Bearing witness: A Jewish scholar explains the BDS movement to hold Israel accountable

Think Tech Hawaii recently ran this interview with a disclaimer warning viewers that they should seek out the other side of this issue by watching another show they offered about anti-Semitism on campus 2017. This interview is posted here, with permission, to  ensure that more people get to listen and learn from an informed witness to the oppression of Palestinians by Israel. If you are against settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation; if you think Israel should give its Arab citizens equal rights; and if you believe Israel should be expected to abide by international law and UN resolutions calling for the right of return of displaced Palestinians, write to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and ask her to withdraw her support of a bill that seeks to outlaw the BDS movement and criminalize the actions of those who support it.

The video is supported by an abridged version of the transcript below.

Will Caron:  It’s been nearly 70 years since the UN created the modern state of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust with the intention of providing Jewish refugees with a nation of their own with a historical map.  While this event has been championed by every US administration, hence a great step forward for justice, the reality is far more complicated.  The 1948 creation of Israel is known as al Nakba or catastrophe by Arabs as it resulted in the forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians, the military occupation of Palestinian land, and the creation of an apartheid system of laws to govern the Palestinians who remain within the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel proper.  Nevertheless, US support for Israel has remained unwavering and uncritical.  The Israel lobby, one of the most powerful in Washington, has sponsored a bill that would make it illegal for US organizations and citizens to conscientiously boycott Israeli-made products, a form of First Amendment protected free speech.  Hawaii’s Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa is a co-sponsor of the bill known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

My guest today is Jewish-American scholar and co-founder of the Hawaii Coalition for Justice in Palestine Cynthia Franklin, who visited Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2013 and who has worked extensively on the US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

WC:   BDS– There is a lot of misinformation now on what it is or why it was created. Some people call it a terrorist organization.  Some people call it anti-Jewish.  Tell us what is BDS all about and how you first got involved.

CF:  First, what is BDS?  Founded in 2005; it was a call put out by Palestinian civil society by 170 organizations and groups, asking that people across the world observe a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel until three conditions were met: a way of applying non-violent pressure on Israel to comply with international law.

So there are three planks to BDS and when those are met, there will be no more boycott.

First,  end the colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the illegal apartheid or separation wall. 

Second, provide equal rights to Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel who currently exist under a set of unequal laws–50 laws that on their face discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

Third,  respect and promote the right of return for over seven million Palestinians who have been displaced from historic Palestine. That is a UN-protected right of return.

WC:  And when you say illegal, you are talking about based on the UN?

CF:  Based on UN Resolution 194, that has stipulated that Palestinians have a right of return.

WC:  And that the settlements and wall are illegal as well.

CF:  Yes, those are illegal.

WC:  And how did you get involved with BDS?

CF:  I got involved with BDS as a result of a trip to Palestine in 2013. While there I observed for myself conditions that I had read about and heard about, and I met up with many Palestinians.  And one uniform thing that they said was: Please go back and tell people what you’ve seen, and also support the boycott.  And so, when I got back, I was invited on to the organizing collective for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, also known as USACBI.

WC:  On that trip in 2013 you were looking for contributing writers for a special Biography issueWhat were some of the things that you witnessed there and how did they change or solidify your understanding of the Israeli state and what’s going on there?

CF:  Well, one of the things I really learned, I learned right from the beginning, before I left for the trip. I was told to make sure your computer doesn’t have anything on it that indicated you are going to the West Bank.  Make sure there are no texts on your phone that indicate you are going to the West Bank because you can get into trouble right at the airport and meet with obstacles there.  So right away I encountered a sense of the kinds of repressions at work.  On the way into the West Bank, there is a sign that says, if you are not Palestinian–I don’t remember the exact language, but basically, do not enter because this is dangerous, your life is in danger if you cross into the West Bank.  So I then crossed into the West Bank and was met with amazing hospitality, but again right away driving into the West Bank, I was going on roads with pot holes, badly maintained, and I knew there was a separate road for Israelis, for settlers who are living illegally in the West Bank.  So I immediately knew of two sets of roads.  I very quickly came to understand how to recognize who was an Israeli–or Jewish settler–and who was Palestinian, by the water tanks on their roofs, because one of the things Israel does is it takes water from the West Bank and it keeps about 80 percent–I am not totally sure of the exact percentage–and then it sells the rest of that water to the Palestinians and then delivers it once or twice a week to the tanks, so there is a perpetual water shortage.  I also experienced delays at check points and witnessed violence at check points.  One particularly horrific and memorable experience was seeing a small child run down by an Israeli settler at a check point, and I witnessed and heard about people’s difficulties getting to school or getting to the hospital because of the check points, because of the wall, making mobility very difficult.  I talked to students who had themselves been arrested or who had fiancés or friends arrested for things like setting up chairs for demonstrations to protest the wall.  So, I experienced the whole range of ways that the occupation affects people’s lives, including bureaucratic ways that endangered them physically or that are just exasperating. I think that the most dramatic experience I had was in Hebron, which is a place of really intense repression.  It’s one of the few places where settlers actually live basically right on top of Palestinians.  They’ve moved into Palestinian homes, and we were shown around Hebron by the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, who makes sure that we were kept safe from all the Israeli soldiers who were pointing their guns down at us on the street.  Palestinians cannot walk freely–there are streets they cannot walk on–they cannot enter the front door of their homes, there is netting …

