Interview with Ronnie Barkan, an Israeli pro-Palestinian activist. By Slovene journalist Kristina Božič.
Ronnie Barkan, a pro-Palestinian activist, explains why a prospect of official Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank will bring little change on the ground as apartheid system has been ongoing since 1948 and is well entrenched. A co-founder of the Israeli collective Boycott From Within, he is one of the three prosecuted BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) activists known as Humboldt3. He explains why together with Stavit Sinai and Majed Abusalama they will face again the German court in August and why he is proud of this. Solidarity between Black Lives Matter and other movements and the BDS comes logically and organically, he says, as they are all part of the global fight against supremacist ideas of one group of people ruling over another.
It has been almost a decade since your first visit to Slovenia where you met with officials at the Foreign Ministry. They seemed to have understood the extent of the Israeli apartheid against the Palestinians, yet the state remains quiet. On the 23rd of June only six Slovenian Parliamentarians signed a mildly worded letter by 1080 MEPs, fearing future official annexation of the West Bank by Israel. How should we understand and react to this informed political passivity and inaction in the face of the perpetration of international crimes?
The European states have legal obligations they seem to be forgetting. Therefore, we have to demand they fulfill them. This forgetfulness is especially apparent when they talk about the situation in Palestine, also known as Israel. During my first visit to Slovenia we discussed the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which is again in focus. Legal scholars are clear that Article 2 of the Agreement is legally binding, basing the agreement on the respect for human rights and democratic principles which constitute an essential element of the Agreement. This means that in the case of consistent human rights violations by one party the whole Agreement is null and void. The EU is not allowed to carry on doing business as usual with Israel. They can sanction Israel, they can freeze the Agreement, they can take all kinds of corrective measures, but by law they are not allowed to carry on doing business as usual.
And yet they do. The EU has just signed a new EU-Israeli Aviation Agreement.
True. It is grotesque. Israel is given a green light for its human rights violations even though they amount to crimes against humanity. So, I commend the parliamentarians who have signed the letter expressing criticism, but it is too little too late. It can only be the necessary first step. I demand they abide by international and European law – which they are there to uphold. The EU and its most powerful members, including Germany, are fully supportive of Israel no matter what – this has to change. And things are changing. The verdict in the case of Baldassi and Others vs. France by the European Court for Human Rights that upheld the rights of activists calling for boycott of Israel is important.
It is true that on the other hand we see ever more brazen expressions among politicians, but these actually expose the true face of the current situation. When the race-state of Israel is happy to align itself with unapologetic racist and fascist leaders around the world, these disturbing ties also happen to force certain politicians into reconsidering where they stand.
In the last week we saw calls by the British Labour party and a former Conservative politician for a ban on products from Israeli settlements in case of annexation. Slovenian tax authorities avoid questions about clear labelling and control over preferential treatment with lengthy explanations about formalistic bureaucratic procedures. More principled policies have been shaping in Ireland yet they are painfully unambitious. Is a ban getting closer?
The illegal settlements and occupation profiteering raise again the obligations that stem from the EU-Israel Association Agreement. The law is clear on what the EU member states can and should do. They can be neutral if they wish, but neutrality means that they must not support the violators. And their current stance is not neutral – the EU and European states must live up to their own laws and regulations.
A valid European directive states that illegal settlement products must not be given the same Israeli tariff with preferential treatment. Israel’s response is to mix the products from illegal settlements, those within ‘67 occupied Palestine, with produce from Palestine ’48, also known as Israel proper. This does not remove the stain of the occupation but rather taints all the products, as at least none of them should be given preferential tariffs.
European politicians seem to be determined to be the last to change their ways despite noticeable shifts. Pressure is mounting and it mostly comes from ordinary people. In Norway, the largest trade union confederation LO with almost a million members in the country of five million, has voted in support of a complete boycott and sanctions of Israel. This is impressive. The BDS movement is supported by the indigenous people and oppressed groups around the world, including Black Lives Matter. There are numerous grass-roots organizations speaking up about Israeli crimes. These are reasons for optimism.
With the politicians we hear about, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, we are witnessing the globalization of a racist and even fascist discourse. However, this is also an opportunity for the globalization of anti-racist and anti-fascist voices. We are not there yet but we do stand a chance.
Three years ago with Stavit Sinai and Majed Abusalama you protested a lecture by a Knesset member, Aliza Lavie, at Humboldt University. For that you face prosecution in Germany. Is this a sign that pressure is mounting on the Israeli apartheid?
