Arguments Against BDS Demolished
by Omar Barghouti
March 15, 2022. Palestinians are watching with empathy the suffering of millions of Ukrainians facing war, particularly the over two million refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries. In harmony with the absolute majority of humanity living in the Global South, the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the largest coalition in Palestinian society that leads the global BDS movement, opposes war, whether it is Russia’s illegal aggression in Ukraine today, which violates the UN Charter regardless of persistent NATO provocations, or the many patently illegal and immoral US- or NATO- led wars of the past decades which have devastated whole nations and killed millions.
We see in the West’s warm reception of Ukraine’s white refugees an example for how all refugees escaping the ravages of war, economic devastation, or climate injustice should be treated by the West, particularly when these calamities are primarily caused by Western imperialism. This warmth, however, stands in sharp contrast with how these same countries have treated Brown and Black refugees arriving at their shores and borders, with racism, walls, “push-backs,” forced family separations, even drownings – the same bigotry that non-white refugees from Ukraine have experienced.
This Western double standard is painful, enraging, and humiliating for people in the Global South, including for Palestinians. After all, Israel’s decades-old regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid is not only “Made in the West,” but is still armed, funded and shielded from accountability by that same deeply colonial and racist West, in particular the US, UK and EU.
Insisting on the equal worth of humans and their rights, the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement campaigns to end complicity in Israel’s regime of oppression that denies us freedom, justice and equality. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once described boycotts for racial justice as “withdrawing … cooperation with an evil system.” Indeed, BDS is pressuring states, corporations, and institutions to end their direct and indirect cooperation with Israel’s regime which is killing us, ethnically cleansing us, denying our refugees their right to return home, incarcerating us, stealing our land, choking us in ever-shrinking bantustans, and besieging two million of us in the Gaza open-air prison camp – an ongoing Nakba.
As a nonviolent, anti-racist human rights movement, BDS has consistently targeted corporations and institutions based on their complicity, not identity. BDS does not target ordinary individuals, even if affiliated to – as opposed to representing – complicit institutions.
The current hysterical, discriminatory Western boycotts imposed on ordinary Russians based on their identity or political opinions are therefore antithetical to the BDS movement’s ethical principles. Mainstream Western media, including a surprisingly fair New York Times article, has begun to discover this fact, favorably comparing the “much more sophisticated” institutional and complicity-based BDS boycott of apartheid Israel with the alarmingly xenophobic, identity-based, McCarthyite boycotts against ordinary Russians.
These measures, fanned by a deeply racist, chauvinistic, and biased Western mainstream media, have included boycotting Russian films, cultural figures (including Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky, who both died in the late 1800s!), academics (except those who publicly denounce the invasion), and even Russian cats. A medical “ethics” professor in New York urged pharmaceutical companies to stop selling medicine to Russia saying, “The Russian people need to be pinched … by products they use to maintain their well-being. War is cruel that way.” A hospital in Germany – a state that blindly defends and arms Israeli apartheid and is rife with anti-Palestinian racism and anti-BDS McCarthyism – has announced that it would no longer receive Russian patients, in a shameful violation of the Hippocratic Oath.
Western hypocrisy has infected international institutions dominated by the West. FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, UEFA, Eurovision, the massive EU academic research program, Horizon, among others, have for years rebuffed BDS demands to exclude apartheid Israel, shielding their complicity with platitudes such as, “sports are above politics,” “academic research is above politics,” and “art is certainly above politics.” Athletes who stood in solidarity with Palestinians have been heavily fined and even banned for many years, while athletes and national teams boycotting Russia in solidarity with Ukraine have been actively encouraged and rewarded by the same sports bodies. Some brave Arab champions are beginning to speak out about this hypocrisy.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) wasted years in wrangling before finally opening an investigation (that has yet to make any concrete move) into Israeli crimes against Palestinians, including Israel’s 2014 massacre in Gaza which killed in a few weeks more than 500 Palestinian children. In comparison, days after Russia’s invasion, the ICC rushed to open an investigation.
