This is the text of an initial statement made in a debate organized by the UCC Philosoph in Boole Lecture Theatre 1 in UCC at 7PM on 29 September 2014. The question before the house was: Should Ireland support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel? The speaker in favour of the BDS campaign was James Bowen, a professor in UCC. The speaker against the BDS campaign was Alan Johnson of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

Why Ireland should support the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign

James Bowen
29 September 2014

Let's say the most important thing first: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a non-violent human rights movement.

The Israeli state denies to the Palestinian people almost all of the rights that are spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The BDS movement seeks to restore these rights by non-violent means.

The BDS movement grew out of a call issued jointly in 2005 by a wide range of Palestinian organizations. It is worth quoting from that call:

"We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people's inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194."
Note that the call makes explicit reference to the South African BDS Campaign. The plight of the Palestinians is closer to that of the Africans in apartheid South Africa than many people realize. Both are indigenous peoples whose land was taken from them by incoming settlers. The extent of the Palestinian dispossession can be seen by comparing these two maps which show the situations in 1869 and 2014.

The date 1869 is chosen because this is the year before the first Jewish agricultural settlement, the Mikveh Israel agricultural school, was established in Palestine in 1870. At that time, the Jewish population of Palestine consisted mainly of religious Jews in the four towns of Safed, Tiberias, Jerusalem and Hebron (shown by yellow dots on the map); these people were non-Zionists who had come, in the previous two or three generations, as pilgrims from Eastern Europe to Palestine, hoping to die in the Holy Land. There were also a few families of Jewish merchants living in Jerusalem and Jaffa; these people were mostly of North African and Middle Eastern origin. The Jews formed a tiny fraction of the overall population of Palestine. The land of Palestine belonged completely to the Palestinian Arabs, who were the indigenous, indeed the autochtonous, people of the land.

Even leading Zionists admit that the Palestinian Arabs are the indigenous people of Palestine, although usually only when writing in the relative privacy of the Hebrew language. Writing in 1917, David Ben-Gurion, who later became the first prime minister of Israel, admitted that the Palestinian farmers were the descendants of, and I quote Ben-Gurion's words (הישוב העברי שנשאר בארצו למרות כל הנגישות והרדיפות והגזירות של קיסרי רומא וביצנץ) in translation:

"the Jewish community which remained in its country despite all the persecution and repression of imperial Rome and Byzantium."
Leading anti-apartheid campaigners recognize the similarity between the plight of the Palestinians and that of the non-whites who were oppressed in apartheid South Africa. Addressing a conference on 4 December 1997, Nelson Mandela, by then president of the new South Africa said, and I quote:
"we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians"

On 16 June this year, Desmond Tutu, the first black archbishop of Cape Town, wrote supporting the Palestinian BDS campaign, and I quote:

"I know firsthand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed. ... We learned in South Africa that the only way to end apartheid peacefully was to force the powerful to the table through economic pressure."
The anti-apartheid movement used economic pressure against the white apartheid government in South Africa but the movement was not anti-white. Indeed, many prominent members of the anti-apartheid movement were white.

Just as the South African BDS campaign was not anti-white, the Palestinian BDS movement is not anti-Jewish. Many leading campaigners are Jewish. Some of them are Israeli Jews.

Jewish white South Africans who were active in the anti-apartheid movement also now support the Palestinian BDS campaign. One of the most prominent of these Jewish activists is Ronnie Kasrils. He had to flee South Africa in 1962. After spending more than thirty years in exile, working for the anti-apartheid movement, he was appointed a minister in the new South African government in June 1994 and held various ministerial positions until he retired in September 2008.

Just last week, Kasrils wrote that the plight of the Palestinians is worse than that of the non-whites under South African apartheid. He voiced his support for the BDS movement. It is worth quoting him at length:

"The people of South Africa, save for a minority of Zionists and their hangers on, are horrified. We have known apartheid. The freedom fighters among us visiting the occupied Palestinian territories have unanimously declared "we are reminded of apartheid but what we see is far worse". . . . As in Israel, the "non-white" people [in apartheid South Africa] . . . were deprived of equal rights. . . . However, no African (black) townships . . . were ever bombed from the sky or attacked by tanks and artillery. . . . We benefited from the international solidarity and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and understand our moral duty. ... Solidarity demonstrations in cities and towns around South Africa have urged our own ANC Government ... to implement BDS against apartheid Israel, as the ANC requested all governments to do so during our struggle, and not to toothlessly say that this is the task of civil society. It is governments who apply sanctions and ensure they are implemented by the public and private sector. . . . What we saw in Gaza 2014 can and will happen again, if the world remains silent. The world must stand by the people of Gaza, of the West Bank, and the Palestinian refugees. This is for the sake of peace and justice for all living in the entire land of Israel/Palestine."
The opinion of Ronnie Kasrils is worth noting because one of the spurious arguments made against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions struggle for Palestinian rights is the allegation that it is anti-Semitic. Kasrils, a Jew himself, knows that this is untrue. To use the words in his last sentence, the BDS struggle is for the sake of peace and justice for all people, both Jews and non-Jews, who live in the entire land of Israel/Palestine.

Kasrils calls on the South African government to implement sanctions against Israel because he knows that it is government-imposed sanctions which will bring the struggle to a successful conclusion. However, knowing the history of the South African BDS struggle, he knows that governments will only impose sanctions when they have been forced to do so by ordinary citizens.

BDS struggles take time. They start on the street, when ordinary people make known their disgust at oppression. Eventually, this disgust is recognized in corporate boardrooms and in government chambers. But it takes time. The South African BDS campaign started in the mid-1950s and apartheid was not ended until 1994.

We still seem a long way from justice and peace in Israel/Palestine but, in fact, in many ways the Palestinian BDS campaign has progressed more quickly than the South African one. The BDS call was issued in 2005. It took several years for companies to start divesting but, since the start of 2014, roughly a dozen large European banks and companies have divested from Israel. Governments has started to sit up and pay attention. Last week, Martin Lidegaard, the foreign minister of Denmark, threatened sanctions against Israel.

Ireland played an honourable role in the BDS struggle against apartheid in South Africa. South African activists often point to the refusal by Irish shop-workers to handle South African products as one of the most important milestones in their BDS campaign.

We, the current people of Ireland, should live up to the example shown by the earlier generations who helped end South African oppression. To borrow the words of Ronnie Kasrils, Ireland should support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions because the world must stand by the people of Gaza, of the West Bank, and the Palestinian refugees. This is for the sake of peace and justice for all people, Jews and non-Jews, who live in, or are entitled to return to, the entire land of Israel/Palestine.


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