Mainstreaming BDS in Italy

A series of events in Italy during the month of March show that, despite the government’s strong ties with Israel and recent efforts to shut down the debate on Palestine,….

A series of events in Italy during the month of March show that, despite the government’s strong ties with Israel and recent efforts to shut down the debate on Palestine, the boycott divestment and sanctions movement is becoming more and more mainstream.

In mid-March, a speaking tour by Omar Barghouti, among the co-founders of the BDS movement, brought the aims and goals of the campaign to standing-room only crowds at universities and institutions in Rome, Bologna and Turin.

At an event at Parliament organized by MPs for Peace, Barghouti detailed the movement’s motives and successes and called on Italy, as Israel’s top arms supplier in Europe, to suspend military trade and joint research projects. Barghouti also urged MPs to join efforts to suspend the trade agreement between the European Union and Israel. On the Italian Parliament’s recent ambiguous vote on the recognition of a Palestinian State, which left so much up to interpretation that it was welcomed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Barghouti explained that it wasn’t the vote itself that mattered, but what comes after. “If, for example, it is followed by a motion for a military embargo, then it becomes more than just a symbolic measure.”

Barghouti also met with leaders of the metalworkers unions of Italy’s three national confederations, FIOM-Cgil, which has endorsed BDS, FIM-Cisl and UIM-Uil, representing altogether over 500 hundred thousand workers. In a joint statement, the unions recognized that the BDS campaign “has proven itself to be the main form of nonviolent struggle for an end to the Israeli occupation and the Israeli government’s continued violation of the Palestinian people’s human rights.”

In an effort to stimulate the discussion on BDS, local organizers sought debate opponents for Barghouti’s public talks, though without much luck. Pro-Zionist figures and opponents of BDS either did not reply to requests or turned down the invitation.

In Turin, actor and writer Moni Ovadia, who supports economic boycotts, did express concerns over excluding Israeli intellectuals and scholars from the debate with academic boycotts via a video message during an event organized by the Culture, Politics and Society department of the University of Turin. Barghouti responded explaining that academic boycotts are against institutions and not individuals, and that “nothing in the BDS call prevents the exchange of ideas.”

In Rome, Fabio Nicolucci, author of the book La Sinistra e Israele (The Left and Israel), agreed to a debate at the University Rome 3 organized by the student union Studenti alla Terza. Those eager for a thought provoking intellectual exchange were sorely disappointed, as Nicolucci only passingly addressed the topic of the debate, while trotting out tired Zionist talking points, harking back to the “good” Zionism of David ‘We must expel Arabs and take their place’ Ben-Gurion and claiming Apartheid doesn’t exist in Israel because “Arabs” vote. Charting new territories, Nicolucci went on to state that “perhaps the problem is the opposite,” that Palestinians and Israelis live “too closely”, with not enough separation “in such a small territory.”

During the question and answer session, several members of the audience questioned Nicolucci’s left credentials, as did Barghouti.

“I heard “sinistra” so many times during this debate that I must ask, how is this word defined in this country? Let’s agree on a very basic fundamental and essential component of claiming to be leftist: Do you believe that all human beings deserve equal rights, yes or no? Anyone claiming to be a leftist cannot defend a racist order in which non-Jews, the indigenous Palestinians, are denied their rights.”

In Bologna, Barghouti took BDS to City Hall, speaking at an event as part of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) organized by BDS Bologna and AssoPace Palestine. The IAW events in Bologna included initiatives ranging from a Parish screening of The Stones Cry Out to a talk on Israeli pinkwashing efforts at the Cassero LGBT Center, demonstrating the wide appeal of the movement.

Student movements and local BDS groups held IAW events in 8 cities across Italy.

On the island of Sardinia, after a year that saw student movements, local associations, Palestine solidarity groups and anti-war activists work to support BDS initiatives and oppose Israeli military drills, IAW played a key role in the city of Cagliari, taking local student movements to new goals and achievements. Students and local activists are extremely concerned about the University of Cagliari’s partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the Haifa-based university deeply involved in supporting Israel’s occupation and war crimes, whose research and development are particularly focused on military technology.

Student movements and local Sardinian groups, such as CUA Casteddu – Collettivo Universitario Autonomo Casteddu, Sa Domu Studentato Occupato, Scida Giovunus Indipendentistas, Unica 2.0, Collettivo Studentesco Antonio Gramsci and Collettivo Furia Rossa, have therefore endorsed an academic boycott of Israel and launched an online petition, which garnered over 1100 signatures in just a few weeks. The petition calls on the University of Cagliari to cancel all academic cooperation with Israeli institutions and to refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with any Israeli university or counterpart.

Sardinian students are determined not to be complicit in Israel’s massacres on Gaza or its occupation and Apartheid regime in all of Palestine. They stressed that the continued cooperation between Sardinian and Italian Universities and Israeli higher learning institutions clearly makes Italian academies complicit in Israel’s crimes against humanity.

During IAW 2015 at the University of Cagliari, organized by the Sardinia-Palestine Friendship Association and BDS Sardegna along with the student organization Cua Casteddu, journalists Ben White and Frank Barat spoke at an inspiring and action-focused panel discussion. The two guest speakers provided students and local activists with the chance to hear about the latest developments in the BDS movement and about its new important heights.

This, despite the fact that the University of Cagliari attempted to cancel the event the same day it was to take place. “They told us just a few hours before the beginning of the planned panel discussion that the room was unavailable for ‘administrative’ reasons,” said a member of Cua Casteddu. “This attempt to silence students’ freedom of speech and expression was rejected by the determination of the students themselves. In fact, we decided that the event will be held at the University anyway.”

The panel discussion featuring White and Barat went ahead with no surprises for a packed and particularly engaged audience.

White spoke about Israeli Apartheid and Israel’s definition as a ‘Jewish and democratic state.’ “Israeli Apartheid is Israel’s own version of a system that has been universally condemned,” said White at the beginning of his talk. “The only reason Israel today has a Jewish majority among its citizens is because of historic and ongoing ethnic cleansing. (…) In the first few years of the state’s existence, three laws were passed, which provided a framework of apartheid, a framework not of a democracy but of an ethnocracy, the Law of Return, the Absentees’ Property Law and the Citizenship Law,” said White. Furthermore, he underlined that “BDS is an anti-racist, anti-apartheid campaign that seeks to end Israeli impunity and our institutional complicity.”

Barat spoke passionately of the key role played by grassroots movements and actions and of “the importance of inspiring each other”. “I think that for us in Europe, in order for us to be able to react, we first have to understand that what is happening in Palestine is a global issue, a universal issue. BDS helps us to realise that it is a global issue that is touching every one of us.” Furthermore, Barat noted that international solidarity with Palestinians has increased significantly, while the situation on the ground has continued to worsen. Thus, “We have to do more, we have to be more radical (…) but we have to be optimistic …because eventually it is us together that will write history, not the so-called people in the power,” Barat said.

Events in Cagliari continued with four days of film screenings at the XII Annual International Al Ard Doc Film Festival 2015.

As Barghouti commented on the recent Israeli elections, “the mask is off.” And organizers in Italy will use the occasion to push the BDS campaign and Palestine solidarity to new realms.