BEYOND PALESTINE 101: NADA ELIA AND ALI ABUNIMAH
Story and photos by Theresa Wolfwood
NADA ELIA CALLS FOR ACTION
"I am a black South African, and if I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa." Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Dr. Nada Elia, academic and activist, a Palestinian from the Diaspora of millions, spoke in Victoria and Nanaimo recently. She said she was not going to give Palestine 101, we should all know the situation there by now. Instead she chose to talk about non-violent resistance to the Israeli apartheid policies and the occupation of Palestine. In 2005, 170 organizations in Palestine called on the world to boycott Israel as rights activists had responded for the call to boycott South Africa. The BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement is now in full swing with many more supporting organizations across the world.
After Apartheid became law in South Africa, the boycott started quietly in Europe in 1959. It built from there, particularly in the UK where in 1961 the British Musicians Union adopted a policy decision that its members should not perform in South Africa as long as apartheid exists. It grew in importance until, in 1994, apartheid ended with free elections. Dr. Elia said that what boycotts against South Africa took the first twenty years to achieve has already happened in five years in the Boycott Israel movement. There are already many successes of consumer boycotts - European rejection of food products, Ahava beauty products also are being boycotted in Europe, dockworkers in South Africa refusing to unload Israeli goods. In South Africa a coalition of Palestinian solidarity movements started a major Israeli boycott campaign on Tuesday 30th March; asking consumers to boycott all Israeli products via the “Guerrilla Shopping” campaign, first in Johannesburg and later in other cities.
In Ireland the protest against Veolia, (a French company planning to construct Jerusalem’s Apartheid Rail system and working on the illegal Tovlan landfill in the West Bank), goes to Dublin’s City Hall to ask city council not to renew or sign any more contracts with this multinational. The Swedish owned H&M department store is the object of BDS activists in Sweden because it is opening its second store in Israel, in Malcha Mall in Jerusalem. Dr. Elia showed films and told stories of how polite persistent shoppers convinced Costco and Trader Joe’s to stop selling Israel produce in Washington State. Shortly thereafter Israeli produce started to appear in Victoria supermarkets. Divestment from companies doing business in Israel and Israeli companies is already happening. Universities in USA and UK have committed to divestment. University of California - Berkeley (UC) students passed a motion in the university senate urging UC divestment from companies that supply Israel with materials used by their military.
The Government of Norway’s has removed Israel's Elbit Systems Ltd. from the country's vast global pension-fund portfolio because the pension fund's council on ethics has found that investment in Elbit Systems "constitutes an unacceptable risk of contribution to serious violations of fundamental ethical norms as a result of the company's integral involvement in Israel's construction of a separation barrier on occupied territory" in the West Bank. Elbit Systems develops and manufactures defence electronic systems for surveillance, intelligence and communication amongst other things.
Dr. Elia spoke about the importance of the new and growing cultural and academic boycott of Israel; she explained that neither academia nor culture are neutral and that Israel uses both to support its apartheid and military policies. Israel is very concerned about its ‘image’ and funding artists, cultural events and academia is part of its effort to improve its image and ‘re-brand Israel.’ Unfortunately this government will not yet consider changing its policies so the resistance continues.
After Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, the BDS activists initiated March 30th as Global BDS Day of Action which is also Palestinian Land Day of Resistance to Israel’s land theft, colonization, occupation and apartheid. On March 30th, BDS activists around the world engaged in demonstrations and creative actions to mark the day of action. In Victoria activists, joining other actions across Canada, picketed Mountain Equipment Coop which carries a number of Israeli products. The boycott againstChapters Indigo has been in effect since 2006 because owners of Chapters-Indigo founded the Heseg Foundation to support people from outside Israel with no family in the country to join the Israeli military and oppress Palestinians. In January 2009 this foundation gave $160,000 (tax-free because of its Canadian charitable status) in gifts to Israeli soldiers who were involved in the Gaza invasion.
Academia is involved in Israel’s war on Palestine. Much of the arms research and development for the Israeli army takes place in Israeli universities where the designs of the wall and colonies built on stolen land are also created. When each of the 9000 faculty members of Israeli universities were contacted to sign a petition that asked for easing restrictions of movement of Palestinians at checkpoints and within the country – 40 were willing to sign it! Only those who have fought in the military can attend Israeli universities, so Arab Israelis, the 20% of the population who are banned from military service, cannot attend these universities. Another example of Apartheid.
