Beyond the battlefield in Ukraine, the international response to Russia's invasion has moved with unprecedented speed and scope, from sweeping sanctions on the Russian government to major corporate divestments from Russia and boycotts of Russian goods. But for prominent Palestinian activists like Omar Barghouti, "the West's blatant hypocrisy" is unavoidable.
"These acts have effectively demolished all the anti-BDS excuses propagated by Israel and its anti-Palestinian apologists in the West over the last 17 years to try to thwart our calls for accountability and justice," he says in an interview with Democracy in Exile, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that he cofounded in 2005. The BDS movement, which began among Palestinian civil society and has grown into an international solidary campaign, seeks to put economic and political pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory, similar to the international boycotts, divestments and sanctions that isolated the apartheid government in South Africa and helped end that racist system.
The hypocrisy is evident as well in the dozens of state-level laws and other measures in the United States targeting boycotts of Israel, including in Congress. Barghouti, who is also a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, says that Palestinians "empathize with the millions of Ukrainians, especially refugees." But the boycotts of all things Russian, he warns, risk punishing people who are not involved in Russia's war, based only on their identity. "BDS targets complicity, not identity," he says. "Whenever an individual is targeted because they represent a complicit institution—an institution that's part of Israel's apartheid system—it is never based on identity. It's based on actual proven complicity. So we watch with horror not just what's happening to Ukrainians, but what's happening with those measures being imposed on normal Russians."
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Before we turn to the BDS story, I think it is important to speak to what is happening right now on the ground in Israel and Palestine, as it certainly seems that there has been an escalation, if that's even an appropriate way of putting it, of attacks against Palestinians in the last few months, even year, including evictions, home demolitions, expropriation of land, killings, including of children, night raids, and raids on students and educational institutions. What's happening, and why do you think there seems to be a surge in violence against Palestinians since last May?
Yes, indeed. Israel's regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid feels more invincible than ever, if you will, to the extent that, as you said, its army is killing Palestinian children in broad daylight with total impunity. But such war crimes are not new to Israel. The Great March of Return in Gaza in 2018—tens and tens and tens of Palestinians were shot, sometimes at a very close range without presenting any threat to anyone, according to international law. Their killing and injury definitely constituted war crimes at the time. But Israel got away with it.
This level of horrific violence has always been used by Israel's regime against Palestinians since the establishment of Israel during the Nakba in 1948, by perpetrating massacres, ethnic cleansing, rape, pillage against indigenous Palestinians. This colonial violence has been a feature of Israel's regime of oppression, not a bug, not an aberration. What has changed, to an extent over the last few years, is the relative rise in Israel's influence, and the relative rise of the Israeli lobby's influence in the United States and most of Europe, ensuring total impunity for its crimes. Israel has guaranteed that it can get away with murder, literally—with its crimes, with its settlement construction, Sheikh Jarrah demolitions of homes, ethnically cleansing people gradually and so on. It can get away with all that because it has ensured a certain level of influence and a certain level of convergence of interests with imperial powers in the West.
Those of us who were involved in the South African anti-apartheid struggle, as I was, remember well how long it took to finally get Congress to wake up and smell morality, to end its complicity in apartheid.
- Omar Barghouti
But the shadow of Jabotinsky's "iron wall" still looms large over Israel and its Zionist project. In 1923, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, a prominent Zionist leader, theorized the necessity of establishing kind of a mental wall in the collective mind of Palestinians. He wrote, "Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized. Zionist colonization must either stop or else proceed regardless of the native population." First, it's funny how early Zionists were very honest. They are colonists and we are the native population; there was no ambiguity there. Jabotinsky recommended an "iron wall" to colonize our indigenous minds with hopelessness that it's totally futile to try to resist this hegemonic power of Zionist Israel.
Backed by the U.S. and Europe, Israel has built not just this "iron wall"—it is trying to build it all the time—but it has also built concrete walls, obviously, and employed extreme violence against us precisely to sear into our collective consciousness the futility of resisting its colonial hegemony and apartheid system. That's what's happening on the ground. It's not just the daily horror, the daily crimes. It's the impunity behind those crimes that allows them to continue without any punitive measures.
That's a great segue into the next question, which is that due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, more attention has been brought to the tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions than perhaps ever before. And part of that attention, at least on social media and in more progressive media outlets, as well as from a surprising number of political figures in Europe, let's say, has been to point out the utter hypocrisy of the support for BDS with regard to Russia's actions in Ukraine, and the criminalization of BDS when it comes to Israel's actions in Palestine. How do you see this dynamic both in the short term and in the longer term?
