Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.
Welcome to our podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights movements around the world. And in this final episode of the season, the nuts and bolts of a global solidarity movement working to advance Palestinian rights.
This podcast likes to get a close-up look at the mechanics and tactics of human rights work, trying to understand the choices that activists and leaders are making and learn from them. And, as our name suggests, the role of solidarity in defense of rights is particularly of interest– We’re asking how useful a tool it is in these times and whether it is being deployed at its full potential. And that’s why, for this episode, we decided to focus on the BDS movement – a global solidarity campaign to mobilize solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
The letters stand for boycott, divestment and sanctions, and its members aim to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian land and restore and respect Palestinian rights and freedoms – of movement, of political expression and other rights constrained in what both Israeli and international rights organizations have described as a system of apartheid.
In 2004, the international court of justice at the Hague ruled that the barrier built around the West Bank was illegal. But the lack of global action to oblige Israel to respect the judgement showed the limits of global governance, and the BDS movement began to take shape – Palestinian-led, but seeking and winning support in multiple countries across the world. Its strategy and architecture are highly reminiscent of another global solidarity campaign – the anti-apartheid movement that mobilized against white rule in South Africa in the five decades leading up to democratic elections there in 1994. And It was that comparison that I had in mind when I interviewed Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement and one of its most prominent leaders and advocates.
Akwe Amosu: Welcome Omar.
Omar Barghouti: Thanks for having me —
AA: So I just want to ask about the South Africa connection. Many people will recall Nelson Mandela saying, you know, that the South African freedom wasn’t fully complete if the Palestinians were still, under oppression, and it was a very close bond, I think, the south Africans had no trouble understanding what was happening in Palestine. So I was just curious how much contact there was in thinking about BDS and thinking about what you wanted to build.
OB: Uh, there was a lot of contact with those that, who have led the anti-apartheid struggle. Many figures in the anti-apartheid struggle from, uh, Ahmed Kathrada to Dennis Goldberg, to Ronnie Kasrils, Desmond Tutu, to many, many, many others – We’ve been directly in touch with them. We’ve learned a lot from their experience and they were very generous with their advice. In South Africa, they immediately get it, they get apartheid. Ahmed Kathrada, when he visited the occupied Palestinian territory, said apartheid is reborn here and it’s worse than what we’ve had. Definitely. Archbishop Tutu was one of the most prominent figures in the world to support BDS, COSATU the South African trade union Federation, was the first large trade union federation in the world to endorse BDS. So there were many firsts in, in South Africa, indeed. It’s a key inspiration to our movement.
AA: And yet I’m struck by the contrast that, whereas, I think a global audience didn’t have that much trouble recognizing the fundamental injustice of the situation in South Africa, I don’t think there was that level of consensus about what you were fighting.
OB: Yes and no. The South African call for boycott, for example, was issued in the 1950s by the ANC – 1950s! If you recall, Akwe, I’m sure you recall, it took forever for the boycott to become mainstream in the West. I personally studied at Columbia University in New York. So I remember those days in the 1980s, it was an uphill struggle, even in the eighties to push the Columbia trustees to divest from apartheid. Similarly at Yale and Harvard and Princeton and Berkeley and Stanford and so on and so forth. So it was an uphill struggle. The black leadership of the movement struggled a lot in the US to push for mainstreaming the anti-apartheid boycott. It took churches and trade unions and so on and so forth to get to a point of mainstreaming the demands of dismantling apartheid. But it wasn’t so easy. In the sixties and seventies there were very slow years of hardly any achievement.
AA: I think what I was getting at rather was not the campaign itself, but I think the challenge with Israel and Palestine in a sense is that there’s a whole counter narrative that wasn’t there with the south Africans. I don’t remember a big pro-apartheid argument.
