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Supporting BDS is enough to get detained by the cops in Israel these days

Instead of simply announcing that it opposes BDS, which would be a perfectly legitimate stance, the Israeli government is criminalizing the movement and its advocates. The results won’t be pretty.

Israeli police officers detain Jeff Halper and search his bag for ‘BDS materials’ in Ma’ale Adumim, March 13, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Halper)

Israeli police officers detain Jeff Halper and search his bag for ‘BDS materials’ in Maaleh Adumim, the West Bank, March 13, 2017. (Photo by Jeff Halper)

On March 8 police near Jerusalem picked up an Israeli citizen who was just standing on the street. He was not doing anything illegal. Someone who lived in the neighborhood reported him on suspicion of carrying material related to BDS; and while it is not illegal for Israelis to carry material about BDS in territory under Israel’s control, the police answered the call.

Jeff Halper, the director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) was speaking to a tour group in Maaleh Adumim, a large Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The police detained him in a place that was one of his regular stops with tour groups, he explained.

“I wasn’t talking about BDS or holding a sign that day,” he wrote in an email exchange with +972 Magazine, “but I sometimes do and so do our other guides. So someone called the police. They should have said to the caller: ‘Thanks for letting us know, but this is a democracy and people can talk on the street (even about BDS).’ But they didn’t of course, and detained me for ‘incitement.'”

BDS is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Its advocates pursue a variety of non-violent tactics aimed at pressuring Israel to apply international law to the Palestinian residents living under its sovereignty.

Jeff Halper holding a sign supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement — but not on the day he was detained by Israeli police. (Courtesy of Jeff Halper)

Jeff Halper holding a sign supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement — not on the day he was detained by Israeli police. (Courtesy of Jeff Halper)

Last week the Knesset approved a law barring entry to foreigners who support BDS. An earlier anti-BDS law, commonly called the Boycott Law, was passed in 2011. The 2011 law gives Israelis the right to bring civil suit against BDS advocates in cases where they can prove their livelihood has been undermined as a result. Both laws have been widely criticized for violating basic principles of freedom of speech. Both apply to boycotts not only of Israel, but also of its settlements in the West Bank.

Yet it is still not against the law for Israeli citizens to support or even call on others to support BDS. They just have to bear in mind that they might be sued in civil court for their advocacy.

+972 Special Coverage: The Boycott Movement

The police did not arrest Jeff Halper on Monday, but the fact that they detained and questioned him speaks to the increasingly authoritarian climate in Israel in general, and to the profoundly distorted views on BDS specifically.

Instead of simply announcing that its official position is to oppose BDS, which would be a perfectly legitimate stance, the Israeli government has instead chosen to criminalize the movement and its advocates. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his cabinet have used loaded language to conflate BDS with anti-Semitism, gratuitous hatred of the State of Israel — and even with violence.

This discourse has spread to the Jewish diaspora, with many mainstream Jewish organizations and institutions following the Israeli government’s lead. Among Jews who are associated with the organized community, BDS has become almost axiomatically associated with anti-Semitism. There is almost no conversation about the matter.

In an email exchange with +972 Magazine, Jeff Halper unpacked the incident Monday:

The fact that someone can be detained for incitement just on suspicion of speaking about BDS shows how far we’ve gone towards fascism and repression in [minister of justice] Ayelet Shaked’s police state.

The incident was minor, but the implications are scary. There is certainly a targeting of anti-occupation/BDS activists (for the Israeli authorities they’re both the same). I know of a number of foreign activists who have been deported or not let in (like Luisa Morgentini, an Italian/European parliamentarian), laws are already in place to deny Israeli groups dealing with BDS or human rights (the same to the Israeli authorities) funding.

And I expect some kind of law or regulation or sanctions (like not being able to teach or work) against BDS activists in general — or anyone critical of government policy. We’re in a new Bibi/Ayelet/Trump world, and it’s a slippery slope.

In his 2013 book, “The End of Jewish Modernity,” historian Enzo Traverso argues that since the 1940s, mainstream Jewish thought has been in a period of stagnation. Our discourse has become reactionary and conservative, with a deracinated and impoverished identity resting uneasily on the twin pillars of the Holocaust and Israel. One can see the evidence to support Traverso’s thesis in the current tenor of the Jewish discourse about the BDS movement.

