I’ve tried to interest local media outlets in covering the BDS event I’m organizing this Friday night. So far I’ve failed. Repeated efforts to reach KUOW’s public affairs programming staff and Dave Ross of KIRO Radio have fallen flat. In the past, I succeeded in getting KUOW to interview the speakers for the Iran event I organized and Dave Ross interviewed Breaking the Silence activists who were on a national speaking tour. But what was a small media aperture for Israel-Palestine activism in the past has closed.
Recently, KUOW hosted Israeli ambassador Michael Oren and agreed to his conditions that he be interviewed with no other guest and take no calls from local listeners. And a promise from then-station manager Wayne Roth that the station would rectify it’s imbalance by hosting other programs in future, would remain unfulfilled.
But my failure with the Seattle Times is especially instructive. I prepared a draft for an op-ed and submitted it. Today, Sharon Chan, the assistant op-ed editor replied:
Thank you for the op-ed submission. I’m sorry but we won’t be able to use it. It’s my fault – I didn’t read the initial email note from you closely enough and we don’t run op-eds that specifically call for boycotts. My apologies.
I asked her to point me to the policy so that I could explore it. She hasn’t replied. My guess is that this interpretation is based on a faulty understanding of the nature of “secondary boycott.” It is illegal to advocate a boycott as part of a purely commercial dispute. But is certainly not illegal to advocate BDS because it is not an economic dispute, but a political one. BDS does not involve competing companies trying to damage each others’ economic interests. BDS is a political movement with a political goal.
Can you imagine any newspaper in the U.S. saying it refused to publish an op-ed advocating economic sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid era because that constituted aiding an economic boycott?
At any rate, this is the piece I would’ve published in Friday’s edition of the Times had it not censored the topic of BDS from its editorial page. My talk will be expanded from this and encompass some other important issues I had to omit in order to fit with the op-ed guidelines on length:
The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement has, in the past year, become a controversial, but fast-growing grassroots opponent of Israel’s Occupation. Founded in 2005, BDS advocates three main principles: an end to Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands, full equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees exiled during the 1948 War of Independence.
BDS pressures multinational corporations and investment funds to divest of companies which benefit from Israeli Occupation. In the U.S., companies like Motorola (surveillance systems for illegal settlements), Caterpillar (armored bulldozers which destroy Palestinian homes), and Hewlett Packard (biometric ID system for security checkpoints), and have been targeted.
One of these recent decisions has a distinctly local angle. In the Gates Foundation’s stock portfolio was the security firm G4S, which provides scanning devices for Israeli prisons and checkpoints. After activists wrote to the Foundation and asked it to divest from the company’s stock, it did so. This was followed by a corporate announcement that G4S would not renew its contracts with Israeli security agencies when then lapsed within the year.
The Israeli beverage maker, Sodastream, which has a manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank, bought Super Bowl TV time for an ad featuring Scarlett Johansson. The actress was also a celebrity spokesperson for the UK human rights group, Oxfam. BDS pressured the British group about its affiliation with her. As a result, Oxfam asked her to choose between her commercial endorsement or itself. Johansson chose Sodastream. The resulting controversy garnered more press attention than any marketing campaign could ever have done.
The organization also asks artists and academics not to participate in state-sponsored conferences, colloquia or performances. Among those who’ve heeded this call have been Stephen Hawking and Pink Floyd. There is also an academic boycott which highlights the many ways in which Israeli universities either benefit from Occupation or refuse to speak out in support of Palestinian institutions which suffer under Israel’s oppressive policies.
The more effective BDS has become, the more its opponents have tarred it with terms like “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Israel.” The latest example, was an event hosted by the Seattle Jewish Federation and virtually all of the mainstream community organizations. It boasted the lurid title: BDS Campaign Against Israel: Bad for Jews in Seattle and Beyond. The event featured Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, who argued that BDS’ goal wasn’t to end the Occupation, as it claimed, but rather to end Israel. Opponents claim that the Right of Return would flood Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees who would destroy Israel as a Jewish State. From there, it’s but a hop, skip and jump to claim that any ideology that advocates Israel’s destruction is anti-Semitic.
Little of what opponents say about BDS is true. The problem lies with one’s definition of Israel. Does being a Jewish state mean its Jewish citizens should be guaranteed superior rights to non-Jewish citizens (the Palestinians)? Or does it merely mean that Israel must be a state in which Jews are secure and may realize their dream of self-determination alongside other ethnic groups doing the same within a single country?
The mission of BDS is nothing more than realizing the principles in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which remain unrealized since they were written in 1948. It calls for Israel to be a state “of all its citizens.” It calls for equal economic, political, civil and religious rights for both Jews and non-Jews. This is far from the death-knell for Israel claimed by opponents. It is a call for a democratic Israel which doesn’t designate one religion or ethnic group as superior to another.
BDS isn’t Israel’s enemy. In fact, both Jews and Israelis have endorsed it. As Israel’s government grows increasingly extreme, those of us who care deeply about what will happen resonate with the words of Canadian-Jewish novelist, Ayelet Waldman, who was born in Israel and is married to noted writer, Michael Chabon. She was interviewed by Israel’s Haaretz:
She was asked if she thought the country could still serve as a refuge for Diaspora Jews facing anti-Semitism.
“If you don’t ruin everything,” she replied. “If something is left once Netanyahu and all his friends are done. The road is getting more and more nationalist, and I don’t see any way that the end will be anything but a disaster.”
Desperate times call for desperate measures. While some come to BDS enthusiastically, others come reluctantly after all previous attempts at reason ended in failure. Since nothing else has worked a dose of stronger medicine is needed to bring Israel to its senses.
When I read about the Seattle Jewish community event, I determined to host a BDS event that would educate the audience about what the movement is and isn’t. It would examine both BDS’ mission and the reasons it exists. And do so without slogans and battle-cries, but rather with information and dispassion.
BDS and the Future of Israel-Palestine will feature Stanford Professors David Palumbo-Liu and Joel Beinin, along with Antioch University Professor Nada Elia, a leader of the national BDS movement. It will be hosted at University Temple Methodist Church, the Fireplace Room, on Friday, June 20th at 7PM.