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BDS is a necessary, ethical response to a brutal occupation worsened by 20 years of Oslo


This piece first appeared on Jewish Currents (a secular website). Author Donna Nevel gave us permission to republish.

As Jewish activists working to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, we take exception to Philip Mendes’ criticism of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in “Why BDS is Ineffective and Worse: But the Issue of Palestinian National Rights Will Not Go Away” (Summer, 2012).

Mendes says not a single word about the realities of life for Palestinians living under occupation. Here are some of them:

• Palestinians are denied basic human rights: Israel has built a so-called “separation” wall that takes approximately 15 percent of Palestinian land, locking them in. Israel has created hundreds of checkpoints, where Palestinians are routinely harassed and humiliated, inside Palestine and at the borders; a separate roadway system for Israelis and Palestinians; and a permit system for Palestinians to secure entrance to Jerusalem and obtain necessary medical treatment at Israeli hospitals. Israeli army forays into Jenin and other cities are routine.

• Israel controls the air space, commerce, and water and electricity supplies in the West Bank and Gaza, as well the outlets to the Mediterranean Sea.

• Israel holds nearly five thousand Palestinian prisoners, many not charged with any crime and without access to legal assistance.

• As a result of Israeli government occupation policies, approximately five hundred thousand settlers reside in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem (illegally under international law, since they are living on land that is not theirs). This has involved extensive expropriation of Palestinian land, demolition of Palestinians’ homes, and uprooting of their olive trees.

Palestinians are a civilian population, and unlike Israel, have no army, navy, aircraft, airport, missiles, drones, tanks, jeeps, helicopters, tear gas grenades,  “stink” bombs, or sound bombs. The Palestinian resistance takes place in the face of extreme violence perpetrated by the Israeli government.
Space limitations prevent us from elaborating on additional problems, but these include widespread discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and the terrible effect of the occupation on Israeli society itself.

More than twenty years have gone by since Oslo and the situation has only gotten worse. The U.S.  government, Israel’s staunchest ally and supporter, funds Israel (with our tax money) to the tune of at least $3 billion a year and makes toothless criticisms of the settlements and the occupation.

Given this situation, BDS is a necessary and ethical response to an illegal and brutal occupation. Period.

Is BDS ineffective, as Mendes says? No. BDS is growing. In the eight years since hundreds of Palestinian civil society organizations called for BDS — similarly to the boycott/divest movement against South African apartheid — Norway, Sweden and Holland have pulled their retirement funds from Israeli companies, and pressure is now on for U.S. retirement funds like TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that support the occupation. In May, the United Methodist Church voted overwhelmingly to boycott settlement goods, and, in the Presbyterian Church, the vote for divestment lost by the narrowest margin of 333 to 331, with two abstentions.

There is also support for boycott in the Jewish community and in Israel itself, which ranges from support for full boycott of all Israeli products to boycott of settlement projects. Some sixty leading Israeli actors and playwrights recently refused to play in the new theatre in Ariel, one of Israel’s largest settlements, and were supported by one hundred and fifty leading Israeli academics and writers when they were attacked by the Israeli government. An Israeli organization, Boycott from Within, organizes for BDS. Jewish Voice for Peace, which continues to grow across the U.S., focuses on boycott and divestment campaigns that direct-ly target Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Partners for Peace in Israel (formerly Meretz USA) and Americans for Peace Now have endorsed the settlement boycott.

In any case, BDS cannot be judged by economic success alone; it is a potent international political tactic.

And why, according to Mendes, is BDS worse than ineffective? His major objection to BDS is that he thinks it seeks the destruction of Israel, an argument that rests on one of the campaign’s demands — the right of return (the others are ending the occupation, dismantling the wall, and full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel). In fact, the equation of the right of return with the destruction of Israel is as emotionally overwrought as it is misleading. There is general agreement among historians, including Israelis, that approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians were expelled from their homes. International law gives them an indisputable right to return. That is the starting point of any discussion. Does that mean ending state policies that are anti-democratic, and insisting on a state based on equal rights for all — principles on which presumably all of us agree? Yes, that’s what it means. There are lots of possibilities for what that might look like, and no shortage of creative minds and committed people to make that happen. But, unless one wants to ignore history or international law or fairness/justice, the starting point is the right of return.

