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.

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  • Reader

    Gary, when I first read up on the aims of BDS a few months ago, I formed the distinct impression that its primary aim was the One-State solution. That is – the end of Israel.
    I can’t back that objective, it’s not an improvement on the current situation, however flawed.
    But maybe I’m wrong in my interpretation of the objective of BDS. What do you think?
    Also, since BDS is a specific campaign, with its own objectives, how can it make sense for you to support “[a] form of BDS”? either you support the actual campaign, or you don’t.

  • Barnshee

    It is difficult not to be “relaxed” about the abuse of an apologist for Israel

    It is clear to all that “Israel ” has no intention of “allowing” a palestinian state


    Israel has continually annexed Palestinian property whilst conducting sham or non existent ” negotiations”
    Boycott is the least that should considered– remember South African boycott and its opponents?

  • DC

    Sadly Spedding typifies upcoming Alliance types, opportunists who use the bad behaviour of a very small minority to maximise their own profile for political ends.

  • DC

    Or perhaps more cynically maximise their own ‘political’ profile for personal ends?

  • iluvni

    Didn’t some Israeli lecturer, visiting Queens in Belfast a couple of years back, receive similar treatment as that dished out by the thug in Galway.
    Maybe Spedding can enlighten us..

  • Downundergirl

    @ Barnshee
    By quoting from a very disreputable/sensationalist type web site, you lose any credibility you may have.

    Let’s take what you have written.

    First: Israel can in no way shape or form be compared to South Africa. I would suggest you do some reading on the subject from a neutral source. Not a disreputable Left one.

    Secondly: Israel hasn’t annexed any Palestinian property.
    There is no such place. It was a region so named by the Romans in 5CE to rid the area of its Jewishness. BTW there wasn’t an Arab in sight in those days.

    The invented Palestinian people, who came into existence on June 4th 1967, who are in the main Arabs, have never claimed ANY land/property in the region.

    You really do need to do some reading.

    In 1948, when Israel declared its Statehood, the Arabs instead of doing likewise, choose to go to war rather than accept the UN’s decision to partition the REGION of Palestine between its Jewish and Arab populations. Jordan took that land intended for their brothers. They named it the “West Bank of Jordan” That was Judaea and Samaria, the Jewish heartland for over 3,000 years. Way, way before any Arabs ventured from the Arabian peninsula.

    In 1967 Israel offered to relinquish the land it had acquired in exchange for peace with its neighbours, the Arab world’s response issued at a summit in Khartoum, was not one no, but three: “No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.’’

    In 2000, @ Camp David the Arabs were offered a sovereign state with shared control of Jerusalem and billions of dollars in compensation for Palestinian refugees. Yasser Arafat refused the offer, and returned to launch the deadly terror war known as the Second Intifada.

    In 2008 Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas a peace agreement that would have guaranteed a Palestinian state in virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem. Once again, the Palestinians turned down the offer.

    In 2014, Abbas has said he will not recognise the State of Israel, thereby declaring once again NO PEACE.

    Never mind what he wants, it would cut his pay packet and might not be able to buy Armani suits anymore, WHAT ABOUT THE PEOPLE?
    He clearly couldn’t care less about them.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    I can’t believe people are still trying to peddle the kind of BS posted by downundergirl above.

  • SDLP supporter

    Scath, don’t claim to know about the whole matter, but a point-by-point refutation of the contribution by downundergirl would be much more convincing than just calling it bullshit.

  • Gary Spedding

    I very rarely comment under articles that I have written – it makes for some very tiresome and in many instances endless debate.

    However, considering the comment from downundergirl and the point raised by SDLP supporter I felt I should address some key points:

    1. I don’t entirely agree that there are no parallels or comparisons to be drawn between Israel and South Africa. Certainly, the reality and nuanced circumstances are very different but there are some similarities. I would refer those interested in an academic assessment to look at Ran Greenstein’s piece in +972 Magazine where he writes:

    “Although there is room within the legal definition of apartheid for Israel/Palestine, that does not mean it fits the South African model, both in its characteristics and in resistance against it. Only by fully understanding those core differences can Israel/Palestine draw valuable and useful lessons from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.” – http://972mag.com/what-can-we-learn-from-the-israel-apartheid-analogy/79971/

    NB: Greenstein is an Israeli-born associate professor in the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

    2. Israel has certainly annexed a great deal of Palestinian property and also illegally annexed East Jerusalem. There are far too many sources online to link here – I’d recommend that people read from legal experts and human rights NGO’s such as B’tselem and many others on this particular topic.

