Interview with Israeli BDS activist Tali Shapiro: The fear of international isolation is shifting the discourse in Israel

on 20 Comments

In early March, I attended an Independent Jewish Voices event in London with Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy. Those who follow Levy’s articles in Haaretz – a collection of which have been published in his 2010 book, The Punishment of Gaza – will be familiar with the central theme of his presentation: Israeli society’s indifference to a brutal, military occupation on their doorstep and the ongoing crimes – under international law – against the Palestinian people. After his talk, and a brief intervention by director of JNews, Miri Weingarten, the floor was opened to questions: two out of five questions were about economic sanctions and the academic and cultural boycott. Levy affirmed that boycotts are legitimate, but questioned whether an Israeli boycott can be effective, concluding that it will push Israelis further to the right, and feed into their paranoia that ‘the world is against us’. He said that academic institutions should be the last target of a boycott and it ‘should be against the occupation, not all of Israel’.

I approached Tali Shapiro, Israeli activist and writer, for her responses to what seems to have become the last line of defense against the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) amongst progressive circles, in Israel and internationally. I was curious as to why the international community is still being asked to consider the feelings/fears of Israelis who rarely challenge their own government’s apartheid policies, and why we are still discussing ‘if’ the boycott ‘will’ be effective in Year seven of the campaign.

Tali Shapiro: Part of being an effective activist on any issue is to know it inside-out. I happen to be the head editor of the Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS call from within newsletter; this gives me good insight into the trends in the mainstream media, concerning BDS. I’ve been involved since the Gaza massacre of ‘Operation Cast Lead’. This unabashed blood bath was a turning point in Israel’s international image, and the emergence of BDS as the main tactic to fight the occupation and apartheid is a clear result of Gaza.

While international papers were beginning to talk about what was previously the sole domain of alternative media, it took the Israeli media six more months to catch up. In another six months (one year after Cast Lead), it would be common to see several articles a day concerning BDS in the online Israeli MSM; within two years of Cast Lead there’s not an article, a news spot, or a radio show that doesn’t include ‘Israel’s declining image’/ ‘delegitimization’. In fact, by now it’s not just in the news, it is part of the language and culture. The latest BDS victory began a couple of months ago, when Israeli journalists preyed upon the fears of the typical, colonial citizen with titles like ‘BDS is working’. The interesting thing is that when you actually read the article [in Hebrew], you realize that all that’s happening is that a certain company has looked into the details. This latest phenomenon shows how hard it is to really measure effectiveness. I believe all movements for social change learn, sooner or later, how to respect the complexities of reality and not force themselves upon it. This ability to adjust is what makes us truly effective. Chela Delgato of INCITE! was quoted as saying, “when you’re making the road by walking it’s hard to run.” That’s the cautionary tale, which those who use force as an “easy solution” refuse to grasp.

Just to answer that cheap shot about Israelis becoming even more defensive, this is a natural progression which happens with every abuser who is called out on his abusive behaviour: when you tell the man who beats his partner that you see what he’s doing and it’s wrong, naturally, the first thing he does is get defensive. He may lie, he may make excuses, he may blame the victim, but does that mean he shouldn’t be confronted?

EK: Why does the academic – and cultural – boycott continue to be the most controversial amongst those commentators that yet understand how complicit state institutions are in the occupation?

TS: To me, statements like Levy’s are a clear indicator that the man doesn’t know the issue to its full extent (and I say this with all due respect to his dedication, sharp analysis, and genuine concern for the well-being of human beings). It’s hard to grasp the vastness of the workings of the occupation. This is what separates the Gush Shalom ‘progressives’/ ‘enlightened colonialists’ from the Who Profits radicals. When the Who Profits project began, I don’t think they anticipated the depth of economic involvement in the occupation. What they realized is that it is all about the money – war profiteering, in the most classic sense of the term. What they discovered was that 80% of Israel’s economy is entangled in occupation. The meaning of this big word ‘occupation’ is theft by force, and amassing of profit on those stolen gains by exploitation.

One has to remember that Israelis are no different from other people. The banality of evil is, well, banal. How do you get the ‘average Joe’ to do the above? How do you get them not to object to all this? You have to create justifications for it. These will only be effective if they are manifested in each and every member in the society. In other words, you have to create a culture around it. So in Israel you write songs about ‘mighty battles won’, you create a whole culture that never mentions its victims, and this serves as the canon in your educational institutions. Once we can see the clear connection, of how culture has been enlisted to enable economic oppression by military means, really there’s no other choice, but to widen the boycott.

