BDS: In the crosshairs of human rights colonialism

A recent UN report contributes to Israeli exploitation of human rights discourse to justify oppression in Palestine.

Dozens hurt as Israeli army shuts West Bank school
Israeli authorities order the closure of a school in Nablus, West Bank on the pretext that students had hurled stones at Israeli soldiers and settlers on October 15, 2018 [File: Anadolu]

In his report on antisemitism, presented to the United Nations on October 17, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief Ahmed Shaheed, cited – without rejecting – claims “that the objectives, activities and effects of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement are fundamentally antisemitic.”

This validation of the assault on BDS is a damning indictment – not of BDS, but of the spurious logic used to impugn it.

The “objectives” and “activities” of the movement are entirely based on international law and the UN’s own resolutions: Ending the occupation of Palestinian territory, guaranteeing equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and honouring the right of return of refugees.

From an international legal perspective, it is not BDS that should be considered controversial, but Israel’s brazen recalcitrance when it comes to respecting basic norms of international law.

As another recent UN publication points out, Israel has implemented less than 0.5 percent of the recommendations prescribed by the UN since 2009 to rectify the crimes of the occupation – making the application of additional mechanisms of economic and political pressure manifestly necessary. The UN itself has identified 192 businesses in likely breach of which break international law by facilitating and profiting from Israel’s illegal settlements.

The discrediting of even nonviolent strategies like BDS is tantamount to denying the Palestinians any right to resist being colonised at all.

By erasing the context of the occupation, Shaheed’s report perversely manages to present Palestinians as the abusers of human rights rather than the abused.

He references a UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) report expressing concern about antisemitic hate speech in Palestine – but completely neglects to mention that this report begins by acknowledging that “the Israeli occupation, the expansion of settlements and the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip, which are considered unlawful under international law, pose severe challenges for [Palestine] in fully implementing its obligations under the Convention [on Racial Discrimination].”

Shaheed also castigates the “left-wing antisemitism” of “individuals claiming to hold anti-racist and anti-imperialist views”. But he is conspicuously silent on the racism inherent in imperialism itself, including in Palestine, where the religious freedoms at the crux of his mandate (and various other basic rights of the indigenous population under occupation) are routinely trampled. For example, Palestinian Christians and Muslims face restrictions on accessing sites like Bethlehem and al-Aqsa central for worship.

In reality, the overwhelmingly predominant contributors to escalating antisemitism statistics in countries like Germany and the United States are not the “anti-racist and anti-imperialist” left, but neo-Nazis and the far-right bolstered by the rise of the same white nationalist political parties that have also put Muslims and Palestinian rights activism in their crosshairs.

The repressive implications of Shaheed’s analysis are apparent with the litmus test for antisemitism he endorses: the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) guidelines.

The problem with them is not the definition of antisemitism they include – “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” – but the examples of antisemitism they give, several of which involve criticisms of Israel or Zionism.

For instance, in the eyes of IHRA (and apparently Shaheed himself) “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor” qualifies as antisemitism.

Nevermind that some of the foremost critics of the creation of a Jewish state were prominent Jewish politicians like British Cabinet member Edwin Montagu, who in 1917 described the premise that Jewish people constitute a separate nation as “antisemitic”.

As Oxford University philosopher and cofounder of Independent Jewish Voices (UK) Brian Klug notes, the effect of equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism is to conflate the Jewish state with the Jewish people: The very sin that Special Rapporteur Shaheed accuses critics of Israel of committing.

IHRA’s redefinition of antisemitism has been criticised by Jewish scholars and numerous civil liberties organisations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, for conflating criticism of Israel with racism.

Despite being discarded by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, the IHRA redefinition is being adopted by countries across North America and Europe – imperilling the democracy Shaheed purports to be saving from the “toxicity” of antisemitism.

In the US, for example, IHRA’s inflated conception of antisemitism has been embraced by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights under President Donald Trump appointee Kenneth Marcus, who believes students protesting in support of Palestinian rights should be criminally prosecuted. It has also been wielded in efforts to censor university events and courses on Palestine, and to bring lawsuits against Palestinian professors.

This is part of a broader context of legalised speech suppression, in which laws against BDS have been passed in 27 US states and proposed in 14 more – in direct defiance of the US Constitution and Supreme Court decisions establishing the right to boycott in general. While Shaheed clarified in his report that “international law recognizes boycotts as legitimate forms of political expression”, he simultaneously legitimises the demonisation of BDS underlying anti-boycott legislation.

The fixation on critics of Israel (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) diverts attention away from the virulent and often deadly antisemitism of white supremacists and right-wing nationalists, who aspire to restore American “greatness” by returning to the most overtly racist forms of settler-colonial rule.

The irony of BDS being condemned in the name of “freedom of religion and belief” exemplifies the contradictions inherent in the long tradition of human rights colonialism – in which human rights, far from being the salvation of the wretched of the earth, have been instruments of their damnation.

From Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 to George HW Bush’s onslaught on Afghanistan and Iraq more than two centuries later, imperialists have consistently deployed the discourse of rights to represent themselves as the guardians of human dignity, and those they massacre, torture and dispossess as the violators.

In the development of the modern international human rights system following World War II, European powers paraded as the progenitors of human rights, while insisting on exceptions to insulate their own colonial atrocities from criticism. The reference to “fundamental human rights” in the 1945 UN Charter preamble was introduced by Afrikaner statesman Jan Smuts, whose other notable legacies include segregation policies in South Africa that paved the way for apartheid.

This colonial genealogy is continued in the present by Israeli government bodies, settler NGOs and courts appealing to human rights to justify Palestinian oppression.

As international law scholars Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon note in their book The Human Right to Dominate, “indigenous Palestinians [are portrayed] as the invaders and thus perpetrators of human rights violations, while Jewish settlers are conceived of as natives and depicted as victims of abuse.”

In the inverted reality of the dominators, the dispossession and destruction of Palestinian property are legally rationalised as necessary for safeguarding settlers’ “human rights” such as freedom of religion, while efforts to curb or dismantle illegal settlements are decried as “racial discrimination” and “ethnic cleansing” against settlers. Justice for Palestinians under occupation is denounced as an injustice to their occupiers.

Those advocating for Palestinian freedom and self-determination are the inheritors of another powerful tradition: Of anti-colonial movements resisting those who claimed to speak for universal humanity while brutally colonising 84 percent of it.

Even when confronted by ruthless repression, demonisation, and criminalisation, people under colonial rule persisted in challenging unjust power structures and the racially-exclusionary concepts of rights, dignity, liberty, law, and humanity that upheld them.

The fruits of their efforts were enshrined in UN General Assembly resolutions recognising “the necessity of bringing to a speedy and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms”, and “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for … liberation from colonial domination, apartheid and foreign occupation by all available means”: A struggle for liberation that carries on to this day, through movements like BDS. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.