OB: Yes, you’re right. That the South African apartheid lobby was basically corporations, the Coca-Cola’s and the Polaroids of the world and the Barclays banks of the world that wanted to keep their investments and their profits in South Africa. And of course, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as you recall, “Constructive engagement” was the slogan. “We cannot just pull out and leave those poor black people to their destiny. We have to help them.” This white savior, racist mentality prevailed at the time. But you’re absolutely right. There was no massive lobby fighting for apartheid in South Africa, unlike in the Israeli case. In the Israel case, there are three lobbies. There’s the Jewish Zionist lobby. There’s the Christian Zionist lobby and there’s the weapons companies and security lobby. The weapons companies have a lot of interest in Israel, as Israel tests American weapons on Palestinians, and sells those weapons around the world as field-tested. And Israel benefits the US weapons industry – most of the $3.8 billion dollars in US annual support -military funding – for Israel comes back to the US military manufacturers for buying US weapons. So there’s this connection. The Christian fundamentalist Zionists, of course, have this ideological issue, which again, did not exist in the South African case. And the Jewish Zionist lobby, the traditional Zionist lobby – that’s where we are seeing massive change lately. Over the last five, six years, we’ve seen a major shift among Jewish Americans away from apartheid Israel, and increasingly in support of Palestinian rights, including BDS, especially Jewish Americans under 40. If I am to say the most important achievements for the movement in the US a) It’s intersectional allies, Black Lives Matter, the Latino/Latina groups, climate justice, indigenous justice, and b) Young, Jewish, American support for BDS. I think that has been the most significant change. So we are challenging that part of the obstacles, if you will, that were not present in the South African case.
AA: So take me back then to 2005. What, what was your planning process? Could you say something about how you decided what you wanted to do and how you got started?
OB: So we, from the very beginning, we as representatives of the major entities in Palestinian society came together and decided, either we issue something grand, broad, that is supported by almost every major entity and Palestinian society; or we don’t. We’re not interested in an ivory tower initiative – in an elite initiative – regardless how good or bad this initiative might be. And we worked on it for years, from 2001 I would say — We began, mobilizing, organizing towards the moment in 2005 when we announced the BDS movement. In 2004 was the first birth of that academic and cultural boycott, a year before the general BDS call. So that was a rehearsal, so to speak. So the thinking was, it has to be consensus-oriented. It has to be non-violent. It has to be anti-racist against all forms of racism and very explicitly, so including antisemitism. So we were categorically from the start opposed to antisemitism. We do not work with antisemites. We do not accept any form of racism. And intersectional, connecting the struggle for Palestinian liberation with other justice struggles. We’re not the only oppressed community in the world, far from it. We’re not even the most oppressed in the world. And we recognize that. So we saw the movement as intersectional, and that’s how we launched it.
AA: So I’m very interested in this point about a strategy that’s so clearly built on an assumption of solidarity. I don’t think that in itself is revelatory. But I think listening to you and seeing BDS function, you are actually in a very intense dialogue with those partners in climate justice and anti-racist movements, in gender-based movements, LGBTQ struggles. And so I’m just curious to hear how you thought about that. I mean, in a sense, you could have argued, ‘Look, we’ve got a huge, complicated struggle on our hands. How much should we really be investing in indigenous rights or LGBTQ issues?’
OB: Well, you’re right. There is a price that is paid always when you stand in solidarity with other oppressed communities, you alienate the powers that be, obviously. You alienate regressive traditional voices within your own society. For example, our position on the LGBTQ liberation, LGBTQ rights, of course lost us some support among the more traditional elements in our society and in other societies. But the principle comes first. And that has always been a clear line in the BDS movement. Principle comes first, not the pragmatic considerations. So we’ve evolved a golden balance if you will, between, ethical principles and strategic effectiveness. And this is an extremely difficult minefield to navigate. So sometimes we have to say, this is the moral position to take, but it’s a stupid decision. It will cost us tremendously. So what can we do to alleviate that cost, to make it more tolerable without betraying the principle?
AA: Do you have an example?
OB: Uh, there’re so many examples, I’m thinking of one that is more public, I don’t want to talk about private examples. Uh, yes, there’s a BDS group in a country that I shall not name. The director of that BDS group was involved in sexual harassment. There were credible allegations against him of sexual harassment by three women in solidarity. We called for an investigation. We called for a transparent process to make sure that justice is reached. And when we felt that the group was pushing things under the rug, basically, there was no proper investigation. We had to take a very, very difficult decision. Now, this was a very important BDS group that is extremely effective, doing really good work, but principle comes first. Our anti-sexist anti-misogynist, position dictates that we uphold the principle. So we told the group, you’ve got to drop the BDS name. You’re no longer part of the movement. We shall distance ourselves from you in public if you do not do it privately. Indeed they change their name and they’re no longer a part of the BDS movement. It cost us tremendously. We lost an extremely important strategic ally. But we said, we’ll start from scratch. And many in feminist movements really appreciated that position. They said it is so rare for a movement to take such a position and pay such a high price.