Dr .Elia said that Israel is spending more than $2 million to repair its image, ‘to re-brand’, by funding cultural events and performers abroad and at home. The BDS movement is calling on artists everywhere not to go to Israel. Santana has cancelled his tour and U2 have decided not to go to Israel; activists are contacting Elton John to cancel his performance there. (See: www.acbi.org) Canada’s Leonard Cohen, who sings a lot about peace, ignored requests not to perform in Israel, (including from his early teenage Montreal girlfriend; she is now active in Jewish organizations that support the right of Palestine.) When he tried to give some of his profit to Palestinian organizations, they refused it saying, ‘we want justice not handouts.’
The call for musicians not to perform in Israel is intended to challenge the normal life of Israelis who can enjoy life in a bubble of culture while Palestinians cannot enjoy such a lifestyle under occupation. But some Israelis understand the situation and support these boycott calls and join some of the many citizen groups that are working for justice –with members who are both Israeli and Palestinian.
While many would think classical music has no politics, campaigners who disrupted concerts in the UK by the Jerusalem Quartet would disagree; they quote the Israeli Press Service: ‘For the three immigrants [3 of the Quartet came from Russia], carrying a rifle in one hand and a violin in the other is the ultimate Zionist statement’ and their record label which says, ‘They now enjoy the status of Distinguished IDF [Israel Defence Force] , playing for troops thrice weekly when the JQ is in Israel.’
Campaigners inside Israel (http://boycottisrael.info) are now calling on the Pixies, a USA rock band, to cancel their Tel Aviv concert and to join the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Boycott supporters say, “If you care about justice, if you care about justice to the Palestinian people, if you care about the Israeli people, please add your voice to those calling for a saner policy with justice for all – and refuse to perform in Israel until there is freedom here.” Some artists who refused South African engagements while apartheid ravaged that country are joining the boycott of Israel. Canada’s own Margaret Atwood, who read at Chapters here, last year, so far has expressed no compunctions about accepting a $50,000 literary prize from Israel.
Dr. Elia is enthusiastic and optimistic, because of the justice of the cause and the pace of this BDS movement and its fast growing support, that non-violent resistance will soon convince Israelis to call on their government to create a peaceful and just end to the occupation and repression of Palestine.
Aharon Shabtai, Israel’s greatest living poet, writes, ‘I do not believe that a State that maintains an occupation, committing on a daily basis crimes against civilians, deserves to be invited to any kind of cultural event. That is, it is anti-cultural; it is a barbarian act masked as culture in the most cynical way. It manifests support for Israel, and… that sustains the occupation.’
ALI ABUNIMAH SPEAKS ABOUT A BOLD PROPOSAL
Ali Abunimah, founder of the electronic intifada website and author of ONE COUNTRY: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, is committed to non-violent action and support for justice in Palestine. His family were expelled from Palestine in 1948 and he grew up with his parents’ memories and history. They were evicted from their homes near Bethlehem and Jerusalem by Israel in 1947-8.
In his book he writes, ‘My mother remembers the day she left Lifta and my grandfather calmed his daughters: “Why are you crying? Why should you take anything with you? We are coming back in a few days. It will all be finished.” …they mounted the back of a rented truck and trundled off, never to return.’ The Nakba had begun; it ended with the forced exile of nearly one million people. “So it was that my mother, the ‘stranger’ [Ben-Gurion’s word] was gone from the home where she was born, and in her place and that of three-quarters of the Palestinian population dispersed in those terrible days, the State of Israel arose.”
Abunimah says that many believe that the dwelling on memories and past history prevents reconciliation, but he is clear that the history of this exile is always at the centre of any argument about the legitimacy of Israel.
He started his presentation by talking about Canada. He said that Michael Ignatieff had a private helicopter ride over Palestine in 2002 and later commented he had been looking at a Bantustan. Now he is as complicit as all Canadian politicians. But when Abunimah entered Canada he was impressed by our welcome signs; Hello/Bonjour. He sees Canada as a model of a nation where two languages and two cultures are recognized and respected; he used to really admire Canada.
It saddens him to see Canada behaving uncritically towards Israel. This extends to our government trying to criminalize criticism of state of Israel as “anti-Semitic.” On USA and Canadian campuses the term Apartheid has been attacked, but as human rights experts know, the policies of Israel, a state where only one ethnic group can buy land or immigrate is clearly within the legal definition of apartheid– a system of law that denies rights to some citizens and not to others. Canadian human rights and social justice groups that support human rights for Palestinians have had the funding slashed by the government.
