One of Israel’s biggest newspapers staged the country’s first national conference against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement this week in Jerusalem. Yedioth Ahronoth and its website Ynet organized a day-long event that featured the majority of leading Israeli politicians and many cultural figures. Fear, paranoia, anger and determination was ubiquitous amongst the panelists and audience. BDS could never have imagined a more high-profile advertisement for its agenda.
Co-sponsored by Sodastream, World Jewish Congress, Bank Hapoalim and StandWithUs, who are organizing their own anti-BDS event in Los Angeles in April, the aim of the day was to counter the worldwide growth of BDS. The organizers stated that, “without knives or missiles but with an explosive payload consisting of outrageous lies – genocide, apartheid and crimes against humanity – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is conquering a growing number of strongholds in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. From the campuses of California to the supermarkets of Paris, the academic, economic and cultural boycott is becoming a palpable threat to the international status of the State of Israel.”
Held in the Jerusalem Convention Center, hundreds of young and old participants from across the globe were treated to a collection of images in the foyer mocking the intentions of BDS supporters. One picture featured two black Africans standing on dry land while pro-Palestinian flotillas headed out to sea in the opposite direction. “Let’s wave these, maybe we’ll get some support, too”, one of the impoverished looking Africans said to the other while holding Palestinian flags. Another image showed an Israeli soldier saying to what was presumably a Palestinian woman, “Ho, cute baby.” A man sitting in a director’s chair labelled BDS shouts, “Cut! We need more hatred! The world won’t buy that!”
The professionally organized conference was slick. Throughout the day, short videos with ominous music were shown to the crowd. The clips were of BDS supporters, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti (a name repeatedly mentioned during the day, including threats to remove his permanent resident status), global protests against Israel and musicians who refuse to play in the Jewish state.
Speaker after speaker either confirmed the BDS threat or said it shouldn’t be exaggerated. There was confusion how to tackle a problem that couldn’t be destroyed by conventional military means. Yedioth Ahronoth Editor-in-Chief Ron Yaron said that BDS should not be underestimated. There was a “feeling that you have been marked…We don’t want to wake up in 10 years to find ourselves in a position like apartheid South Africa.” He quickly dismissed any comparison between the two nations.
An “information kit for Israelis studying abroad” was available listing the “lies” and “truth” about Israel. It’s a curious document. While acknowledging that, “not every closing of every store in Hebron is fair and not every delay at every checkpoint is justifiable”, occupation (though this word isn’t used) is still sugar-coated. “In spite of the obvious improvements in the lives of Palestinians from 1967 until today, Israeli rule has also created serious issues for Palestinians.” The 1948 Nakba is explained away as “there were some instances of expulsions [but] these were not the rule.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, hailed as a moderate in some of the American media despite recently meeting with members of Lev HaOlam (a group dedicated to supporting businesses in the occupied West Bank), condemned BDS. “The BDS movement is a movement founded on the non-acceptance of Israel’s existence”, he said. “We must differentiate between criticism and de-legitimization. We must show the world the claims of the BDS movement are based on hatred and enmity of the State of Israel.” Rivlin praised Israel’s democratic nature and “one of the most ethical armies in the world”. He closed his remarks by saying that, “the Israeli flag should be held high and we should be proud”. The crowd cheered.
Ron Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, told the gathering that, “our enemies have failed to destroy Israel militarily and economically. Having failed, they are trying to destroy Israel politically.” He accused “well-financed anti-Israel groups” of poisoning the minds of Jews on US campuses. “Most Jewish students are ill-equipped to defend themselves”, he argued. The irony was lost on the crowd that the US Zionist community has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to polish Israel’s image with little discernable effect. There’s no evidence that BDS groups have received any comparable financial backing.
Lauder pledged to push the US Congress and other nations “to make economic boycotts illegal.” There are signs that the US Congress is taking note and pushing to criminalize constitutionally protected speech and non-violent resistance. France is leading the way with other countries likely to follow. Such legislation guarantees BDS activists will break the law and challenge its moral and legal basis.
