Samah Sabawi: a Palestinian woman’s response to Naomi Chazan on BDS


[Introduction to Samah Sabawi’s piece by Ofer Neiman]

There are good things to be said about Professor Naomi Chazan, a scholar of contemporary Africa and a former member of the Israeli Knesset (on behalf of the center-left Meretz party). When an extreme right-wing and US funded Israeli student group like “Im Tirtzu” runs a venomous campaign against her, smearing her (in the Israeli public eye) as “Naomi Goldstone-Chazan”, it is safe to assume she has been getting some things right. Indeed, signing a petition in demand of an “immediate halt to the attack carried out in Gaza by Israeli forces”, just one day after Israel began its “Operation Cast Lead” war on Gaza’s inhabitants in December 2008, was not a consensus act in her rather mainstream political circles. Prof. Chazan is also the president of the New Israel Fund (NIF). This self-proclaimed “leading organization committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis” has supported, through funding and consultation, numerous Israeli NGOs whose goals are to promote the rights of various minorities and disenfranchised groups in Israel.

In view of all this, local peace activists held high expectations ahead of Prof. Chazan’s recent series of talks in Australia on behalf of NIF. Alas, her message to the Australian public and the local Jewish community was a bitter disappointment to many concerned Australians. In spite of NIF’s credentials, many grassroots activists for the Palestinian cause have come to regard the fund as a significant part of the problem, and not just a part of the solution. All this is illustrated by Samah Sabawi’s lucid critique, which follows. One of NIF’s main efforts in the past year has been an aggressive campaign against the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) initiative. Started in 2005 by Palestinian civil society, BDS has already proven effective at several levels. So why does NIF oppose the BDS initiative? Surely this has a lot to do with the views held by its liberal Zionist donors, who tend to be hostile towards attempts to pressure Israel from the outside.

NIF could have reached a compromise between the desires of its donors and the urgent need to effectively address the reality of Israel’s apartheid and occupation policies by opting for agnosticism on the issue of BDS. Instead of doing so, the fund has attempted to derail significant BDS initiatives. Moreover, it has campaigned against proposed measures that were extremely selective and restricted in scope. A primary example would be the fund’s appeal to the University of California at Berkeley, against divestment from two American companies, General Electric and United Technologies, companies that sell Israel military equipment which is used in occupied Palestinian territory to sustain Israel’s occupation and land grab policies (see the anti-divestment declaration co-signed by NIF). On top of its Berkeley anti-divestment campaign, NIF has announced recently that it would no longer allow its payment transfer mechanism to be used by US donors who wish to support the Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP), a vibrant women’s rights and anti-occupation NGO. The decision was made due to CWP’s support of the BDS campaign.

On Monday, the Knesset passed the ‘anti-boycott’ bill which renders boycott advocacy a tort. Peace Now, an Israeli group which is always willing to cater to the Israeli mainstream, has in defiance of the new law announced that it would promote a boycott of settlement products. So what is one to make of NIF’s staunch defense of the American arms industries? Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa (who is also a Conservative, Pro-American politician) once stated, during a visit to Israel, that “only the dissidents will save Israel”. Whether one is interested in saving Israel, saving Palestine, or just saving human lives and dignity, one has to ask which actions can bring about a change in Israel’s policies, and which Israelis are true dissidents. It seems clear that Israeli governments will not be swayed by Israeli NGOs that, by their very nature, can cover only a narrow segment of the activism spectrum. It is evident that Israeli decision makers can be swayed by boycott, divestment and sanctions initiatives. If the New Israel Fund lacks the moral backbone to support such initiatives, it should refrain from undermining the attempts of dedicated human rights activists in Israel, Palestine and the entire world.

A Palestinian woman’s response to Israel’s Naomi Chazan on BDS

by Samah Sabawi

Naomi Chazan, the President of the New Israel Fund (NIF) gave a talk in Marrickville, New South Wales, during her recent Australian tour offering a critique of the Palestinian Civil Society call for Boycotts Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Although she presented herself as a veteran Israeli peace activist, Chazan’s mission here in Australia was ostensibly to promote NIF. This is important because everything she said about BDS must be understood within the context of her mission – to gather funds and support and to convince Jews in Australia of the need to continue to invest in Israel through NIF. This clear conflict of interest makes Chazan’s criticism of BDS far less credible.

