ODVV interview: Boycott, Divestment and...
As the United Arab Emirates became the third country in the Arab world to initiate official diplomatic relations with Israel, many Middle East observers are once again asking if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be remedied permanently and if Palestinians will eventually fulfill their decades-old dream of having an independent state.
Stakes in the Middle East are higher than ever and although the US President Donald Trump is bending over backwards to play the role of a potent mediator in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians and the broader crises of the Middle East, many of his counterparts worldwide are casting doubt on his ability to be that protagonist on account of his failed agenda in the region, particularly his disappointments in dealing with Iran.
While a peaceful settlement of disputes between Israel and Palestine continues to be out of reach, an independent campaign aimed at isolating Israel culturally, academically and economically to eventually force a change of its policies is in progress internationally. Hundreds of universities, faculty members, celebrities, enterprises and businesses have joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which its founders say is inspired by the thrust against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The grassroots movement has already fared well in challenging the legitimacy of Israel’s policy of occupation and drawing global attention to the plight of Palestinians. A RAND Corporation study in 2015 suggested that, if maintained for ten years, an effective BDS action can impose a cost of $47 billion on the Israeli economy. Foreign companies and individuals who endorse the campaign are subject to a travel ban by Israel.
Bill V. Mullen is former Professor of American Studies at Purdue University. He is the author of the 2019 book “James Baldwin: Living in Fire.” His other books include “Afro-Orientalism” and “Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities” co-authored with Ashley Dawson. He is a member of the organizing collective for the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has done an interview with Prof. Mullen about the prospects of the settlement of the disputes between Israelis and Palestinians, the recent announcement on the normalization of relations between Israel and UAE, the Deal of the Century and the momentum of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: By unveiling the “Deal of the Century” earlier in January, Trump administration effectively gave the Israeli government a greenlight to further its annexation of West Bank lands with the US endorsement. How much is it likely for the Palestinians, considering the current complications, to realize their longstanding ambition of establishing an independent, internationally-recognize state of their own?
A: I personally think the two-state solution is a dead letter. Both Palestinian officialdoms, meaning the Palestinian Authority, and, as I read it, the Palestinian popular will, have abandoned the idea for now. I don’t think there is a clear replacement plan in place for Palestinians. I do think Trump and the Israeli state pretend the Palestinians still wish this, as a cover for further annexation and neo-liberalization of Israel, but they actually don’t care. Every move, from the Deal of the Century, to the recent agreement between Israel and the UAE, is to further ignore and isolate Palestinian popular will whatever form it takes. The UAE agreement to delay annexation is just that, a delay. It will and is continuing.
As for how Palestinians will respond, it seems that Palestinians are left with two short-term strategic responses: direct action protests like the march of return last year, and the global BDS movement. Since neither of these is likely to be focused towards a single-state – BDS takes no position on statehood – I think we will have to wait and see.
Q: In the recent months, Israel has been maneuvering to normalize its relations with Muslim, Arab countries. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has traveled to Oman, Chad and Jordan, and official ties with UAE have just been established. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs has been one of the few Arab politicians who welcomed the Deal of the Century, and the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said relations with Israel will be upgraded once Israel comes to an agreement with the Palestinians. Do you think forging warm relations with Muslim states will help Netanyahu get the ideal deal with Palestinians he envisions and actualize the terms of President Trump’s contested peace plan?
A: Israel’s recent normalization of ties with the UAE is about two things: further isolating the Palestinians in the Arab world, thereby fracturing their possible support, and the ongoing neoliberal conquest of the Middle East. Normalization with further Arab capitalist states is likely to follow. Saudi Arabia, as Adam Hanieh has pointed out, is a huge investor in real estate within Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories. That is the kind of normalization Israel seeks. Egypt, too, has already moved to become a trade partner with Israel, has closed the border with Gaza, and is collaborating with Israel to restrict the movement of people and goods.
I think these capitalist warm relations are in the service of crippling and strangling Palestinians economically and politically. I don’t believe Netanyahu or Trump seek a deal with the Palestinians at all. They seek the economic, military and political conquest of the region with Israel as a larger and more dominant economic center and US proxy. Palestinians will become a further disposable population meant to either serve this new order as cheap labor, or simply be bulldozed – both literally and metaphorically – by the normalization juggernaut.