First of all, Palestinians are watching with empathy the suffering of millions of Ukrainians facing this illegal war, this illegal Russian invasion, which is in violation of the U.N. Charter. Yes, it's been provoked by persistent NATO expansions, but that does not justify it. That doesn't make it more in line with the U.N. Charter. So it's illegal. And we do empathize with the millions of Ukrainians, especially refugees. Palestinians know quite well from our history what it means for millions now. Then, [in 1948], it was hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. But in proportion, that was the majority of Palestinians having to leave their homeland. Of course, very different circumstances in both cases. But it's important to state this.
In addition to the imperial West's blatant hypocrisy that you rightly mention, the speed with which all cultural, academic and political organizations, and sports, businesses and parliaments have imposed blanket boycotts and sweeping sanctions against Russia and even against ordinary Russians, only days after the invasion of Ukraine, sends a very clear, racist message to Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghans, Latin Americans, Africans—to many, many peoples across the Global South, that our lives and our rights as people of color do not count in the eyes of the imperial, colonial West. It's a clearly racist message. Ironically, these acts by Western states and institutions and universities and so on, and the statements that justify them—the horrifically Russophobic, really scary targeting of Russians based on their identity and political speech, not based on their actual complicity in any crimes—set all these measures way apart. They are completely antithetical to the ethical principle of the BDS movement, which is that BDS targets complicity, not identity. And that's a very important point to mention.
We've never called for targeting anyone based on her or his identity. We've only called for boycotts against institutions, not individuals. And whenever an individual is targeted because they represent a complicit institution—an institution that's part of Israel's apartheid system—it is never based on identity. It's based on actual proven complicity. So we watch with horror not just what's happening to Ukrainians, but what's happening with those measures being imposed on normal Russians. Even Russian geniuses who died more than 100 years ago, like Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky, have not been spared by those crazy, wild Western boycotts.
But these acts have already, in fact, effectively demolished all the anti-BDS excuses propagated by Israel and its anti-Palestinian apologists in the West over the last 17 years to try to thwart our calls for accountability and justice. As Ali Farag, an Egyptian world champion in squash, said just a couple of days ago, "We've never been allowed to speak about politics in sports, but all of a sudden it's allowed. I hope people also look at oppression everywhere in the world. The Palestinians have been going through that for the past 74 years, but I guess because it doesn't fit the narrative of the media of the West, we couldn't talk about it. So now we can talk about Ukraine, we can talk about Palestine."
What basically is happening is that suddenly nothing is above politics. Art, literature, film, academia, sports, every aspect of culture is no longer "above politics," as they used to tell us for years and years and years. And what will those same institutions and cultural figures and even parliaments say when we go back to them with our BDS demands against a regime of occupation and apartheid that's been going on for 74 years, not three weeks?
As we've seen here in the U.S., where I'm based, a number of U.S. states have moved to criminalize BDS when it's targeting Israel, even though some courts have undone some of that legislation. In Germany, for instance, laws are even more restrictive and the country has moved to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of antisemitism. But we are also seeing more and more entities supporting and backing the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions, including in the academic and cultural fields. From your perspective, how would you see the current state of the struggle for using BDS to isolate Israel and bring about some measure of justice?
All these state legislatures in the United States and some Western governments in Europe have not yet criminalized BDS, although France came very close and the U.K. is trying to get there. But they have certainly demonized it and penalized BDS activism, that's for sure. The German parliament issued a statement basically smearing the BDS movement. U.S. legislatures went much farther than Germany, passing laws basically saying I shall not support any boycott of the State of Israel or of any territory under Israel's control, meaning the occupied territories. You cannot boycott a company just because it's illegally operating in the occupied territories, because that's also considered, quote unquote, Israel. You have to sign that you will not support a boycott of Israel in order to get a contract with the state of Texas or Arizona or Mississippi or New York or California. It's absolutely McCarthyite, absolutely racist against Palestinians, absolutely repressive of freedom of expression and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Regardless, as you said, we've won several federal court cases against those McCarthyite measures. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal, and several organizations defending Arab-American and Muslim-American rights have won cases in courts against those repressive measures. The Israelis are not shy about admitting that it was the Israeli government that induced all this anti-BDS legislation across the U.S., which is of course not difficult for them to do. The main purpose was to have a chilling effect that would make everyone think twice before coming out and supporting Palestinian rights, let alone BDS.
But the result that we see on the ground is a massive growth of support for Palestinian rights and even for BDS. And this is not just in progressive student organizations—tens of them in every campus, tens of campuses across the U.S., including the biggest universities. But it's also churches and racial justice movements. The Movement for Black Lives, social justice, gender justice, LGBTQI rights groups, women's associations, churches. Even in Hollywood and the fashion industry, we're seeing rising support for the cultural boycott of Israel, which is really amazing to think about. Three years ago, it would have been unthinkable that in 2021-22, we would reach this level. Even BDS is openly debated in the U.S. Congress, and in European parliaments. Yet it is this level of decision-making, if you will, where our impact will take longer to reach a tipping point.