AA: I mean, I suppose there’s a pragmatic question in there as well. Did you make a calculation which said, “Okay, we’re going to lose on this front, but we may gain on that front”?
OB: No. Honestly, at that point, no. All our calculations showed loss, net loss, no matter what, we will lose. So no, we did not see any gains. I mean, we already have feminist supporters, they appreciate our principles, but it’s not like we gained more broader mainstream feminist groups supporting us. We already had broad feminist support for the movement. So no, there was no real gain, strategically-speaking or pragmatically-speaking, but the principle comes first. Being true to ourselves is extremely important, not just as an ethical principle, but also for the movement’s credibility, which ends up helping you pragmatically as well. But, but again, the intersectional principle, I must say is something we learned gradually. It wasn’t all a hundred percent clear from the start, from black American feminists, that’s where we learned the very concept of intersectionality and through interaction with Black Lives Matter with Dream Defenders, black-led organizations that sent delegations to Palestine… This interaction between our struggle and theirs, which has always existed since Angela Davis and the black Panthers. There’s a very long history of black/ Palestinian solidarity, mutual solidarity. But even in the modern times, we developed those relations much more. And we learned so much from the black-led experience and struggle in the US.
AA: This seems like a good moment to ask you who is ‘we’? I can hear that you are not just speaking as an individual. I can hear that you’re working within a structure. Could you say something about how you build what you consider to be a representative and legitimate structure for leading this enormous and sort of tentacular campaign? I mean, you’ve got like work going on in so many different geographic settings, but also different sectors of business, of sport, of music. So how do you structure yourselves to be able to keep track and be accountable for that kind of a scale?
OB: This last point is extremely important: being accountable. The Palestinian BDS National Committee, or “BNC” for short, is the broadest coalition in Palestinian society. It includes all the major entities in society. The BNC has representatives from all those entities, forming a secretariat that leads the daily work – all volunteers, we’re all volunteers. So staff do not participate in decision-making at a strategic level. They participate in decision-making at the tactical, regional level, campaign level; but the strategic direction for the movement is decided entirely by volunteers representing the entities. So each volunteer, each representative, is accountable to her or his group. And together we hold each other accountable. At all times we’re accountable to the broadest coalition in Palestinian society, which means to Palestinian society at-large, which makes it very, very difficult! So pragmatically, if you’re accountable to the Palestinian people, plus/minus, how do you move? How do you take decisions? What to do in Tokyo, or Sao Paulo or Johannesburg, or Stockholm?
The movement is not vertical in its leadership and relations with partners. We have allies and partners around the world. It’s a very horizontal relationship, with one caveat: When it comes to the anti-racist, general principles, these are set by the Palestinian leadership. So no partner can decide to do something that’s anti-LGBT or that is anti-Black or anti-Jewish – that is not allowed. We would not allow any partner using the BDS name to do such a thing. We decide that from Palestine, as the leadership of the movement. However, deciding what tactics, what to target, what not to target, whom to form alliances with- those are all decisions by allies. Sometimes it takes us months to decide a minor modification in the guideline because you have to convince everyone and we don’t vote. We’ve never voted since establishing the BDS movement, the leadership never votes. We keep banging our heads against the wall until we convince each other.
AA: So consensus–
OB: Consensus. we have a term in Arabic, وافق / awaafiq, which is not exactly consensus, it’s more accord, if you will, which means no one has a veto per se. So if the absolute majority wants something and a tiny minority is against it, but cannot find a good argument, they live with it. So if you can live with it, just don’t block it. That’s the key point. So, we don’t vote and we don’t insist on a consensus because then everyone has a veto. So no one uses a veto, but once you see that your point is just not gaining a majority. You give it up, you’ll live with it, if you can live with it.
AA: So, I mean, let me just press a little, just to understand better. Let’s take a country, let’s say take , I don’t know, Germany–
OB:. Okay. It’s a very tough one…
OB: Germany’s fine! It’s a tough one!