Further, in his discussion of the two-state solution, Mendes says it is being embraced now by most Jewish organizations and by the Israeli government (though he admits the “Netanyahu government has shown little intent to pursue [it], despite its being official Israeli policy”). It seems ironic (and worse) that, after massive settlement expansion has eaten up much of Palestinian land and destroyed any contiguous land mass, the Israeli government is now supposedly talking about two states. What Mendes fails to mention is that as far back as the late 1980s when a wide range of Palestinian leaders and Israeli and US Jewish peace leaders were having these very discussions based on self-determination for both peoples, it was members of the Jewish establishment and the Israeli government, not the Palestinian movement, who opposed it. (One of us participated in these discussions.)

Our immediate solution? Open up genuine discussions in the Jewish communities around the world about the occupation, the wall, and the right of return. Stop the tactics of calling one’s opponents anti-Semitic or claiming that they advocate the “elimination of Israel” when they are simply examining problems that must be addressed to eliminate injustice and uphold our tradition of “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.”

Long term, whether there is one state or two states or a federation of states or some kind of binational arrangement, what matters is that it must be a just solution based on equal rights and respect and safety for all. Until that happens, BDS is here to stay.

Donna Nevel and Dorothy M. Zellner are long- time activists for Palestinian/Israeli peace and justice, and are founding members of Jews Say No!, a New York group working to end unjust policies of the Israeli government. Nevel was a coordinator of the 1989 Road to Peace Conference that brought together PLO officials and Knesset members for the first time in the U.S.

Donna Nevel
About Donna Nevel

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is co-director of PARCEO. She's a founding member of Jews Say No!, Facing the Nakba, and Jews Against Anti-Muslim Racism (JAAMR) and was a co-founder of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

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13 Responses

  1. douglasreed
    douglasreed on November 3, 2012, 12:58 pm

    BDS is essential to draw international attention to a government that condones state- sponsored assassination of its enemies and dissidents, as in Gaza, Dubai and on the high seas.
    BDS is essential to shine a light in the dark corners of undue influence upon policy makers particularly in the field of bilateral trade, without the profits from which Israel would be unable to implement policies that violate international law, such as the continued illegal settlement in the West Bank and the forced evictions in East Jerusalem.
    BDS is essential to heighten the awareness of ordinary people, and consumers, to the injustices and illegalities inherent in Israeli government policy.

  2. jon s
    jon s on November 3, 2012, 4:02 pm

    The article treats a boycott of the settlements and the blanket boycott of Israel as part of the bds campaign as being similar, differing only in degree.
    In my view the two boycotts are almost diametrically opposed. I, for one, support and practice a boycott of the settlements and their products, because my goal is to end the occupation and the settlements and ultimately achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, in two states. A total boycott of Israel would be hypocritical, unfair and counter-productive. Fortunately , the BDS movement is a failure, with practically no impact at all, so far.

    • thankgodimatheist
      thankgodimatheist on November 3, 2012, 10:28 pm

      “A total boycott of Israel would be hypocritical, unfair and counter-productive.”
      jon s

      You’re making it sound as if the settlements business (that you don’t condone) is more like a policy implemented by some foreign entity to Israel and not a deliberate and forceful policy of expansion by the state of Israel itself. Laughable..

    • thankgodimatheist
      thankgodimatheist on November 3, 2012, 10:33 pm

      “Fortunately , the BDS movement is a failure, with practically no impact at all, so far.”
      Keep daydreaming! What I personally read into it is the unavowed fear that it may, actually, be working and growing.

    • straightline
      straightline on November 4, 2012, 4:07 am

      Let’s see. Iran has no nuclear weapons, allows inspections, is a signatory to NPT, and has declared that it has no intention of obtaining them. The West has imposed sanctions on Iran because apparently it doesn’t believe Iran. Israel has nuclear weapons, has done so by stealing technology and spying, has not signed NPT, does not allow inspections of Dimona, and has to a large extent remained silence and lied about its possession of such weapons. And no sanctions on Israel proper. Now that’s hypocrisy, jon.

  3. heb
    heb on November 3, 2012, 4:07 pm

    “Further, in his discussion of the two-state solution, Mendes says it is being embraced now by most Jewish organizations and by the Israeli government (though he admits the “Netanyahu government has shown little intent to pursue [it], despite its being official Israeli policy”). It seems ironic (and worse) that, after massive settlement expansion has eaten up much of Palestinian land and destroyed any contiguous land mass, the Israeli government is now supposedly talking about two states.”