Successive politicians slammed BDS and never mentioned the occupation (a word that only appeared during the day when questioning BDS allegations against Israel). Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan linked BDS to jihadism and Islamist terrorism, a connection repeatedly made across every panel. “Supporters of BDS justify their actions because of the ‘occupation,’ but if we really look at them, they also wave Hamas flags and call for the destruction of the State of Israel. This fight is not over any particular thing in our lives – but over our right to live here.” Erdan was pleased that every US Presidential candidate spoke out against BDS at the recent AIPAC conference in Washington DC. “Not Bernie Sanders”, he said, “but I’m sure he’ll be against it, too…With the help of God and you all, we will succeed.” Erdan recently claimed that BDS was a threat “to the international community” as well as Israel.
Haaretz journalist and commentator Gideon Levy has written for years that the majority of the Israeli media are mouthpieces for the government of the day. They may disagree with certain policies now and then but in the end they’ll side with Israel’s pro-occupation regime. The anti-BDS conference offered more evidence to prove Levy’s point. Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Ben Dror Yemini praised Israel’s democracy and relished “exposing” critics “who publish lies”. Another Yedioth reporter, Ronen Bergman, after recounting one of his Israeli intelligence sources “recently telling me that we can fight Hizbollah, Iran and its nukes but we haven’t yet defeated BDS; it’s a strategic challenge for the Israeli state”, asked whether “we defeat BDS like we did Hamas and Islamic Jihad 15 years ago [during a wave of suicide bombings]?”
One of the more predictably disappointing speakers was EU Ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, who was recently defamed in a video by Israeli settlers comparing him to Hannibal Lector. After refusing pro-Palestinian activists request to withdraw from appearing on stage with Dani Dayan, former head of the settler movement and just appointed Israeli consul-general in New York, his comments were timid. After stating that EU policy towards the settlements was that they were illegal, he continued: “Our policy is engagement with Israel. We are Israel’s largest trade partner, and we are Israel’s most important international partner in science, technology, and the list goes on.”
He was asked if an Israeli company had offices or factories in both Israel and the occupied territories was reason to label its product from the settlements (as is now happening in the EU with products from the West Bank). He said no. “Settlement products are welcome on the EU market”, he stated, undermining any effort to hold Israeli companies to account.
A flurry of Israeli politicians appeared, mouthed anti-BDS platitudes and left the building. Labor Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, who recently proposed a policy of forcibly separating from the Palestinians, praised the IDF as “working to the highest goals” and compared BDS to classic anti-Semitism. Yair Lapid hoped to “motivate the start-up nation”.
Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon said there was “no evidence that the Israeli economy was affected” by BDS though pledged to help any Israeli company that was. Israeli farmer Bar Heffetz recently wrote on Facebook that BDS was having an effect on sales to Europe. Kahlon said that Palestinians were the ones suffering the most from BDS “as the boycott harms the exports from the settlements, where most of the workers are Palestinians.” Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said it was fashionable to “be vegan and hate on Israel” and wanted Israel to “change its policies [and] support the IDF as a moral and strong army.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett wanted Israel to “change the narrative and highlight our strong points. Trade with Europe is up and Israel is a steady light tower in an Arab storm.”
Challenging the official position that BDS wasn’t harming the Israeli economy, a panel with Israel’s leading industrialists argued otherwise. Former Intel Israeli President Shmuel Eden said that BDS was a “terrible threat” and “we are losing young, Jewish Americans”. Michael Jonas, CEO of Afek Oil and Gas, accused BDS of “terror” and expressed displeasure that many Arab states didn’t recognize its drilling in the occupied Golan Heights. Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of Sodastream, said Israel was in a “war” and denied that his company’s recent move to open a new plant in the Negev had any connection to BDS pressure (a contrary position to what he argued last year). “We needed a bigger plant and in the Negev, one hour from Ramallah, gives Palestinians work. This isn’t an apartheid state; we need co-existence.” Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss Group, urged more publicity about US and Israeli ties. “I grow in pride when people around the world drink Sodastream”, she said.
A sign of the anti-BDS campaign’s desperation was asking American actress and comedian Roseanne Barr to give the keynote address. She has a history of defaming Islam. Her talk rambled between accusing BDS of being “fascist” and “right-wing” and denying Israel was occupying any Palestinian territory at all (a position shared by virtually all of the day’s speakers). The crowd cheered throughout her talk. “It’s a huge turn-on being in service as a Jew”, she said to applause.
