February 09, 2014

Growing International Boycott of Israel

Yohannan Chemarapally

EVEN as the Obama administration is trying to get a recalcitrant Israeli government to give some meaningful concessions to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the beleaguered Palestinians got a strong endorsement for their just cause from the American Studies Association (ASA). The Association, America’s oldest and largest academic association devoted to an interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, passed a resolution in the second week of December, agreeing to join a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The resolution endorsed “the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The overwhelming number of ASA members voted in favour of the boycott. The ASA has more than 5000 members. “This stance in solidarity with Palestinian freedom is historic and signals a new era of engagement with colonised populations,” Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, told the web site Common Dreams. The ASA has described its decision as “an ethical stance” which “represents the principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom.” BOYCOTT THAT WAS LONG OVERDUE Veteran American activist and scholar, Angela Davis, who is also a member of the ASA, said the decision was long overdue, accusing Israel of practising apartheid in occupied Palestine. “If we have learned the most important lesson promulgated by Dr Martin Luther King — that justice is always indivisible — it should be clear that a mass movement in solidarity with Palestinian freedom is long overdue,” she said. The ASA resolution highlights the role played by US “in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the illegal expansion of Israeli settlements and the Wall in violation of international law.” The resolution also criticised America’s support “for the systematic discrimination against Palestinians” that has had a devastating impact on their overall wellbeing. Palestinian civil society leaders have been calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel for a long time. The first call by the BDS was issued on July 9, 2005, a year after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opined that the separation Wall that Israel was building was illegal. The BDS has been pointing out that Israel is implementing policies that are very similar to those that existed in apartheid South Africa. International sanctions and boycott had played a crucial role in the demise of the racist regime in South Africa. The BDS specifically called for the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967; an end to Israel’s system of racial discrimination; and the inherent right of return for Palestinian refugees to their homes of origin. Many academic associations in Europe, including Britain, have already passed resolutions boycotting exchanges with Israeli institutions of higher learning. South African academic institutions have also joined in the boycott while the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government officially endorsed the BDS in December 2012. The BDS is firmly of the view that only economic sanctions can make Israel fulfil its obligations under international law. ISRAEL’S ARMS INDUSTRY: PHENOMENAL GROWTH But the US and Western European countries like Germany continue give billions of dollars to Israel. Moreover, Israel makes additional billions by selling its defence hardware to countries like India and China. In 2012, Israeli military sales were over seven billion dollars and Israel is among the world’s top ten exporters of defence hardware despite being a small country. India recently went ahead and bought Barak, surface to air precision missiles, from an Israeli firm which was earlier blacklisted by the government of India. A documentary film called The Lab claims that the four million Palestinians in the occupied territories are nothing more than guinea pigs for Israel’s defence industry. Yotam Feldman, the director of the film, says that Israel has turned the occupied territories into a laboratory for refining, testing and showcasing its military hardware. Neve Gordon, a professor at Ben Gurion University, has supported Feldman’s conclusions. He told the Al Jazeera network that the Israeli arms industry advertises this fact in its sales brochures which stress on the expertise and experience the country has gained in the “occupation” and the many wars it has waged against its neighbours. The biggest surge in Israeli arms trade came after the “Operation Cast Lead” against Gaza in 2008-09. The said military operation had led to the death of more than 1400 Palestinians and earned for Israel international opprobrium. Jeff Halper, another expert on the subject, has said that the phenomenal growth of the Israeli arms industry would be a powerful disincentive for Israel to disengage completely from the occupied territories. The former Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, recently revealed that one out of every ten Israelis is economically dependent on the arms industry. Barak was in charge during the last full scale Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip. PRO-ISRAEL LOBBY GETS ACTIVE IN US The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has described the BDS movement as a “strategic threat” to the country. The powerful Israeli lobby in the US is working overtime to demonise and belittle all those trying to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. Pro-Israeli lobbying groups are putting pressure on American universities to derecognise the ASA. Two universities, Brandeis University and Penn State Harrisburg, have cancelled their institutional membership of the ASA after the decision to boycott the academic exchanges with Israel was taken. New York University (NYU) is also under tremendous pressure to follow suit. The former Harvard University president, Larry Summers, an unabashed admirer of Zionism, went to the extent of characterising the ASA resolution as “anti-Semitic” and urged top American universities to deny funding for their faculty to participate in ASA meetings. Prominent academics who voted in favour of the ASA resolution are being bombarded with hate messages and threats. There is a strong student movement on American university campuses, called the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The SJP’s activism was a key factor in shaping the strong stance adopted by the ASA on Israel. An influential Zionist organisation in the US, the David Project, blamed the SJP for being a part of the “pervasive negativity towards Israel on key leading American universities and college campuses, which could erode long-term bipartisan support for the Jewish state.” Another group, the Anti-Defamation League, put the SJP among the top ten anti-Israeli groups in America. A former Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, demanded that legal action should be contemplated against those seeking to morally isolate his country. Oren cited the 1977 US law that deems “illegal” any move by US companies “to cooperate with any boycott of Israel and imposing stiff penalties on those that did” as an illustration and suggested that US Congress pass a similar law to punish those demanding action against Israel. The US Congress is dominated by pro-Israeli legislators cutting across party lines and has bent over backwards to appease the powerful pro-Israeli lobby. The bi-partisan Israeli Allies Caucus in the US Congress has already condemned the ASA resolution. As the veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery observed, both the US House of Representatives and the Senate are Israeli occupied territories like Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their scholarly book, The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, provided evidence and arguments to show that American foreign policy in West Asia is virtually dictated by Israel. A recent opinion poll revealed that an overwhelming majority of Palestinians doubt the Obama administration’s ability to broker a meaningful peace deal between the PA and Israel. Even as the latest round of talks began in late 2013, Israel saw it fit to expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank. CALL FOR BOYCOTT INTENSIFIES GLOBALLY The supporters of Israel have, meanwhile, shown scant regard for concepts like academic freedom. Many prominent American academics specialising on West Asia have lost their jobs for being critical of Israel’s expansionist and racist policies. Others have had to apologise and backtrack on their positions to keep their positions and go up the academic ladder. Roger Waters, the front man for the legendary pop group, Pink Floyd, has been labelled an anti-Semite. In an interview, Waters had described Israel as a “racist apartheid regime,” giving the “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinians by the Jewish state as an illustration. Waters had also refused to perform in Israel, adding his name to the growing list of prominent artists, who have decided to boycott Israel until it provides justice to the Palestinians. The world renowned British theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking, is another personality who has heeded the Palestinian people’s call for a boycott of Israel. Hawking declined to attend a conference in Israel, citing political reasons for staying away. He was personally invited by the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, to attend the conference. Supporters of Israel’s boycott have marshalled a lot of facts to argue their case. They point out that the US State Department itself has spoken about the “institutional discrimination” that is being faced by the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have stressed that Israel maintains a “two tier system” in the West Bank. These include the discriminatory control and distribution of water resources and the forced transfer of populations. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has cited several instances of Israel violating prohibitions against “racial segregation and apartheid.” Millions of its Palestinian citizens are being denied basic civil rights. Israeli Arab citizens are not permitted to marry among their brethren in the occupied territories. In the occupied territories, the growth of illegal settlements continues unabated along with the inhuman blockade and military attacks on Gaza.