Opposing The Criminalisation Of Protest: The BDS Movement As A Beacon


In a climate where governments are ratcheting up the fear to suppress legitimate public protest, Professor Stuart Rees argues there’s an organisation that already provides a template for resistance.

Governments’ fascination with suppressing democratic rights merits opposition similar to the activities to support the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

Suppressive governments include not only Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, Erdogan’s Turkey, Salman’s Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu’s Israel, but also Premier Baird’s New South Wales, where legislation gives police new powers to search and detain protesters and to impose fines 10 times greater than in previous legislation.

Baird’s authoritarianism, which follows similar legislation in Tasmania and Western Australia, has much in common with the Federal Government’s 40 anti-terror laws and with their Border Force Protection Act of 2015, which makes it a crime to report on human rights abuses.

NSW Premier Mike Baird, pictured during an April 2016 trip to Israel.
NSW Premier Mike Baird, pictured during an April 2016 trip to Israel.

Given the extent of authoritarianism, BDS activists’ experience of resisting attempts to stifle them has world-wide implications.


Significance of the BDS Movement

An understanding of the forces confronting the BDS movement can show all defenders of liberty how important it is to protect values which used to be taken for granted.

Here is a movement based on the rules of international law, yet the letters BDS send critics into a frenzy. In a recent (July 20,2016) New Matilda article in which three Jewish Australians stressed that BDS activists are willing to engage with Zionist and Jewish dialogue, not shut it down, the comments column contained the common stereotype vitriol. The Zionist Victorian President Sharene Hannber said, “BDS does nothing to foster co-existence or a resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.” Other comments included, “BDS is about the eradication of Israel… it is a bigoted and hateful organization.”

The erosion of Palestinians’ rights shows why the international boycott activities merit support, even if writing about such issues requires a repetition of evidence which readers may know.

Of the dire situation in Gaza, the UN says that by 2020 this narrow, densely populated strip of land will have no safe drinking water, no reliable sewage systems, standards of health care and education will have declined alarmingly and visions of reliable electricity for all will be a distant memory.

Palestinians are denied academic freedom. Palestinian children take hours to negotiate the circuitous routes to their schools and it’s dangerous for them to do so, even assuming there are schools to go to. In the 2014 slaughter of over 2,000 Gazans, 26 schools were completely destroyed and 122 damaged.

A file image of Gaza in 2009. (IMAGE: gloucester2gaza, Flickr)
A file image of Gaza in 2009. (IMAGE: gloucester2gaza, Flickr)

The restrictions on travel to schools or universities are infinite. Israel imposes 101 different travel permits on Palestinians. The UN reports that NGO’s spend 20% of each working day preparing permit applications and renewals.

Restrictions do more than forbid travel. Numerous barriers face young Palestinians who want a college education. In addition, Palestinian students are usually denied the right to freely express their political opinions on campus.

Fear is a constant in the lives of Israeli citizens as well as Palestinians. Hamas rockets land mostly on open ground and have caused few casualties, but Palestinians face a nuclear power with a sophisticated army, navy and air force. The slaughter of Gazans in 2009 and 2014 shows kill ratios beyond belief, yet critics of Palestinians persist in speaking of two sides as though there is a semblance of equality.

The massive inequality in military, economic and political power between the government of Israel and the Fatah-based Palestinian Authority suggests that any idea of Palestinians’ rights is a façade. The BDS movement addresses these inequalities.


Israeli Exceptionalism

Although this movement is a protest against the illegalities of the Israeli occupation, including the stealing of Palestinians’ lands to build settlements, its activities are considered criminal.

What is it about governments’ acceptance of Israeli exceptionalism that, in the words of the brave Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, makes it a crime to protest a crime? More specifically, Levy writes that it has become a crime to boycott the criminal, a crime to fight violation of international law.

The demonizing of the movement with false claims that it is anti-Semitic and aims to eradicate the State of Israel has entered the consciousness of legislators in France, across many US States and even with regard to the practices of local authorities in the UK.

In France people get arrested for wearing pro-boycott T-shirts. In the US pro-Palestine professors have been fired, anti-occupation student activists suspended and threatened with expulsion, pro-Palestinian groups de-funded. In the UK, local government has been forbidden to boycott goods from Israeli-occupied territories.