We're getting closer, for sure. But those of us who were involved in the South African anti-apartheid struggle, as I was, remember well how long it took to finally get Congress to wake up and smell morality, to end its complicity in apartheid. And South Africa's influence in Congress was insignificant when compared to Israel's and its various lobbies' influence today. Yet Israel's current far-right government has allocated, just weeks ago, additional resources for fighting BDS—intelligence services, propaganda, and so on and so forth, for fighting BDS. And they have relaunched the failed Netanyahu-era anti-BDS campaign called "Solomon's Sling," rebranded as "Concert," with a massive budget of tens of millions of dollars over the next few years. AIPAC still considers BDS one of its top five targets in its U.S. work. Clearly, they—not just we—see the writing on the wall, that our South Africa moment is nearing.
The most important form of complicity in Israel's regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid is U.S. funding and support for this regime. So ending U.S. military funding to Israel would certainly constitute a huge tipping point.
- Omar Barghouti
One of the tactics that's now being used to try to stop criticism of Israel, but also to target BDS, is the formal deployment of the IHRA's definition of antisemitism— whether it's through legislative means or through other procedures, administratively—to stop criticism of Israel, to stop BDS efforts. Is this something that concerns you as another level of attack?
Yes, absolutely. It's extremely concerning. The IHRA definition of antisemitism is fraudulent. It's racist against Palestinians and it's McCarthyite in its degree of anti-democratic repression. It is designed to silence us, to silence advocacy of Palestinian rights, to silence advocacy of narrating the history of Palestine and the Nakba, and to prohibit, not just demonize, the growing designation of Israel as an apartheid state with the consequences that follow such a weighty designation in terms of targeted sanctions, pariah status and so on. On top of that, the IHRA definition, as progressive Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace in the United States, Independent Jewish Voices in Canada and others have said, significantly undermines the struggle against real antisemitism, real anti-Jewish bigotry, discrimination and hate by conflating opposition to Israel's regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid and its war crimes against indigenous people in Palestine, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish racism on the other. This definition effectively equates Jews with Israel, implicating the former in the crimes of the latter, and thus fanning the flames of real antisemitism, real anti-Jewish racism. Above everything else, the IHRA definition, even as its main author admits today, when deployed as a law or a policy by an institution, a university, a parliament, a state legislature, etc., can lead to suppression of freedom of expression as we're seeing, and violation of basic civic rights and democratic rights.
This is why it must be opposed by all progressives, even all liberals who care about their freedoms and their rights. State legislatures, incidentally, that have passed anti-BDS laws at the request of Israel and its lobby are now using the same McCarthyite structures of repression to pass laws prohibiting fossil fuel divestment, or prohibiting legal abortions. I've personally cautioned against exactly this, years ago, during one of my speaking tours in the U.S., well before Trump banned my entry. If people think this McCarthyism will stop at suppressing speech on Palestine and BDS, they are dead wrong. Like the first iteration, this McCarthyism 2.0 will go after every justice movement that the conservative majority, aided by spineless liberals in some institutions, can pass through. Everyone should be worried about this, not just Palestinians, not just those in the solidarity movement.
Over the last 12 to 18 months, we have now seen a series of what I'm calling apartheid reports coming out from human rights organizations, both Palestinian, Israeli and now international ones. Aside from confirming the analysis that the BDS movement made when it launched its call for a boycott years ago, what else do you think has been or will be the impact of these reports for the BDS movement?
It's a gradual impact; it's too early to tell. But overall, we think these reports over the last year or so have already brought us significantly closer to what I've called our South Africa moment. Basically, they have inserted into the mainstream discussion that Israel is not just a state, a normal state, that is committing some violations here and there, that is invading Gaza every few years, committing a massacre here or there. No, it's built on apartheid. Its pillars are those of apartheid and settler-colonialism. And therefore, the system itself has to be addressed, not just some symptoms of the problem. It's Israel's entire regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
The apartheid analysis is extremely important, because unlike colonialism, unlike occupation, it is a very clearly defined crime against humanity in international law. And we have the South African experience as the gold standard of how apartheid should be treated. This is why Israel is terrified of this designation. We're hearing some ultra-radical voices saying, "Who cares about apartheid? It softens what Israel is doing to the Palestinians." First of all, that's absolutely false. Second, in the BDS movement, we've never said only apartheid. We've always said settler-colonialism, occupation and apartheid. But regardless, those who don't yet get it need to read more about what it means for a country to be designated as an apartheid state. When this grows into a consensus, it becomes extremely difficult for anti-Palestinian cheerleaders of Israeli apartheid to defend the billions and billions of dollars in the U.S., for example, that they spend on the Israeli military every single year. It will be very difficult to defend having Israel as part of the massive European academic research project, Horizon, with hundreds of millions of dollars feeding Israel's academic institutions, which are a pillar in Israeli apartheid. It'll be much, much more difficult.