Chazan named six reasons why she believed BDS was harmful.

BDS is not effective because Israel has a very strong economy: South Africa’s economy was also booming when the boycott movement against that regime began in the late 1950s. Decades later the movement succeeded in bringing down the South African apartheid regime.

Many Israeli leaders, including Ehud Barak, Ben-Eliezer, Shimon Peres and others, have already stated that BDS is a “strategic threat;” what they mean of course is that it is a serious threat to Israel’s system of occupation, legalized racial discrimination (conforming to the UN definition of apartheid) and denial of refugee rights. We only need to look at the millions of dollars the Israeli lobby groups in Western nations including Australia are spending in efforts to “sabotage” the movement to know that it is indeed effective. The fact that Chazan focused so much on BDS in her Marrickville talk confirms this.

There is other evidence of BDS’s effectiveness.

The Deutsche Bahn withdrawal from the Israeli rail project connecting Tel Aviv with Jerusalem has been a watershed for the movement. It was the first time that a German government-owned company withdrew from an Israeli project over concerns of violation of international law. The French company Veolia’s loss of billions of dollars worth of contracts because of its involvement in the illegal Jerusalem Light Rail project also points to the impressive success of BDS campaigning, especially in Europe.

The fast growing list of superstars and prominent music bands heeding the boycott of Israel makes Tel Aviv look very similar to the South African resort of Sun City under apartheid. That city was a key target for the cultural boycott then.

The University of Johannesburg’s severance of ties with Ben Gurion University over the latter’s complicity in violating Palestinian rights is the most concrete victory to date for the academic boycott campaign.

And, there has been sweeping trade union support for BDS in the UK, Brazil, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Belgium, India, Turkey, and elsewhere.

BDS undermines the existence of the state of Israel: The demands are clear – full equality in Israel for the Palestinian citizens of the state, an end to occupation and a fulfilment of Israel’s obligation towards the refugees. If these demands threaten to bring an end to Israel’s “existence, we have to ask what does this really say about Israel?

A state that is truly democratic and built on the foundations of justice and equality would not be threatened by demands of equality and an end to occupation. Boycotts did not bring an end to South Africa’s existence, they did not destroy it, and they certainly did not “delegitimize” whites: they only destroyed South Africa’s system of injustice, inequality and racial discrimination.

BDS is actually “a code word for one state solution” which defies the right of Israelis and Jews to self-determination: BDS does not aim for either a one or two state solution, but for Palestinian rights. One of those rights is for Palestinians to be free in their own land without the yoke of Israeli occupation and system of racial discrimination. Whether that is in one state for both peoples or two sovereign, democratic states side by side has yet to be decided. The movement is consistently neutral on this, regardless of the diverse personal political views held by its various spokespeople.

BDS is counter-productive because it entrenches the victim mentality of those in Israel who believe the whole world is against them which inevitably strengthens the right wing in Israel while weakening the left: Right now, the fanatical right is taking over the entire Israeli society, but once boycotts begin hurting Israel’s carefully nurtured public image, dissenting voices will become much more vocal, as happened in South Africa. Then, the current consensus in support of apartheid and colonial rule will crack.

BDS is against academic freedom and singles out Israeli academics: Chazan is purposely misleading in this regard. As any relatively well-informed observer must know after seven years of the Palestinian academic boycott campaign and hundreds of articles written on it, the academic boycott is institutional in nature and has therefore never targeted individual Israeli academics. BDS has consistently been directed at academic institutions because of their persistent and grave complicity in planning, implementing and justifying Israel’s violations of international law.

Chazan’s claims that Israeli academics are progressive and opposed to the occupation have absolutely no foundation. In 2008, a petition drafted by four Jewish-Israeli academics calling on the Israeli army to allow access at checkpoints to Palestinian academics and students to reach their educational institutions was distributed to all 9,000 Israeli academics in the hope that most would sign this minimal expression of respect for academic freedom: only 407 out of 9,000 academic actually did so.

BDS singles Israel out: This criticism is so often tendered that one has to ask whether Chazan and others posing it want more action on other causes or silence on the Palestinian cause. In any case, people are rising up against tyrannical regimes and seeking change in just about every Arab state in “Israel’s neighbourhood.” Some of these governments are now being subject to international sanctions, so why not Israel which has for decades defied the UN and violated international law?

