Congress holds hearing on Palestinian-led movement, without Palestinians
Imagine if Congress held its first-ever hearing in the 1980s on the impact of boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against the apartheid regime of South Africa and failed to call a single witness who supported them. Would anyone take seriously such a blatantly biased hearing as an accurate indication of the principles, aims and successes of this movement?
Yet this is exactly what the National Security Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee did last week when it convened a hearing to investigate the impact of the Palestinian civil society-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and corporations and institutions which profit from and/or defend Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.Last month marked the 10-year anniversary of the Palestinian call for BDS, endorsed by more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations representing Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed from their homes by Israel during its establishment.
In the ensuing decade, trade unions, faith-based organizations, student governments, cultural workers and many more worldwide have embraced the BDS call and acted upon it as a way of expressing their solidarity with the Palestinian people in its quest for freedom, justice and equality and in opposition to Israel’s racism, discrimination and apartheid policies toward Palestinians.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), chair of the subcommittee (who repeatedly referred to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank by the pro-settler term “Judea and Samaria“) easily could have called a representative of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, a body that coordinates BDS campaigns with activists around the globe, to testify about the movement’s impact. He could have called the president of theAmerican Studies Association to testify why it voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. He could have added to the witness list the president of the United Church of Christ, which voted overwhelmingly this summer to divest from U.S. corporations such as Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard to protest their profiteering from Israeli military occupation, becoming the third major Protestant denomination to take similar action after the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church.
Instead, however, DeSantis called three witnesses hostile to the BDS movement, including the CEO of SodaStream International, Daniel Birnbaum, whose company’s main manufacturing plant is located on expropriated Palestinian land in a West Bank settlement, making it a primary corporate target of the BDS movement. Birnbaum, who passed out settlement product gift bags to fellow witnesses and congressional staff before the hearing, decried flash mob protests and other creative direct actions against his company as “violent.” Another witness, Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, repeatedly referred to BDS as “warfare” against Israel, while neglecting to condemn Israel’s actual warfare against Palestinians which inspires the BDS movement.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), ranking member of the subcommittee, attempted to have a semblance of balance at the hearing by inviting Matthew Duss of the Foundation for Middle East Peace to testify. Duss tepidly endorsed boycotts of Israeli settlement products but distanced himself from the broader campaigns and goals of the BDS movement.
The assumptions and composition of this hearing were problematic for at least three reasons. First, by placing this nonviolent, civil society movement under the scrutiny of a subcommittee ostensibly devoted to investigating matters of national security, the hearing attempted to stigmatize this movement and its practitioners as a threat.
Second, members of Congress and witnesses repeatedly asserted at the hearing that the BDS movement is solely about the “delegitimization” of Israel, rather than about changing its illegitimate practices and policies toward the Palestinians as the BDS call clearly articulates. This overheated argument attempts to exceptionalize Israel, making its conduct immune from the same sort of campaigns that have rectified other historical injustices. Similar nonviolent campaigns utilizing the force of economic pressure have succeeded in ending British colonization and domination in countries from Ireland to India. Closer to home, such tactics were employed successfully by the civil rights movement and the movement for farmworkers’ rights. Why make a sacred cow out of Israel and presume that its behavior should be held to different standards?
Third, by denying Palestinians (or any other supporters of the Palestinian BDS call) a voice at the hearing, Congress is stripping agency from Palestinians and dehumanizing them. By only allowing others to speak about what is arguably the most broad-based, effective Palestinian-led campaign ever to advance their long-denied rights, Congress continues to literally shut Palestinians out from telling their story and articulating their goals and aspirations.
Congress has failed the American public by denying them an opportunity for a balanced and nuanced hearing on the impact of the BDS movement. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee should remedy this situation by holding a follow-up hearing with witnesses who support the BDS call as a way to achieve Palestinian rights and a just and lasting peace.
Ruebner is policy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.