As I’ve illustrated in my response to the first question, BDS’s main effect will not be via the actual severing of ties. The effect will be felt much sooner with the fear of severing of ties. This pressure was instrumental in fighting the South African apartheid regime and I think denying it doesn’t point to an understanding of the situation – not then and not now. This doesn’t mean BDS is the only action taken. People have been taking to the streets in a very organized and consistent manner for years: we write, we speak abroad. South Africans did all this as well. Just as evil doesn’t substantially change through geography and time, neither do the ways to fight it effectively.

EK: Weingarten responded to the questions on BDS by saying that in the light of the new anti-boycott bill, which is likely to be passed by the Knesset, it seems strange that audiences would ask an Israeli speaker if she or he supports the boycott because a) they could be penalized for their opinion, and, she implied b) the boycott does not need a ‘kosher stamp’. Is it relevant what Israeli commentators, academics and cultural figures think about the boycott?

TS: Israeli speakers can simply say ‘my country has made it illegal for me to comment, fearing the consequences I choose not to speak’ – this would be making a very clear political statement about how bad things have become and does not belittle the importance of other activists who do choose to take the risk.

Israelis do have that unique role in the BDS movement, in that we are basically asking to boycott ourselves. Yes, one of our roles is to ‘kosher stamp’ the movement, but that’s hardly our only role, and we’re not the first in history to hold this status. Whites did it in South Africa, in the US, Christian Germans in Nazi Germany, veterans do it in the anti-war movement, as do cisgendered, heterosexual men in the feminist and queer movements. They can choose to be a tool, or they can choose to take an active, thinking part. Israelis in the BDS movement are much more than ‘kosher stamps’; we commit much of our time, resources and energy, and we do it knowing the consequences. We initiate and we join – that is what activists do. For solidarity groups, it’s not just about the ends, but about the means. There are two results by which we measure success: 1. Have we attained our goal? 2. Have we gained the trust of the oppressed, enough to be welcome in their safe spaces? Our voices can only become relevant if we manage to achieve the latter. Otherwise, we are still the oppressor, speaking from a place of privilege. It’s only when we’re radical enough to step out of the binary paradigm that we can truly become part of the movement; otherwise all we do is perpetuate oppression.

Some elements within the progressive Israeli left would really like to make it about ‘BDS vs. anything other than BDS’. This is also a historic repetition of earlier struggles between the centrists and the radicals, which isn’t specific to Israeli politics. As long as the Israeli government didn’t impede on the centrists (typically educated, Ashkenazi, upper-middle class), they were OK with Palestinians biting the dust. A fine example of this is Sheikh Jerrah: if the state hadn’t arrested Jews in truck-loads, the great majority of the people with the Meretz stickers wouldn’t have come out against the forced poverty, through property theft, of East Jerusalem Palestinians.

In Israel today the left is actually one of the smallest minority groups. You can be classically fascist, like the ‘National Left’ group and still be considered a ‘leftist fifth column’. This is epitomized by the Boycott Prohibition Law. Because it’s so all-encompassing, all of a sudden organizers of B’tselem feel a need to come out on television and say, ‘I’m a Zionist’. It’s very similar to the American progressives talking about how ‘true patriotism is in criticizing the state’. I don’t disagree with this statement, I disagree with the framing of social involvement as subject to my proving my loyalty to a state/government. In this kind of reality, we are very limited in our actions. Fortunately for us, this isn’t reality, just one way of perceiving it. Again, this is where radicals come in: our role is to challenge these concepts, while visualizing and working towards a more just/free society.”

EK: When do you think we will reach the point – or have we already arrived – when BDS will be at the centre of any discussion on Israel/Palestine?

TS: We have arrived!

20 Responses

  1. clenchner
    March 29, 2011, 11:32 am

    Excellent conversation. Calling Gush Shalom ‘enlightened colonialists’ or thinking that Gidon Levy is ‘defensive’ because he disagrees with full BDS’ers on the efficacy of that strategy, is wrong. Talk about being welcomed into safe spaces – Uri Avnery and Gidon Levy have been in more Palestinian safe spaces than TS has…. unless we define ‘Palestinian safe space’ with a political frame that excludes many common Palestinian views.

    • Potsherd2
      March 29, 2011, 3:03 pm

      I tend to believe that Avnery and Levy have earned the right to be wrong.

  2. pabelmont
    March 29, 2011, 12:05 pm

    Yes, and even after the law is passed, Israelis can (I suppose safely) say, “You know, here is a law against boycotting of Israeli products and institutions. I follow that law. Thus I do not call for a boycott against (LIST OF PRODUCTS). I have heard that some non-Israelis do boycott these things but I do not. Although, to be sure, I do not buy them.”

    Makes me think of “A Man for All Seasons” somehow. “Silence is consent.”

