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Reframing non-violent resistance: An act of moral piracy

When we allow non-violence to be distorted as illegitimate, we fail to uphold our most cherished principles.

It is not a strange phenomenon for morality to be the object of contestation. Competing groups often battle for the moral high ground when presenting their case to the outside world in a customary appeal for support. Far from being an exception to this rule, Israelis and Palestinians are its standard bearers, constantly providing their accounts for the entire world to see, hear, and sympathize. The tragedy is that this game has been played for so long, with arguments crafted in such minute detail, that reality has been reduced to the level of “competing narratives,”—each given its equal weight and legitimacy—as if that is what the conflict is all about.  Still worse is when a traditional bulwark of morality in the arena of conflict, such as non-violent resistance, is reinterpreted, reframed, and demonized.

Growing up in the United States, I can remember yearly school lessons about the African-American Civil Rights Movement that took place between the mid-1950s and 60s. From a young age we were taught the moral superiority of the tactics employed by those courageous men and women who staged sit-ins in White-only restaurants, boycotted the Montgomery, Alabama bus system and held marches and non-violent demonstrations throughout the American South, often to the response of naked racism and brutal repression. This type of resistance model was idealized as the most moral and effective way of bringing about change to an unacceptable system of inequality.

Several years later, after having graduated from university and starting a career as a journalist, I moved to Palestine. For maybe the first time in my life, I encountered meaningful non-violent resistance first hand when I went to report on Palestinian villages that were being dispossessed by the steady growth of Israeli settlements and the construction of Israel’s Wall. Every Friday, activists from Palestine, Israel, and countries abroad would flock to these locales to offer up some form of counter to the unmitigated pace of colonization and apartheid that are taking place on a daily basis. Although often futile, they were full of symbolism, as if only to declare that some people oppose what is being done with more than the hollow words and empty sentiments of politicians. Above all else, though, it was designed to raise awareness and highlight the case for moral superiority.

Despite the Palestinians having a long and proud history of non-violence and civil disobedience dating back to the earliest years of the conflict, these forms of resistance have unfortunately played second-fiddle to the much more sensationalized episodes of armed fighting, suicide-bombings, and high-level diplomatic negotiations.

For decades those dramas played themselves out in the media headlines, leaving observers to question where was the Palestinian Gandhi or King. Now, in the absence of widespread violence or negotiations, the steady reemergence of non-violence is poking its head above water once again—and this time with a vengeance. Readers may be familiar with the development of an international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign modeled on the successful South-African crusade against apartheid. Others will have surely heard of the flotillas and flytilla—attempts by sea and air to break Israel’s siege of Gaza and the West Bank—that were aimed at raising the profile of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. The most recent example was the campaign to reinvent the Freedom Rides—when Civil Rights activists rode the segregated bus system in the American South—by traveling on the buses in the occupied territories that are intended for Jewish use only and exposing the practice of racism and restriction of Palestinian access to Jerusalem.

For their efforts at non-violence and civil disobedience, the mainstream media has often, and unquestioningly, adopted the Israeli narrative, which seeks to portray these forms of resistance as illegitimate. Peaceful demonstrations are labeled riots, justifying the use of over-zealous crowd control maneuvers that have led to the deaths of several activists from live and rubber bullets, toxic smoke inhalation, and the blunt trauma of direct hits from tear gas canisters to the chest and head.

Demonstrators are dehumanized as hooligans, thugs, and sometimes as terrorists. The latter label was used liberally when referring to the people that sailed on the first flotilla to the Gaza Strip, which was boarded by armed Israeli soldiers in international waters and led to the death of nine activists. Maybe the most fascinating of all, however, is the use of the term ‘de-legitimization’ to describe the campaign to boycott Israel.