WC:  We actually have a picture of that, one of the pictures you brought back from Hebron of the net covering.

CF:  That netting protects them from things that are thrown down, but international observers say that people will throw acid down on the street or throw sewage down through those nets. We observed evidence of that as we were walking through the streets.  In addition,  there was the kind of daily erosion of people’s rights and ability to function, and the  normalization of occupation that really makes life, even for the best-off Palestinians, quite difficult.  So, Hebron is an extreme example, but we were in the homes of quite wealthy people who made us these beautiful meals, but the stories that they told were ones of losing family and losing friends to violence from the Israelis.  What you have there is military rule so that even the best-off Palestinians still are living under an occupation that is quite brutal, and leaves them with a great deal of uncertainty about the most basic of things.

WC:  You’re Jewish-American, so can you talk a little bit about the difficulty of coming to terms, I suppose, with the fact that anti-Zionism is not opposed to being Jewish?

CF:   Being Jewish and being Zionist are two different things. For me Zionism is a political ideology; it’s a form of nationalism, it’s a form of settler-colonialism, and I don’t want anything to do with any part of that.  I work with Jewish Voice for Peace quite actively, and I think that they have been very clear-sighted in developing a position that lays out the fact that being anti-Zionist is not being anti-Jewish.  Israel depends upon these two being substitutable for one another, and the US State Department makes those two substitutable.  You are not allowed to criticize Israel’s most powerful way of keeping its human rights violations in check.  I think Jews of conscience have a particular responsibility to refuse, and to say that as Jews, we do not need to support Zionism, and that is in no way a reflection of being Jewish. We are not self-hating Jews.  We are not ourselves anti-Semitic.  We are just against settler-colonialism. We are against apartheid. We are against occupation, and not in our name.

WC:  And so the situation on the ground being what it is, and the separation wall doing what it’s done to Palestinian land–and then on top of that you said 50 laws that treat Palestinian citizens differently–what does all of that sort of equal in terms of the Israeli state?  Is it an apartheid state?

CF:  I think Israel is an apartheid state. Desmond Tutu supports the BDS movement and he has said that apartheid in Israel is worse than it was in South Africa.  I think one of the things that is often confused is that apartheid as a definition involves separation and discrimination.  It doesn’t have to look like it looked in South Africa for it to be apartheid.  And so, apartheid does look different in Israel and Palestine than it does in South Africa.

WC:  So recently in the news there’s been talk of a bill going through Congress, the Israeli Anti-Boycott Act (IABA), which would criminalize organizations and individuals who wish to participate in the BDS movement, either through boycotting Israeli products or through divesting from Israeli companies or products.  253 representatives in the House, including our own Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, have co-sponsored that version.  48 senators have co-sponsored the Senate version.  The ACLU, however, opposes the bill strongly.  So, can you explain a little bit about what the bill would actually do, and why it is particularly dangerous for free speech?

