What happened in Galway was wrong but don’t be misled about BDS

As a longstanding advocate for Palestinian rights, I unequivocally condemn the shameful and frankly unacceptable behaviour emanating from a student at NUI Galway who last Wednesday disrupted an event on campus, telling BICOM’s Alan Johnson to “Get the f**k off our campus now“.

There, I’ve said it. I don’t think I lose any credibility by rejecting behaviour that is wrong, damaging to Palestine solidarity work and also contrary to the centuries-old practice on university campuses of open forum discussion on important and sometimes controversial topics. Encouraging inquiry and critical thinking/debate to ascertain all relevant information is what academia is all about.

For anyone wanting to read further into why what this student did is a counterproductive, specifically within the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, then I defer to this review by Dahlia Scheindlin, where she eloquently tackles the heckling of the Israeli Orchestra in London back in 2011.

Understandably, the perception of the general public on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, (BDS) movement can be easily influenced, especially when opportunists like Alan Johnson – and closer to home Irish4Israel – deliberately misrepresent it. Also, as we can be seen from Johnson’s brazen and quite hysteric account of the aforementioned incident where he writes about ‘BDS Bullies at Galway University‘ the game being played is one of distortion. Israel advocates often employ the tactic of equating legitimate, non-violent methods of holding Israel accountable for violations of Palestinian human rights and international law with the most abhorrent ideologies imaginable (Anti-Semitism).

Essentially, I find that it has become far too easy for Israel advocacy types to caricature the BDS movement as a whole, using the existence of what in reality are a minority of radical extremists within the campaign to falsely portray them as uniformly representative. Such a tactic cleverly plays on the sense of persecution felt amongst Israeli’s and supporters abroad. Fear is a key motivator here and this explains why groups such as BICOM, Irish4Israel and even the Israeli MFA thrive on suggestions that Israel is unfairly isolated, disliked and criticised. Typically, the charge is that Israel is held to a different standard to the rest of the world – this, according to their logic must mean the motivation is anti-Israel or anti-Jewish hatred, which they claim is spreading on some European campuses. Back to reality and the opposite is actually true: the world does have a double standard, and it’s in Israel’s favour!

To those of us who engage in critical thinking, who try to understand the complexities and nuances of political conflict, it is easy to recognise the inherent deficiencies of such polarising buzzwords and slogans that simplify to a ridiculous degree by distorting and confusing issues far more than they clarify.

We also have to stop misappropriating the Israel – Palestine conflict, particularly here on the island of Ireland where in Northern Ireland the adoption of the conflict of another is felt acutely. This pitting of so called ‘pro-Israel’ types against ‘anti-Israel’ types diminishes any meaningful or progressive discussion, removing motivation for action we could take to push for a just peace, fulfilling our role as moral members of the international community.

There’s rarely anything positive to be gained by debating who’s “pro-Israel” and who’s “anti-Israel” and as rightly contended, this paradigm is designed to imply bad faith, characterizing the opposition as inherently untrustworthy or holding sinister motives.

BDS is an easy target for those wanting to draw conversations away from and obscure issues that really matter (the occupation, Palestinian human rights, Israel’s violations etc.). It’s also a way for Israel’s staunch defenders to paint the country as the perennial victim, constantly under threat and risk of delegitimization.

Ultimately this provides Israel advocates with the perfect material required to justify and sanitise Israel’s unjustifiable policies – ensuring focus always remains on Israel’s needs and security instead of Palestinian and Israeli human rights – thus maintaining control of the discourse in a way that’s disproportionate.

With proper scrutiny, activists and ordinary people can avoid playing into the hands of reactionary extremes.

I would advocate that we should denying legitimacy to the people, groups and organisations that continue to manipulate and misrepresent in their despicable attempts to silence and malign advocates of BDS and the movement as a whole. Israel advocates should not be allowed free reign to set the agenda.

There is certainly some merit to engaging in legitimate debate about the BDS movement. However, we need to start being more comfortable with calling out and robustly criticising those that are so hysterically insecure about the positions they’re defending that they inject the language of fear in order to shut down debate and halt progress.

