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'We are not afraid of you, Mike': Activists react to Pompeo's move against pro-BDS groups

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated any group that supports Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as antisemitic
Palestinians demonstrate near Israeli settlement of Psagot against visit by Mike Pompeo on 18 November (AFP/File photo)

Pro-Palestine and human rights advocates condemned US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's policy announcement targeting groups affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. 

Pompeo said on Thursday that the US officially regards the BDS movement as antisemitic and plans to cut any government funding to groups that have voiced support for the campaign - which urges individuals, companies and countries to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations.

According to J Street's November National Jewish Survey, 22 percent of all Jewish Americans under 40 support the BDS movement, as do several members of Congress. 

Under Pompeo's new order, essentially all groups that advocate for Palestinian rights in the US, such as Students for Justice in Palestine; Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP); Code Pink; US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN); US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR); the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and many more will be labelled antisemitic. 

'I was deported by Israel in 2018, following that country's ban on BDS activists, and am ashamed to see my own country today following in Israel's footsteps of repressing free speech'

- Ariel Gold, national co-director at CodePink

"This is the last gasp of a dying regime," Hatem Abudayyeh, the national chair at USPCN told Middle East Eye. 

While USPCN does not receive any government funding, it still objects to the idea that it will be officially designated as antisemitic because of its critical stance towards Israeli human rights violations.

"I believe the main issue for us is the criminalisation and delegitimisation of our movement," Abudayyeh said, warning that the new policy is likely to severely affect the ability of young activists on college campuses to freely express their support for Palestinian rights. 

With the Trump administration using the controversial definition of antisemitism laid out by International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), any group that singles out Israel for criticism without at the same time criticising other countries that violate rights, will fall under the category of antisemitic.

The IHRA definition has been condemned by dozens of Jewish groups worldwide and by hundreds of leading Jewish and Israeli scholars. 

'A last-ditch effort'

In addition to targeting groups that are supportive of BDS, Pompeo also announced that products made in Israeli settlements, considered illegal by most world bodies, will now be labelled as "Made in Israel" instead of the decades-old US norm of "Made in West Bank" labels, making it more difficult for consumers to boycott Israeli settlement goods.

While the Trump administration only has two months left before President-elect Joe Biden takes over, Abudayyeh said he was sceptical that the new Democratic administration would overturn either measure, given Biden's outspoken pro-Israel stance.

"Pompeo and Trump are trying to establish 'facts on the ground' for the next administration," he said. 

"Yes, [Biden] has talked about reversing the decision of cutting funding to UNRWA," he continued, referring to the Trump administration's 2018 decision to cut aid to the UN Palestinian refugee agency. "But he has not talked about reversing the decision about the US embassy being moved to Jerusalem. He and Harris both are clearly huge fans of Israel."

Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director at USCPR, told MEE that the announcement was the latest push by the Trump administration to establish blanket US support for Israel. 

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"It's a last-ditch effort by Pompeo and Trump to destroy what they can from the Palestinian perspective and support what they can from the Israeli perspective. Their days are numbered, and I think these are desperate moves of [the] assumed to be ending administration," Abuznaid said. 

"The State Department and Israel are moving forward with plans of annexation, of blurring the lines between settlements and non-settlements," he added, warning that the move may still backfire.

"They are really doing the work of clarifying for people that there is in fact a settler-colonial apartheid system at play here that seeks to occupy maximum Palestinian land with minimal Palestinians and rights for Palestinians," he said.

Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU's Human Rights Program, warned that it is "dangerous to weaponize the fight against anti-Semitism for political ends" and "personal political ambitions". 

"By equating criticism of Israel or Zionism with anti-Semitism, Pompeo aims to suppress and chill legitimate advocacy in support of Palestinian human rights," Dakwar tweeted.

Pompeo's anti-BDS announcement follows a 2018 law passed by Israel that blocks entry into the country of anyone affiliated with the movement.

Ariel Gold, the national co-director at CodePink, a US-based anti-war group, was deported from Israel following the law's passing that year.

In an emailed statement she slammed the Trump administration for taking a similar stance. 

"It is particularly appalling to me as an American Jew and as someone who is committed to ending Israel's violations of Palestinian rights," Gold said. "I was deported by Israel in 2018, following that country's ban on BDS activists, and am ashamed to see my own country today following in Israel's footsteps of repressing free speech." 

Sari Bashi, a human rights lawyer and co-founder of Gisha, an Israeli human rights NGO, called Pompeo's move an "insult to the legacy of the brave women and men throughout history who gave their lives to fight anti-Semitism".

"BDS supporters oppose the Israeli government because it oppresses Palestinians. Not because it's run by Jews," she said in a post to Twitter.

"People who endorse bigotry against Palestinians should not be trusted to determine what constitutes bigotry against Jews," said Peter Beinart, a Jewish activist and political commentator. 

Meanwhile, other activists expressed concerns that larger and more established human rights groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, Oxfam and others that have been critical of Israel's rights violations may be targeted with the antisemitic label. 

Groups vow to continue human rights work

HRW, which has already been targeted in Israel, Venezuela and Iran, spoke out against the move, which it said went against US freedom of speech norms. 

"Americans have a long history of supporting peaceful boycotts to promote social justice and human rights, like the civil rights boycott in Mississippi, or those against apartheid in South Africa," Eric Goldstein, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, said in a statement on Thursday. 

"The Trump administration has no business trying to tar groups because they back boycotts," he said.

Last year, Israel deported HRW's Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, for his work, and in October stopped granting any visas to employees at the United Nations' human rights agency, effectively forcing the body’s top staff to leave.

Amnesty International USA, in a lengthy statement on its website, also condemned Pompeo's announcement as a threat to freedom of expression and human rights work. 

"The US administration is following the Israeli government's approach in using false and politically motivated accusations of antisemitism to harm peaceful activists, including human rights defenders, and shield from accountability those responsible for illegal actions that harm people in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and here at home," Bob Goodfellow, the interim executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement on Thursday.  

"The process comes across as particularly hypocritical and deceitful coming from an administration that has emboldened neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other groups who advocate violence and discrimination, shown a callous disregard for international law, and favored Israeli policies that result in institutionalized discrimination and systematic human rights violations against millions of Palestinians," Goodfellow said. 

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He also warned that the policy "hurts Jewish people by equating Israel with Judaism and likening criticism of Israeli government policies and practices to antisemitism". 

Still, Amnesty vowed not to allow the new policy to affect its ongoing human rights work, saying the group will "continue to support our Israeli and Palestinian colleagues, including BDS activists, who like human rights defenders around the world, speak up when justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied".

Jewish Voice for Peace has also committed to continuing its pro-BDS work, despite this new threat. 

"We are proudly Jewish, proudly anti-Zionist, and proudly pro-BDS," the group said on Twitter. "We are part of the movement for Palestinian rights because ALL people should live in freedom and with justice. BDS is a powerful tool in the work for Palestinian rights. We are not afraid of you, Mike."

For its part, the BDS National Committee accused the US government of "fraudulent revision of the definition of antisemitism".

"The fanatic Trump-Netanyahu alliance is intentionally conflating opposition to Israel’s regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid against Palestinians and calls for nonviolent pressure to end this regime on the one hand with anti-Jewish racism on the other, in order to suppress advocacy of Palestinian rights under international law," the group said.

"BDS has consistently and categorically rejected all forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism, as a matter of principle."