It is. Proof of this is also the panic of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs. It is the ministry which exists solely to fight against the BDS. The ministry’s name in Hebrew includes the term Hasbara, which is a euphemism for Zionist propaganda, so it would be fair to refer to it as the Ministry of Propaganda. And this is exactly what Aliza Lavie with her delegation from the Yesh Atid political party was doing in Germany. The delegation was sent on an explicit anti-BDS Hasbara mission, handing out anti-BDS booklets which are published by the Yesh Atid party. Aliza Lavie was at the time the Head of the anti-BDS Lobby in the Knesset, she was a member of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee overseeing the massacre in Gaza in 2014, where 550 children were murdered and 89 Palestinian families were obliterated, and she was the Head of the Israeli Mission to the European Council where she defended the Israeli torture of Palestinian children and the massacre of unarmed protesters along the Gaza fence. She had been speaking for some minutes emphasizing how LGBTQ+ friendly Israel is and how dare anyone claim it is pink-washing apartheid. I stood up and asked her why Israel threatens gay Palestinians with outing them if they do not cooperate with the regime and explained why I believe she was an illegitimate representative of a criminal apartheid state, citing from the UN report on Israeli apartheid, which I handed her as I was escorted out and told her in Hebrew to read it. A few minutes later a fellow Israeli dissident Stavit stood up and told Aliza Lavie that she has the blood of Gazan children on her hands. She was violently escorted out, punched in her face. The last one to protest was Majed, who is from Gaza and he waited until the questions and answers session, when he asked a question and then left the room. All three of us were later accused of trespassing and assault even though it was a public event and no one claims to have been assaulted.
I have to emphasize that ours is just one among many cases with which the Israeli and German states try to silence us and other people, who support the BDS. We have experienced a concerted slander campaign in German and Israeli media. First reports claimed there were 20 BDS activists who attacked a Holocaust survivor and even though it is all on video, exposing this as a lie, it is the narrative that is being pushed by Zionist propaganda to this day. No newspaper published our statement titled Speaking Up in Times of Apartheid, no one mentioned that two of us are Israeli-Jews and descendants of Holocaust survivors. Yet, later that year our protest was mentioned in an annual Berlin intelligence report, under a special chapter on antisemitism in the city.
In the speech you gave last year in court you emphasized that you were proud of standing on the right side of history and called on the judge to hold Israel accountable for the crime of apartheid.
Yes. I am proud to be taken to court for such activities. And I said to the judge that no verdict would stop me from again opposing Israeli apartheid. This will be my legacy and now the court has to decide what will be its – opposing crimes against humanity or looking the other way.
Both authors of the UN report on Israeli apartheid have endorsed us and prof. Richard Falk came to Berlin, where he said our actions should be seen as German patriotism, liberating Germany from its own dark past. He said that if we want to get rid of anti-Semitism we have got to begin to take criminality seriously wherever it occurs. This prosecution has given us an opportunity to speak out about the issues, which are otherwise silenced. In post-Nazi Germany there is the notion of Staatsraison, which is above any law, saying that the very legitimacy of the German state is in protecting the existence of the State of Israel, no matter what. And this is highly problematic since Israel was founded as a race state, on the basis of ethnic cleansing and ethnic segregation. It implements an ethnic-based differentiation between what it sees as the ubermenschen and untermenschen, between superhumans and subhumans. Therefore, Germany’s unconditional support for Israel simply proves that they have learned absolutely nothing from their dark past. If they had, they would be at the forefront opposing apartheid and opposing another race state which is based on differentiating between people based on their ethnic-racial characteristics.
The judge at your hearing said she does not have time for such cases …
And after two hearings she did not find time and there has been no verdict. Therefore, we are going to face a retrial in the beginning of August. Something that has been part of the trial is the UN report on Israeli apartheid and we planned that during the third hearing prof. Richard Falk would stand as a witness. We also submitted video evidence showing that the Zionist delegation and their witnesses had lied. We will see what happens this time around.
The UN report on Israeli apartheid by prof. Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley was published in 2017. It describes how Israeli apartheid is exerted not only on the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and inside Israel but also on the Palestinian refugees who are not allowed to return to their homes. Much attention is now given to the possibility of the Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. How much change is that really going to bring on the ground and how dangerous is simply the normalization of the criminal regime that has been going on for years now?