AA: You have people who are organized in support of BDS. What do they create a kind of assembly ? If they raise money, do they have to raise it themselves or do you support that? How do people know what they’re joining, when they join that work?
OB: Sure. It’s completely decentralized in that sense. So our partners in Germany and the US, in South Africa and Brazil would have to raise their own money and will have to lead their own campaigns. We work together. We develop campaign strategies sometimes together, sometimes no, partners decide ‘We know we don’t need help. We’re fine on our own.’ We can push for this. There are global campaigns against global corporations that are involved in Israeli violations that most partners join in the campaigns against Puma, Caterpillar, G4S, the security company, Hewlett Packard and so on – Those are global campaigns that many participate in around the world, but voluntarily. They choose what campaigns they want to participate in, be it an academic boycott, cultural boycott, corporate divestment, church work, interfaith groups, LGBT mobilizing, and so on and so forth.
AA: Can I ask about the way that social media has played a part here? The reason I want to do that is because as somebody who was also involved in the anti-apartheid movement, I was at a boarding school, a Quaker boarding school, and I, and the others organized to demand that our school stop buying Outspan oranges. And yeah, you could ask a cricket team in a small town to write to the cricket authorities and say, ‘They didn’t believe that the British team should go to South Africa’, for example. And so there was a very local feel and it aggregated; it amassed a kind of strength through having these thousands of very local engagements. But I think with social media, what you see is that everything in some way becomes global. And I wonder whether people still care about getting their little town council to take a position on the Palestinian struggle.
OB: Actually, I’m glad you mentioned the local councils and the UK in particular where we have, I think the most support among local councils in most countries. Local council mobilization in the UK was the top reason why we succeeded in our campaign against Veolia. Veolia is a French conglomerate that was involved in the Jerusalem light rail. It’s a train project that connects Israel’s illegal settlements with the city of Jerusalem, so clearly violating international law and Palestinian rights. We launched a campaign against Veolia in 2008. In 2015, Veolia pulled out of Israel altogether – sold all its business in Israel altogether after losing more than 20 billion – with a b – $20 billion worth of contracts over seven years due to BDS campaigning. How did this happen? One city council after another, it started in Sweden, not in the UK, but the UK was the biggest loss for Veolia – One city council after another, BDS activists, Palestine solidarity campaign activists would go to city councilors and tell them you’ve got to exclude Veolia because it’s involved in war crimes. Settlements are defined under international law as war crimes. If that’s not a good reason to exclude Veolia, what is? And under European law, excluding a company for grave misconduct is perfectly legal. So you’ve got to exclude Veolia, or else we won’t vote for you next election. So the threat was very clear. Now, if you go with 50 other activists saying that to city councilors, they’ll tell you, ‘Yeah, very nice go home’. But if you go there with a petition signed by 10,000 people, they take you very, very seriously in a little town in the UK. You come with 10,000 signatures and they know this can lose them the next election. So they listen and they bring the lawyers and they start looking into ways of excluding Veolia, one city council after another, in the UK, in Ireland, in Sweden, in Norway, excluded Veolia from business. In the US even, in Kuwait, eventually. So Veolia lost more than $20 billion. So we hadn’t lost this grassroots, physical, social campaigning, actually. We kept the in-person, on the street, kind of campaigning going, the direct action campaigning, going, from blocking entrances to arms factories in the UK; occupying certain companies that are involved in grave misconduct and so on and so forth; to social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and so on. So we have both. But the key point is that with social media, we can circumvent the censorship against us in the mainstream media. They did not have that in South Africa. The mainstream, white European American media totally ignored or even smeared the leadership of the ANC as, as you recall. And there was nothing to be done at that time because you have no alternative. You have to go very slowly from the grassroots up. Well, with social media, we could circumvent the CNNs and the BBCs.
AA: and another very big pillar for the anti-apartheid solidarity movement were the trade unions, I have the impression, perhaps wrongly, that unionism is taken some pretty big hits in the intervening years. And I wonder how far there is a parallel there for you, whether you see strong support from trade unions in the way that the anti-apartheid movement for South Africa did?
