A Conversation With David Harel
BDS With Nuance
By David Kattenburg
An extended trip to the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem can be a recipe for despair. How else to respond to the forcible eviction of Palestinians from their homes, home demolitions and brutal nighttime arrests routinely reported on social media (rarely, if ever by the mass media), or witnessed first hand by the intrepid journalist or brave political tourist?
Or to the seamless network of towering concrete walls, razor wire fences, watchtowers, steel and stone barriers and gates and terrifying checkpoints Israel has assembled up and down occupied/colonized Palestine? (a securitization and control ‘matrix’ admired and emulated by US, Canadian, UK and French police/surveillance specialists — not to mention their colleagues from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to China and North Korea.
Or to the stifling police presence in the streets and alleyways of Palestinian East Jerusalem, humiliating young Palestinian men at every opportunity?
The oppression Palestinians live under is pervasive, systematic, ruthless and relentless.
Stateless, stripped of all rights and freedoms — other than those guaranteed under international laws the US, Canada and EU refuse to uphold or enforce — Palestinians are victims of an apartheid regime more brutal and sophisticated than the South African prototype.
Distinguished South African jurist John Dugard has just published an excellent analysis on this matter.
Despair has an antidote: the growing realization that what brought down apartheid South Africa will also bring an end to the more advanced and sophisticated Israeli version.
The BDS movement, launched by 170 Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, has proceeded in promising sequence from being ignored, then laughed at, to being the object of strident anger and attempted criminalization.
Almost two dozen US states have passed laws effectively banning BDS.
In Germany, for the first time since the 1930s, the German government has closed down a Jewish bank account — that of Jewish Voice for Peace — for advocating BDS.
This past May 17, the German Bundestag passed a resolution declaring BDS ‘anti-semitic’ — essentially criminalizing it.
Just prior to the resolution, sixty Jewish academics from Israel, Europe and North America, in an open letter published in the Israeli publication Ha’aretz, called upon German parliamentarians to reject the equation.
“This conflation is incorrect, unacceptable and a threat to the liberal-democratic order in Germany,” they wrote.
“The opinions about BDS among the signatories of this statement differ significantly: some may support BDS, while others reject it for different reasons. However, we all reject the deceitful allegation that BDS as such is anti-Semitic.”
“Israel and the international community insisted that the Palestinians refrain from violence when opposing the occupation of their land and the ongoing discrimination and oppression they are exposed to,” the open letter continues.
“BDS is essentially a non-violent movement, which protests serious human rights violations. The BDS movement does not advocate for a particular political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, it campaigns for the implementation of international law, often with regard to Israel’s occupation and settlements.”
One of the signatories to the open letter was David Harel, a professor of computer science at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Harel is the winner of the Israel Prize (2004) and Israel’s EMET Prize for arts, science and culture (2010), and currently serves as the Vice President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
This was not Harel’s first public foray on the matter. In a June 2018 opinion piece for the Guardian, Harel and fellow academic Ilana Hammerman called on the international community to “intervene” on behalf of the Palestinian people.
“[The] official and openly stated ideological policy of the elected Israeli government has it that this land, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, belongs in its entirety to the Jewish people, wherever they may be. In the spirit of this ideology, the processes involving oppression, expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians living in the West Bank are broadening and deepening,” Harel and Hammerman wrote.
“Israeli courts are in the process of legitimising the destruction of entire villages, and the Knesset is passing new laws that steadily decrease the ability of the courts to have a say at all. Others legitimise the additional expropriation of private Palestinian land in favour of the settlements built on them. These acts of one-sided expropriation violate those parts of international law that protect civilians of occupied territories, and some are even in violation of Israeli law.”
In a leap the Israeli government and its considerable right wing base consider treasonable, Harel and Hammerman declared nuanced support for BDS.
“Substantive external pressure – political, economic and cultural – offers the only chance of emerging from this impossible situation before it is too late. Not a sweeping BDS-style boycott of the country, but diverse, carefully crafted, acts of pressure,” Harel and Hammerman wrote.
I sat down recently with David Harel, in his office at the Weizmann Institute, in Rehovot. Listen to our conversation here:
All images by David Kattenburg.