The Israeli occupation of 1967 is certainly not the main issue, it is only a symptom of Zionist crimes, including belligerent occupation, ethnic-cleansing, colonialism and apartheid. Occupation and apartheid started at the latest in 1948, after the land was ethnically-cleansed of most of its indigenous population. Until 1966 there was an Israeli military rule over Palestinians, those who were not already in forced exile from their land. Then, the military rule ended and the very same practices were exported a year later to the newly occupied territories of 1967. That is why the talk of fifty years of occupation is no more than a liberal-Zionist propaganda. It purposefully forgets the earlier Israeli occupation and more importantly, the establishment of a new state by wiping out the land of most of its people. The importance of this UN report is not just in explaining how apartheid is a systemic crime which is rooted in the foundation of the State of Israel, but in its argument that those affected by apartheid today include not only those living on that land but also the millions of refugees, who have lived in forced exile for the past seven decades. To achieve this system which differentiates, segregates and denies the rights of people based on their ethnic background, in order to afford superior rights to people of the selected ethnicity that I belong to, a premeditated act of ethnic-cleansing of the indigenous population was needed. And the ethnic-cleansing is ongoing and expanding. Perpetrating the crime of apartheid therefore means that those who were expelled from their land are denied to this day their right to go back home. They suffer for only one reason and that is their “crime” of wrong ethnicity.
It is important to understand that there is no Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no conflict. What there is, is a criminal system of oppression and terror of one ethnic group against all others who stand in its way. This system must be abolished.
After the occupation of 1967 the system of ethnic-based differentiation in that territory was built by enacting military law for some people and civil law for others. This is a clear case of apartheid policies and Hebron is often offered as an example where on the same territory there are two different legal systems enacted for two different groups of people. But the legal infrastructure of the State of Israel has been built from its foundations in order to practice apartheid also among citizens. A 2-tier legal system has been built, which is based on the legal differentiation between nationality and citizenship. On the face of it, Israel affords the same rights to all of its citizens, but the citizenship-rights mean very little since the state affords the valuable rights and privileges only to those of the select ethnicity, which are legally defined as having Jewish nationality.
Understanding this is important in order to analyze the prospect of annexation. There is absolutely nothing new about it. Two years ago the Jewish Nation State Law was successfully passed as a basic law. A basic law is akin to a constitution in a place that cannot afford to have equality but needs to enshrine certain laws. The State of Israel does not recognize its own nationality, since acknowledging an Israeli nationality would apply to all of its citizens and that would present basis for equality, which could be the end of the apartheid. The Jewish Nation State Law was heavily reported on but in the end this just obfuscated its main purpose. Yes, it made apartheid policies explicit but there was nothing new there. Its aim was not to change any law but to enshrine the laws via a basic law, for the sake of the future. By doing so the law solves the so-called “demographic issue”.
That basic law states that all citizens will have citizenship rights but only Jews will have national rights. This concurs with the apartheid design of the Israeli state. Using these two levels of citizenship and nationality, Israeli apartheid had managed to create a much more sophisticated form of apartheid than that of its South African counterpart, which was also established in 1948. While the South African case was quite literally a case of black and white, Israel managed to create a facade of democracy using its 2-tier system, which is there specifically to deny every democratic principle – it denies equality, protection of minorities and multiculturalism to all who do not possess Jewish nationality.
Trump’s annexation plan is a direct continuation of the Jewish Nation State law. The moment that the law passed there has been no longer a need for the Zionists to artificially maintain a majority of their own. They may annex Area C or even the entire West Bank, along with its people, while making it clear that we and only we are the masters of this land. In theory, they may even allow Palestinian refugees to come back home, though they will never do it, nonetheless, this would not affect the Israeli Jewish state since its apartheid regime is enacted as a basic law.
Is it a formalization of apartheid in the law?
Yes. Some people now say that Israel is becoming an apartheid state. This is completely false. It has always been an apartheid state and it was built this way. Now it is only explicit, what for some people has been so far implicit.
When discussing apartheid inside what is regarded as Israel, the UN report on apartheid gives the example of the election law, which is titled Basic Law: Knesset. According to the law a person may not run for elections if they reject the ethnic-supremacist character of the state. Palestinians who are citizens of Israel may indeed participate in Israeli elections, but they are forbidden by law from turning it into a democracy. The UN report says that this is akin to a system in which slaves have the right to vote but not against slavery.
Being currently in Palestine, what is the perception of the prospect of annexation? Are people mostly tired, disillusioned?
For the past years if not a decade there is a growing tiredness among activists but also the general public. Among pro-Palestinian activists the energies there are currently very low but there are reasons for optimism as changes are taking place and much is happening under the surface. In my immediate surroundings I see people becoming tired of what Israel has become. You may claim that this has been the case all along but with Netanyahu there is a growing disillusionment and disappointment of everyone who is not among his ardent supporters. I talked to a father who said that he was afraid to raise his children in this place. It feels that we are in a free fall and that racism and fascism are becoming more and more explicit.