Boycott has always stood out to me, sin qua non, as the archetype of civil disobedience. What is boycott but the voluntary act of refusing to use, buy, or deal with any person or organization as an expression of protest? The act can be personal or collective, private or public, and has a rich and moral history around the globe. Israelis, in fact, just finished boycotting the manufacturers of cottage cheese over the exorbitant rise in the price of this staple of their diet. But when it comes to Palestinians the use of boycott becomes a reprehensible act that should be demonized. Israel has gone as far as to put in place legislation that makes boycotting—even of the settlements—illegal, punishable by fines and jail time. In a real sense, Palestinians are prohibited from initiating a boycott against products made in the very Jewish settlements that are stealing their land and resources in contravention of international law. Israelis that want to protest the actions of their government and society—like the Boycott from Within campaign—are not only subject to cries of treachery, but fiscal and punitive measures from the state.

The howl of “de-legitimization” has reached such a fever-pitch, that the American president used it in his latest speech at the United Nations to condemn the acts of all those who would oppose Israel in a non-violent manner and put pressure on it to reach more equitable terms at the “holy” negotiating table.

But in the end, was de-legitimization not the point? Were not those heroes of the Civil Rights movement trying to de-legitimize the system of racial superiority in the South where a white man was worth more than a black one? For Palestinians and their supporters, “de-legitimizing” Israeli occupation and the unequal treatment of Palestinians based on their ethnicity would appear to be a moral task.

It is clear that this type of struggle is not a battle that Israel is prepared to fight—maybe nobody is and that is why it can be so effective. Yet the attempt to portray these tactics in a negative light creates a potentially dangerous historical dilemma because of the legitimacy and moral superiority often conferred to them. One can side with the Israelis or the Palestinians—that after all is the prerogative of the individual. But letting Israel’s PR machine tarnish the time-honored tactics used by Gandhi and King, that is something we should all raise our voices about.

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    1. Mikesailor

      Kudos to the author. When non-violent protesters are dehumanized,or labelled as ‘terrorists’, ‘leftists’, or worse; then what options are allowed to those who protest injustice? Especially those who are unable to participate in the governmental decisions which directly affect their lives? As to ‘delegitimization’, any country whose ‘coin of the realm’ is the indiscriminate use of force against the non-violent automatically delegitimizes itself. Whether it is Syria or Israel, both are two sides of the same coin and deserve to be treated the same.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Joel

      Very good article. Thank you for writing this.

      I support wholeheartedly all non-violent measures directed at discriminatory policies and institutions. And it really sucks to be called leftist, self-hating, nazi or a number of other jewels – including normalizer, if I for example choose to boycott only settler products – when working for those goals with these tactics.

      Reply to Comment
    3. t

      great article. thanks for your efforts, omar.

      a quick add-on here.

      recently, US-focused hasbara efforts have attempted to malign the work and activism of students on US campuses as illegitimate and – at times – mobilized the tired, old accusation of anti-semitism.

      historically, these efforts have functioned via sloppy rubber-stamping of anyone who challenged israel as a low down no-good anti-semite. while the ends of modern efforts are the same, those aiming to silence criticism of israel have attempted to frame the means in systematic, logical terms.

      the argument – according to the ADL and others – is that any criticism of Israel that “demonizes, de-legitimizes, or uses double standards” vis-a-vis the Eretz – conveniently, the 3 D’s – converts that criticism from anti-israel to anti-semitic. again, the “de-legitimization” argument rears its ugly, shameful head.

      and anti-semitic speech or efforts, on this account, is subject to silencing by the school in the interest of the peace of mind of the campus jewish population.

      perverse efforts, yet again, to silence and – ironically – demonize, de-legitimize, and apply double standards to any efforts to shine a light on what are, on their face, obviously racist, apartheid policies of the state.

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    4. Rakiba

      I agree with you about he nature of non-violent protest, but sometimes pro-Palestinian groups like to argue that rock throwing protestors are non-violent. Calling rock-throwers violent is simply accurately labeling the form of protest, without by the way calling in the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the act given settlements etc…

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    5. Sinjim

      I think non-violence has a role, but let’s not fetishize it. Not all forms of violence are illegitimate. When a village is being invaded and attacked by armed thugs, whether it’s the Jewish and Democratic Army of the Democratic State of the Jewish People or some contingent of Kahanist settlers, the residents have a right to respond.
      In touting the virtues of non-violence, we should also recognize that this other form of resistance — self-defense — is just as legitimate and moral.