    Revisionist, inaccurate and even fictitious interpretations of history are commonplace among those who are uncritically and often fanatically supportive of Israel. Palestinians exist, have existed for hundreds if not a thousand or more years – this is clearly documented throughout history – including by the British during the mandate era. Again sources are widely available online. It is never really a good idea to claim that a people group or nation are ‘invented’ because it’s just sheer ignorance if I’m honest and demonstrates a complete lack of intellectual honesty.

    3. Claiming that a single people group has perpetual rights to a piece of land based on a 3000 year old connection (usually this is twisted speak for I interpret the Bible – a religious text – a specific way) is really just ludicrous. We shoud also remember that land is not ethnic, tribal or national – it’s just land. There is indeed a genuine historical tie between the Jewish people and the Holy Land but it is not exclusive. Jews were the majority in the land only for some 1900 of it’s 10,000 year recorded history as inhabited land. Making claims of exclusive right to this and on one particular ethno-religious group’s behalf ignores the 21st century reality, one in which Jews have lived outside of Israel for centuries and should therefore accommodate other populations who have lived, and continue to live there. It’s also important to point out that there are more Jews living in America today than there are Israel – given that figure alone it demonstrates that many diaspora Jewish communities flourish when given the same rights, freedoms and protections of other citizens within various states.

    We cannot ignore that Israel also has a population that is 24% non-Jewish. Israel should be a state for all it’s citizens not just the Jewish ones.

    It’s also an oversimplification of a very nuanced situation to claim that ‘the Arabs’ simply rejected partition out of hand so they could make war with the Jews. I suggest reading up from various sources including Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and others.

    4. Again oversimplification of a complex issue when discussing 1967. Numerous legitimate sources available both on an off-line. It would take another 2000+ words to go into this here.

    5. At Camp David, Ehud Barak presented the following: No Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, no Right of Return or any return of refugees to Israel, Israel’s annexation of large settlement blocs, an Israeli military presence in other areas, and effective Israeli sovereignty over the borders of the future Palestinian state. These were unreasonable conditions, conditions that no Palestinian leader could accept though Arafat proved willing to negotiate on several of them. (See writings of Jeff Halper and various other researchers on this issue.

    6. Olmert’s offer was a farce. It looks like a series of crazily gerrymandered electoral districts, and in fact, that is exactly what it is. The logic behind it is demographic: to annex as many Jewish settlers to Israel as possible, leaving as few Palestinians as possible. In order to do that, it destroys local and regional fabrics, with absurd consequences. – http://972mag.com/did-israel-offer-the-palestinians-a-great-deal/3118/

    I’d also recommend people read the Haaretz Exclusive on this – http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/haaretz-exclusive-olmert-s-plan-for-peace-with-the-palestinians-1.1970

    And the map – http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/images/iht_daily/D171209/olmertmap.pdf

    These facts and the map just so happen to disprove the claims made by downundergirl. I wonder what else this commentator is being duplicitious on?

    7. Abbas has never said he does not recognise the state of Israel. The amended 1988 PLO documents actually recognise the state of Israel quite clearly. Abbas has said he won’t recognise Israel as a Jewish state and for very good reasons I might add. The demand to be recognised as a country based on ethnicity really is absurd. Abbas would essentially be forefeiting all the rights of indigenous peoples who are non-Jewish citizens of Israel; Christians, Armenians, Bahai’s, Druze, Muslims etc

    8. I agree – Abbas is a corrupt leader who doesn’t do the best for his people.


    This will be one of only two comments I leave on this thread.

  • Gary Spedding

    Reader, I am curious to ask which sources you used to read up on BDS? The reason I ask this is because your perception of the campaign seems to have been influenced by a very narrow understanding/representation of one particular aspect of the goals of BDS – the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

    BDS itself does not call for a one-state solution – it merely has very distinct goals with regards to legitimate stipulations in international law, accountability and justice for those who have had their human rights abused and violated.

    Furthermore, the one state solution does not necessarily mean the destruction of Israel. I do think you place too much emphasis on the existence of a state – a political entity – and not enough on the rights of people to democratically determine their own future either together or separately when international law has been fulfilled. It’s also kind of an uninformed ideology to assume that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs cannot coexist together peacefully under the appropriate conditions. Both people groups have the absolute right to self-determination.