A panel dedicated to “beating the boycott movement on social media” consisted of mostly StandWithUs employees. “Strategic consultant” Chen Mazig, self-described “good friend” of Roseanne Barr, called prominent Palestinian writer and tweeter Ali Abunimah “a raving fanatic, a lunatic. He hates Jews”. Honest Reporting CEO Joe Hyams wanted the audience to “focus on the 85%-90% of people [online] who are undecided about Israel”. His organization routinely publishes propaganda for the IDF.
By late afternoon, and the program running overtime, US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, repeated US talking points about Israel and vigorously opposed BDS. Interestingly, he urged Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians because, “when we have such a tool, our hand is strengthened, not with the core advocates of BDS, who have a truly anti-Israel agenda independent of the conflict, but with those who are persuadable, and there are significant numbers of such people.” It was a theme repeated by Tzipi Livni earlier in the day. BDS would apparently suffer if at least the illusion of peace talks took place.
Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, a hard-right politician who has called all Palestinian people the “enemy”, said that “justice ministers around the world are great friends of Israel. They all love Israel and want to cooperate with it, especially in light of Israel’s experience in the war against terrorism.” She’s right; this co-operation is deepening and will likely continue to do so after more attacks like the ones recently suffered in Europe.
By day’s end, with all the fish, chicken, salad and marzipan chocolate eaten, the final session was about the cultural boycott of Israel and how to beat it. Actress Yael Abecassis said that she was a “spokesperson [for Israel] as soon as I leave the house, when I leave the country. We are all soldiers.” Musician Idan Raichel said that BDS activists had never successfully cancelled his performances. Producer Shuki Weiss, who revealed that Elton John was asked to sign an Israeli loyalty pledge before his show in Tel Aviv, said that few international musicians were listening to the BDS call by former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters.
It was a surreal day, filled with determination to defeat BDS, but participants were seemingly incapable of truly understanding why the movement was surging globally. Anti-Semitism was the oft-stated reason. The current mood in Jewish Israel is nationalistic, belligerent, fearful and contemptuous of Palestinians, pro-military and intolerant of dissent. International media is being blamed for Israel’s poor global standing.
BDS is working. Israeli companies are increasingly moving out of the West Bank to avoid being boycotted (though corporate media outlets like the Financial Times continue to produce plush spreads about the “start-up nation”). In many ways, the West Bank and Israel are already indivisible politically and morally; it’s one state with Jews and Arabs facing different rights and laws. Israel proper is complicit in establishing and deepening the West Bank colonies. De-facto annexation of the West Bank is happening today. Gaza remains broken.
The fact that this anti-BDS event happened at all, after years of Zionist groups and the Israeli government claiming the movement was irrelevant, was a clear sign that BDS has started to bite. Mossad is already pushing a cyberwar against BDS activists. The anti-BDS conference revealed that there are few strategies being contemplated apart from more money for US campuses to spread Israeli propaganda and funds to better sell the country’s supposed benefits to an increasingly skeptical world.
There’s no doubt that draconian legislation against BDS could hamper the movement’s rise in the short term, and BDS leaders could be targeted by political, social or military means, but the underlying trajectory of Israel is clear. The US and its allies are now supporting the “first signs of fascism in Israel”, Gideon Levy recently said. BDS will continue to grow globally because Israel is helping its cause on a daily basis.
Yesterday I was interviewed by ABC Radio Adelaide from Australia by host Peter Goers on Israel/Palestine, disaster capitalism and Papua New Guinea:
I was recently interviewed by Lulaine Compere for leading American music magazine The Source:
The system of capitalism is always being debated. In most countries people are fighting it, seeking to replace it, or trying to improve it. The mere presence of capitalism also brings with it values and ideas that will have huge consequences for the people who live under it. The ideals and virtues of capitalism hold true, even in times of disaster and chaos. Antony Loewenstein, an Australian journalist, explains this phenomenon in his new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out of Catastrophe . As a current columnist for the Guardian, he has written on this and other similar topics for not only the Guardian, but also other publications like The New York Times, The Nation, and The Washington Post. The Source got a chance to speak with Loewenstein about the premise of his book and to explain what is disaster capitalism.
The Source: What was the motivation behind writing your book Disaster Capitalism?