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    6. @Sinjim, I absolutely agree with you. However, this piece is not on the validity of non-violent resistance over violent resistance, but when non-violence–which does not have the same problems of legitimacy as armed resistance–is also turned around and demonized.

      Reply to Comment
    7. This author insinuates that a complex, muddled history is the same as the naked racism of the Civil Rights era. They’re not synonymous.

      Conveniently enough, in a piece which appears at first to denounce the practice of claiming moral high ground, he modestly suggests that he and his people are Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

      Whatever your take you have a right to demonstrate peacefully. Fair enough, but the glaring failure to acknowledge armed thugs aboard the flotilla is pernicious, and they weren’t just regrettably “illegitimate” but technically illegal; the wonderment that suicide bombing Israeli civilians leads to sensationalism betrays serious naivety and bias. Surely it would be sensationalized if reversed, and presumably you’d have no problem with it then.

      As for comments that not all violence is illegitimate, what a worrying slippery slope! This blatantly undermines every argument. You can’t have it both ways.

      I’d hope for more non-violent resistance all around. And please, Israel isn’t perfect, but don’t pretend they act in a vacuum.

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    8. directrob

      @Jeff, your post is a perfect illustration of the type of framing the author is writing about. Thank you.
      In the mean time I hope there are more efforts like these:

      Reply to Comment
    9. Seth Morrison

      Excellent article. Omar is correct that Israel’s propaganda machine is doing a major disservice to these brave efforts.

      I’d like to add two points:

      1. Israeli and world media barely mention the “Price Tag” violence occurring every day by settlers. We must continue to shine bright spotlights on these Israeli terrorist actions so that the world gets a true picture of what is really happening.

      2. It is important to highlight individual cases and reach out to work media, social networking sites etc to tell the stories of Palestinians suffering from attempted non-violent protests. People respond best to individual stories.

      Thanks for this important commentary.

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    10. noaliasneeded

      those rock throwers go look for trouble and start trouble, that is why a riot control squad shows up, there arent “diplomatic protests”, a group of gangs head out to fight and see how far they can get like its a game of hunting, otherwise there would be photos of people giving scripted speeches instead of gangs attacking police.

      I suggest please do not go in support of the riot if you are Caucasian because the Palestinians will kidnap you and make a trophy out of you and laugh when they find out you were tricked by their media lie tactics, and will merely decree you a heathen no matter how much you say you like them, they will think you are trying to seduce them. They lie about being afflicted by police so that the lies weakens and confuses and divides the people who they consider to be their infinite enemy, you and people in your civilization, you can not change that secret method of theirs… they want you to feel sorry for them so they can move forward with your eyes closed…

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    11. Henry Weinstein

      Omar Rahman, I don’t absolutely agree with you about the way you define “de-legitimization”, even if I absolutely agree with you when you write: “For Palestnians and their supporters “de-legitimizing” Israeli occupation and the unequal treatment of Palestinians based on their ethnicity would appear to be a moral task”.
      It seems to me that “de-legitimization” is as valid than “anti-normalization”, from a PR machine point of view.
      Because I wonder what you would answer to these two questions that were addressed to Aziz Abu Sarah about his article “What is normal about normalization?” (posted on +972 Monday, December 26 2011):
      > http://972mag.com/what-is-normal-about-normalization/31262/
      1) “Is or is not the Israeli state illegally established and morally should be dismantled?”, by Maath Musleh in his comment posted Monday December 26 2011, 10:29 am,
      2) “Aziz, since when has the Palestinian national struggle only been about ending the occupation of the WB, EJ and Gaza?”, by Miki in her comment posted Monday December 26 2011, 10:42 am.
      > http://972mag.com/what-is-normal-about-normalization/31262/comment-page-1/#comments
      I can understand that the state of Israel = Zionism = rotten apple for most Palestinian activists, even if I disagree with this political viewpoint because more and more Israeli Jews & Liberal Jews in the diaspora aren’t anymore factually Zionists (another topic I know, but a very important one).
      I can understand this but, to my opinion, as long as Pro-Palestinian activits’ only goal is to call for dismantling the state of Israel – and for most Israeli Jews it means Israel’s right to exist, and Israel is their country even they aren’t anymore Zionists -, the use of of the term “de-legitimization” by Hasbarah’s PR machine is valid, from a PR machine point of view.
      And it works.
      I can understand what it means, knowing what I know.
      I cannot say it’s just propaganda, see Maath Musleh & Miki statements.
      So we know what Palestinian activists are fighting against -and they are right to challenge the Occupation & discriminations – but we don’t know what are they fighting for, factually – and here they are wrong.
      For instance it’s not serious to call for a One-State for All without addressing the crucial issues, without working with Post-Zionist Israelis on the project of a democratic secular bi-national state.
      In other words, it’s not only the Zionist ideology that must be challenged, the Palestinian religious-ethnic ideology must be challenged too.
      Even if the situation is very bad somewhere, people never want to take the risk to change for much worse.
      Ask Palestinian Israelis. Do they dream to live under Fatah or Hamas rule?

