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Photo courtesy of Solidarity of Nations - Achvat Amim
by Emily C. Bell
ISRAEL HAS ABRUPTLY closed the door on members of twenty organizations that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). The list of organizations referred to as a “BDS blacklist” was released on January 7 and includes Code Pink, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
Israel had been slowly tightening its borders, or threatening to do so, since March of last year, when the country changed its entry law to bar those who support BDS. In July 2017, five members of an interfaith delegation organized by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF), JVP and American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) were stopped from entering Israel before they could even get on the plane. Three of these members of the delegation are affiliated with JVP, one with PPF and one with AMP, according to a JVP press release.
As Haaretz reported, Israeli Ministers Arye Dery and Gilad Erdan stated in response to the incident that "These were prominent activists who continuously advocate for a boycott and who sought to come [to Israel] as part of a delegation of extremist boycott organizations whose entire purpose is to harm Israel.”
At the time, Rabbi Alissa Wise, JVP’s deputy director, wrote of the experience in The Forward:
With the BDS ban, Israel promised to ban foreign nationals who publicly call for sanctions against it. Widely criticized as a huge infringement on basic civil liberties like freedom of speech and nonviolent resistance, my fellow travelers and I are its first victims. By criminalizing activism for Palestinian rights through this travel ban, Israel is shattering the myth of itself as a Jewish democracy. A country that bans those who criticize its human rights violations is fundamentally anti-democratic. To deny me entry because I publicly and unapologetically oppose the oppression of Palestinians is an act of desperation by a government that knows its rule by force is unsustainable.
In response to the recently released list of banned groups, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship Executive Director Emily Brewer said her organization was “saddened and angry at the un-democratic measures that the Israeli government is taking to silence nonviolent human rights activists.”
PPF, which supports BDS but is not included among the twenty organizations, has no present plans for another delegation. Brewer, however, emphasized in an email that anti-occupation work is also interfaith work, and that "delegations are an essential part of our work, because when people go they return transformed, energized, and prepared to work in the United States to end our complicity in the occupation and to work alongside Palestinians to end the occupation of Palestine. This ban will not deter us from returning to visit and learn from our Palestinian partners.”
THE ISRAELI ANNOUNCEMENT also has potential impacts for organizations that don’t take a position on BDS but do run on-the-ground programming relating to solidarity work. The Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV), for example, which does not take a stance on BDS, has run several international delegations to the West Bank to conduct nonviolent resistance work and solidarity actions with Palestinians. Oriel Eisner, acting director of CJNV, said he was not surprised about the early January announcement. “This past year has brought continual announcements which have signaled Israel's hastening shift rightward, further and further away from a sense of justice, equality and democracy,” Eisner said via email. “Because of this, Israel's release of this blacklist unfortunately comes as little surprise; it only affirms that the current government is taking full advantage of the free pass and encouragement brought by the Trump administration to further entrench its policies to restrict efforts for peace and punish dissent.”
While CJNV is a "big-tent" organization, some delegation participants have been active members of JVP or may individually support BDS. The most recent CJNV delegation occurred in May 2017, just a few months after the passing of the altered entry law. Eisner said that the legislative change “impacted our planning and strategizing last year and has been a point of conversation in the organization,” but raised “no issues” at the 2017 delegation.
“The release of the blacklist heightens our need to continue planning (legally and strategically) in response to developments on-the-ground,” Eisner said. “Last year and now, it is also a moment to remember and reaffirm that the movement to end the occupation is ideologically and tactically diverse, and that those of us seeking peace and justice through nonviolent means must stand with each other when we are attacked and vilified. Only by supporting each other will this movement grow and win.”
IfNotNow, which works to end American Jewish support for the Occupation, is planning a delegation for some of its members in the spring. IfNotNow does not take a position on BDS, though its members hold differing views and some are members of other organizations including JVP.
"Even though IfNotNow doesn’t take a stance… with regards to BDS, I think obviously we think that any sort of anti-democratic measures to squash a legitimate nonviolent movement regardless of what you think of the politics, is wrong and is playing into an incredibly unhealthy regime of fear-mongering and undue repression," IfNotNow national coordinator Emily Mayer said.
Mayer said it was uncertain what impact the announcement would have on the delegation, but that they would monitor the circumstances and potential implementation of the ban.
"Going to the ground and… witnessing the occupation firsthand I think is an inevitably radicalizing experience and I think the Israeli government is afraid of activists doing that," Mayer said. "I think that that’s a call for people who have the privilege to be able to go and witness the occupation to do so despite sort of government attempts to prevent it."
A range of issues relating to the release of the BDS blacklist have been noted by activists, including larger societal repression and a double-standard for activists on the left versus members of the alt-right. The ban affects not just Jewish or interfaith delegations, but also has the potential for a disproportionate impact on Palestinians. BDS, after all, is a Palestinian-led movement that seeks, as stated at BDSmovement.net, an "end international support for Israeli violations of international law by forcing companies, institutions and governments to change their policies.”
Eisner also stressed the ban's impact not just on activists who have personal and familial reasons to visit Israel-Palestine, but also on Palestinians. “It is also important to emphasize that this blacklist seeks to further erode and suppress many Palestinians' connection to the land and to their history, as many Palestinians around the world are a part of the BDS movement,” he said.
Elisheva Goldberg, board chair of CJNV, said via email that the debate over entry will not deter the work of anti-occupation activists:
Whether Israel lets BDS activists in or not will not determine its fate. What will determine its fate is whether or not it will provide human and civil rights to a population of millions under occupation. We are waiting for the answer, and in the meantime, we will keep doing what we're doing — bringing international delegations of Jewish people to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Palestinians in non-violent co-resistance to the occupation.
. . . While the Center for Jewish Nonviolence does not take a position on BDS, we have many allies that do, including many of our Palestinian partners as well as JVP. When one of our allies is threatened, we're all threatened. That's what it means to be in coalition. That's what it means to be in solidarity.
PPF's Emily Brewer also sees the announcement as a push for renewed dedication. “The only way the ban affects PPF's work is by making us even more committed to using the nonviolent strategies of the BDS movement to pressure the US government to stop funding the occupation of Palestine,” she said.
Emily C. Bell is a journalist based in New York City. This writer has participated in past CJNV delegations to Israel/Palestine and is a member of IfNotNow.