless art project, but when viewed alongside other incidents involving swastikas and a spike in anti-Jewish hate crime following the European Union exit referendum result — plus the fact that children attending Jewish schools in this country do so under the watchful eye of CCTV cameras and security guards for fear of anti-Semitic attacks — you can understand, perhaps, why British observers of Israel sympathise too heavily with the state on matters related to the Palestinian semi-state that it lords over.
Nevertheless, the clamour of Israeli voices using “the A-word” has long been growing. In November 2014, the former attorney-general Michael Ben-Yair repeated his 2002 claim that his country had “established an apartheid regime in the occupied Palestinian territories.” Yossi Sarid, who served as an environment minister under both Rabin and Shimon Peres, stated bluntly that “the white Afrikaners, too, had reasons for their segregation policy; they, too, felt threatened – a great evil was at their door, and they were frightened, out to defend themselves. Unfortunately, however, all good reasons for apartheid are bad reasons; apartheid always has a reason, and it never has a justification. And what acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck—it is apartheid.”
Look only to the concept of “Jew-only roads” and you will find it hard to refute this strain of anti-apartheid Israeli thinking. Imagine if such roads were erected in Britain.
The ban on boycotters will almost certainly explode in the current Israeli government’s face, not least because liberal Zionists — Jews or Gentiles — are finally realising that being a liberal Zionist is rather pointless if you have authoritarian Zionists actually running the show. Taken with the fact that the ban was expected, these three points make the perverse case that BDS activists might do well to shrug it off as just one of those things. In strategic terms, though, the ban may even be a help to their cause.
Beyond these analytical curiosities, there is something far more sinister going on. The focus on foreign activists being denied entry to Israel — most notably, for example, Simone Zimmerman from the US or Hugh Lanning from Britain, not to mention the leader of the Labour Party — is misplaced. The real victims of this ban will not be earnest Westerners, but Palestinians.
If it wasn’t hard enough for Palestinians to travel before all of this happened, those who try to do so now risk not being able to return. It is an excellent way for Israel to whittle down the Palestinian activist population, upon which anti-occupation civil society rests.
The reason why BDS activists must fight this ban, and not simply let it do their work for them, is because the ban in itself represents another sophisticated form of ethnic cleansing. BDS is an international movement but it has its roots in Palestine. If you rip the roots out, as this ban intends, the movement will slowly fall apart. BDS is arguably the Palestinians’ last hope. Will those of them who leave and are not allowed back to their homeland ever be able to return? Of course not. That’s why BDS activists can’t shrug off this ban as if it is nothing to fret about; although it is, perversely, working in their favour, it is Palestinians, as ever, who continue to suffer the most from the effects of Israeli apartheid.