Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

World must open its eyes and see Israel for what it is

Strong opposition: anti-Israeli demonstrations on the West Bank

Why pick on Israel when there's so much injustice in the rest of the world? The answer is to be found in the specific circumstances which gave rise to the launch of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign in July 2005.

A year after the International Court of Justice had declared the wall being built by Israel on occupied Palestinian land illegal, not only had Israel refused to demolish the structure, it had conveyed contempt for the court's decision by accelerating the pace of construction.

The wall provided security for armed bands of Jewish settlers establishing colonial outposts, while corralling and controlling Palestinians minded to oppose their dispossession.

The BDS campaign aimed not at the destruction of the Israeli state, or the expulsion of its people, but at an end to the occupation of Arab lands, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and formal recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and properties from which they had been expelled.

Its declaration was endorsed by Palestinian political parties, trades unions, cultural and community groups, women's and youth organisations, religious denominations, professional associations and others representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and refugees in camps scattered across the Middle East. The strategy reflects the wishes of the people in whose name it is carried out.

The call for support from Israelis has not gone unanswered. During the assault on Gaza in 2010, thousands of US Jews signed a document renouncing their 'right of return', declaring that, 'It is not right that we may return to a state that is not ours, while Palestinians are excluded and continuously dispossessed ... Today there is a growing transnational movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, called for by Palestinian civil society and supported by activists, artists, and academics around the world, including an increasing number of conscientious Israelis ... As an act of political and ideological divestment, we repudiate the claims the state of Israel makes on us as potential citizens'.

Jewish support for BDS echoes the contribution of white South Africans to the anti-apartheid struggle. In December 1956, South African political, trades union, community and professional organisations came together to endorse the 'Freedom Charter'.

In response, the apartheid government charged 156 people with 'high treason and a countrywide conspiracy to use violence to overthrow the present government.' The regime alleged a plan to spark a 'race war' with a view to establishing 'a communist state'. ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela were among the defendants.

Of 23 white South Africans in the dock, 14 were Jews - although Jews comprised less than 5% of white South Africans. These included Joe Slovo, later chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, and MK founder Ronnie Kasrils, later an ANC government minister.

In 2006, Kasrils commented on the Israeli bombing of Qana and other villages in south Lebanon: "We must call baby killers 'baby killers' and declare that those using methods reminiscent of the Nazis be told that they are behaving like Nazis." Other Jewish anti-apartheid leaders have included Helen Suzman, for many years a lone voice for justice in the South African parliament, and the brilliant novelist Natalie Gordimer.

By no means all Jewish campaigners against apartheid were to take a stand against the oppression of Palestine.

But the number who did has been remarkable.

Bishop Desmond Tutu will have had this in mind when he responded this month to a letter signed by 1,200 American rabbis urging the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) not to back moves for the churches to support BDS. "My voice will always be raised in support of Christian-Jewish ties and against the anti-semitism that all sensible people fear and detest. But this cannot be an excuse for standing aside as successive Israeli governments colonise the West Bank and advance what are racist laws.

"Many black South Africans have travelled to the occupied West Bank and have been appalled by Israeli roads built for Jewish settlers that West Bank Palestinians are denied access to and by Jewish-only colonies built on Palestinian land in violation of international law.

"The 1,200 rabbis may not like what I have to say, but it is long past time for them to remove the blinders from their eyes and grapple with the reality that Israel is becoming an apartheid state, or like South Africa in its denial of equal rights is not a future danger ... but a present-day reality."

Long past time for us all to open our eyes.

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