Israel’s defendants have questions to answer

I was surprised when I learnt about comments that had been accusing the Palestine Society of being a ‘vicious hub of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate’. Ironically of course, opposition to racist colonization of Palestine is the root of the struggle; thus opposition to all forms of racism is what Palestinian solidarity is about. Anti-Semitism is a tired old accusation from Zionists, retreating behind mendacious slurs when losing the arguments.

Make no mistake, the defenders of Israel are losing the arguments. Israel is consistently ranked among the world’s most unpopular nations, while an attempt by the ‘Academic Friends of Israel’ to legally challenge pro-boycott activists, accusing them of anti-Semitism was described by a judge as, ‘without substance’, ‘palpably groundless’ and ‘obviously hopeless’. What makes such accusations of anti-Semitism even more preposterous is the range of Jewish organisations fighting Israeli oppression, including Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (UK), Jewish Voice for Peace (USA) and even the Israeli group Boycott from Within. I have myself been taken on a tour of Israeli settlements by a group of Jews called ‘Breaking the Silence’, all Israeli ex-soldiers who speak about crimes they have seen committed by occupying forces in Palestine.

A host of organisations have already endorsed or pursued various boycott and divestment strategies. BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) principles and tactics have been formally endorsed by national trade union federations in South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Brazil and other countries across Latin America. Academic unions in the UK and Canada have voted to support various academic boycott campaign initiatives. The European Parliament elected not to renew a contract with G4S following action by Palestine solidarity groups. The Norwegian government pension fund and 12 other European finance institutions have excluded Israeli arms company Elbit Systems from their portfolios. The boycott is growing, hence the need for smear tactics from anti-boycott activists.

For me, the occupation of Palestine is more than just a set of grim statistics. It is also a series of personal stories. In 2013, I spent three months with a group of Palestinian students on the ‘Right to Education’ campaign at Birzeit University. I found that Palestinian academics are frequently denied visas to teach, students are prevented from studying at certain universities by the restrictions of the occupation, and that Palestinian students face arbitrary arrests or attacks from Israelis. During my short stay there, several were brutally killed by occupying forces.

I witnessed the war crimes committed against Palestinian students when I visited the Israeli military court system. Palestinians are taken to prisons in Israel in violation of Geneva Conventions, frequently abused and tortured, then convicted by kangaroo courts on ‘secret evidence’. In one case that I reported on, a friend’s fiancee was detained without trial for months on end, deteriorating in condition every time we saw him. The prisons he was held and abused in, Jalameh and Ofer, were equipped by G4S. How anyone could justify a university holding investments in such a company is beyond me, but this is the position of those who oppose boycotts. I don’t like being smeared as anti-Semitic, but I don’t bleed from it either. The real danger of the way Israel’s policy advocates behave is to shut down opposition to Israeli crimes and block action against them. The ultimate victims are the Palestinians themselves.

My father, once a student campaigner against apartheid in South Africa, often tells me how Lancaster University refused to support an honorary degree for Nelson Mandela because it was ‘politically insensitive’, and how Conservative students would walk around campus with badges reading ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’, while making spurious anti-boycott arguments. Those students played a role in prolonging apartheid, making the struggle of men like Mandela both harder and deadlier. Some things, it would seem, never change. Until Israel’s advocates stop apologising for Israel’s every crime and begin to think about the consequences of their actions, then the conflict will continue.

If they are interested in having a mature political debate about Israeli apartheid and colonialism, and how boycotts can fight it, then they know where they can find me. Until then, a period of silence on their part would be most welcome.