OB: Uh, we do indeed. We have massive support from trade unions, including in Europe, including in the US increasingly, but mostly in Brazil, South Africa, India, the global south. In the UK, the Trades Union Council, which represents over six million workers, has endorsed BDS. Unite, the union, Unison, the largest two unions in the UK have endorsed, BDS. So we have a lot of support, Italian unions, French Belgian, uh, Norwegian – the largest Norwegian Federation of trade unions, LO, which represents some one fifth of the population of Norway, has endorsed BDS. So we do have massive support in the global South, as well as the Global North among trade unions. But you’re right, trade unions today have less power than they did during the South African struggle, at least in the seventies and eighties. Neo-liberalism and all the economic policies and fiscal policies have led to a crackdown on trade unions, but still, they do take courageous positions in support of Palestine through BDS.
AA: And have you also targeted what is much less of a political and activist space, the kind of financial services space. For example, I know that in the climate sector, pension funds are enormously important as a site for pressure, but of course they are not out on picket lines; they’re not necessarily, gathering on social media. Are you able, is BDS able to build a strategy to intervene at that kind of level?
OB: Yes. We’ve had a lot of success with some of the largest pension funds in the world through partners. So not directly as BDS being led from Palestine. As I said, we have many, many partners, and many of them do not even raise the BDS slogan. Various solidarity groups, church groups, progressive Jewish groups that start lobbying. And as you said, working with pension funds – it never happens in public. It’s always private meetings and pressure and so on and so forth. But we’ve got the Norwegian pension fund, which is the largest in the world – over $1.2 trillion worth – to divest from several companies involved in Israeli occupation. Some of the largest pension funds, government pension funds in the Netherlands, in New Zealand, in Luxembourg, in Kuwait, have divested from companies and banks involved in Israeli apartheid and occupation. The United Methodist Church, I think the richest church pension fund in the US, some $25 billion pension fund, divested in 2016 from all Israeli banks, all five top Israeli banks, because of their involvement in settlements and occupation. The Bill Gates Foundation divested from G4S, which was involved then in Israeli prisons where torture against Palestinian political prisoners was rampant. So yes, we have succeeded with, pension funds quite a lot. We always focused on that; it takes a certain expertise, different kinds of strategy, not the same type of strategy we use on campuses or with social justice movements and so on.
AA: We haven’t tried, in this conversation, to itemize the ways in which you have had an impact, although you’ve given examples along the way. The favorite accusation by Israel is that BDS and indeed other critical voices, are antisemitic. Could you talk a little bit about what your strategy has been in just addressing this Israeli response?
OB: Sure. But before the strategy, it’s very important to restate the principle: The principle is we’re opposed to all forms of racism, including antisemitism. So we have many Jewish partners across the world, most notably Jewish Voice for Peace – the fastest growing Jewish group in the world, in the United States. They’ve been supporting BDS campaigns for many, many years, and they’re doing amazing work. And today polls are showing a major shift among younger Jewish Americans. So how do we respond strategically to this Israeli accusation? Of course, any accusation, any charge of antisemitism is a very potent, is very dangerous, is very powerful. It debilitates, it ends careers. It makes life miserable for any activist to be accused of that, especially in the West where there’s responsibility for the Holocaust, the genocide against European Jews. But the key point is that being an anti-racist movement, we always say we have nothing to do with the genocide against Jews. We condemn the Holocaust, the crimes committed against Jewish communities across Europe, without any reservation. But Palestinians had nothing to do with that. We were not part of that. We’re an anti-racist movement that wants liberation. Israel is not equal to ‘all Jews’ and anyone claiming otherwise is making an antisemitic statement. If you equate Israel with all Jews, you’re saying Jewish communities have no diversity. They’re all one and the same. That’s a very antisemitic statement. So we were very clear from the beginning. We would never fall into the trap of conflating Israel and Zionism on the one hand with Jewish persons and Jewish communities on the other. While we absolutely categorically reject any attack on Jews, any hate speech against Jews, qua Jews. We have no reason not to campaign against Israel to end its regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid, because you know what, there’s nothing Jewish about settler colonialism and apartheid. It is not a Jewish value. It’s an oppressive value. No Jewish community can see this as part of its heritage or culture or faith. So attacking Isareli apartheid has nothing to do with being anti-Jewish. And increasingly, Jewish communities across the world are getting that message. Activists in South Africa, in Chile, in Brazil, Jewish activists are getting that message, in fact.