For decades Jewish political and community leaders have conflated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, to the point that journalists in the United States are afraid to criticize Israeli policy, lest they be accused of anti-Semitism. In describing BDS, community leaders and Israeli politicians have raised the specter of a Nazi boycott of Jewish shops in Germany during the 1930s. They conflate boycott as a non-violent tool to end Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinians, with the desire to destroy the state of Israel.

For Jews, well-primed with three generations of post-Holocaust trans-generational trauma and intellectually weakened by their educational system’s abject failure to transmit their rich, fascinating, millennia-old history and culture preceding the Holocaust, this is the result — in Israel at least (and to a much lesser extent in the diaspora): a fearful people, led by a fear-mongering and increasingly authoritarian prime minister, who have become so detached from the norms of civil society that they inform on a fellow citizen who expresses a dissident opinion.

Now where have we heard of that kind of behavior before?

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    1. carmen

      ‘israel’ isn’t operating as a democracy, nor has it been for a long time. It makes no sense at all for Mr. Halper to be detained for anything for any reason, but to make a charge of incitement does nothing but show the fear of the criminal israeli government. If they (israeli govt) believe what they are doing is right and just, they should be able to argue with their detractors about the merits of their beliefs and system of government without resorting to strong arm tactics and a fear campaign that has israelis acting as informants against their fellow citizens.

      “Israeli society is sick and it is our duty to treat this disease.” Reuven Rivlin

      Yep Mr. President, it still is. Has it been decided to let this sick society die of its illness instead of fighting this disease and curing it?

      Reply to Comment
      • Itshak Gordin Halevy

        Carmen, Of course Israel is a democracy. The proof is that you can write in this blog. A Jewish majority of the Jewish State elected democratically our government. We do not like either Jewish traitors or foreigners who come to libel our country. This government is representing us. If this is not OK with you you can leave at your convenience.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Halevy, is your president a Jewish traitor? You don’t “like” him? And if you don’t “like” somebody that means…what? In your “democracy.” Should your president leave at his earliest convenience? Because “we” don’t “like” him in our “democracy”

          Is Israel’s President an anti-Semite?
          President Rivlin just called Israel a ‘sick society.’ If he was an American politician, he’d be probably forced out of his job.
          Peter Beinart (22.10.2014):

          http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.622145

          Reuven Rivlin is lucky he’s a politician in Israel. Were he a politician in the United States, he’d be labeled an anti-Semite and likely forced from his job. At a conference earlier this week, Rivlin, Israel’s president, said “It’s time to admit honestly that Israeli society is sick.” He went on to suggest that his country’s Jewish citizens have “forgotten how to be decent human beings.”.. To imagine what would happen if an American politician uttered those words…

          Reply to Comment
        • David

          An apartheid state is not a “democracy.”

          To be brief:

          “Former Foreign Ministry director-general invokes South Africa comparisons. ‘Joint Israel-West Bank’ reality is an apartheid state”
          EXCERPT: “Similarities between the ‘original apartheid’ as it was practiced in South Africa and the situation in ISRAEL [my emphasis] and the West Bank today ‘scream to the heavens,’ added [Alon] Liel, who was Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria from 1992 to 1994. There can be little doubt that the suffering of Palestinians is not less intense than that of blacks during apartheid-era South Africa, he asserted.” (Times of Israel, February 21, 2013)

          In its 2015 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor acknowledges the “institutional and societal discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel.” (U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015 Israel and The Occupied Territories)

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyyUvxHLYr4
          Israeli TV Host Implores Israelis: Wake Up and Smell the Apartheid

          Reply to Comment
        • gilade

          Israel democracy?? A joke. Are you forced to believe it? A subversive tyranny against people like South Africa.