    The Israeli establishment is not in the least bit interested in 2 states. As any Palestinian will tell you,” Israel wants all the land but without the people.”

    I am sick of hearing western politicians still trying to tell us that this is what Israel wants. It’s an even bigger lie than anything put forward to justify that attack and invasion of Iraq.

  4. seafoid
    seafoid on November 3, 2012, 5:25 pm

    The only way to bring Israeli Jews to their senses is via their wallets. The settler mayor on this Al Jazeera video!

    makes the point that virtually everyone in Jewish Israel supports the status quo. Shlomo Sand replies that the whole world disagrees. It is possible for a whole people to suffer mass delusion but they usually place monetary interests before ideology , especially in consumer societies.

  5. yourstruly
    yourstruly on November 3, 2012, 6:07 pm

    thinking out loud
    right of return = the destruction of israel?
    nonsense! israel’s denial of the right of return is what destroys it
    based on a unitary principle
    that one equals one
    for a just and peaceful world
    living & breathing
    the sole prerequisites

  6. W.Jones
    W.Jones on November 3, 2012, 7:22 pm

    Dear Donna Nevel and Dorothy Zellner,

    Your title says the occupation was “worsened by 20 years of Oslo”.

    I had a discussion with an Israeli nationalist who took the viewpoint that negotiations with the Israeli government would alleviate the brutal conditions of Palestinians living under occupation. My position was that negotiations had not accomplished anything, and that although both sides signed the Oslo Accords, the side in control of the land- the Israeli government- did not implement it and conditions had gotten much worse since then.

    The person I was discussing this with said that in fact the Palestinians did get something important- autonomy. Their situation had gone from one where the Israeli army controlled everything completely, to one where the Palestinian Authority and its forces controlled certain territory due to signing the Oslo Accords. So if Palestinians signed an agreement whereby they gave up claims to things like a shared Jerusalem, their conditions may improve in some areas (perhaps like the harshness of checkpoints).

    So my question is whether Oslo did in fact improve Palestinians’ conditions or position in any significant ways? Or perhaps you would respond that somehow it made things worse overall?

    • annie
      annie on November 3, 2012, 10:16 pm

      wjones, are you aware that israel controls and is planning on annexing area C, 60% of the WB? do you think ‘autonomy’ (which we all know is nothing of the sort/google WB checkpoints) on a mere fraction (you referenced it as “certain territory”) of your land is ‘something important’? i ask you in all seriousness wjones, are you expecting to be taken seriously?

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones on November 4, 2012, 2:06 pm

        Dear Annie,

        Yes, I think that their state would like to annex area C, and it has the means and control to do this.

        You make a good point that the myriad of checkpoints don’t match real autonomy over the territory.

        It seems to me that the limited control that the Palestinian Authority has over the 40% fraction of its territory is still important, but maybe I am missing something when i say that, so this is what I am asking about. In my understanding, there are still a multitude of Palestinian villages where the Palestinian Authority is the force that supervises them on a daily basis, and the Israeli army only goes into them occasionally (once a month? once a week?). So compared to an earlier situation where as I understand it the Israeli army directly occupied them constantly, the ability of Palestinians to run 40% of their own territory seems to be an important improvement.

        One counterargument I can think of is that in fact the Palestinian Authority is doing the job the Israeli army would be doing: the P.A. cooperates alot with the Israeli army, and if the PA wasn’t doing this supervising, then the Israeli army would have to. So even if this concession is an important improvement, it is still one of convenience for the overall occupiers. Are there some more counterarguments?

        Sure, Annie, I expect to be taken seriously since you, I, and others in general have a common perspective on these topics. But then again I don’t expect to be taken seriously by everyone, since there are all kinds of personalities on the internet. In any case, Mondoweiss has alot of commentators like yourself with good grounding in the subject, who provide knowledgeable answers on topics or questions we are unsure about. And when that happens, it’s helpful.

        Take care.

  7. pabelmont
    pabelmont on November 4, 2012, 5:24 pm

    The point of BDS is not to score points or make an immediate (or even quick) victory. It aims at, and is part of, a process — a process that must inevitably take time, lots of time.

    Therefore, even if BDS did aim at destroying Israel (or its Jewish character), there would be much time for Israelis (Jewish Israelis that is) to alter circumstances by — for example — retreating into a smaller territory (smaller than in 1966) so that the Palestinians returning to their former homes THERE would be fewer than those returning to their homes in pre-1967 Israeli territory as a whole.