An equally important question to ask here is why not advocate for Palestinian rights? Indeed, why are Palestinians being singled out as the only people who cannot be championed? We can speak out for all other issues, so it is tendentious to suggest that speaking up for Palestinian rights singles Israel out unfairly.

The principled Israeli left camp which respects equal rights for all, the UN-sanctioned rights of Palestinian refugees, and an end to colonial oppression should – and indeed does — invest its time challenging its government’s apartheid policies and oppression of the Palestinians rather than criticising the Palestinian non-violent resistance model that encompasses BDS.

Chazan’s efforts to undermine BDS need to be seen in context. At the end of the day, Chazan will go home to Israel where she is a privileged Jewish citizen with all her rights intact. She is part of and an enabler of the establishment that denies Palestinians their basic rights and freedoms, and as such, she is not in a position to be dictating to the Palestinians their methods of struggle or acting as gatekeeper for the international solidarity movements, preaching to them what is allowed and what is not in standing with the Palestinians. As in every human struggle for freedom, justice and equality, that right is the prerogative of those who live behind the walls, hindered by checkpoints and held captive to siege and military oppression.

Samah Sabawi is the Public Advocate of the Australian advocacy group Australians for Palestine.

Originally published on Jewish Peace News with Ofer Neiman’s intro.

17 Responses

  1. Shmuel
    July 16, 2011, 10:40 am

    An excellent article by Samah Sabawi. What was the purpose of Ofer Neiman’s intro (a good piece in and of itself)? Was it a joint decision by the authors? A request by “Jewish Peace News”? And why did MW have to republish it that way? It certainly doesn’t look good that a Palestinian woman “needs” an intro by a Jewish Israeli man.

    • Ofer Neiman
      July 16, 2011, 11:41 am

      Hi Shmuel,

      We introduce ALL articles published on Jewish Peace News :)

      • Shmuel
        July 16, 2011, 11:47 am

        Thanks, Ofer. It just looks weird at Mondoweiss – especially considering the headline and the powerful ending of Samah’s article.

        As long as you’re here, I noticed your signature on the open letter to Di Linke. Great letter.

      • Ofer Neiman
        July 16, 2011, 12:03 pm


        Let it be known. This is Samah’s article. I’m just a sidekick here. And I’ve asked the good folks to rectify.

      • annie
        July 16, 2011, 12:21 pm

        not so fast there Ofer. your intro was very very important to me.

        Samah’s letter/ messaging can’t be stated enough, over and over i don’t know or care how many times we have to hear it til it’s drilled into each one of us. for anyone who has not listened to Omar Barghouti on the 6th anniversary of the BDS call he makes the same points (and then some). if people are too lazy or impatient to listen to the whole thing start around 18-20 minutes but make sure you hear the end about people advising palestinians bds will ultimately hurt them. it is an important message. samah provides the meat, the same meat omar provides. this is the position of palestinians people, the one’s leading this movement for their own freedom.

        ok that said, both samah and omar talked about the ‘cracks’ in the system and how when that system starts cracking we’re going to start hearing the voices of dissent coming thru. your intro coupled w/ chazan’s positioning is an excellent example of that. this is about a conversation israelis (and jews) need to have with each other too.

        frankly it always makes me weary when human rights activists or self defined liberals and lefties (and i am not trying to imply chazan is not left) choose to spend their time and energy turning their criticism toward the left side of them. if offends me. but that’s par for the course here. there’s nothing the right would like better than for us to eat our own but i think this conversation can be had without decimating eachother. anyway, excellent opening.

        NIF could have reached a compromise between the desires of its donors and the urgent need to effectively address the reality of Israel’s apartheid and occupation policies by opting for agnosticism on the issue of BDS. Instead of doing so, the fund has attempted to derail significant BDS initiatives. Moreover, it has campaigned against proposed measures that were extremely selective and restricted in scope.

        big big big waste of NIF’s energy. shame to go all the way to australia and waste it battling bds. i suppose it’s par for the course wrt ‘cracks in the system’ but obviously she could have turned her critique to the right. she should ask herself who it is that’s gonna have her back when the chips are down, cuz it sure as heck won’t be the right wing.

      • Sumud
        July 18, 2011, 12:56 am

        . shame to go all the way to australia and waste it battling bds.

