Omar Barghouti is one of founding members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and eventually the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign which was formed in 2005. He was in the Jaipur Literary Festival for conversations with Laila Khalili from the SOAS and artist-journalist Molly Crabapple who has reported from Gaza about the human rights atrocities committed during Operation Protective Edge by Israel as well as about the experience of living under constant assault and media blackouts in Palestine. Excerpts from an interview by Dipsikha Thakur:
You mentioned you are a choreographer. Can you tell us a bit about how you got into being one of the founding members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS)?
Not just a choreographer, actually! I am a choreographer, an engineer, a philosophy graduate and a human rights activist. So it's a bit of a mix.
When you got into serious activism and co-founded the BDS in 2005, did you feel like you were putting yourself at a huge risk? You must have been even more visible to the occupying forces than before.
True but also, when you are living under apartheid and occupation, you are always at risk anyway. So you have two choices—to resist or to accept slavery as fate. I grew up being taught never to accept injustice, so my choice was clear from the beginning. I simply could not see myself living under Israeli colonialism without fighting back. And as I and several of my colleagues found out, the most effective way to bring such a force down is through a non-violent human rights movement that engages with academics, writers, artists, filmmakers, creative workers and LGBTQ activists throughout the world. We invite them to do something if they feel indignant about Israel's regime.
In one of your interviews you spoke about Brand Israel. Could you please elaborate what it means?
This was Israel's initial response at the beginning of the Boycott Movement. The idea was to present Israel's academics and artists as the so-called "prettier face" of the nation—I am quoting directly from their brochures, by the way—to whitewash, if you will, Israel's crimes against the Palestinian population and its violation of the international law. This branding takes many shapes—like, for example, pinkwashing, which is the strategy of using gay rights in Israel to deflect attention from the violation of those very rights by Israeli soldiers in Palestine.
The rhetoric is crudely simple: "since we are clearly a more liberal country than most Arab cultures, you should forget about Palestinian rights and focus on what a beautiful space Israel is." They also use PR strategies like superficial environmental concern and bringing the so-called "good Muslims" into Israel as a token tolerance and acceptance. The only point is to establish that Israel is not so bad after all.
Is it working?
Thankfully, it is no longer working. Branding fails when a state is too arrogant to see its policies are restricting international sympathy and agreement on its actions. Like the dying days of apartheid South Africa, Israel is slowly but steadily becoming a pariah state. Even in the US when it wields so much power, public support is quietly thinning out. The massacres in Gaza, the siege and the denial of humane treatment of refugees and hostility to those who report from Palestinian territory—these are not really things where branding can help you. Israel needs a swift and sincere change of policy, not just the image. It was never an image problem to begin with. Israel has had historic support as the underdog nation. The problem is apartheid. There is a growing and unshakeable recognition of Israel as a violent colonial state that practises apartheid upon a huge part of the indigenous component of its population.
But it is common knowledge that public support is not what has kept Israel going. It's US funding. How does your movement plan to tackle such immense power?
Well, not just US funding, also international complicity. But you are right—US support and funding is the main source of strength. And who can counter the United States? The only empire in the world right now? But we can tackle this problem by breaking it into manageable bits. In any strategy of resistance, the first lesson is that if you take on an entire mammoth problem at once, you can't do anything about it. Remember, the US is not a monolith—it's not homogeneous. There are many conflicting forces within it. We feel that our interests and the interests of the majority of Americans coincide. Most US citizens have no interest in overmilitarisation and the homeland security taking over the budget. The US military budget is going through the roof and Israel is part of that particular agenda—the one per cent agenda. On other hand we are part of the ninety nine per cent agenda.
If USA is so dedicated to progressive changes, why not divert military budget into building hospitals, schools and universities? Into making education better and freer for everyone? The US healthcare system, for one thing, is worse than Cuba. Why not focus on a robust healthcare for all citizens? If you distinguish between the government and ordinary citizens for a moment, you will see that the issue is intersectional, as any other; which is why we work with the Black Lives Matter movement, with Latino cultural movements, with feminists and queer advocacy groups. None of these struggles are the same, but they are certainly connected.
And what about the centre of power—the US Congress?
The US Congress is currently hopeless due to generational bullying, bribing and loyalty sales; Israel has enormous power in the Congress. We definitely cannot suddenly affect US policy from that vantage point. But we can still build a movement at the grassroots and take it upwards. We have had so many tremendous successes in the last couple of years, you know. Churches in the USA—the Presbyterian, the United Methodist for example—have divested from Israeli banks; multinational companies have pulled themselves out of Israel; trade unions supported the movement…so much has happened.
How can Indians, who have no clue about the lived experience in Palestine, be allies in a way that is not patronising or appropriative?
Withdrawing your support from the oppressor is the best step forward. If your state is involved in supporting this system of occupation and torture, your first responsibility is to pressure your own government to pull out of such an alliance. In this case, the first step would be to advocate for the Indian state to end its complicity with Israel. It's currently one of the biggest suppliers of weapons to India. The India police and military receive combat training from the Israeli army—they learn techniques whose efficacy (and brutality) has already been tested in Gaza. India needs to stop importing field-tested brutality—not just torture techniques but also surveillance, riot control, repression and censorship.
It's not in the interests of the majority of Indians to see this relationship continue. This is my argument for effective, informed allyship. It simply means an ethical obligation to end complicity. I mean, honestly, India taught the world about meaningful solidarity with its role during the South African apartheid and the Non-Aligned Movement. No one needs to teach Indians what international solidarity means.
Finally, unlike many other Palestinian activists, you have advocated a one-state solution. How would such a close co-existence cope with the collective trauma of decades of violence and humiliation?
I would like to clarify that as a founding member of the BDS, I take no position. There should be referendum and people should get what they want. However, in my private life, I believe in a one-state conclusion to this struggle. We should not kick anyone out. For three decades now I have personally wanted a secular, democratic single state. Palestine has seen centuries of peaceful coexistence between different communities and this can return one day. It's imperative, however, that the coexistence is ethical—that Palestinian families are given reparations, that refugees of the Nakba and 1967 are allowed to return to their homes, that Arabs are allowed to live without the threat of violence. We must all be able to live peacefully as citizens of a common state. Is it so wrong to ask for that?