    • lysias
      March 29, 2011, 2:04 pm

      Obama seems to think forcing people to buy things is even consistent with the U.S. Constitution.

  3. Citizen
    March 29, 2011, 12:07 pm

    Yes, it is an excellent conversation. And it applies in the US as well, just not so obviously to those not tracking our government and its contrived culture so well. The US is becoming more of a democracy shell every day, and with the approval of the majority regardless of party.

  4. bijou
    March 29, 2011, 12:09 pm

    Just to answer that cheap shot about Israelis becoming even more defensive, this is a natural progression which happens with every abuser who is called out on his abusive behaviour: when you tell the man who beats his partner that you see what he’s doing and it’s wrong, naturally, the first thing he does is get defensive. He may lie, he may make excuses, he may blame the victim, but does that mean he shouldn’t be confronted?

    Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you for articulating this so well.

    • engelo
      March 29, 2011, 11:57 pm

      The same argument could be turned back at Gideon Levy – if his articles would make Israelis react defensively, would that mean that he should stop writing them? On the contrary, triggering a reaction and maintaining it over time is a difficult – almost impossible task, it requires determination and skill. The late prof Yeshayahu Leibowitz has complained frequently, that neither his words nor his deeds ever had the impact for which he hoped for (see link to (Hebrew) and link to (w/ translation)). Gideon Levy also acknowledges that his work has had very little impact on the discourse in Israel. In contrast, the BDS movement has put occupation back where it belongs – in the center of a vital debate.

  5. Debonnaire
    March 29, 2011, 1:28 pm

    Nearly everyone who was dubious about BDS has now embraced it if for no other reason that it provokes conniption fits to Dershowitz and his minions.

  6. MRW
    March 29, 2011, 1:36 pm

    Excellent! I’ve followed Tali Shapiro’s articles on PulseMedia and found her erudite and penetrating. She’s even better in an off-the-cuff interview, she’s sharp. Thanks for this, Eleanor K.

  7. Graber
    March 29, 2011, 2:26 pm

    The 1967 Terrorism Act in South Africa criminalized support for divestment from apartheid South Africa. I’m not sure what the original sentence was, but in 1986 the minimum sentence for an individual convicted of this advocacy was 5 years imprisonment, and the maximum sentence was the death penalty.

  8. Avid Researcher
    March 29, 2011, 5:28 pm

    Are you guys serious? You’re going to compare a liberal democracy with apartheid South Africa? “Apt comparison?” Far from it.
    So are you guys that support boycotts going to start boycotting everything that’s “made in China?” Good luck with that.
    Moreover, why doesn’t anyone acknowledge the role of Arab aggression in all of this? Hello??

    • RoHa
      March 29, 2011, 8:12 pm

      “You’re going to compare a liberal democracy with apartheid South Africa? ”

      No, they are comparing Israel with apartheid South Africa.

      “why doesn’t anyone acknowledge the role of Arab aggression in all of this?”

      You mean Arab defence against Israeli agression?

    • Les
      March 29, 2011, 8:39 pm

      By “Arab aggression” you mean, or want us to think, “Palestinian aggression.” What we can’t do, is take you seriously.

      • Avid Researcher
        March 30, 2011, 3:30 am

        Way to know your history guys. I’m talking about the Arab aggression that “officially” started in 1911 as a response to Jewish immigration to the Palestine region, and really garnered speed with pogroms of Jews by Arabs in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
        I’m also talking about the Arab aggression that led a huge swath of countries to attempt to push Israel into the sea in 1947-49 and 1967. So no, I’m not just talking about “Palestinian” aggression.
        The point is, it’s not that Israelis are “blind to a brutal military occupation,” as Shapiro wants us to believe. Rather, virtually everyone understands that what the world wants to condemn us for has come out of nothing more than self-defense. When you boil it down, this is essentially what you are protesting against.
        The real blindness is not seeing this. It would be much easier to simply cave to the so-called “international community,” but as shown with Gaza withdrawal in 2005, this type of action just results in more attacks on Israel. The only thing that will truly fix the problem is an end to a culture of hate among Palestinians and the raising of their children to see Israel as an eternal enemy. As long as this is happening, no action on Israel’s part will ever result in “peace.”

      • mig
        March 30, 2011, 1:22 pm

        Avid Researcher, your way to know history also is odd. First arab revolts started 1920 after a leak of those mandate papers. American King-Crane commission was sent to palestine search information that whats this fuzz all about.