        The key to understanding why Chazan came to Australia is that she was talking in Marrickville where the local council had adopted BDS as official policy and simultaneously the NSW state chapter of The Greens also adopted BDS as policy. The Mayor of Marrickville (Fiona Byrne) is also a member of The Greens – who are in ascendancy in Australia, especially at the federal (national) level.

        During the last round of local elections in Marrickville the Murdoch presses ran an unbelievable number articles condemning Byrne and BDS in both their national Serious Newspaper The Australian and their more tabloid local newspaper in Sydney – Anthony Loewenstein documented many of these article, and they can be found as blog by searching for “Marrickville”.

        Zionists know that Marrickville council adopting BDS is the thin end of the wedge in Australia. Already a stack of trade unions have adopted BDS. As I said the Greens, while still a minority party, are in ascendancy in Australia and voters have abandoned Labour in droves as they walk ever more in lock step with the right wing Liberal Party. There’s conflict within the Greens about BDS and their normally fearsome federal leader Bob Brown has hesitated on adopting BDS at the national level because it will be used to bludgeon them by both the two larger political parties and especially the unscrupulous Murdoch presses – the firestorm they released on Marrickville and Mayor Fiona Byrne was (I think) a warning to Bob Brown about what to expect if the Greens went anywhere near BDS on a national level.

        But, the issue isn’t going to go away. The genie is out of the bottle. With zionism the mantra “any press is good press” does not apply. The Murdoch press’ tactics will in the long run backfire because people have been exposed to the issue now and there’s no going back after that.

      • Sumud
        July 18, 2011, 8:46 am

        Whoops – they can be found at Antony Loewenstien’s blog, not Anthony Loewenstein. Sorry ’bout that Antony.

  2. David Samel
    July 16, 2011, 5:32 pm

    Very thorough and persuasive argument by Samah Sabawi. I particularly liked how she skewered the “why is Israel singled out” mantra. There are so many reasons that this whine is disingenuous, but Sabawi sums it up expertly with: “why are Palestinians being singled out as the only people who cannot be championed?” China does its best to answer critics of its repression and control over Tibet, but can you imagine China complaining that its critics must be racist because there are worse evils in the world? No, that “defense” is only employed on behalf of Israel. While it should be ridiculed, it is unfortunately not wholly unsuccessful.

    • Sumud
      July 18, 2011, 1:12 am

      Very thorough and persuasive argument by Samah Sabawi

      SS is a very smart cookie – I saw her give an excellent talk at one of the 2010 Israeli Apartheid Week events in Melbourne. The topic was Netanyahu’s policy of “economic peace” with the West Bank, most shocking of all was the PA’s complicity in helping Israel set up four free trade zones in the West Bank, which would basically let Israel exploit cheap Palestinian labour and then legally label the produce “Made in Israel”.

      Samah (also mods/editors) ~ if you’re reading, this is a story that I have not seen covered sufficiently and would make an excellent article. I’m interested to know Samah, what has occurred on this issue in the year and a bit since your talk?

  3. DICKERSON3870
    July 16, 2011, 6:54 pm

    RE: “local peace activists held high expectations ahead of Prof. Chazan’s recent series of talks in Australia on behalf of NIF. Alas, her message to the Australian public and the local Jewish community was a bitter disappointment” ~ Neiman & Sabawi

    FOR SOME BACKGROUND SEE: “Australian Zionists Dump Chazan”, By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 02/05/10

    (excerpts) Haaretz reports that the Israeli rightist Jerusalem Post has dumped Naomi Chazan’s column in that newspaper. The editor refused to elaborate when asked. Clearly, this is connected to Im Tirtzu’s campaign of vilification against Chazan and New Israel Fund, which I’ve covered extensively here…
    …The Australian Reform Movement, the Union for Progressive Judaism, also rescinded an invitation to Chazan to speak there. The amount of distortion in the following shameful passage is astonishing:
    According to ZCV [Zionist Council of Victoria] President Dr. Danny Lamm, news of the report…on Im Tirtzu’s Web site, had generated angry responses throughout the Melbourne Jewish community and the decision was made to withdraw Chazan’s invite.
    “The activities of the NIF are anathema to Zionist groups such as ours, and frankly, we’re just not interested in having anything to with it,” Dr. Lamm told the Post by telephone from Melbourne on Tuesday.
    “It’s not new to me, or many of us, that the NIF has supported groups that have damaged Israel and will continue to do damage to Israel, but others were surprised by this,” he added.
    Lamm made it clear that the Zionist Council of Victoria represented all branches of Jewish political and religious affiliation, “from Likud to Meretz” and that they would “never bar anybody from the left just as they wouldn’t bar anyone from the right.
    But the sort of stuff the NIF supports is so far removed from the community here,” Lamm added, saying “it was decided that Chazan’s public appearances be canceled.”