Basically, there are only two types of Zionists that I’m aware of. The ones who are explicitly racist and unashamed, even proud of it. Then there are Zionists who think of themselves as liberals as they speak the language of peace and human rights while being just as racist and supremacist as the first type. They are the ones who feel they are losing the battle the more Israel exposes its apartheid face for the world to see. They feel exhausted since it shatters their entire facade and their own self-perception. They are the liberals who claim to support a Palestinian state but for all the wrong reasons. In the words of “peacenik” Ami Ayalon the concept of a Jewish democracy demands our majority so we have the right to dictate and this is conditioned by a “Palestinian state on the other side of the border”. He said this in 2010: “Not because they deserve it. Not because we love them. Because this is existential for us! If we do not do it – there is no Zionism.” He continued that we could create a two state reality even without a Palestinian partner. But his red line is that no Palestinian returns into the State of Israel.
You have mentioned the solidarity among Black Lives Matter and the BDS movement. Is there a recognition that both as well as other movements are actually struggling against supremacism as such, against superiority of one human over another, be that white supremacy in America, ethnic pluralism of the groups Generation Identity in Europe or the Israeli apartheid? Jeff Halper wrote about the Israeli know-how spreading across the world but what role and example do you see the Israeli apartheid state play globally?
I would mention the work of Israeli attorney Eitay Mack who speaks about many of these things and focuses on the thriving Israeli arms trade with the worst regimes around the world, including those who commit massacres and genocide, and even with some explicitly neo-Nazi groups. Israel exports its weapons, tools and practices for oppressing and controlling a population. It is a very good business or as the acting Minister of Education, who is also a war criminal, who commanded over the 2008 Gaza massacre, says: “The trick of turning blood into money”.
So, yes, solidarity with Black Lives Matters exists. It is correct to see parallels between the South African and Israeli apartheid regimes, but there are also parallels with the American history of slavery, its genocide of indigenous people and especially the white supremacy which is at its very foundation and which is still alive and kicking. In comparison, the State of Israel has been much better at hiding its true nature, making its apartheid far more sophisticated than the former apartheid regime of South Africa. When most people read words Israeli democracy in a newspaper they do not burst out laughing although they should. The Zionist state is as opposed to democratic values as is possible. In the US today, Ku Klux Klan ideas are unacceptable in the mainstream discourse but in Israel that is the mainstream discourse. Israel is a state that is founded on the exact same ideas as those of the KKK. Richard Spencer, a well-known face of white supremacy in America, said that he is a white Zionist. Spencer understands Zionism much better than most Israelis who grew into it, especially self-proclaimed liberal Zionists. He talks about learning and taking inspiration from the Zionist state. He says it out loud because he is unashamed about his own white supremacy.
People need to reassess how they see the Zionist State of Israel. In the meantime the solidarity between BDS and BLM is inevitable as is the solidarity between South African and Palestinian activists. I will return to professor Falk’s words as he explains how the struggle for Palestinian rights goes beyond Palestine. The Israeli regime and its practice of apartheid go well beyond the territory of Palestine since its refugees are scattered all over the world. But the BDS movement has by now become a global awareness movement, similar to Black Lives Matter in its struggle for equality, freedom and justice that stretches beyond the land of Palestine. This is beautiful. We are part of a global struggle for global human rights and full equality. It is simply the thing to do if you consider yourself to be an anti-racist and opposed to white or ethnic supremacy.
You talk about how your, what you call privileged, position of a white Israeli Jew is not something that should bring guilt but, rather, a greater responsibility. You say that instead of fear we need to raise courage. What does the present moment call for?
It is important to be prepared for being slandered by state-backed propagandists. We have seen its effectiveness in the UK against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party. I very much appreciate Corbyn but his apologetic responses were a great mistake. We have to learn not to be apologetic about doing things that need to be done and saying what needs to be said. I am not saying that apologizing is bad but we do not need to be apologetic about things that we fully stand behind. When we are falsely accused of antisemitism or other kinds of grotesque absurdities we need to negate them in their entirety and focus on what is truly the main issue. I also strongly negate any and all conflation between Zionism and Judaism. Zionism has precisely nothing to do with Judaism and I have written about this. It so happens that whenever Zionists use and abuse Judaism in order to gain legitimacy for their criminal actions it is in itself grossly antisemitic.
The second thing I notice is that people give way too much importance to words, blindly trusting them or taking them at face value without thinking or considering the logic behind the jumble of words being presented, whether in a speech or an article. This for me was most apparent in the case of Barack Obama, whose monstrous legacy includes the greatest persecution of whistle-blowers and the unprecedented promotion of torture and extrajudicial killings. But to this day most see him as a humanist. We definitely need to do better. Be more serious about what is actually being said and not so easily manipulated by the style and eloquence of this or that politician or journalist.