There comes a time in a movement’s struggle when success is both a rewarding moment but also a very dangerous one. The apartheid regime in South Africa pursued its most vicious and lethal policies shortly before the fall of the regime. If you do not threaten a certain unjust regime or state, and their supporters, they will ignore you and will see no need to confront you; if you are hitting the nail on its head, the reaction will come.
This is what has happened to the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The movement is the logical extension of the great work done before by all the solidarity groups and committees with Palestine. It displays an assertive, unwavering support for the Palestinian people through direct contact with authentic representatives of the Palestinian communities inside and outside Palestine. Until recently, Israel deemed this development as marginal and ineffective; even some of Palestine’s friends in the West objected to BDS on the same grounds: its ineffectiveness.
Well, it seems the movement is more effective than even its conceivers have ever hoped for. It is not surprising: it represents a new zeitgeist in politics altogether – as is manifested in the young electorate who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and for Bernie Sanders in the USA. The desire for cleaner, more moral politics that dare to challenge the neoliberal set up of economy and politics in the West brought these young people’s support to, ironically, two old gentlemen representing a purer form of politics.
Within the baggage of purer politics one can find a firm support for the Palestinian people. The only way today to show support outside Palestine for the Palestinians is through BDS. In the UK, this logic is understood by those who voted for Corbyn, and by those who are active elsewhere on behalf of causes such as social justice, ecological strategy and human and indigenous rights.
Members of the political elites and establishment, in very senior positons, voice clear, unashamed support for Palestine. When did you hear such a support from the leader of the opposition in Britain and from a presidential candidate in the USA? Even if the latter’s support is quite feeble and reserved – in the context of American politics, a candidate who affords not to go to AIPAC, and the sky does not fall in, is a revolution.
This is the background for the current vicious attack on the Labour Party and Corbyn. Whatever the Zionists in Britain point to, as an expression of anti-Semitism, which in the main are legitimate criticism of Israel, have been said before in the last 50 years. The pro-Zionist lobby in Britain, under direct guidance from Israel, picks them up because the clear anti-Zionist stance of BDS has reached the upper echelons. They are genuinely terrified by this development. Well done the BDS movement!
The reaction, one has to admit, is powerful and vicious. However, succumbing to it by suspending party members, firing student leaders and unnecessarily apologising for crimes not committed is not the right way to confront it. We are in a struggle for a free and democratic Palestine and Israel: fear of Zionist intimidation is not the way forward. The coming days will be very tough and we would need to be both patient and go back to the podium, the website, the radio and television and re-explain what for many of us is obvious: Zionism is not Judaism, and anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.
Zionism was not the antidote for Europe’s worst chapter of anti-Semitism: the Holocaust. Zionism was the wrong answer to that atrocity. In fact, when European leaders lended without hesitation their support for Zionism their motives in many cases were anti-Semitic. How else can one explain a Europe that stood by when the Nazi regime genocided the Jews and asked for forgiveness by supporting a new plan to get rid of the Jews by despatching them to colonise Palestine? No wonder this absurd logic did not kill the anti-Semitic impulse but rather kept it alive.
However, these are bygones. Jewish settlers and native Palestinians share a land and will do so also in the future. The best way to fight anti-Semitism today is to turn this land into a free democratic state that is based as much as possible on just and equitable economic, social and political principles. This will be a complex, painful transformation of the present reality on the ground, and may take decades to implement. But it is urgent to begin talking about it clearly, without fear and unnecessary apologetics or false references to realpolitik.
Jeremy Corbyn may find it difficult to educate his party of the need to adopt the honest and moral language about Palestine – and he has done so much for the cause that we have to be patient, even if some of his and his party’s reactions are disappointing (although in any case, it is clear that the latest row in the Labour Party about anti-Semitism is mainly an attempt by the party’s Blairites, who were always in the pocket of the Zionists, to undermine Corbyn as much as they are a desperate attempt by Israel to stop the massive shift against it in British public opinion).
However, this is not the issue. What lies ahead is far more important than the domestic political scene in Britain. What really matters is to recognise that here in Britain, as well as in the USA, a new stage has begun in the struggle for peace, justice and reconciliation in Palestine. This is not a struggle that replaces the one on the ground, but it is the one that enhances and empowers it.
In fact, what we are facing is a cluster of inevitable struggles: against legislators who are either intimidated or bribed by Israel; against judges and policemen who are forced to abide by new unjust and ridiculous laws that will condemn the BDS as anti-Semitism (and many of them we already know find these directives ridiculous); against university managements that will cower in the face of the intimidation and pressure; and against newspapers and broadcasting companies who will violate their ethical code and betray their professional commitments in the face of the new counter-attack.
The struggle on the ground in Palestine is far more difficult, far more dangerous and demands heavy sacrifices none of us is asked to bear in the West. The least we can do is not be intimidated ourselves by absurd accusations and feel secure that in this era, the struggle against islamophobia, the evils of neoliberalism, for the rights of indigenous people around the world and for Palestine is the same struggle.
This is not only a campaign of Muslims in Britain, Palestinian exiles in Europe, old leftists in America and anti-Zionists in Israel. It is part of a much larger movement of change that brought new parties to power in Greece, Spain and Portugal, new values into the Labour Party and different voices into the Democratic Party in America.
We should not be worried by the new proposed legislation, the new police guidelines or the media hysteria. Even the cowardly behaviour by the Labour Party in its purge of councillors should not detract us from the achievements in the struggle over the public mind and heart over Palestine.
Perspective is of essential importance right now. If Israel believes it can choose as an ambassador to London Mark Regev, the public face of its criminal policy in Gaza and get away with it, and the Israeli ambassador in Washington decides to fight against BDS by sending products from the occupied West Bank to every delegate and senator on Capitol Hill in strict violation of American laws, these are not proofs that Israel is invincible but rather that it is an imbecilic political system that fails to understand where history is taking us.
Like any phobia, Palestinophobia can intimidate and paralyse, but it can also be successfully defeated, especially in this unique period we live in. We in the comfort zone of the West should not cower and not give in to false accusations of anti-Semitism by Anglo-Zionists, timid politicians and cynical journalists. It is time to fight back in court, in the square, in parliament and in the media.
Ilan Pappe is Professor of History, Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies and co-director for the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies at the University of Exeter.