      Reply to Comment
    12. noaliasneeded

      the percentage of non violent protester in Palestine are merely 5% compared to those who are part of a covert sociological strategic military agenda.

      If a American goes inside a Palestine zone that American is risking their life, the Palestinians are a puppet of the anti Caucasian nations, yes its true, its due to ethnicity war that has a definition that has existed for thousands of years.

      History records that individual civilizations consist exponentially of independent ethnicity, (for example there are: Asian, Arab, Caucasian, African, and many others, and there are types and sub types of ethnic civilizations; a Caucasian Civilization is a Type of Civilization, and a American Civilization and a European Civilization are two Sub Type Civilizations of a Caucasian Civilization; but all civilizations are a mere accumulation of a independent ethnicity..)

      All different ethnic civilizations that eventually come into contact with each other have inevitably rivaled with one or more of the others. For example: Greeks vs Arabs, Asians vs Caucasians, Auburn vs Sienna pigmented Africans. For thousands of years since the beginning of recorded history it became inevitable for large independent ethnic civilizations to become involved with either defending itself from an aggressor civilization of different ethnicity or itself became an aggressor, international communication and contact complete with competition and conflict and war.

      The Palestinian civilization is engaged with intent as a current covert aggressor towards Caucasian ethnic civilization. It is part of the hand of a larger civilization that is very close in ethnicity to the Palestinian, the head is near Iran and other Arabs. The Palestinians became a hand several decades ago of the Arabs who have been in contest with Caucasians for a century. Initially the Palestinians were at war with Lebanon, but the more powerful and larger Arab civilization commandeered the military intent of the Palestinians and contracted the Palestinians to stop the war with the Lebanese and fight the Caucasians instead, it is similar to a cold war because a all out obvious war would cause the Caucasians to easily defeat the growing but smaller Palestinian group. So the Arabs (some are Iranian and many other nations including some Turkish) they keep the Palestinians as a secret weapon and sociologically trick the Arab opponents (American and Europeans) by communicating to as many as them as possible by media to become infected by a confusion of information that was injected into the American and European society, it is a military tactic to confuse their enemy, and that civilization is trying to conquer the other.

      Their is a part of Arab civilization that has a definite intention to conquer the Caucasian, just as the Spanish did the Mayans, just as the Germans did the French, just as the hundreds of other in history have done. Not every single person in the civilization has intent to join a war, but the part that does is trying to indoctrinate all of them.

      But it is a millennial aged matter consisting of ethnic civilization vs ethnic civilization and the tactics are intelligently designed so that the opponents have a difficult time knowing the truth about them.

      So, if a American is tricked by a Palestinian and the American joins them, just remember it is a plan and at the end of the plan the Palestinian has orders to eliminate that American who was tricked, they want to eliminate the Caucasians, they dont intend to let the Caucasians join them, even if a Caucasian willingly joins them the Palestinians and their Arab leaders near Iran will always eventually eliminate the Caucasian person who wants to join and that is because the contest is based initially on recognizable ethnic differences for the purpose of conquering a competitor. Rules wont change for one person in a day, it would take 10 years and 1 million people.

