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PACBI | 1 April 2012

Debating BDS: On Normalization and Partial Boycotts

Two of the most important issues that arise in debating Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), particularly in Western countries, are (A) whether or not Palestinians should be working with Israelis rather than boycotting them, and (B) whether supporters of BDS should fully boycott Israel or boycott only companies involved in Israel’s occupation and colonial settlements. We hope the discussion below will help shed some light on both issues.

Co-resistance vs. Co-existence
Over the years, at the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), we have consistently outlined our position on normalization in an effort to gain new allies and to clarify to our partners the premise of Palestinian and Israeli exchanges.  It is important to note that in the BDS movement, there are several Israeli partners who also support our comprehensive rights under international law, including the Coalition of Women for Peace and Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within [1]. Furthermore, reading the BDS Call of 2005 [2], endorsed by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society, one can note an explicit call on conscientious Israelis to join the movement for freedom, justice and equal rights for all. Therefore, what is important for determining normalization is not mere collaboration with Israelis, but rather, the substance and premise of this collaboration.
 
Normalization is an English translation of the Arabic word tatbi’, making something abnormal appear normalAs stated before by PACBI:
 
It is helpful to think of normalization as a “colonization of the mind,” whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only “normal” reality that must be subscribed to, and that the oppression is a fact of life that must be coped with. Those who engage in normalization either ignore this oppression, or accept it as the status quo that can be lived with.  In an attempt to whitewash its violations of international law and human rights, Israel attempts to re-brand itself, or present itself as normal -- even “enlightened” -- through an intricate array of relations and activities encompassing hi-tech, cultural, legal, LGBT and other realms. [3]
 
Another aspect of normalization is the attempt to use Palestinians and/or Arabs as “fig leaves” [4].  In the context of applying the BDS movement’s guidelines for the international academic and cultural boycott of Israel, PACBI sometimes faces scenarios where boycott bashers attempt to redeem their conscience, and with it some moral ground, by using token Palestinians (or more rarely other Arabs) as a fig leaf to cover up their complicity in Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights.  While the pool of available “fig leaves” is diminishing every year, thanks to the recent impressive spread of BDS consciousness among Palestinians and in the Arab world, there are still those who are ready to accept for their names to be manipulated in the cynical political agendas of international boycott violators.
 
From the above, one can see that normalization applies to relationships that convey a misleading or deceptive image of normalcy, of symmetry, of parity, for a patently abnormal and asymmetric relationship of colonial oppression and apartheid [5].
 
For a Palestinian-Israeli relationship not to be a form of normalization two basic conditions must be met: (1) the Israeli side must support full and comprehensive rights for all Palestinians in accordance with international law, and (2) the relationship itself must involve a form of resistance to Israel’s occupation and violations of international law.  Israelis who support our comprehensive rights under international law and struggle with Palestinians against the wall, checkpoints, and other forms of apartheid are our partners.  Relationships with them do not constitute normalization. Activities such as those of "Seeds of Peace" [6], "One Voice" [7], and other such organizations, however, are clear examples of normalization, regardless of what those involved in the projects claim. They deceptively portray Palestinians and Israelis as if they were on the same footing, without any clear-cut position on ending Israeli’s multi-tiered system of oppression.
 
As a leading Palestinian youth activist put it, the only normal relationship between those from the oppressor community and those from the oppressed community is co-resistance, not co-existence [8]. Co-existence can only happen (ethically speaking) after the end of oppression, when both sides can enjoy equal rights.
 
Partial or Full Boycott of Israel?
 
After failing to slow the spread of BDS, motivated by genuine fear of the demise of Zionism, and with an explicit “save apartheid Israel” agenda, some so-called left-leaning Zionists have recently tried to muddy the waters by suggesting a Zionist-friendly boycott to undermine the Palestinian-led BDS movement [9], which is attracting an increasing number of younger Jewish activists in the West, especially on college campuses.  BDS is an ethically-consistent rights-based movement that is anchored in international law and universal human rights. As such, BDS rejects and cannot coexist with racism of any type, including Zionism. A “Zionist BDS” is as logical as a “racist equality”!
 
BDS is not about saving Israel as an apartheid state, giving up some occupied lands that are densely populated by Palestinians to make Israel a more pure apartheid, and to prolong the life of this apartheid for several more years. BDS is all about achieving Palestinian rights, paramount among which is the inalienable right to self determination, by ending Israel’s three-tiered system of colonial and racial oppression: colonialism, occupation and apartheid.
 
Of course, PACBI and the BDS National Committee (BNC) advocate a complete boycott until Israel ends its three tiered system of oppression, not simply its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The main reason for this position is that, according to international law, Israel, as the Occupying Power, bears responsibility for the occupation and all its manifestations (colonies, wall, siege, house demolitions, etc.), not to mention the other grave violations of international law outside the realm of occupation, such as forcible displacement, denial of refugee rights, and the crime of apartheid (which an increasing number of legal scholars is now convinced Israel is guilty of). The BDS movement calls for boycotting Israel as the state responsible for denying Palestinian rights, just as South Africa was the target of boycott due to its apartheid regime, and China is the target of some boycotts due to its occupation of Tibet, and Sudan is the target of some boycotts due to its crimes in Darfur. Only in Israel's case do we hear objections to boycotting the state that is responsible for egregious violations of international law, and do we hear suggestions instead to boycott only some manifestation of these violations (settlements), not the root cause.
 
Still, BDS is all about context sensitivity. This means that supporters of BDS in any particular context decide what to boycott or divest from, how to pursue their local goals, how to build alliances, and how to campaign--with sensitivity to their own political, cultural and organizational contexts. Partners may decide to boycott only companies implicated in Israel’s occupation, and that is perfectly fine if done tactically, not out of a principled rejection of a full boycott when the circumstances allow it. This is the strength of BDS; it is not a centralized, dogmatic or command-driven movement. It is a morally-consistent, citizens driven, human rights movement that has basic principles of human rights and international law as its common denominator, and a lot of creativity and initiative when it comes to implementing the various forms of BDS in any context. 
 
Whether British, American, German or Dutch supporters of BDS, wish to campaign for a selective boycott or not is entirely up to them, it goes without saying, as we believe in local, context-sensitive initiatives, as explained above. But we sincerely hope they will respect the Palestinian right to self- determination, and will not attempt to speak on our behalf when it comes to asserting our comprehensive rights and civil resistance strategies, as that would be a form of patronizing that is unbecoming to a relationship of partnership in the struggle for a just peace—the only peace that oppressed communities the world over can ever seek.
 
As was the case in the international struggle against apartheid in South Africa, taking guidance from broadly-endorsed representatives of the oppressed, in this case the Palestinian leadership of the BDS movement, the BNC, and respecting boycott guidelines set by the great majority in the oppressed society is an ethical obligation for any conscientious person or group genuinely standing in solidarity with the oppressed. This must be understood in the context of a decentralized global movement based on respect for partners’ tactics and choice of targets, so long as the overall principles of the movement are safeguarded.
 
Notes:

Posted on 01-04-2012


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