        Quote :
        (1) The Commissioner began their study of Zionism with minds predisposed in its favour, but the actual facts in Palestine, coupled with the force of the general principles proclaimed by the Allies and accepted by the Syrians have driven them to the recommendation here made.
        (2) The Commission was abundantly supplied with literature on the Zionist programme by the Zionist Commission to Palestine; heard in conferences much concerning the Zionist colonies and their claims; and personally saw something of what had been accomplished. They found much to approve in the aspirations and plans of the Zionists, and had warm appreciation for the devotion of many of the colonists, and for their success, by modern methods, in overcoming great natural obstacles.
        (3) The Commission recognised also that definite encouragement had been given to the Zionists by the Allies in Mr. Balfour’s often quoted statement, in its approval by other representatives of the Allies. If, however, the strict terms of the Balfour Statement are adhered to-favouring “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” – it can hardly be doubted that the extreme Zionist programme must be greatly modified. For a national home for the Jewish people is not equivalent to making Palestine into a Jewish State; nor can the erection of such a Jewish State be accomplished without the gravest trespass upon the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. The fact came out repeatedly in the Commission’s conferences with Jewish representatives, that the Zionists looked forward to a practically complete disposition of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, by various forms of purchase.

        Also :
        The Peace Conference should not shut its eyes to the fact that the anti-Zionist feeling in Palestine and Syria is intense and not lightly to be flouted. No British officer, consulted by the Commissioners, believed that the Zionist programme could be carried out except by force of arms. The officers generally thought that a force of not less than 50,000 soldiers would be required even to initiate the programme. That of itself is evidence of a strong sense of the injustice of the Zionist programme, on the part of the non-Jewish populations of Palestine and Syria. Decisions requiring armies to carry out are sometimes necessary, but they are surely not gratuitously to be taken in the interests of serious injustices. For the initial claim, often submitted by Zionist representatives, that they have a “right” to Palestine based on an occupation of 2,000 years ago, can hardly be seriously considered.

        Rest of document here :
        link to

        Result of arab resistance against jews flooding to palestine was studied long ago :

        Hope Simpson report 1930 :


        P.I.C.A.’s relations with the Arab.In discussing the question of the effect of Jewish Settlement on the Arab it is essential to differentiate between the P.I.C.A. colonisation and that of the Zionist Organisation.
        In so far as the past policy of the P.I.C.A. is concerned, there can be no doubt that the Arab has profited largely by the installation of the colonies. Relations between the colonists and their Arab neighbours were excellent. In many cases, when land was bought by the P.I.C.A. for settlement, they combined with the development of the land for their own settlers similar development for the Arabs who previously occupied the land. All the cases which are now quoted by the Jewish authorities to establish the advantageous effect of Jewish colonisation on the Arabs of the neighbourhood, and which have been brought to notice forcibly and frequently during the course of this enquiry, are cases relating to colonies established by the P.I.C.A., before the KerenHayesod came into existence. In fact, the policy of the P.I.C.A. was one of great friendship for the Arab. Not only did they develop the Arab lands simultaneously with their own, when founding their colonies, but they employed the Arab to tend their plantations, cultivate their fields, to pluck their grapes and their oranges. As a general rule the P.I.C.A. colonisation was of unquestionable benefit to the Arabs of the vicinity.
        It is also very noticeable, in travelling through the P.I.C.A. villages, to see the friendliness of the relations which exist between Jew and Arab. It is quite a common sight to see an Arab sitting in the verandah of a Jewish house. The position is entirely different in the Zionist colonies.

        Fear of territorial disposession and displacement were key elements to arab resistance, not hate of jews.

        And 1947 & 1967 jews to swimming in sea is a old joke. Try sell that hasbara in some place else. Same goes to 2005 Gaza trick.

  9. Miura
    March 29, 2011, 5:44 pm

    Chomsky fleshes out the analogy talking about the spiral of “irrationality” that preceded end of the Apartheid regime.

  10. annie
    March 29, 2011, 10:52 pm

    excellent interview, i agree she is very sharp. i like hearing BDS is at the centre of any discussion on Israel/Palestine!

    go team!

  11. dbroncos
    March 29, 2011, 11:51 pm

    “Levy affirmed that boycotts are legitimate, but questioned whether an Israeli boycott can be effective, concluding that it will push Israelis further to the right, and feed into their paranoia that ‘the world is against us’. He said that academic institutions should be the last target of a boycott and it ‘should be against the occupation, not all of Israel’.

    Making supporters of Israel uncomfortable or even paranoid is one of the legitimate goals of BDS – a means to a just end.

  12. thetumta
    March 31, 2011, 12:01 am

    Full sanctions, the same that were applied to the Afrikaner state is the goal. Nothing in, nothing out. You will be stunned how fast this Apartheid house of cards folds. I just hope the US can survive it, given how badly we’ve been compromised.

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