No, Omar Barghouti is not a co-founder of the Israel boycott movement BDS

The president of the NGO Monitor think tank says the media — including the JC — are wrong to describe the Palestinian activist as a BDS founder

October 08, 2019 12:54

When Omar Barghouti was recently barred from entering the UK, many media reports, including in the Jewish Chronicle, referred to him as founder (or co-founder) of the Israel boycott movement BDS.

This is factually incorrect: he was added for marketing purposes four years after the BDS launch and first boycotts in the UK, and the details are important.

In reality, the BDS movement was officially launched in September 2001 at the NGO Forum of the infamous and antisemitic UN World Conference on the Elimination of Racism, held in Durban, South Africa. The instigators were a group of radically and politically powerful non-governmental organisations with visceral anti-Israel agendas. At Durban, officials from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) allied with South African and Palestinian groups to demand “the complete international isolation of Israel as an apartheid state…”

The mechanisms included boycotts, such as were used against the real apartheid in South Africa. Omar Barghouti was not involved in any of this — he was not a “founder”.

A few months later, using the excuse of the IDF anti-terror operation in Jenin, the first boycotts began. Trotskyite cells in the British academic union manipulated votes to get support for boycotts of Israeli universities, and groups such as War on Want ran demonising campaigns that promoted sanctions targeting Israel.

In parallel, anti-Israel activists from Human Rights Watch in the US organised rallies outside board meetings to demand an end to Israeli sales by corporations like Caterpillar. Their goal was publicity, and they succeeded. In the process, the antisemitic antecedents of BDS — including the 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, and the earlier Soviet anti-Zionist campaigns that paved the way to Durban — came to the fore. Omar Barghouti was still nowhere to be seen.

However, as these activities increased in 2004, a movement ostensibly on behalf of the Palestinian cause led by Westerners became visibly and politically awkward. To give BDS a more authentic facade, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PCABI) was launched through a letter signed by a group of Palestinian intellectuals.

In the months and years that followed, BDS activists sought to market their campaigns of demonisation as a response to the Palestinian boycott call, although for anyone familiar with the history, this was a false. BDS was and remains largely a Western antisemitic movement led by NGOs and financed by European governments.

With the PCABI letter, Mr Barghouti began to emerge as the Palestinian face of BDS. He is an intellectual born in Qatar to Palestinian parents, raised in Egypt, married to an Israeli Arab and living in Israel. As a graduate student at Tel Aviv University (in philosophy), he signed a letter calling for an international boycott of the institution which he did not boycott himself.

But because he was also a prolific writer and polemicist, and a Palestinian from whom consistency was not expected, this minor contradiction was overlooked. He promoted the boycott theme as a side activity and, when Mr Barghouti published The Pianist of Palestine in November 2004, he referred to himself as an independent political analyst based in Palestine. He was still not a BDS official nor founder.

Gradually, as his appeal to Western audiences — particularly journalists, academics and diplomats — increased, his BDS role was embellished. He began to travel and speak for PCABI. His articulate English language skills, intellectual capabilities and Westernised mannerisms appealed to this specialized audience. He could call for the elimination of Israel in a reasonable and non-violent voice, at least to people for whom this message was worth considering.

In parallel, the PCABI was blurred into the BDS movement, to the point where its actual origins at Durban via western NGOs were forgotten. In this way, Mr Barghouti came to be seen, erroneously, as a BDS founder.

But the role of a spokesperson is limited. Neither PCABI not Mr Barghouti determine the agendas and activities of the BDS movement. Strategies and targets are selected by many of the same western anti-Israel NGO officials who were involved from the beginning.

Recent BDS campaigns targeting Airbnb and other tourism-related businesses were led by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Both failed. An NGO known as Who Profits, funded by European governments, designates other targets for BDS treatment. There is no evidence that Mr Barghouti was consulted or informed.

In the political wafare to single out Israel and apply double standards, Omar Barghouti is a convenient spokesperson who promotes the Palestinian narrative to Western audiences. In the process, the core of BDS and of its primary constituents are hidden.

This does not mean that his role in the antisemitic campaigns is benign — quite the contrary. Yet Mr Barghouti’s prominence should not allow other perpetrators to hide their roles.

Professor Gerald Steinberg is president of the think tank NGO Monitor

October 08, 2019 12:54

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