CF:  The bill is an amendment of a 1979 export administration act.    The bill makes it punishable for businesses or individuals, to support the boycott. They can be fined anywhere from $250,000 up to a million dollars and sentenced to 20 years in prison.  I was struck at the Town Hall meeting that Colleen Hanabusa referred to it as the BDS bill.  It is not technically a BDS bill in that what it says is that businesses that are supporting foreign entities or organizations that are calling for boycott of Israel, that you can’t listen to them, you can’t adhere to that boycott.  Let’s say Kokua Market says we are not going to stop boycotting Sabra hummus, because Sabra hummus violates the boycott, which it does–that means Kokua would be susceptible to these fines and to imprisonment.  Now if they said we are not stocking Sabra hummus because we think it tastes bad, that would be cool.  And so this is actually punishing businesses–and individual business owners, because of course it is not businesses that go to prison, it is people–for their political beliefs.  But the bill goes even further. Any individuals who are inciting, or even finding out or inquiring about this are also punishable.  So if I call Kokua Market and say which of your products are Israeli products, because I am not going to buy these products, and I don’t think you should sell these products, that bill would allow me to be eligible for penalization.  It is a direct infringement of First Amendment rights. The right to boycott is a protected and long respected form of free speech.  ACLU has taken a position against it, as have even some Jewish Zionist organizations, including J-Street.  But there is also bipartisan Congressional support for this bill, and that is why it is a very alarming bill.

WC:  The Israel lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington. What does it say about the fact that they are leveraging Congress so hard? They came out and sponsored this bill and helped draft it, I believe, AIPAC in particular.

CF:   For me it speaks to the success and power of the BDS movement and the fact that you can’t really stop it in any legitimate way, because it is a non-violent movement and it is grassroots and it is principled. It’s basically a liberal movement. It’s true that the result of it would be quite radical.  Obey international law—that’s all we are saying. The fact that there is not really a principled way to stop that leads to a kind of backlash right now.  Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has declared BDS the largest strategic threat facing Israel.  He has poured 25 million dollars into stopping it, and Israel is very much working in tandem with Zionist groups in the US to promote this kind of legislation. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act that we have been talking about is not the only recent legislation.  About 26 states have passed some form of legislation–and cities, too.  So, this is part of a kind of panic response, I think, to the fact that BDS has been working.  There are companies that have been pulling out of their investments in Israel and there are others that are scrambling right now, figuring out what to do. So, I think it’s both a kind of success, but also a kind of evidence that Israel is not a democratic state, and those supporting it are having trouble finding ways to support what is not a democratic state.

WC:   Last year, under the Obama administration, the US and the Israeli governments signed a 38-billion-dollar military aid deal, spread out over a decade.  I want to ask you how US military money affects the situation on the ground in Palestine, and what needs to change in US policy or in social movements.

CF:  It is very clear this has to be grassroots, so this involves mobilizing and saying no.  We see support for Israel in every administration and now we have Kushner leading peace talks, and I think it is safe to say, that’s not going anywhere. It really is up to individuals to say to our representatives this is wrong, this is not okay, we don’t want this.  Because I think unless there is this kind of pressure, it will continue.  The 38 million aid packet is up from what was three billion dollars a year to 3.8 billion dollars a year.  That money creates a lot of misery.  Gaza is bombed approximately every two years.  2014 was the last all-out assault on Gaza.  It is, according to the World Health Organization, deemed to be unlivable by 2020.  There is unsafe water; they have rebuilt almost nothing from a ravaged infrastructure because there is a blockade; building materials cannot enter, people cannot move in and out of the world’s largest outdoor prison.  That is what the US money is doing; it is supporting that, but it is also complicated because Israel uses Gaza and the West Bank as testing sites to develop weapons and to test technology.  There is a film called The Lab that talks about this, made by an Israeli–a Jewish-Israeli filmmaker.  And so there is big money involved in this and it is not just us helping them.

Our police are trained by Israel, which is part of the reason that Ferguson and Gaza had a lot of exchange going during the summer of 2014 when people in Gaza were oh, we know what you guys are going through with the tear gas, this is how you deal with that.  Basically, we are supporting a violent occupation with that money.

WC: So, for viewers who are interested in pursuing this further, who are interested in learning more about the action of either supporting or opposing legislation – what can they do?

CF: Well, one thing in terms of this IABA Act is write to your legislators . If you are in Hawaii, write to Colleen Hanabusa, maybe she won’t answer you; she has yet to answer me or any of the 20 people or so that I know have written to her. You can support the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).  The BDS website has more information about how to do that.

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Posted in I BLOG, Justice, Politics and Religion, Uncategorized
One comment on “Bearing witness: A Jewish scholar explains the BDS movement to hold Israel accountable
  1. Gwen Mayer says:

    I couldn’t agree more!

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