When a majority of Palestinian civil society organizations picked BDS as the strategy for their liberation struggle, modeling it upon the South African anti-apartheid struggle, they were sending a clear message to the world that our circumstances are not unique, they are comparable to those experienced by the indigenous black Africans under the official segregation rules of the white South African government. Apartheid is officially designated a “crime against humanity,” and the comparison with apartheid, indeed the mere use of that term to describe the country that had long claimed to be a democracy, set into motion a series of seismic shocks that forever changed the discourse around Israel.
Many Palestinians and their allies had long maintained that the Palestine predicament was absolutely unique. Some will still passionately argue that no other people has suffered so long, been so vilified, so dispossessed, so misrepresented. And even though nobody truly wins at Oppression Olympics, they would claim first prize.
Others, myself included, argue differently. I believe the only unique aspect of the Palestine predicament is that it is a liberation struggle where criticizing the oppressor is viewed as racism. No other oppressed people was accused of racism for rising against their oppressor, even when there was a racial and/or religious divide between the oppressor and oppressed, the colonizer and colonized. No such accusation was even considered in South Africa, or Algeria, or India. But when the Palestinians seek self-determination, they are deemed “anti-Semitic” by the hegemonic discourse in the West, which both funds and shields Israel.
This has changed. Not in a minor way, but in a significant way, as Jews and Israelis who are deeply attached to their Jewishness and Israeliness, and who cannot convincingly be accused of anti-Semitism (although of course some knee-jerk reactionaries will always lob the accusation at anyone critical of Israel) are critical of Zionism. Natalie Portman is only the latest example, because of her high visibility, but national and international groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, and the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network, have been doing the work of debunking the claim that anti-Zionism is necessarily anti-Semitism for many years now. There are smaller Jewish and Israeli groups also engaged in Palestinian-rights activism, who also denounce Zionism as racism: Boycott from Within, Jews for the Palestinian Right of Return, and smaller, local associations. Even individual members of organizations such as J Street, which is more concerned about Israel than Palestinian rights, have spoken out against Zionism. And IfNotNow, which limits itself to being against “the occupation,” as if the ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948 were no crime, is now also calling upon Jewish-American leaders to speak out against the recent violence in Gaza.
I believe the Palestinian liberation struggle is a righteous, non-racist one that does not need validation by Jewish organizations, but the ongoing privileging of Jewish voices in most Western liberal circles is such that these shifting perspectives are necessary, and welcome. And the transformation within these communities is happening at an increasingly rapid pace.
Rapid changes are also happening within Palestinian communities, in the homeland as well as the Diaspora, as an increasingly larger percentage of Palestinians now appreciate that our circumstances are not unique. The many parallels we have made over the past few years (Gaza to Ferguson, Apartheid Wall and US-Mexico border wall, water theft and environmental devastation from Nabi Saleh and Gaza to Flint and Standing Rock, racialized hypermilitarization and law enforcement violence, criminalization of non-whites, and more), as well as the initial one—with apartheid South Africa, are proof that we have more in common with other oppressed peoples, than we have claims to being “like no other.”
The end of the myth of Palestinian exclusivity comes hand-in-hand with the end of the myth of Zionist exclusivity, namely that a country can somehow alter the meaning of democracy to suit its political ends, so that Israel is a democracy, albeit a qualified “democracy,” not fully, but “Jewish,” as if qualifying “democracy” in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious context did not immediately void that term. Again, the Palestinian call for comprehensive boycotts modelled upon the South African anti-apartheid struggle played a major role in that, with high ranking American politicians such as former President Jimmy Carter, and former Secretary of State John Kerry, finally using that term, even if only as a “warning” against what might come to be, rather than a sober observation of present reality.
Indeed, with statements by Israeli politicians such as Supreme Court Justice Asher Grunis, who said that “human rights cannot be a prescription for national suicide,” Israel has also been distancing itself from democracy, and this must be credited to the awareness brought about by BDS, which is asking for nothing more “radical” than human rights. For such is the power of BDS, that it has debunked one of the most carefully constructed national myths, by simply demanding equal rights for all citizens, and the implementation of international law. Israel’s powerful propaganda machine could not withstand the truth spelled out by the BDS movement, with its simple demands. It is worthwhile to recall the objectives of BDS, so as to grasp how basic they are:
- Equal rights for all citizens, something Israel does not currently grant;
- Ending the occupation, and dismantling the wall, both of which are illegal according to international law;
- Granting Palestinian refugees the Right of Return, guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
If BDS is indeed a “threat” to Israel, if it “delegitimizes” it in in any way, it is because Israel is in violation of international law. Justice is only a threat to injustice.
And while, over the past seven decades, liberals have tended to criticize Israel only for some of its practices, such as “the occupation,” and the illegal settlements, or the genocidal siege of Gaza, or the official order for soldiers to “break the bones” of protesters during the First Intifada, or the claim that there are no innocent marchers in Gaza, and that every civilian is a legitimate target, the overall pattern of Zionism is becoming clear to all: Israel was founded on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, carried out through massacres and the destruction of homes and villages. This is the Nakba we commemorate every May 15. And even today, Israel can only maintain itself through more such massacres, more destruction of homes and villages, more theft of land and natural resources, more ethnic cleansing. Our Nakba is ongoing, from the river to the sea, from the refugee camps in Gaza to the global Diaspora, where millions pine for a return to the homeland. Israel’s numerous human rights violations are not the acts of individual “bad apples,” the very container, Zionism, is toxic, and anyone who embraces it is contaminated. It is no wonder liberals are at long last distancing themselves from that ideology.
Another myth shattered with the end of Palestinian exclusivity is the myth that criticizing Zionism is racism. There is no “Israel-Palestinian conflict” due to the “anti-Semitism” of “the Arabs,” there is a Palestinian liberation struggle. As we commemorate seventy years of Palestinian Nakba, seventy years of ongoing catastrophe, we can finally envision freedom through the end of Palestinian exclusivity: we exist, as a distinct people, despite the Zionist claim to the contrary, and we are not terrorists one and all, but freedom fighters and civilians standing up for our human rights, as freedom fighters and disenfranchised civilians have stood up and will continue to stand up for their human rights all around the globe. And we can also envision freedom though the shattering of the Zionist claim to exclusivity, to the possibility of being a “democracy, for some,” never to be held accountable for its crimes against humanity, never to be criticized, because such criticism would be racist.
It seems only right that this last push against exclusivity is a result of the Gaza refugees’ six weeks long Great Return March. And with that last push, it is time to redress a century of wrongs, beginning with the Balfour Declaration. Zionism, like any form of racial and ethnic supremacy, must be denounced, and renounced.