That's why Israel is terrified of this designation. And that's why the BDS movement has been pushing this apartheid analysis from day one. From the beginning of the BDS movement, we've been pushing the apartheid analysis because it comes with real costs, with real punitive measures in terms of mandatory sanctions—legal, targeted sanctions to dismantle the system of apartheid. And that's what's so important about those reports. They're making this much more mainstream.
At arts and culture festivals recently in Australia and in South Africa, artists and cultural producers supported the call for BDS by boycotting these events. How important are these kinds of incidents and the attention that they receive? And what other key moments have there been recently for the BDS movement, from your perspective?
South Africa, we expect. I mean, we have wall-to-wall support in South African society, massive support from the ANC and the trade unions and the progressive movements and the landless people's movements, the farmers, the students, academics, artists. I mean, massive, massive support. There is no country like South Africa where there is support for BDS, not just for Palestinian rights. But Sydney? That was a shocker. At the Sydney Festival, the level of support from artists across the spectrum was beyond inspiring, especially the Indigenous artists in Australia. As an Indigenous people's movement, we deeply, deeply appreciate this mutual solidarity, this intersectional solidarity with Indigenous groups.
Whitewashing Israeli apartheid and its daily brutalities against Palestinians is becoming a real challenge, even for the very well-oiled Israel lobby groups, not just in Australia and South Africa, but also in the U.S., Europe, South Asia, Latin America. I'm not talking about the decision-making level. As I said, the complicity there is horrendous. The hypocrisy there is horrendous. I'm talking about whitewashing Israeli apartheid at the grassroots level, at the intelligentsia level. From pinkwashing to greenwashing to artwashing to sportswashing apartheid, Israel needs a lot of washing. And it has spent massive sums of money and allocated enormous human resources to cover up and divert attention from and to normalize Israel's everyday horrors against Palestinians. But it is not working.
People get it. People watch those massacres, those horrors on TV. People read about it on social media, even if CNN and the BBC and The New York Times censor it, as The New York Times has shamefully done with Amnesty International's report on apartheid. They no longer control that narrative. Average Palestinian activists in the Negev, in Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah and Ramallah, in Haifa and Akka, are coming out every single day with their phones, recording their messages, and their messages are going viral and reaching Hollywood ivory towers, not just trade unions in South Africa and the progressive movement in Brazil and India and the Arab world. No, it's reaching even the fashion industry, sports, the music industry. It's getting there. The New York Times can censor as much as it wishes, but we are getting our message across to people. And no amount of washing will help Israel cover up its massive brutalities, its regime of oppression against Palestinians, for people not just in the Global South, but increasingly in the Global North as well.
Looking forward, you've mentioned tipping points. Where is the tipping point going to be when it comes to really rolling back, undoing and dismantling the occupation and this apartheid regime? Whether on a short-term or a long-term horizon, what do you think that tipping point is going to be?
Before talking about the tipping point, one factor that I mentioned in passing but I want to emphasize is that we could not have come to this point in terms of growing influence, growing impact at the grassroots level, at the institutional level, without the Black Lives Matter moment that we're living—without the enormous efforts by the Black-led justice movement, the abolitionist movement, the reparations movement in the United States and elsewhere. Without their heroic efforts that have been going on for the last couple of years, we could not have reached this level. And this applies to many justice movements, by the way. This BLM movement has benefited many justice groups worldwide. It has opened doors for us so that we can tell our narrative, tell our story, and people have to listen. Instead of being spoken about, now we are spoken to and are listened to, and that's pretty new for us, Palestinians in particular. We have completely bypassed the gatekeepers that used to speak on our behalf. We speak for ourselves.
The tipping point, as I see it, would be the inclusion of the demand to end U.S. military funding to Israel. The most important form of complicity in Israel's regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid is U.S. funding and support for this regime. So ending U.S. military funding to Israel would certainly constitute a huge tipping point. And this will come when the broad, intersectional progressive coalition that is growing in the United States—and BDS is an integral part of this coalition—when this big coalition for justice in all its forms has enough power to make politicians listen and to make them make a U-turn on Palestinian rights. Then we will reach that tipping point.