    What I find so astonishing is that Lamm would believe that it was NIF that was extremist and not his own views. NIF is really a liberal Zionist group plain and simple. It’s views are glatt kosher as far as doctrinal Zionism is concerned. So for Lamm to contend that his group includes Meretz, but NIF is somehow farther out there to the left is simply unbelievable. The man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Yet another example of the Diapsora Jewry have to be holier than the [Zionist] pope.
    Actually, the Australians may’ve done Chazan a favor because at the rate the Shin Bet is going in criminalizing human rights work in Israel, they might not have allowed her back into the country on her return, deeming her to be a subversive security risk…


    • Sumud
      July 18, 2011, 1:05 am

      Zionist Council of Victoria (ZCV) is a very nasty right wing pro-settler organisation. Follow them on twitter to see what I mean. They regularly link to articles in the settler rag Israel National News (Arutz Sheva).

      Lamm is lying through his teeth when he says ZCV support all branches of political and religious affiliation “from Likud to Meretz”. If he were being honest he would have said “from Shas/Yisrael Beiteinu to Likud”.

  4. seafoid
    July 17, 2011, 4:02 am

    Chazan is in a no win situation. Her generation of relatively progressive (for Zionism) Ashkenazi Jews have lost to the orthodox, the Mizrahim, the right wingers and the settlers. They have no power.

    She had a choice and has been co-opted. If she says anything rational on BDS, NIF is finished.

    She probably knows herself that what she is saying is wrong but in Israel it is all or nothing. Loyalty come first in the shtetl. Before, she probably would have had a word with the people at the airport who denied a visa to the lady in the other thred because she worked in Bethlehem but that sort of action is no longer possible.

    The sad thing for her and those like her is the settlers will destroy everything she stands for before destroying Israel itself.

  5. es1982
    July 18, 2011, 4:27 am

    The University of Johannesburg’s severance of ties with Ben Gurion University over the latter’s complicity in violating Palestinian rights is the most concrete victory to date for the academic boycott campaign.

    You aren’t up to date. This victory of yours has been reversed. Ben Gurion University and the University of Johannesburg will continue their joint water and biotechnology research projects.

    • annie
      July 18, 2011, 5:24 am

      This victory of yours has been reversed.

      temporarily perhaps. we’re growing. if we weren’t israel wouldn’t be splashing it’s apartheid anti democracy all over the msm thru their draconian fascists anti freedom of speech knesset legislation. worried? israel on the run, lovin’ it.

  6. pmendes
    July 31, 2011, 7:22 pm

    If any further proof of the irrelevancy of anti-Zionist fundamentalists such as Sabawi was needed, it is provided by her regression back to the old 1970s far Left tactic of attacking the Israeli Left, rather than the Israeli Right. Nothing about the settlers or Netanyahu here – rather its all about the crimes of Chazan and the mainstream Israeli Left who incidentally have defended Palestinian national rights for more than 30 years. And then Sabawi predictably jumps to the defence of the BDS – the discredited racially-based ethnic stereotyping of all Israeli Jews as evil. And offers the beautifully ethically and morally free statement: we are not sure whether we support the violent destruction of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of its majority Jewish population or not. Well, Sabawi might want to make a decision on this if she wants to be part of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution via two states, rather than never-ending violence.


    • annie
      July 31, 2011, 7:56 pm

      BDS – the discredited racially-based ethnic stereotyping of all Israeli Jews as evil.

      bloviate a little why don’t you pmendes

      offers the beautifully ethically and morally free statement: we are not sure whether we support the violent destruction of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of its majority Jewish population or not.


      • tree
        July 31, 2011, 9:25 pm

        Its funny how Zionists have to lie and make up quotes. No quotation marks but he(she) still wants us to believe that his(hers) is a correct paraphrase of what Sabawi said, when its obviously not even close.

        And as for attacking the left instead of the right, isn’t that EXACTLY what you just did, pmendes? OK for you to do, not for others? And isn’t that what Chazen did in Australia?

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