Q: How balanced and realistic is the public discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the US media, academia and political circles, reflecting the concerns of the Palestinian people outside the rigid framework of the special US-Israel relationship? Are voices such as Ilhan Omar and Rashid Tlaib in the Congress effective in making the national debate calibrated? Is it possible for the extremists to silence them?
A: US public discourse has shifted considerably in the direction of Palestinian sympathies in the past ten years, but much work remains to be done. The mainstreaming of the BDS movement has most to do with this shift. The success of boycott resolutions on college campuses, and within academic organizations in particular, has forced both the media and political intellectuals in the US to reexamine Israeli occupation and settler-colonialism. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have moved the needle of public discourse. They have done so by either supporting BDS or calling for defunding of Israel. These were unthinkable positions for elected US officials to take five years ago. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and even centrist Democrats like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have decided to pass on speaking at AIPAC, previously a mandatory right of political passage, and they have survived. The New York Times, still a liberal Zionist stronghold in many ways, has published commentary by Omar Barghouti, Michelle Alexander and even its own staff columnist Michelle Goldberg criticizing Israeli state policy. There is, in short, a normalization of public criticism of Israel slowly emerging in the US.
Yet this normalization has also produced intensified backlash. In the past 10 years, more than 25 US states have passed laws declaring that any entity that supports BDS will not receive state funding. Students for Justice in Palestine chapters have been targeted by the anonymous attack website Canary Mission. Individual public figures who speak out against Israeli apartheid, like the academic Steven Salaita, have been fired from their jobs for doing so. So, the situation is two-sided. Yes, it is still possible for the state, for institutions and for the media to publicly punish people who support Palestinian liberation. But to paraphrase Ali Abunimah, in terms of public discourse, Palestinians are slowly, incrementally winning.
Q: The US Department of Treasury oversees stringent economic sanctions against nearly 20 countries today. All the same, influential lobbies, right-wing media and Republican politicians reject any action by American enterprises or businesspeople to sanction Israeli firms and individuals for their role in the occupation, equating any such action with anti-Semitism. As reported by the Human Rights Watch, and as you noted, twenty-seven states have passed laws penalizing “businesses, organizations, or individuals that engage in or call for boycotts against Israel.” Why have the costs of independently boycotting Israel increased so much for the US-based entities?
A: These state laws are mainly window-dressing. Mostly they threaten to withhold state funding for groups of individuals who support BDS, so they are civil, not criminal in nature. And there are virtually no state-funded businesses or groups in the US which support BDS. And I don’t know of any individual in the US who has been prosecuted under these laws.
On the other hand, this form of lawfare does create an atmosphere of intimidation. It makes young activists, many of whom don’t know where they will end up in the workforce, or in life, think twice before engaging in BDS work. The use of law and the courts also can have a copycat effect. For example, four Zionist academics sued the American Studies Association after its membership voted in a democratic ballot to boycott Israeli universities. They were inspired by state legislatures which immediately after the vote threatened to take away funding from professors who support BDS. Fortunately, one break on failed legislation like that is that BDS is protected free speech under the First Amendment. The lawsuit against the ASA has also failed.
The important point here is that the BDS has really terrified the US state and the ruling elites into using the courts to try to suppress a mass social movement. The state does see young people especially under 30 shifting away from support for Israel. It does worry that more calls for defunding Israel will come. All of these threats, especially at the State level, are meant to try to suppress that from happening.
Q: As an American academician, do you find it convenient and trouble-free to express views critical of Israel and sympathize with the Palestinians? Has it caused you difficulties to promote the academic and cultural boycott of Israel and call into question the siege of Gaza?
A: There are more and more US academics speaking openly and critically of Israel and in support of Palestinians. Academic organizations like the American Studies Association, Asian-American Studies Association, Critical Ethnic Studies Association, National Women’s Studies Association and Latino and Latina Studies Association, representing in sum thousands of academics, have all voted to boycott Israeli Universities. There are more than 250 Students for Justice in Palestine Chapters on college campuses across the US now. There are academic departments at some Universities, New York University’s Program in Social and Cultural Analysis – for example – which have openly supported BDS or criticism of Israel.
