‘Privileged Jew’ fights for Palestinian rights inside Israel

(Mohamad Torokman, Reuters)

(Mohamad Torokman, Reuters)


As the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine approaches, I spoke to Israeli boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement activist Ronnie Barkan.

“I am a privileged Israeli Jew,” says Barkan. “It’s not that I’m affiliated with being Israeli or Jewish, but rather this is my legal status defined by the state.
My fellow citizens [Palestinians] have a totally different legal status. My privileges as a Jew come at their expense.

“The indigenous Palestinian people were expelled, a Jewish majority was created by force. Those expelled were never allowed home. And those who remained were discriminated [against] in every possible way. Israel is an apartheid state by design.”

This is the basis of Barkan’s activism, which started with protests against the separation wall that Israel began building in 2002. But protests, he felt, were not enough.

In 2005, Palestinian civil society called on the international community to use BDS as a means to force Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians and international law. The movement’s three basic demands were: ending the occupation and dismantling the wall; equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees as stipulated in United Nations Resolution 194.

Barkan and fellow Israeli activists supported the BDS call by founding Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within in 2008.

“When [historian] Ilan Pappé and [professor of linguistics] Tanya Reinhardt were targeted for calling for the academic boycott, we decided that it makes sense to speak out as a group,” says Barkan.

Boycott from Within supports the Palestinian BDS call, which is not limited to a boycott of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine. “The whole of the Israeli economy is based on profiting from the oppression of Palestinians. It will be hard to find Israeli companies that are not part and parcel of the system,” he says.

Many Israelis consider Barkan and other Israeli BDS activists to be traitors. “If you advocate for respect for the law, you will be accused of being an enemy of the state. You will be cursed as ‘leftist’ and will be regarded as a traitor.”

Barkan is even more tainted because he has refused to serve in the Israeli military. “Refusing ... is an act of treason. We are indoctrinated from kindergarten that our goal as Israelis is to be soldiers. It is not easy to become a conscientious objector.”

It’s not only leftists and conscientious objectors who are “traitors” or “parasites”, says Barkan. “Everyone who supports BDS is seen as acting for the destruction of Israel.”

Israel has declared war against BDS activists around the world. He sees this as a hopeful sign. “The lengths that [the Israeli government] go to in legislating against BDS, investing so much money in trying to intimidate people, is the best sign for us that we are doing something right, that we are effective.”

Barkan has no doubt BDS will force Israel to respect the law and that one day Palestinians will enjoy freedom and equality. “The situation will change because we have truth and justice on our side. BDS will play a role in bringing down apartheid,” he says. “BDS is only for the short term of ending the crimes. The campaign does not take a position about the solution, be it one state, two states or five. We have to work hard to plant the seeds for the future, the seeds for equality and democracy.”

Adri Nieuwhof is a veteran anti-apartheid activist based in the Netherlands, who served as a co-ordinator on the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Find her on Twitter @steketeh

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