This month Rich Wiles, author of Behind the Wall: Love, Life & Struggle in Palestine (Potomac Books, 2010), is in Scotland to launch a newly collected edition of essays which reflect on the achievements and challenges of the BDS movement so far. Edited by Wiles, the collection includes contributions from Desmond Tutu, Ken Loach, Iain Banks, Ronnie Kasrils, Omar Barghouti, Ramzy Baroud and Mick Napier. This series of book launches is an important opportunity to hear from Rich Wiles, an activist who has worked media skillstraining projects in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. The book is essential reading to reflect on the work of the burgeoning BDS movement. Ryan Swan reviews the book below.
Rich Wiles will launch Generation Palestine – Voices from the BDS Movement:
Edinburgh: Augustine Church 3pm
Glasgow: STUC, 333 Woodlands Road 7.30pm
Dundee: Tower Building Nethergate 7.30pm
Inverness: Spectrum Centre 7.30pm
Oban: Church Hall, Glencruitten Road 7.30pm
Berwick-upon-Tweed: Peace Church 7.30pm
more details at scottishpsc.org.uk
The Palestinian call for a global campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel – until it complies with international law and respects human rights of Palestinians – is almost eight years old. Generation Palestine: Voices from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement steps back and reflects on the origins, methods and successes of the BDS movement thus far. It is a timely book that presents BDS as a crucial element of Palestinian resistance against Israel’s policies of occupation, apartheid and colonisation. With a medley of contributors from different political, religious, social and national backgrounds, it is highly internationalist in composition and in outlook.
Divided into four parts, it begins with a brief look at the history of boycott in the 20th century. With stories from those who took part in South African, Indian and US civil rights movements, a historical picture is drawn up and a pattern is revealed: when elected representatives are unwilling or unable to change unjust laws, the grassroots must mobilise to do it. The Palestinian call for BDS is yet another unarmed, non-violent movement for justice against oppression.
The second part focuses on the Palestinian call for BDS itself, detailing its grounding in human rights and international law. Palestinian rights are currently violated systemically by Israel: the usurpation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes, denial of return, collective punishment (through periodic massacres), imprisonment and routine torture since the Nakba is the reality for Palestinians. Given the failure of the ‘international community’ (the United Nations), the aim of BDS is to pressure Israel to respect international law and Palestinian rights – this will secure a just peace.
Looking into the three distinct areas of BDS – academia, economy and culture – the third part is largely a clarification exercise. The academic and cultural boycott is not about targeting individual Israelis, simply because they are Israelis, and ostracising them (as is falsely claimed); it is about highlighting the immorality and illegality of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by ending links to the Israeli state.
Bringing the discussion down to the ground, the fourth part comprises experiences from BDS activists based in the Netherlands, Palestine, Ireland, Scotland and Canada. These contributions tell of serious challenges we as activists face, from bureaucratic red tape to accusations of anti-Semitism. However, these stories also tell of cultural, economic or academic BDS successes, giving us encouragement for campaigns of our own. This part of the book shows clearly that activism by dedicated individuals and groups is essential for BDS – it is not something that can work by relying on representatives, it is about self-organisation and direct action.
There are myths levelled by Zionists and misconceptions entertained by an uninformed public. This book dismantles them entirely. In May this year, Ha’aretz columnist, Anshel Pfeffer, maintained that “the BDS campaign is little more than a minor nuisance to Israel’s current policies”. As two contributors (discussing different areas) point out, the Reut Institute – an Israeli government think tank – contradicts this view entirely. It has labelled the BDS movement as an “existential threat” to Israel and believes it could “constrain future Israeli military planning and operations as effectively as any Arab army could.” This is surely an indication that BDS cannot be dismissed as a minor nuisance, but can in fact be considered on the right path to securing Palestinian rights. Another attack came last year from long-time Palestinian activist and academic, Norman Finkelstein, when he denounced the movement as a cult. Contrary to being a cult (or even cult-like), Generation Palestine reveals the BDS movement to be horizontal, diverse and inclusive; there are no leaders and no secret handshakes.
This book can function as a handbook for activists – we can learn from past campaigns as well as derive new ideas from discussions here. Its international scope means that it is difficult for someone not to learn how BDS can be put into practice in their political environment. It is also an excellent introduction for those just beginning to learn about how people living thousands of miles away from Palestine can effectively engage in activity that assists in the realisation of Palestinian rights.
There are a couple of drawbacks with this book, however. There is a glaring discrepancy between male and female contributors – only four out of twenty-four are women. Most high-profile BDS campaigners are men, but there are many women engaged in Palestine itself and internationally. Moreover, it lacks any substantial future-oriented discussion. A final chapter on how BDS could be improved or how the movement may look in 5 years time would be welcome. Fortunately, BDS is not a rigid model that requires us to shape our politics around it to make it work; it is a flexible method that can be moulded to suit our local or national political landscape, meaning whatever changes occur in the near future, we can tailor BDS accordingly.
Generation Palestine is a snapshot of the post-2005 call, capturing the nascent movement as a progressive, optimistic (and already highly successful) attempt to gain fundamental Palestinian rights, currently denied by Israel. It is also a reaffirmation of our place in the Palestinian struggle – as activists – working as equals, separated in different parts of the globe, but united in our efforts to end the oppression meted out by the Israeli state.