AA: How, how far is the change that you’re describing visible in Israel? I mean, at one level one wouldn’t expect that, but on the other hand, you know, we saw B’tselem come out and say, clearly this is an apartheid state. And I have a sense that there is also change happening on the ground there, is that right?
OB: It is right, yes. Change is happening. Since 2009, hundreds of Jewish Israelis formed a group called Boycott From Within. They joined the BDS movement out of principle, out of supporting the Palestinian struggle for liberation – but also out of a belief, a strong belief, that as Israelis, we cannot be normal, we cannot live normal lives while being oppressors, while living by the sword, while joining the army – every 18-year-old Israeli man or woman has to join, the army has to become an occupier. That’s not a normal life. So to be normal, we’ve got to end oppression. So that, and the moral commitment to the Palestinian struggle, helped form this group. Over the years, it has grown. And now we can see some very prominent Israeli filmmakers, theater directors, curators, LGBT leaders and others coming and saying ‘Enough is enough’. We’ve got to dismantle this apartheid system.
Even people who do not yet agree with BDS, are fighting against the accusation that BDS per se is antisemitic. So when you mentioned Germany in 2019, the German parliament Bundestag – the lower house- issued a very McCarthyite statement attacking BDS as antisemitic. The first response, even before our response as a movement, the first response against the Bundestag came from 240, top Jewish academics and scholars in Germany, in Israel and elsewhere, including the world authorities on antisemitism and the Holocaust saying, ‘Whether we agree with BDS or not, antisemitic, it’s not. It’s not.’ Calling for ending the occupation apartheid, and for the right of return for refugees does not constitute that as Semitism and anyone saying otherwise is lying.
AA: I don’t want to end without asking you about your own situation, because as outspoken and clear as you are and uncompromising in your language, you’re also living in Israel. And I’m curious how that is for you, just as a human being. I’m just curious what your experience has been.
OB: Yes, it hasn’t been easy at all, but it is, when I think of the situation of Palestinians in Gaza, my situation pales in comparison. I’m not under siege where I cannot get enough food for my children, where I cannot get my mother to go to hospital because of the siege and so on and so forth. So I’m not at that level, I’m not suffering at that level. That keeps things in perspective. But that doesn’t mean I’m not subject to apartheid oppression. Of course I am in a very, very strong way and very targeted way against me. Since 2014, I’ve been under an on and off travel ban by the Israeli authorities. I’ve been prevented from accompanying my mother during cancer surgery a few years ago, a year before she passed. Amnesty International condemned that in a statement. And then when my mother passed, I was not allowed to go to her funeral until a public campaign was launched. And then the Israeli authorities allowed me to leave to Jordan to be at the funeral. If you Google my name, you’ll see almost every day, the smears against me, the threats against me in the Israeli media, including some very strong death threats, openly by readers of Israeli media, write comments, ‘like he should be thrown to the sharks’; ‘a bullet should be placed in between his eyes’… You know, things that are absolutely scary, but that doesn’t intimidate me. I mean, it is scary, but because I’m very public about it and I expose every threat I am subjected to, and I continue my struggle, they get the message. You shall not deter me. I shall continue until my people are free.
AA: Thank you, Omar.
OB: Thank you.
Omar Barghouti is a co-founder of BDS, the movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions to punish Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. As always, you can find a transcript of our conversation and suggestions for further reading on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org.
And that brings us to the end of Episode 16, and indeed, of Season 2 of Strength + Solidarity. Thanks for riding with us. We’re going to take a break to research and record some new episodes, but we’ll be back towards the end of the year.
Meanwhile, if you missed an episode, or you know people who might like what we’re doing, there’s a stack of past interviews and personal reflections in The Coda to dig into, featuring activists and leaders in the human rights field. If you’ve been listening, please drop us a line and tell us what you liked and didn’t like. We always welcome the feedback and suggestions. Send us an email, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heartfelt thanks, admiration and appreciation for Peter Coccoma, our producer and composer of our theme music. I’m Akwe Amosu. See you soon!