      The Arab civilization that is at war with the Caucasian civilization wants to conquer for the purpose of their own and not for the purpose of giving what they conquered back to those that they conquered, but part of their warfare strategy is to confuse their enemy and get them to believe anything that will spread lies and weaken their enemy’s civilization.

      So please, if you are Causation and feel sorry for the people who appear to be protesters in Palestine, please do not go there and offer them help, they dont like you, they will not treat you as a friend, and any chance they get they will eliminate you because that is their goal and they know that when you find out what their true goal is then you will be afraid of them and wont want to join them so they will Eliminate you secretly. They know the media cameras watch the skirmishes so they create a story to go along with it so that they can get as far ahead with their plans as possible. These types of situations can last hundreds of years, dont expect a solution within our lifetime…

      Reply to Comment
    13. The boycott law defines deviation from the present as personal harm. Union’s were seen the same way at their inception. And it is true: the life standards of some will be lowered if boycotts succeed. What the Knesset is doing is, well, proclaiming that any deviation from the Knesset’s effective majorities is harm. They hold the only meaning of Judaism. They hold the only meaning of Israel. And a plurality of the Israeli electorate probably passively agrees.
      There will be no help from the US. But it is not true that the Obama Administration holds nonviolent resistence in disrupte. Hillary Clinton has voiced concern over the trajectory of Israeli democracy. But nothing will be done consequent of it.
      One State, Two States, Right of Return, Israel as the Jewish State: all these seem to me to just be ways of forcing thought into tired, predictable paths. I prefer human particularism which, seeing an act, says “not this, even in risk, not this, not now.” I prefer to be uncertain of the logic of the future. I prefer not to trap my opponents into my thought. I think J14’s silence on the “solution” question was partly a recognition that “solutions” have made them voiceless. I believe it is time to say “we don’t know.”

      Reply to Comment
    14. Henry Weinstein

      What I said is that I prefer not to be uncertain on what we are talking.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Laila

      Thank you Omar for sharing your thoughts and ideas on the topic of popular resistance & stuggle in Palestine.

      Regarding the Freedom rides, I want to clear out one point, I am not a fan of connecting the civil rights movement in the US to what we Palestinian activists do. The action of Freedom Rides, although carrying the name of a similar action within the civil rights movement didn’t entend to equalize the rights of Palestinians and those of settlers, settlers in Palestine are part of the illegality that the occupation is imposing on Palestinians, and to clear this idea more I have decided to post this piece by BDS evaluating more on the action of freedom rides: http://www.bdsmovement.net/2011/palestinian-freedom-riders-to-board-settler-buses-to-jerusalem-8352

      Another point I would like to ask the readers here and even you Omar is, do Palestinians have to follow the steps and tactics of Ghandi or others well-known figures to find legitimacy within the western world or even within the Arab world? Palestinians have been fighting the injustice even in the last 20’s, starting from wearing the Kuffieh at the time it was banned, or carrying out water melons (Just because they were not allowed to carry flag) or whatever form of resistance Palestinians have used?? Can’t the world simply understand the cause, the motivation people have to go down the streets and protest injustice, and accept it as is, do you always have to follow the norms given to us by the Western Culture? And I am not under-estimating any of those characters and humanitarian activists, but I am just saying!!

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    16. david

      is rock throwing towards the soldiers still held as “non-violent?”
      one issue i think the non-violent protesters need to make is to take a stand against those who throw stones from behind/ amongst them. I remember meeting with a non-violent Palestinian group in Bet Lehem 7 years ago- and they defended stone-throwing against soldiers as a legitimate part of non-violent protest. thats not how i read my civil rights coursebook.

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    17. Daniel

      “Despite the Palestinians having a long and proud history of non-violence and civil disobedience dating back to the earliest years of the conflict, these forms of resistance have unfortunately played second-fiddle to the much more sensationalized episodes of armed fighting, suicide-bombings, and high-level diplomatic negotiations.”
      Gotta love the New Speech.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Laila

      @Daneil For many Palestinian, activists and Palestinian supports stone throwing is not considered violent and can go under the category of non-violent, that’s one reasons some Palestinians and many others agree that we should call it Popular struggle/ resistance and not fall into the western discourse of violent/non-violent/ peaceful.

