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

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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!

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