Antony Loewenstein: As an investigative journalist who doesn’t subscribe to the embedded reporter mindset, I wanted to write a book that questioned the economic system of our age in some of the most challenging places on the planet, such as Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. Furthermore, how does privatized immigration and war affect civilians in Greece, Britain, Australia, the US and Britain? By visiting these nations, and understanding how rarely the voices of those most affected by discriminatory economic policies are heard in the mainstream media, I hoped to show readers that the corporation has become more powerful than the state, and why that’s a big problem for democracy and accountability.
How does this book differ and how is it similar to Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine?
I was inspired by Klein’s book and wanted to expand her thesis. The Shock Doctrine was released in 2007 and much has changed since then, especially the 2008 global financial crisis. A key focus of my book is the privatized immigration industry across the globe. I wanted to investigate who was making money from the refugee “crisis” in Europe, Australia, the US and beyond, and why exploiting this issue was morally and economically irresponsible.
Is disaster capitalism “imperialism” by another name?
In many ways, yes. Take Afghanistan, consumed by war for decades. There are an estimated trillions of dollars of resources under the ground, but the excavation so far has been beset by corruption and violence. Is it even possible to responsibly mine in the country with a rising insurgency? What about climate change concerns? Imperialism, a word that the corporate media so rarely uses in the 21st century when discussing Western government and corporate policies, is little different to past exploitation by the major powers and multinationals, except that globalization today has allowed domination to occur on an unparalleled scale.
Should it be morally wrong or unethical for a company to make money during a disaster or in the aftermath?
No. It all depends on what the company is doing and how. Are they employing locals and training them? The profit motive often distorts the priorities of a corporation in a disaster or war zone, though I’m not idealizing the state, either. An entity that can and does regularly fail to provide adequately for its citizens—think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. A key problem with corporations operating in disaster zones, man-made or natural, is the lack of regulation, oversight and accountability. In Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s biggest copper mines, run by Rio Tinto, caused a civil war and pollution in in the 1970s, 80s and 90s and yet today, the company has paid no compensation and is talking about re-opening the site. It’s an almost invisible struggle against huge odds. I wanted to show how one company could take on a major mining player and win, though at a huge personal cost.
How should the rules of capitalism change or adjust should a disaster strike?
When a disaster strikes, necessary regulations should already be in place, but my book investigates how this is so rarely the case. Even in first-world nations, such as the US and Australia, the ongoing refugee “crisis” finds politicians and their media supporters supporting a “whatever it takes” mentality to manage it. Out of sight and out of mind is often viewed as a positive, short-term solution. For example, Australia is the only country in the world to completely privatize its asylum seeker facilities, including those based on remote Pacific islands. The conditions are awful; mental health problems are rampant and sexual and psychological abuse are common. None of these issues have stopped wily companies from bidding on contracts and making a profit from the misery of others.
Do you see the topic of disaster capitalism being discussed in some part by politicians throughout the world?
The vast majority of corporate politicians don’t discuss disaster capitalism because they’re complicit in continuing it. There are exceptions. US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has pledged to abolish privatized prisons and immigration centers due to the abuses within them.
Where are the latest examples of disaster capitalism taking place in the world?
In Afghanistan, there are still tens of thousands of private contractors with virtually no oversight. There are also many private contractors fighting ISIS in Iraq, but we don’t know the exact number. Once again, US President Barack Obama fights his wars with no transparency. Since 2001, the US has pledged to spend $110 billion in reconstructing Afghanistan and there’s very little to show for it.
Are there opportunities for disaster capitalism to be played out in more developed countries like U.S., Europe and Russia?
Disaster capitalism is borderless and knows no ideology other than the profit motive. Globalization allows unregulated corporations to travel the world looking for nations with low or no tax rates. Without a concerted international effort to challenge tax havens, disaster capitalism will continue to thrive.
What is the role of non profits and NGOs, where disaster capitalism can or is taking place?
NGOs and non-profits can play a central role in disaster and war zones. I’ve seen this myself in Haiti, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. But too often, accountability for NGO actions are missing. For example, the American Red Cross raised huge amounts of money after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but little of the money has helped the Haitian people. This case, and many others, is why the public should demand far greater scrutiny of groups that cloak themselves in benign intent.
Can you talk about the links between donor funds from donor countries, companies in those donor countries, the needs of the people in the disaster area, and what appears to be the freezing out of professionals in those countries? Can you also explain the diverging agendas that seem to happen when all these forces collide?