One classic example for western audiences to understand is how use of the slogan ‘Boycotting Israel means denying its right to exist‘ is used to obscure discussion on Palestinian human rights, deflecting from the real issues and yet again grossly misrepresenting BDS.

Let’s stop playing the delegitimation game for a moment, and acknowledge that the BDS movement is in-fact directed against the occupation. The motive behind BDS, what drives the vast majority of its proponents, is not a sinister hatred or targeting of Israeli Jews simply because they are Jewish (it doesn’t even target individuals), but rather pursuance of justice.

The movement is an organic Palestinian-led initiative, seeking to hold Israel accountable and provides an appropriate forum for addressing Palestinian grievances in a manner that is organized, legitimate and, most importantly, non-violent.

It’s designed to tackle the occupation, the violation of human rights and of course the institutions complicit in the former. It’s this oppressive regime, and the human rights abuses and violations of international law that are delegitimized, not the state.

BDS is a legitimate non-violent campaign and it is important to discuss its goals rationally, and pay attention to the factual aspects. The main objective is to apply pressure on Israel, using those non-violent tools such as targeted economic boycotts and disinvestment from banks complicit in settlement construction.

All of this is done in order to bring about a desired outcome i.e. ending Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian human rights and abide by international law. Boycotts against Israel are fair game – I for one support a strategic and targeted form of BDS, one that sends the right message to Israel, and allows positive engagement with the anti-occupation movements, NGO’s and genuine peace-builders on the ground in Israel and Palestine.

Lastly, I should mention that BDS is working. Whilst it is certainly only one piece of a much larger puzzle that requires a multifaceted approach when looking for an inclusive and wide-capturing solution, it is getting Israel’s attention, it is having an impact and it might just motivate nudge progressive Israeli’s out of their complacency for the current reality and regime.

The Israeli government and it’s supporters have in recent years become so afraid that BDS is having a real impact that dedicated efforts to attack proponents of BDS have by my reckoning quadrupled. Things have become so intensified that the Israeli government passed an anti-boycott law to combat an Israeli group, boycott from within, and more recent efforts have even extended to the immoral and cynical further exploitation of vulnerable Palestinians in the recent Scarlett Johansson debacle which of course plays on the assertion that because boycotters would want to directly harm Palestinian’s employed in an illegal settlement (not that the occupation does that at all) that they must have sinister ulterior motives (by their logic this means hating and singling out Israel).

I am not saying that we should dismiss and ignore the very real and serious instances of anti-semitism and examples of polarised hatred that certainly exist in the pro-Palestine movement (every movement has its nuts) but I ask readers to carefully consider the bigger picture and get more informed on the real issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict, recognise and reject hysteric hyperbole and acknowledge that BDS is a legitimate means of opposing oppression.

In terms of the NUIG referendum, the propaganda at times devolved into obvious desperatism. The main non-student actor involving itself, Irish4Israel is a group that has failed to show any empathy or compassion for the general plight of Palestinians, and has been fanatical in their opposition to BDS across the island of Ireland – even tweeting countless fictitious and frankly ludicrous claims about those who boycott Israel having to give up Grindr, the gay/bisexual dating app because apparently some Israeli’s had a hand in designing it.

It is fair to say that the alleged involvement of the Israeli embassy in Dublin, further proves the boycott movement has far reaching implications for Israel. The demonstration of use of outside powers by pro-Israel lobby groups at NUIG proves that not only is BDS effective as a tool of political influence, but has also gained power in a realm where Israel has little pull in Ireland, or indeed the rest of Europe.

No wonder they are going to such lengths to mislead the public about it.

Gary Spedding is an human rights and conflict resolution advocate deeply involved in conversations surrounding conflict transformation and Middle East conflict dynamics as well as comparative conflict analysis of the Northern Ireland Peace process. He has written op-eds for a number of online publications, including Huffington Post UK, Belfast Telegraph, TheJournal.ie and +972 Magazine. He is also an active member of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

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