But the attacks persist. Canary Mission, which I mentioned earlier, is a well-funded anonymous smear website which libels and slanders students and faculty who criticize Israel as racist or anti-Semitic. Steven Salaita was fired from his tenured position at University of Illinois when Zionists pressured the administration to call him an anti-Semite because he criticized Israel on Twitter. I have been for years faculty advisor to the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at my campus. A few years ago, every student in the SJP chapter was profiled on Canary Mission. This is quite intimidating for students trying to plan their careers, or graduate school. I have been personally libeled and smeared by anonymous websites for my views on Israel. The President of my own university suggested I was an anti-Semite for supporting BDS.
To use a cliché, there is strength in numbers. The more people in academia, and elsewhere, who publicly speak out; the more academic programs we have in Middle East Studies, Arab-American Studies, Palestinian Studies; the more prominent scholars like Judith Butler, Cornel West, Robin D.G. Kelley, Sunaina Maira, Rabab Abdulhadi, Noura Erakat, Joseph Massad, continue their public criticism of Israel, the easier it will become for those less powerful, like part-time faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students.
Q: You have called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement one of the great civil rights campaigns of the modern time. Do you see the potential in this campaign to lead to concrete change in the policies of Israel? Do the world governments have the determination to subscribe to this movement?
A: Yes. We have to remember that the South African BDS movement upon which the Palestinian BDS movement is modeled began about 1961. Apartheid didn’t fall until 1993. We are only 16 years into the Palestinian BDS movement, and already it has grown global in scope. Almost every major Western nation has a sizeable BDS movement. There are strong BDS campaigns in Africa and South America. Israel has already had to change policy to fight BDS, dedicating enormous amounts of state money and resources to hasbara to combat it. It’s also clear that BDS is something of a generational phenomenon. People under 30 in countries like the US have a far more negative view of Israel than those over 30. This generation will likely assert itself in future US foreign policy as it relates to Israel. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are just the tip of that iceberg. Then there is the spate of young people running for office, often as Socialists or independents, and sometimes as Democrats, who either support BDS, or want to begin drawing down US financial support for Israel.
Having said all that, BDS has also shifted Israeli foreign policy further to the right, by making support for BDS punishable by civil suit within Israel, chasing out BDS supporters like Ilan Pappe, doubling down on annexation, aligning with authoritarian states around the world which seek to emulate it. I would argue though that these shifts have hurt Israel in the eyes of key groups like liberals and liberal Zionists, who wonder why Netanyahu and Trump, and Netanyahu and Bolsonaro, are so friendly.
These two developments mean we are in a classic moment of political contradiction, currents running in opposite directions. But it is important that BDS has helped to create this moment of contradiction in the first place.
Q: United States is a plural and diverse society. What do organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee seek through vilifying the critics of Israel who raise their voice against the policy of occupation in the US media or on the campus of US universities?
A: Historically, the ADL and AIPAC have tried to equate all criticism of the state of Israel, or all support for the Palestinians, with anti-Semitism. This is meant to intimidate, silence, and stigmatize anyone who does so, especially people in public life. What they seek to create is total Zionist domination of public discussion. They seek to keep anyone from elected office who supports Palestinians, to isolate and discredit the same people. They also seek by doing so to influence media and media reporting. Mainstream newspapers and television news are unlikely to give a platform to someone publicly accused of anti-Semitism. It’s bad for their business.
Fortunately, and partly because of BDS, there is pushback and rejection of both the ADL and AIPAC. I mentioned earlier some Democratic Party presidential contenders boycotting AIPAC. Both AIPAC and ADL are increasingly seen, even in mainstream places, as extremist and racist organizations which cater to a far-right Zionist perspective.
Q: A permanent feature of the UN Human Rights Council agenda is Item 7 discussing “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories.” Israel, with the backing of the United States and tacit agreement of some European governments, has been pushing in the recent years to remove this entry from the Council’s agenda. What is the importance of this heading? Do you think it should be preserved? How?
A: The United States has repeatedly blocked UN resolutions critical of Israel. This effort is the most recent. It seeks to release Israel from responsibility to international law and to allow it to punish Palestinians with impunity. It also seeks to deny the occupation as a violation of international law. Refuting international law becomes more important in the context of BDS, which uses UN resolution 194 on the guaranteed “right of return” of refugees as a litmus test for restoration of Palestinian rights. Of course, this language should be preserved. The best way to preserve it is through mass mobilization akin to the BDS movement. It is one piece of a necessary campaign to overthrow Israeli apartheid once and for all.
By: Kourosh Ziabari