Peace must be based on how Palestinians and Israelis treat each other now in a situation of domination and inequality. The road to that peace is non-violent resistance supported by people who respect human dignity around the world and in Israel. He said that not every Jewish person everywhere supports the military policies of Israel. He believes Judaism teaches respect for life and human values.
The present situation is one of injustice for some and insecurity for all. Palestinians are governed by Israel in the West Bank through a Vichy-style collaborating Palestinian Authority. The people there cannot vote for their real rulers; nor can they travel freely within the West Bank and at anytime they can be subject to community or home invasion by the Israeli army and arbitrary detention or imprisonment. They cannot drill wells, control water systems and have to buy services from Israel at a much higher price than Israelis pay – all this adds up to apartheid.
There is an obvious imbalance of power, Israel has an enormous, well-equipped army and is a major nuclear weapons power. The strength and energy of social movements is changing many situations in the world and it has the power to change this one. Israel does not want to become a global pariah like South Africa became – isolated with a loss of legitimacy. By constructing colonies on stolen land and destroying homes and farms Israel is actually de-legitimizing itself. People, including Canadians, who really want peace in this region should publicly condemn Israel’s actions and act to end its privileged relationship with our government.
The government of Israel is beginning to see it cannot bomb its way into legitimacy – either in Lebanon or Gaza. Gaza has become a repository for unwanted humans – life there is beyond cruelty – an open air prison. Years ago Gaza was self-sufficient in food production and exported agricultural crops – now half the land is beyond use because irrigation systems, cisterns, ponds pumps & wells were bombed and destroyed. A ‘fire-free zone’ 1-2 km. wide along the border takes away 30% of agricultural land. Gaza has endured systemic destruction of its infrastructure –half of its schools and clinics were destroyed or severely damaged in the war. Under a relentless blockade, Gaza people have to depend on inadequate and uncertain aid. Abunimah says the goal of Israel is to force them to submit.
Abunimah says that the vision of Canada as a model of two cultures can show the way for Israel to accept this solution and give human dignity and security to all. He said that unfortunately Zionists have destroyed acceptance of Jews in Arab countries, yet historically Jews lived in peace with Arabs and were protected by them. His bold proposal is one growing in acceptance: one nation of Israelis and Palestinians with many cultures and groups –like Canada.
Power is not having to listen; so far the government of Israel is more interested in attacking justice activists at home and abroad, trying to deny and de-legitimize their criticism, and to sell an image of a nice cultured tourist destination to the world. South Africa finally did listen, its isolation and the boycott campaigns forced its government to make peace and end apartheid – where the white minority still enjoys life including economic security. Abunimah says now is a crucial time to end violence of apartheid in Israel and to accept the vision of one-state, democratic, multi-ethnic and secular with equality in law and practice.
The creation of this state would be a vision and hope for other countries in the region where people long for justice. The USA supports ‘stability over democracy’ not just in Israel, but also Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. There are incredible benefits of a democratic model for the whole region. Abunimah says that the one- state solution is a growing grass roots movement and that there is no longer a consensus for the two-state solution.
At the end of his presentation, a small hostile group in the audience tried to denigrate what he had said. Abunimah answered them thoughtfully and respectfully, asking if anything he had said was factually wrong (no); he said to one angry young woman that if her family’s property had been stolen because they were Jewish, he would support their claim for recompense, and said, “Justice is justice and I support justice everywhere.” The goal of equality before the law for all people is a straightforward one. He urged Jewish people to recover their rich Jewish culture which is being diminished by Zionism. The synagogue in Beirut, destroyed by Israeli bombs in the 2006 war, is being rebuilt with Arab help. Again, Abunimah told his critics that Jews have historically been safer in Muslim countries. The policies of the state of Israel are ruining that support. It is Christian countries that have mistreated Jews – look at European history.
A member of a prominent Israeli family has just written a book and spoken out on these issues – a good note to end this report on and a chance to reflect on two similar views of the road to peace in this violence-torn land.
The grandson of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Avindav Begin, son of Likud Knesset member Benny Begin, refuses to stand during the Israeli national anthem "Hatikva" and participates in protests against the Apartheid Wall. Avindav Begin examines the psychological roots of the Jewish-Arab conflict in his new book, 'End the Conflict,' published in both Hebrew and Arabic. He does not support policies of either his grandfather or his father. He suggests a solution for all religious, national and ideological sectors, encouraging everyone to live together as human beings.