    More to the point (of reality and realpolitik), if BDS ever got strong enough to cause Israel the sort of pain that brings change, Israel would begin to negotiate in earnest for a return to the lines of 1966, and — in return for removal of all settlers and all settlements and the wall and the siege, in short in return for the end of occupation [and with a guarantee of equitable sharing of naturally-occurring water], the PLO might well elect to forgo or transmute the right of return for the exiles of 1948 and 1967.

    There is another point. For BDS to “work”, the nations will have to join it. This too will take much time. But if it happen, and when it happen, the ENERGY of the nations, the anger, the fed-up-ness, will necessarily be so high that the “dynamic” will change and none of us can foresee what that “dynamic” will be. Remember how hard it was for the USA to decide to enter the war against Germany in WWII? But the dynamic changed. And Germany was conquered.

    BDS is not guaranteed to be successful. But there is no other path.

  8. pmendes
    pmendes on November 18, 2012, 5:58 am

    Nevel and Zellner argue among other things that the Palestinians have “an indisputable right of return”. No they don’t.This argument that Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war are entitled to return to their former homes and land inside Israel is a staple diet of the international pro-Palestinian lobby to which the authors presumably belong .
    There are, however, a number of overwhelming historical and contemporary arguments against such a return. The exodus of the 600-700,000 Palestinians occurred in the context of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Three groups contributed to this tragedy: the Palestinian Arab leadership who attempted to destroy the Jewish State of Israel at birth; the Arab States who invaded Israel in an attempt to assist the Palestinians; and Israel which expelled many of the Palestinians for fear that they would constitute a hostile ‘fifth column’ that would undermine their defense of their borders.
    On the cessation of hostilities in December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 194 which has often been cited by the pro-Palestinian lobby as supporting an unconditional return of the Palestinian refugees. In fact, the resolution was clearly conditional, and formally linked to acceptance of the earlier UN partition resolution creating both Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, and a negotiated peace. The resolution stated that ‘the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return’.
    In practice, both the Palestinian leaders and the Arab governments initially rejected the resolution precisely because it implied recognition of Israel’s legitimacy. The anti-war journalist Martha Gellhorn undertook a series of interviews with Palestinian refugees, published in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1961, which suggested that most wanted revenge, rather than to live in peace with the Israelis.
    Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, Palestinian right of return rhetoric was used to deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and so provide a rationale for the Arab refusal to recognize the State of Israel. However, following the 1967 war, the international debate shifted from questions about the legitimacy of Israel within the Green Line borders to questions about the legitimacy of a Palestinian State in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The subsequent political contest for or against a two-state solution explicitly assumed that any resolution of the Palestinian refugee tragedy would be addressed within the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. There could be two states or there could be a Palestinian right of return, but there could not be both. It was instructive that the Oslo Peace Accord signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993 did not mention Resolution 194.
    Palestinian demands for a right of return of the 1948 refugees were, however, formally revived during the ill-fated Camp David negotiations of July 2000. The Palestinian delegation argued for the right of every Palestinian refugee to return home in accordance with UN Resolution 194. They also called for an immediate timetable for the return of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon to the Galilee.
    In response, the Israelis denied any historical or moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugee exodus, and refused to recognize any right of return. This anti-right of return position is shared by the entire Israeli political spectrum including prominent peace activists such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B.Yehushua. They believe (as do many diaspora Jews including the author) that the Palestinians are entitled to at least partial compensation for the injustice of 1948 by securing a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel.

    The prominent revisionist historian Benny Morris, who had vigorously challenged the official Israeli view that the Palestinians had left voluntarily at the behest of Arab leaders in 1948, succinctly argued in an interview with the left-wing Tikkun Magazine in March 2001 that any right of return would lead to the ‘physical destruction’ of Israel. According to Morris, ‘A country divided between Israelis on the one hand and on the other Palestinians who had returned and were filled with anger not only at the way they had been treated in the past but also at not finding their villages or homes available – that country would quickly become ungovernable. Each individual Jew living in the country would be facing a real physical danger’.
    Morris’s comments emphasize that any large-scale return of 1948 Palestinian refugees to Israel would be likely to bring civil war and enormous bloodshed rather than Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation. The only sane and dignified solution to the refugee tragedy is the resettlement of all Palestinian refugees with compensation as either full citizens in the neighboring Arab countries in which most have lived for over 60 years, or alternatively as citizens of a new Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

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