In addition to the hypocrisy, the speed with which all these Western-dominated entities boycotted, expelled or otherwise sanctioned Russia and ordinary Russians, only days after its invasion of Ukraine, sends a clearly racist message to Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghanis and many others, that our lives and rights as people of color do not count. Ironically, these acts and the statements that justify them also effectively demolish almost all the anti-BDS excuses propagated by Israel and its anti-Palestinian apologists in the West against us over 17 years to thwart our calls for accountability and justice.
While the refrain has always been, “business above politics,” suddenly hundreds of Western corporations have ended all business in Russia to protest the invasion of Ukraine, yet none of them ever protested the savage and deadly U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, McDonald’s maintains a branch in Guantanamo Bay, the world’s most notorious torture camp. Many of these same companies, like HP, Hyundai, Caterpillar, General Mills, and Puma are targeted by the BDS movement for actively supporting Israel’s decades-old military occupation and apartheid regime against Palestinians. Airbnb, which withdrew from Russia within days from the start of the invasion, continues to promote listings in illegal Israeli settlements built on stolen Palestinian land, which is a war crime.
It is also critical to set the record straight on the legality and morality of sanctions. States and inter-state organizations may impose sanctions under the condition that these are aimed at ending serious violations of international law, such as aggression, colonial annexation and domination, or apartheid, without distiction between perpetrating states. To be lawful, sanctions must respect fundamental human rights and humanitarian obligations and be proportional to the gravity of the violation. US-led sanctions, however, have been applied selectively to advance geo-political interests, and when targeting states of the Global South in particular, they have mostly been designed to devastate ordinary people to ultimately achieve “regime change.” In some cases, like Iraq, these sanctions have led to genocidal results.
In contrast, BDS, and with it Palestinian civil society, calls for targeted, proportional and lawful sanctions that aim at ending Israel’s oppressive system of apartheid, settler colonialism and occupation, not harming ordinary people. These include a comprehensive military-security embargo, cutting financial links with banks that finance apartheid and settlements, and expelling apartheid Israel from the Olympics, FIFA, Horizon, and other international bodies. On the other hand, cutting the supply of food, medicine and other basic goods, as US sanctions often do, can never be morally or legally justified.
Finally, war is invariably evil, but to some it presents a twisted opportunity. Among the biggest profiteers from the Ukraine war so far have been Western security and fossil fuel companies. Israel, too, has seen this war, as it has other disasters, as a great opportunity to sell gas to Europe and attract oligarchs’ investments, thus strengthening its apartheid economy. With its discriminatory tax laws that exempt new Jewish “immigrants” (seen by Indigenous Palestinians as colonial settlers) from taxes on their overseas income for at least 10 years, Israel is attracting many Russian oligarchs (those who are Jewish) escaping Western sanctions. A glaring example is Roman Abramovich, who obtained Israeli citizenship in 2018 and whose jet landed in Tel Aviv on the first day of the Russian invasion. With complete impunity, he has donated over years more than $100 million to the violently fanatic settler group, Elad, working to expel Palestinians from their homes in occupied Jerusalem.
Obsessed with maintaining its “regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” as the leading Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, calls it, apartheid Israel is also urging Ukrainian refugees who are Jewish (while discriminating against non-Jewish ones, of course), with plans to illegally settle many on stolen Palestinian land in the occupied territory. Palestinians, again, are paying a heavy price for a war in which we have had no role whatsoever.
Still, we do not beg for charity. We demand accountability, justice and full equality for all humanity. We are building grassroots power and stronger intersectional solidarity networks to cut the links of international complicity with Israel’s apartheid regime. While our liberation struggle is a small part of global struggles for Indigenous, racial, economic, social, gender and climate justice, Palestine remains in the eyes of much of the world a key gauge of the ability of Western societies to truly decolonize and to overcome their centuries-old racist coloniality.
As John Dugard, South African jurist and former Judge Ad Hoc of the International Court of Justice, once wrote, “[T]he issue of Palestine has become the litmus test for human rights. If the West fails to show concern for [Palestinian] human rights … the [non-Western rest of the world] will conclude that human rights is a tool employed by the West against regimes it dislikes and not an objective and universal instrument for the measurement of the treatment of people throughout the world.”
It is high time to heed the Palestinian BDS call to contribute to our long-awaited liberation.