          Reply to Comment
        • rick

          “Carmen, Of course Israel is a democracy. The proof is that you can write in this blog. (wow- what freedom!) A Jewish majority of the Jewish State elected democratically our government.”….you should have continued to fill out a little more context, as in “we worked hard to have a Jewish Majority by expelling half the Palestinian population! Do you think we want that to go to waste? Furthermore, we’re still working hard to have a Jewish majority by keeping another 5 and half million Palestinians disenfranchised and as miserable as humanly possible. Just because we imprison 5 or 6 million people for 50 years just for being indigenous here, doesn’t give you the right to make a “shandeh fur de goyim” and scream the truth around, does it?” So if the Jewish state acts in criminal ways “it represents us”…Great….No wonder there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Los Angeles. What exactly is the future for such a country? You want to risk you kids lives so you can feel superior to the indigenous Palestinians just because you happen to have more guns at the moment?

          Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Goldman’s comparison is perceptive. Consider that Israel has not yet passed a law outlawing speech about economic boycott — it knows this is beyond the pale for a state with pretensions to democracy — but it has instead passed a law allowing persecution of citizens exercising the right to free speech. The ability to sue somebody for free speech about economic boycott (if any boycott causes any economic effect, which is what boycotts are supposed to do) is nothing less than political persecution. The trial would amount to a witch hunt. And nothing less than the state’s attempt to muzzle its citizens. As Goldman points out, using its own citizens as informants, East German style.

      I get the sense that as the whole apartheid -like, creeping one-state reality brings the state ever closer to a true crisis, the state gets more desperate and the right wing adopts an increasingly fascist tone. A right wing group is trying to stop Achinoam Nini from performing in Mitzpeh Ramon because she, god forbid, “injects political content into her shows.” Can’t have that can we? They’ve collected 800 signatures on a “petition,” apparently. The petition accuses Nini of being a “provocateur who supports anti-Zionist, anti-Israel and anti-government values.” That’s right. “Anti-government values.”

      Try to imagine a right wing American group having circulated a petition to stop Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or the Dixie Chicks from performing because they were “provocateurs who support anti-government values.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Firentis

        Weird that you put the Dixie Chicks in there. Their concerts were cancelled and they were blackballed for disagreeing with Bush.

        And in the current US political climate you can get boycotted, banned, protested, and physically attacked just for having an unpopular political position. And it would be the Left that would be doing that.

        People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          I expected someone to hit that curveball. Yes the Dixie Chicks faced a right wing backlash for speaking out against Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But guess what? The vast majority of Americans right and left look back on the Iraq war as a horrendous boneheaded mistake that not nearly enough people questioned at the time and for which we are still paying a terrible price. All those American boys dead and maimed. Enormous problems. Now people have inexplicable attacks of amnesia and false memory syndrome. They were all against the invasion they say. Among the many, many brazen lies Trump tells is that he opposed the Iraq war. The Dixie Chicks were the true patriots. With courage in the moment. God bless them. People were free to not buy tickets to the Dixie Chicks. People are free to not buy tickets to Achinoam Nini. But I don’t recall public boycotts of the Dixie Chicks although maybe there were. I disagree with boycotting artists generally. And I don’t approve of the violent protests on campuses at all. I have no doubt some people called the Dixie Chicks “un-American.” But I certainly don’t recall Americans circulating a petition saying the Dixie Chicks were provocateurs who are against government values.

          Also, I don’t want to get into music criticism, not my forte, but the Dixie Chicks were country music artists and specifically Texan, a specific genre that appeals overwhelmingly to a rural right wing republican demographic. And their comment about the war included a comment about Texas (“We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”) which triggered a whole Texas-specific psychosis that you’d have to be American to understand. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Achinoam Nini are not country music. And not Texas. Had Dylan or Springsteen made the same comments, shorn of the Texas specifics, I highly doubt they would have suffered any of the same blowback because their audience is utterly different. I think it would only have boosted their popularity. As is Achinoam Nini’s audience utterly different, in the Israeli context. So Achinoam Nini’s core audience was not offended for intra-Israeli-regional-cultural reasons the way the Dixie Chicks’ Texas country music audience was offended. Apples and oranges.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Susan

      I don’t agree with this policy, but why are BDS supporters visiting Israel? Isn’t the point of BDS to avoid anything Israeli. On American and British campuses BDS’ers have harassed and threatened Jewish students.

      Reply to Comment