By BERNIE BELLAN On Tuesday, October 18, I attended a town hall sponsored by the Green Party Winnipeg Centre riding association whose subject was the BDS (boycott, sanctions, divestment) movement.
The main speaker was Dimitri Lascaris, the former justice critic for the Green Party who had championed the initiative to have that party pass a resolution supporting BDS.
Before that meeting began I spoke with Mark Golden, a member of Independent Jewish Voices, also a supporter of the BDS movement. As much as I disagree with Mark on a wide range of issues, I have the utmost respect for the manner in which he presents his arguments. However, so many other individuals with whom I’ve spoken say that they don’t consider members of IJP to be Jewish. Again – it goes to the larger question how you define a community?
By the way, I, along with several other supporters of Israel – in particular Dr. Bradley Pollock, challenged Lascaris during the town hall. Bradley gave an ardent justification for Israel’s having built the separation barrier – something that critics of Israel say is an example of an Israeli policy of “apartheid”, while I brought up the point that the BDS movement, in fact, harms Palestinians economically.
I quoted from one Palestinian human rights campaigner by the name of Bassem Eid, who has written, with reference to the BDS movement: “BDS spokespeople justify calling for boycotts that will result in increased economic hardships for the Palestinians by asserting that Palestinians are willing to suffer such deprivations in order to achieve their freedom. It goes without saying that they live in comfortable circumstances elsewhere in the world and will not suffer any such hardship. It would seem, in fact, that the BDS movement, in its determination to oppose Israel, is prepared to fight to the last drop of Palestinian blood.”
What was Lascaris’s response to my quoting a Palestinian human rights activist who was critical of the BDS movement? He referred to “170 Palestinian trade unions” that have joined in support of BDS. (Earlier he had also referred to eight Canadian labour unions that have cast resolutions in favour of supporting BDS.)
Well, as a former member of a labour union, I know full well how determined activists can hijack the agenda of a labour union for their own purposes – the same way a determined group of Green Party members was able to push for a resolution calling for support for a resolution in favour of BDS when opinion polls among rank and file Green Party members showed there was overwhelming opposition to that resolution. (Frankly, given the relative ignorance among the vast majority of Canadians as to what BDS is, it is hardly surprising that a well-organized group in a small political party was able to pass an anti-Israel resolution.)
As well, one might well ask how many of the leaders of those 170 Palestinian trade unions were prepared to forego their salaries in common cause with the many Palestinians who have lost their jobs when Israeli companies were forced to shut down their factories on the West Bank as a result of BDS having targeted them. The case of Sodastream, in particular, stands as an example of what has happened.
Sodastream had employed 400 Palestinians in its factory in Ma’aleh Adumim. Those workers received good wages – much higher than the average wage for a Palestinians worker, along with health benefits that are largely unavailable to Palestinian workers. The president of Sodastream had even gone so far as to say that he was willing to continue operations within a Palestinian state, should one ever come to pass. But no, none of that was good enough for the BDS movement. As a result, Sodastream relocated to an area near Be’er Sheva where, interestingly, it has become a major employer of Bedouins who live in that area.
But, as Bassem Eid pointed out so articulately, individuals such as Lascaris are quite prepared to see Palestinians suffer as a result of Israeli owned companies pulling out of the West Bank, putting Palestinians out of work. It reminds me of the quote from an American army officer during the Vietnam War who, in reference to the destruction of a Vietnamese village, said: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Still, as much as I strongly oppose the BDS movement, as I said to Lascaris at that town hall, don’t for a minute think that I support Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank. What I object to, as much as Israeli settlement expansion, is the hypocrisy of the BDS movement. I don’t particularly buy into the argument that supporters of BDS are only singling out Israel for opprobrium; as Lascaris pointed out, he has been equally vociferous in criticizing the sale of $15 billion in military vehicles by the Canadian division of General Dynamics to Saudi Arabia.
It’s the blowback that comes from forcing Israeli companies to close down factories that provide jobs for Palestinians that bothers me. I mentioned to Lascaris that three years ago I had visited a brand new city being built by Palestinians half way between Ramallah and Nablus called Rawabi. When I was there, I met with the head planner for Rawabi. He told me that one of his biggest headaches was that Israeli companies were not allowed to supply materials for construction there, so that, for instance, he wanted to buy water pipes from an Israeli company – and that company wanted to supply those water pipes, but the Israeli government wouldn’t allow that to happen.
I don’t want to begin to pretend that there is some kind of long-range solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there are day to day realities on the ground that indicate peaceful co-existence is possible. There are now some 110,000 Palestinians who work for Israeli employers, either on the West Bank or in Israel proper. The Israeli army, in fact, has asked that the number of Palestinians who are allowed to cross into Israel daily to work there be increased by a substantial number. The thinking is that the more Palestinians who have gainful employment, the less the chance there will be of the West Bank exploding into violence.
While there are still instances of attacks by Palestinians on Jews, the spate of knifings and car rammings that had escalated so rapidly just around a year ago seems to have diminished considerably of late.
One more point that I brought up to Lascaris: The level of foreign investment in Israel in 2015 was over $20 billion. (It was up substantially from 2014 when it had dropped to $6.4 billion as a result of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.) The level of foreign investment in the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority was only $120 million in 2015. Even Mahmoud Abbas has said “No, we do not support the boycott of Israel.”
But, I guess that’s not good enough for Dmitri Lascaris and others who want to carry on their fight on the backs of Palestinian workers. I don’t deny that Lascaris – and Mark Golden, have noble intentions. It’s the end results of their efforts I criticize. I wonder what the former Palestinian Sodastream employees in Ma’aleh Adumim would have to say to Lascaris?