It was Egypt that got me thinking about the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement in a serious way. I was already conducting a quiet targeted boycott of settlement goods – silently reading labels at the grocery store to make sure I was not buying anything that came from over the Green Line.
I had been doing this for a long time. But, at some point, I realised that my private targeted boycott was a bit naïve. And I understood that it was not enough.
It is not just the settlements and the occupation, two sides of the same coin, which pose a serious obstacle to peace and infringe on the Palestinians’ human rights. It is everything that supports them – the government and its institutions. It is the bubble that many Israelis live in, the illusion of normality. It is the Israeli feeling that the status quo is sustainable.
And the settlements are a bit of a red herring, a convenient target for anger. Israelis must also face one of the major injustices that have resulted from their state – the nakba, the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
While BDS addresses that, among other concerns – the three principles of the movement are respect for the Palestinians’ right of return, as outlined in UN resolution 194, an end to the occupation and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel – I remained reluctant to get involved.
I have to admit that I was frightened by the movement. I did not think it would help. I was sure that BDS would only encourage Israel to dig its heels in deeper. It will only make things worse for everyone, I reasoned.
Egypt was the tipping point for me. I was exhilarated by the images of people taking to the streets to demand change. And while the Palestine Papers prove that the government seems intent on maintaining the status quo, I know plenty of Israelis who are fed up with it.
There are mothers who do not want to send their children to the army; soldiers who resent guarding settlers. I recently spoke with a 44-year-old man – a normal guy, a father of two – who told me he wants to burn something he is so frustrated with the government and so worried about the future.
And Egypt is on many Israeli lips right now. So, what can be done to help bring it to Israeli feet? What can be done to encourage Israelis to fight for change, to fight for peace, to liberate themselves from a conflict that undermines their self-determination, their freedom?
BDS has stacked up a number of successes, which is one reason the Israeli Knesset is trying to pass a bill, known as the Boycott Law, that would effectively criminalise Israelis who join the movement, subjecting them to huge fines.
And some of those involved with BDS are already feeling an immense amount of pressure from the state.
‘Israel’s mask of democracy’
Leehee Rothschild, 26, is one of the scores of Israelis who have answered the 2005 Palestinian call for BDS. Recently her Tel Aviv apartment was raided. While the police did this under the pretense of searching for drugs, she was taken to the station for a brief interrogation that focused entirely on politics.
“The person who came to release me [from interrogation] was an intelligence officer who said that he is in charge of monitoring political activity in the Tel Aviv area,” Rothschild says. It was this officer who had requested the search warrant.
Since Operation Cast Lead, Israeli activists have reported increasing pressure from the police as well as General Security Services – known by their Hebrew acronym, Shabak.
The latter’s mandate includes, among other things, the goal of maintaining Israel as a Jewish state, making those who advocate for democracy a target.
House raids, such as the one Rothschild was subjected to, are not uncommon, nor are phone calls from the Shabak.
“Obviously [the pressure] is nothing compared to what Palestinians are going through,” Rothschild says. “But I think we’re touching a nerve.”
When asked about the proposed Boycott Law, Rothschild comments: “If the bill goes through, it will peel off, a little more, Israel’s mask of democracy.”
As for her involvement in BDS, Rothschild remarks that she was not aware of the movement until it became a serious topic of discussion within Israel’s radical left, which she was already active in. And even after she heard about it, she did not jump onboard right away.
“I had reservations about [BDS],” Rothschild recalls. “I thought about it for a very long time and I debated it with myself and my friends.
“The main reservation I had was that the economic [aspects] would first harm the weak people in the society – the poor people – the people who have the least effect on what’s going on. But I think that the occupation is harming these people much more than the divestments can.”
Rothschild points out that state funds that are poured into “security and defence and oppressing the Palestinian people” could be better used in Israel to help those in the low socioeconomic strata.
“Another reservation I have had is that it might make the Israeli public more extremist, more fundamentalist,” Rothschild adds. “But I have to say that the road it has to go to be more extreme is very short right now.”
As an Israeli, Rothschild considers joining the BDS movement to be an act of caring. It is tough love for the country she was born and raised in.
“I hope that, for some people, it will be a slap in their face and they will wake up and see what’s going on,” Rothschild says, adding that the oppressor is oppressed, as well.
“The Israeli people are also oppressed by the occupation – they are living inside a society that is militant; that is violent; that is racist.”
‘Renouncing my privileges’
Ronnie Barkan, 34, explains that he took his first step towards the boycott 15 years ago, when he refused to complete his mandatory military service.
“There’s a lot of social pressure [in Israel],” Barkan says. “We’re raised to be soldiers from kindergarten. We’re taught that it’s our duty [to serve in the army] and you’re a parasite or traitor if you don’t want to serve.”
“What is even worse is that people are raised to be deeply racist,” he adds. “Everything is targeted at supporting [Jewish] privilege as the masters of the land. Supporting BDS means renouncing my privileges in this land and insisting on equality for all.”
Barkan likens his joining of the boycott movement to the “whites who denounced their apartheid privileges and joined the black struggle in South Africa”.
When I cringe at the “a-word,” apartheid, Barkan counters: “Israel clearly falls under the legal definition of the ‘crime of apartheid’ as defined in the Rome Statute.”
‘Never again to anybody’
Some oppose BDS because it includes recognition of the Palestinian right of return. These critics say that the demographic shift would impinge on Jewish self-determination. But Barkan argues that “the underlying foundation [of the movement] is universally recognised human rights and international law”.
He emphasises that BDS respects human rights for both Palestinians and Jews and includes proponents of a bi-national, democratic state as well as those who believe a two-state solution is the best answer to the conflict.
He also stresses that BDS is not anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Israeli.
“The boycott campaign is not targeting Israelis; it is targeting the criminal policies of Israel and the institutions that are complicit, not individuals,” he says.
“So let’s say an Israeli academic or musician goes abroad and he is turned away from a conference or a venue just because he’s Israeli … ” I begin to ask.
“No, no, this doesn’t fall under the [boycott guidelines],” Barkan says.
“Because that’s not a boycott. It’s racism,” I say.
“Exactly,” Barkan responds, adding that the Palestinian call for BDS is “a very responsible call” that “makes a differentiation between institutions and individuals and it is clearly a boycott of criminal institutions and their representatives”.
“Whenever there is a grey area,” he adds, “we take the gentler approach.”
Still, Barkan has faced criticism for his role in the boycott movement.
“My grandmother who went to Auschwitz tells me, ‘You can think whatever you want but don’t speak up about your politics because it’s not nice,’ I tell her, ‘You know who didn’t speak up 70 years ago.’”
Barkan adds: “I think that the main lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is ‘never again to anybody’ not ‘never again to the Jews.’”