    There are unfortunately no easy answers – but I can say that supporting BDS does NOT equate support for a one-state solution. I myself believe in a two-state solution that has room to be either a permanent or transitional reality with the option of democratically changing the constitutional reality at a future stage (I draw this view by looking at the reality of Northern Ireland – where all sides have the right to advocate, campaign and propose their ideal vision of the future with impunity as long as it isn’t through the use of political violence. Note that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status cannot be changed unless a very clear majority vote in a referendum. See 1973 Act on this subject).

    In relation to my statement on a form of BDS – the guidelines for the campaign are open to interpretation depending on situation and circumstance. Believe me when I say that I’ve been viciously attacked, even harassed, by radical proponents of the BDS movement who view the approach I take as too liberal and relaxed.

    I support the method of Boycott to put pressure in the right areas, I support divestment from unethical companies and businesses and I support sanctions against proven human rights abusers. It’s rather simple in that regard and yet also much more complex.

    Hope my response helps a little but as I suspect it may just add confusion. My possition on BDS is as I have said elsewhere – complex (http://www.leftfootforward.org/2014/03/gary-spedding-on-anti-semitism-in-galway/)

  • Turgon

    Mr. Spedding,
    I make no comment on your blog. I try to avoid Israel / Palestine debates. However, I do somewhat take issue with this “I very rarely comment under articles that I have written”

    A number of the less regular bloggers on this site do this. I think it is to be condemned. One of the great strengths of slugger is the comment zone and that is enhanced by the opening poster commenting. It is also simple courtesy to reply to comments and defend one’s position. Most of the regular bloggers began as commenters and as such you, having gone straight in as a blogger, should maybe avoid appearing arrogant in refusing to lower yourself to comment.

    Who knows you might even find the interaction fun and enlightening: it is better than shouting at or heckling people in real life.

  • Gary Spedding


    I appreciate very much what you are saying and in different circumstances I am usually exceptionally happy to engage in discussion and positive debate. I welcome constructive criticism and genuine questions – it is because of this that I decided to comment in response to a few people here.

    However, I point to very issue you have raised yourself, you try to avoid Israel / Palestine debates. As a campaigner and advocate on this issue I shudder to think of the number of hours I’ve wasted in lengthy exchanges on internet sites with anonymous profiles and those who just seek to take energy away. My twitter is inundated with a mixture of hate tweets, smears and occasionally genuine questions/comments. It becomes very draining after a while.

    I make absolutey no apology for stating firmly that I haven’t time to engage in lengthy exchanges. If someone raises a legitimate point I’ll happily address it – but I won’t get drawn into propaganda battles which reduce debate and discussion to polarised slogans and emotive buzzwords.

    Hope you can understand my position.

  • Greenflag

    Well said Mr Spedding .

    Your lead article was accurate and informative and I found your response comment above 15 March 2014 at 11:06 pm equally so . It’s unfortunate but true that if one makes any critical comment on Israel’s policies re the Palestinians the accusation of anti semite is the usual reponse.

    You are probably aware that former USA President Jimmy Carter did’nt win many friends among Israelis when he reported on the less well known facts of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians .

    As to the comments made above re the non existence of the Palestinian people . There were those other imperialists not too long ago who also made reference to the non existence of the Irish people in respect of their desire for national independence .

    As always never mind what the Israelis say just watch what their government does and in that respect the continuing annexation of territory from the Palestinians goes on unabated as before making the realisation of a contiguous Palestinian state practically impossible without recourse to further conflict .

  • Reader

    Gary Spedding: Reader, I am curious to ask which sources you used to read up on BDS?
    I read a couple of articles by Omar Barghouti, who should know.

    Gary Spedding: The reason I ask this is because your perception of the campaign seems to have been influenced by a very narrow understanding/representation of one particular aspect of the goals of BDS – the right of return for Palestinian refugees.BDS itself does not call for a one-state solution – it merely has very distinct goals with regards to legitimate stipulations in international law, accountability and justice for those who have had their human rights abused and violated.
    And yet the founders and leaders of BDS, who surely know their purpose, do not think that the two state solution can survive the right of return as outlined as one of the BDS objectives:

    Gary Spedding: It’s also kind of an uninformed ideology to assume that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs cannot coexist together peacefully under the appropriate conditions. Both people groups have the absolute right to self-determination.
    Have you any good examples where Jews have safe, free and assured civil and religious rights in the middle-east? A model for the one-state solution?