Legislators across the US and Europe say they protect freedom of speech if it concerns racist, anti-gay and hate speech, but when they want to protect Israel from any criticism, they don’t care one iota for free speech. Why the Israeli exceptionalism?

(IMAGE: Sam Lavy, Flickr).
(IMAGE: Sam Lavy, Flickr).

Members of the public may be ignorant of the horrors of the occupation. Many politicians may be frightened of what they think is the power of the Zionist lobby. They may be right about the financial and political power of that lobby, but why should they be intimidated and cowed?

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) campaigns for the passing of anti-BDS legislation. Powerful politicians comply. The Democratic Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo has directed one of his commissioners to compile a list of institutions and companies which ‘either directly or through a parent or subsidiary support a boycott of Israel.’ In July 2015 Hillary Clinton wrote to her billionaire supporter, the self-described Israeli fanatic Haim Saban, that boycotting Israel is a form of anti-Semitism.


Forbidding Criticism of Israel

The claims about the BDS movement, that it is anti-Semitic and that it aims to eradicate the State of Israel should be laid to rest. The BDS movement opposes any form of racism and outlaws any signs of anti-Semitism. Any anti-Semitism charge is serious but when it’s automatically trotted out, it is a monumentally lazy argument.

Criticizing the cruel policies of the government of Israel cannot be construed as an attack on all Israeli citizens let alone an attack against Jews in general. The Jewish American scholar Professor Judith Butler says that protecting Israeli Jews from criticism is in itself an outrageous form of censorship. She insists that censoring any criticism of the policies of Israel would be to suppose that criticism is not a Jewish value, a contention “which clearly flies in the face not only of the long tradition of Talmudic disputation but of all religions and cultural sources which have been part of Jewish life for centuries.”

Seeking an end to the occupation and to achieve justice for Palestinians does not mean the disappearance of Israel, though it’s imperative for the Zionist lobby to foment that fear. Their actions revolve around UN Resolution 194 on Palestinians’ right to return to their own country. Distinguished Stanford Professor David Palumbo-Liu writes that arguments about defending the State of Israel from the goals of the BDS movement “put into stark relief the contradiction between the notion of Israel as a democratic state of all its peoples, and Israel as a Jewish supremacist state whose commitment to democracy is entirely subordinated to its privileging of Jews over Arabs and Christians alike.”

The Knesset, Israel's parliament. (IMAGE: Ze'ev Barkan, Flickr)
The Knesset, Israel’s parliament. (IMAGE: Ze’ev Barkan, Flickr)

This distinction between a state based on solidifying the privileges and rights of one religious group takes us back to the essential arguments about democracy, freedom of speech and universal human rights. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, it represented the highest aspirations of the common man. In its commitment to non-violence, to respect for human rights and for the rules of international law, the BDS movement supports and follows that tradition.

By contrast the opponents of the BDS movement stay entirely negative. They only say what they are against. Palumbo-Liu asks, why this negativity. He answers, “How can one send a message of continued repression, censorship, subjugation and violence founded on racism?”


Ending the Criminalization of Protest

When the promotion of fear is central to governments’ counter terrorism policies, when fundamentalists of many persuasions believe that dissent should never be tolerated, democratic rights need to be asserted and defended. Such defence needs free speech, open government, tolerance and even encouragement of activists who show that justice and security are achieved by opposing human rights abuses and by boycotting the systems which sustain such abuses.

The BDS system follows a significant history of non-violent dissent. In the US civil rights movement Martin Luther King argued, “A boycott only means withdrawing from an evil system. That’s not heroic, that’s a moral obligation.”

In his 1994 inaugural speech, President Nelson Mandela reflected that people had to overcome fear if they were to speak against injustice. He said, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In his defence of non-violent protest and the rules of international law, Professor Richard Falk, the former UN Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories, spoke of the BDS movement as “A hopeful way of writing the future history of Palestine in the legal and moral language of rights not in the bloody deeds of warfare.”

The BDS movement not only shows a way to end a decades long cruelty, it also burns as a beacon for any group’s efforts to sustain the right to protest. It should be unexceptional to argue that success for the BDS movement can be the catalyst for other efforts to defend democratic rights.


Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.