When Zionist militias forced my grandmother, Rasmiyyah, and her family out of their home in Safad at gunpoint during the 1948 Nakba, the process of settler-colonialismthat was propelled by the Balfour Declaration and that culminated in ethnic cleansingbecame more than just a national tragedy for the indigenous people of Palestine. It became personal.
I’ve inherited from my late grandmother her passion for human dignity and her tenacity in pursuing justice. It is only natural, then, that in the current debate on Balfour’s legacy I choose to focus on both.
On its centennial, many analysts are debating what the Balfour Declaration really meant and whether it was legal for the British empire in 1917 to offer Jewish-European colonists a “national home” in Palestine in “flat disregard of both the presence and the wishes of the native majority,” as Edward Said put it.
What is largely missing in the debate, beyond the entirely justified demands for a British apology and for reparations, is the imperative to act now to end the ongoing Palestinian Nakba by ending the complicity of not just the U.K., but crucially the United States and other Western powers in maintaining a system of injustice that has prevailed for a hundred years. By arming Israel, shielding it from United Nations sanctions, and treating it as a state above international law, they are entrenching the patent inhumanity inherent in Balfour’s legacy.
Some may object to characterizing the British-supported Zionist project in Palestine as a case of settler-colonialism, but even influential right-wing Zionist leaders were quite honest about it. In 1923, for instance, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote: “Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized…. Zionist colonization must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population.”
Jabotinsky recommended a Zionist “iron wall” to overpower the indigenous population, partly by colonizing our minds with hopelessness. Today, Israel, backed by the U.S. and the European Union, is building concrete walls and using extreme violence to crush our hope and sear into our collective conscience that it is futile to resist its colonial hegemony.
The first step of ethical decolonization and healing for us Palestinians, then, must be to exorcize the despair we have internalized over decades of brutal Israeli military rule and denial of our basic human rights. We must embark on a profound process of decolonizing our minds with a healthy yet realistic dose of hope.
A major source of Palestinian hope today is the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for freedom, justice and equality.
Aside from reconnecting the Palestinian freedom struggle with international struggles for racial, indigenous, economic, gender, social and climate justice, BDS is mobilizing considerable nonviolent grassroots pressure on institutions, corporations and indeed governments that are implicated in supporting Israel’s human rights violations. A recent BBC poll shows that Israel has become among the least popular states worldwide.
Inspired by the U.S. Civil Rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS was launched in 2005 by the broadest coalition in Palestinian civil society. It calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation, ending its legalized racial discrimination, which meets the U.N. definition of apartheid, and upholding the U.N.-stipulated right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands.
Realizing the power of hope that BDS nourishes and the fact that the movement’s impact has grown among major pension funds, trade unions, student governments, academic associations, social movements, artists, and to an extent Hollywood, Israel’s lobby groups have resorted to repressive, desperate and possibly illegal measures of legal warfare to stifle the movement.
For instance, the city of Dickinson, Texas, a few weeks ago implemented anti-BDS legislation by conditioning humanitarian hurricane relief on a promise not to boycott Israel or its illegal settlements. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has condemned this as “an egregious violation of the First Amendment, reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths….”
The ACLU has also filed a federal lawsuit arguing a Kansas anti-BDS law requiring all state contractors to certify that they aren’t boycotting Israel violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Far from protecting its impunity, Israel’s push for unconstitutional anti-BDS legislation at the state level and in Congress is alienating the liberal mainstream. This may partially explain why almost half of all Americans support sanctions against Israel to end its occupation, according to a 2016 survey.
A recently revealed scandal related to Israel’s secret war on BDS will only exacerbate this alienation. Israel has hired a large law firm to intimidate and silence BDS activists in North America, Europe and beyond, according to Israeli mediareports. The Israeli lawyer at the center of this revelation, warned that Israel may be crossing “criminal lines.”
If Israel’s lawfare against BDS is defeated at the gates of the U.S. Supreme Court, this may usher in a new era of accountability for Israel.
Balfour must be turning in his grave as the natives whose aspirations he arrogantly dismissed as irrelevant begin to change the tide with the principled international solidarity of people of conscience.
I have promised my grandmother that I shall never give up my part in this human rights mission until justice and dignity prevail. I shall not break that promise.
Omar Barghouti is co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. He is co-recipient of the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award.