Omar Barghouti on BDS Success and How to Respond to Criticism of the Movement

By Eli Gerzon (@EliGerzon)

In part one I wrote about participating in an Eyewitness Palestine tour this fall 2019. Twenty-two of us met with many amazing people, but when Omar Barghouti walked in, our tour guide said, “From my view, this man is one of the best and most important people in Palestine.” 

Throughout our tour we met people who spoke about agriculture, the wall, specific minority groups, refugees, etc. Many of them said BDS is the best way we can support Palestinians when we return home.

BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. In my last piece I wrote about the history, goals, and strategies the movement uses. One strategy is to target and hold accountable  organizations that claim to be progressive but actually engage in work that harms Palestinians, directly or indirectly. 

Omar Barghouti said: “One example: the Gates Foundation always talks about civil rights. So we are able to use that against them. We worked with an artist in Italy to create excellent memes for social media. It only took four months to get the Gates Foundation to divest from G4S.” 

G4S is the largest security company in the world. They have worked with the Israeli government for years and help operate prisons in Israel where people are held without trial. The company supports the Israeli military and the wall which impedes Palestinians’ movement and steals land. BDS campaigns throughout the past decade caused churches, government bodies, unions, companies, and other organizations to cancel contracts with G4S and divest from the company. That included the Gates Foundation in 2014. In 2016, G4S announced they were no longer working in Israel. See the G4S Timeline via the BDS Movement here. Unfortunately, they reversed that in 2017: G4S is working with Israel and back on the BDS list again

Barghouti cited many clear BDS wins. He highlighted this win in 2014: “The Presbyterian Church divested from Hewlett Packard (HP), Caterpillar, and Motorola. This was a big tipping point: it’s one of the largest mainline Protestant churches.” 

“Veolia is a major BDS win.” Barghouti said, referring to the French utility and railway company selling off all of its projects in Israel/Palestine in 2015. A Veolia official admitted the BDS campaign “has lost [them]important contracts.”

According to Barghouti, very few companies are bidding on new Israeli projects. He added: “We don’t want to exaggerate. The Israeli economy is still thriving. But it is mostly supported by the US. That includes military aid and tax free donations, mostly to settlements.”

The backlash against the BDS campaign is an indication of how effective it is, according to Barghouti. “There is an entire ministry of the Israeli government devoted to stopping BDS. We don’t know but it maybe has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.” Later he added, “They are fighting BDS with smearing campaigns. The anti BDS branch of the Israeli government advertised for a position in 2016 called ‘Tarnishing Unit.’ They are totally open now.”

If backlash is an indication of success, then Barghouti himself has been very successful: in April 2019 the US denied entry to Barghouti without explanation. In October 2019, Israel announced they intend to deport Barghouti because, according to the Israeli government: “This is a man who does everything to harm the country and therefore must not enjoy the right to be a resident of Israel.”

But Barghouti didn’t mention any of this when we met with him in November 2019. Instead he focused on the success of the BDS movement:

“BDS is growing in many places, the fastest in the US. According to a University of Maryland poll: 88% of Democratic members who know about BDS support it or don’t oppose it. Overall 48% of Democratic members support BDS. 70% in the US support the right to BDS.”

And he noted the fact that Rep Ilhan Omar and Rep Rashida Tlaib strongly support BDS. “That’s totally new to have members of Congress supporting BDS. And it’s progress.”

Barghouti also saw progress in the US presidential election: “It used to be that Senator Sanders was the only politician who spoke about conditioning aid to Israel. Now that’s mainstream Democrats. Only Biden is really against that.” In October 2019, a headline in the Jewish Daily Forward read: “Israel Aid Cuts ‘On The Table’ For 3 Of Top 4 Democratic Candidates.” They were referring to Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

As a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) I was excited when he said: “JVP is our biggest partner in the US. And they are the fastest growing Jewish group in the world. They don’t talk about it but we see it.” Of course, this also counters the criticism that this is a religious conflict and all Jewish people support Zionism and Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. 

Responding to Criticisms of BDS

At the end of the talk Barghouti asked for questions from the group. People were interested in how to best respond to criticisms of BDS. 

Joke Williams, one member of the delegation, is an electrical engineer and member of Black Lives Matter – DC. She asked: “As someone who went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), what would you recommend I say to an institution like MIT which has a good relationship with Israeli institutions as part of their summer study abroad programs? They have a good relationship partly because of the high caliber of Israeli universities like the Weizmann Institute of Science.”

Barghouti responded with a demand that we act ethically: “South Africa was the most advanced country for technology in Africa. Would you have an academic relationship with them? Actually many people did. But they did eventually divest. Also, Germany was the most technologically advanced country before World War II. They were also very culturally advanced. So what? Ethical responsibility says we must boycott. Germany forced Hollywood to censor positive depictions of Jews. It was a very big market. You can make many excuses. But we must act ethically.”

One person in our group, also a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, asked, “‘I’m thinking of my relatives who are Jewish who say ‘We need a Jewish homeland.’ How do you recommend responding to that?”

“Of course, that is a racist idea.” was Barghouti’s response. 

Many people think of what’s happening in Israel/Palestine as a conflict between two groups who can ‘never get along.’ They also believe that the Jewish people deserve the right to self-determination. What Omar Barghouti said next challenged that outlook: 

“Of course, Jews are part of the indigenous population of Palestine. But so are many other people. We are the most ‘impure’ country: we are a mix. No one group should have supremacy over the many other groups. And kicking people out of their homes: that’s not self-determination, that’s colonization.” 

Another common idea: “BDS actually hurts Palestinians.”  Again, Barghouti was forthright in how to respond to that: 

“That is complete racist patronizing by liberals. They are assuming they know better than us. The same was said to MLK, South Africans, and others. We are used to white liberals thinking they know better than us.”

Thankfully, many people around the world are listening to Palestinians and not dismissing BDS. The demands are basic and in line with international law: end the occupation, end racist discrimination against Palestinians, and allow refugees to return to their homes. Divestment has been successful many times before and can be successful again in Israel/Palestine. 

If you want to get involved with BDS you can find an organization in your area of the world via the BDS Movement website.

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer and social media consultant born and based in Boston, MA, USA. They use they/them pronouns. You can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @eligerzon.

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