After the Haitian earthquake in 2010, the US government pledged to give the country billions of dollars in support. In reality though, much of this money went to US corporations, who failed to deliver on the ground in Haiti. A major insight during the reporting of my book is how little accountability exists within the aid world, when there’s a major incentive to keep the donor money rolling in. During my work in many troubled places, I’ve seen committed aid workers helping people in need, but it’s important to ask if prolonged conflicts are benefiting long-term NGOs. I want to see locals in developing nations being far more empowered by outside forces, through training, jobs etc, rather than being bystanders in their own country.
What has been the reaction from people about your book?
I’ve been pleased with the global response to the book, including a very positive review in the UK Guardian. I’ve toured the book in the UK and US, and found countless people keen to share their dismay with the political and economic direction of their nations. The immigration issue has been especially potent because the mass of people coming into Europe and the US are easily demonized as numbers and irritants, dismissed and turned into a number to be profited from. We need to resist this dangerous and immoral capitalist tendency.
What are the future plans for the book?
The book will be released in paperback later this year. I’ve also been working for years on a documentary called Disaster Capitalism with New York film-maker Thor Neureiter. It features stories from Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. We’re currently working on a rough edit of the feature. In recent great news, we’ve been accepted into the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in Toronto in May.
Late last year I visited Guinea-Bissau in West Africa to investigate the country’s role as a key drug smuggling hub between South America and Europe. I published a number of stories about it including in Foreign Policy.
Leading French website Ulyces is committed to translating investigative stories from across the world and bringing back the tradition of financially supported journalism. They’ve translated my Foreign Policy story (with more to come) and I’m happy that French speakers can now read my work around the globe. Here’s a taste (more here and PDF here: antonyloewenstein):
Nous nous trouvons à Bissau, capitale de la Guinée-Bissau. Les quartiers généraux de la police judiciaire, l’agence du gouvernement chargée de mener la guerre contre les drogues dans le pays, sont situés dans une rue poussiéreuse, au beau milieu de cette capitale d’Afrique de l’Ouest étonnamment silencieuse. À l’intérieur se trouve l’unique laboratoire d’analyse des drogues du pays, un ajout récent dû à l’augmentation du financement de l’Union européenne, qui vise à endiguer le flot de narcotiques qui traversent en permanence les frontières du petit État africain.
During my recent time in London I was an expert witness at the London School of Economics during a fascinating event putting the UN on trial. 70 years old and always controversial, prosecution and defence lawyers tried the UN and asked both a jury and large audience if the UN should continue. A number of witnesses spoke on their experiences about the UN and I principally discussed my reporting and insights from Haiti, Afghanistan, South Sudan and beyond. My comments start at 46:28:
For over four years I’ve been working on the documentary, Disaster Capitalism. I was shooting footage myself when I started researching the book that eventually became my recent Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe. I partnered with New York film-maker Thor Neureiter in 2012 (and Norwegian film-maker Spencer Austad has shot some amazing footage around the world). The film features Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea and issues related to aid, development and resources.
We’ve just been selected to participate in Hot Docs in Toronto in May, one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the world. One of 19 films (out of more than 200 submitted), we’ll be pitching the film for funding, distribution and support.
Over the years we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign (here’s the latest update), received support from philanthropists Bertha (backers of Oscar nominated Dirty Wars and Virunga) and applied for countless grants around the world. We’ve recently started working on a rough cut of our feature documentary and are making good progress.
It’s been a long journey, independent film-making always is everybody tells us, and we’re rapt with the current momentum.
During my recent visit to London, where I debated the future of the UN at the London School of Economics (LSE), I also discussed my book Disaster Capitalism at the LSE with three articulate and critical women: Dr Brenna Bhandar, Dr Marsha Henry and Dr Devika Hovell. I was challenged on my choice of interviewees in the book, why more female voices weren’t heard and whether disaster capitalism is really any different to exploitative capitalism:
During my recent period in Berlin, Germany, as a Visiting Researcher at WZB Social Science Centre, I was interviewed by Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting) about Europe and Germany’s moves towards outsourcing its refugee “problem” to private corporations. My interview begins at 36.17.
Other people on the show are social scientist Manuela Bojadzijev, political scientist Sandro Mezzadra, author Merle Kröger, artist Kader Attia and two postcolonial activists. The journalist is Anne Fromm.