      Personally speaking I am against stone throwing, but what is a stone vs. a tank or a M16 or whatever form of weapon Israeli Army put into our face!!!

      In fact, stone throwers, molitov cocktails are an essential part of the 1st Intifada and I cant find a better example on Palestinians agreeing on how good and useful, structured and beautifully done the 1st Intifada was!!

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    19. noaliasneeded

      the solution is for the Palestinians to cut their tie with the Arab extremist countries that secretly control their politics, after ceasing connection then join the Israeli very quickly. But it would need to be a fast organized maneuver or their oppressing Arab leaders in Iran and the other Islam areas would call them traitors and take action, the Israeli nation would protect and treat the Palestinians much better as an Ally if the Palestinians weren’t controlled by those other Arabs extremists, of course this is known by most every Palestinian but it cant be talked about publicly because they would be reprimanded by those oppressing Arabs, and since it is limited to existing in the mind only it then gets pushed back into the subconscious and the fact of a silenced solution causes anxiety… It would be good to be brave and take action and solve your issue this way. You’d be protected by the USA also if you do it.

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    20. Laila,
      No one can force you to be nonviolent or tell you what it is. You live the social-political economy of resistence, not most on this site. What I can say, though, is that with both King and Gandhi their first opponent was their own people, or, at least, those they saw themselves as fighting for. Gandhi’s first major fast was triggered by violence consequent of his first attempt at a nationwide strike. He agreed to go with the British to quell some riots and was condemn by some for doing so. King, in one of his first major speeches, at a large rally in Detroit, Michigan, began by saying something like “Our first victory today is the complete absence of violence at this rally.”
      Whatever is happening in your land is different from this. I do not see Palestinians overtly confronting Palestinians over issues of violence. I do not say this to condemn; I just observe. Your resistence seems to be more akin to independent mobilizations of differing tactics–who can sustain action the longest, with what tactic, sometimes different tactics mobilizing together. With both King and Gandhi, the economies of the oppressed were intimately linked with those of the masters; strikes and boycotts could be policed as nonviolent, within the movement, and still do harm to the masters. Israel, by essentially seggregating direct economic contact, takes away a major precondition of nonviolence. Yours do not work in Israel anymore; other nationalities have been shipped in.
      So why is nonviolence forced onto you? The suicide bombings. People need to differentiate resistance from that. If you read Israeli right responses, they often implicitly equate the rock thrower with much worse. I am not telling you what to do. I do not know what you should do. I am just trying to suggest differences between your situation, King, Gandhi, and South African apartheid (where boycotts against white stores did have an affect).
      I wrongly used you as example. I was referring to the whole mess of “solution” talk. Not you as such. I apologize.

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    21. ya3cov

      @David, thanks mr supporter of settler-colonialism for telling us what you didn’t read in your civil rights course book.
      we also thank you for using the hebraized ‘bet lehem’ in your post to show us what you did read in your coursebook: ethnic cleansing is okay as long as its done for your benefit!

      Reply to Comment
    22. one comment

      I basically agree with most, in fact almost all, of what you say. Non-violence represents a real, profound, and strategic tactic for resisting occupation and colonialism.

      My own caveat would be that, in terms of BDS, there has been, at times, quite a gap between the stated objective of BDS and the way that anti-normalization campaigns (which are part and parcel of BDS) have played out on the ground. When protestors in Jordan try to bar Hanin Zoubi from speaking in Amman, on the grounds that her radical presence in the Israeli Knesset makes her normalizer, this looks bad. Same also when an east Jerusalem soccer team finds its unwelcome in neighboring Egypt, for fear that their presence might stir anti-normalization controversies. And ditto when BDS activists use language that appears to delegitimize not only the occupation, or even the growing fascist legislation within Israel, but also all Israelis. These examples might seem small or trivial, but the fact is that they give BDS a bad name. And these are examples are the reason that BDS campaigns can be caricatured (however unfair that caricature may seem). If BDS is to regain its legitimacy, it must do a better job of calling out and distancing itself from the kinds of activities I listed above — activities which are frankly counter-productive and ultimately quite damaging to local organizing in Palestine.

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