I am coming to the University of Pennsylvania this week to incite violence against the State of Israel - pro-Israel groups and commentators have contended - and, along with hundreds of students and other speakers who will attend the 2012 National Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Conference, to engage in an "act of warfare."
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, we are coming together to push forward an inclusive movement that supports nonviolent action to promote the human rights of the Palestinian people, because only full respect for these rights can lead to peace. Today, millions of Palestinians live without basic rights under Israeli rule. This intolerable situation is at the root of problems that affect the whole world.
People everywhere, whether they consider themselves "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestinian" or both, want to see justice and peace. Yet, in recent years, the U.S.-brokered peace process has seen failure after failure.
Amid election-year politics, President Obama and his Republican rivals are pledging ever more unconditional support for Israel, even as Israel openly flouts U.N. resolutions and U.S. policy by building Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land and depriving Palestinians of their rights, including hundreds of children who languish in Israeli military prisons.
There's no chance that the United States will use the billions of dollars it gives Israel in aid as leverage to compel an end to these practices and respect for Palestinian rights. So should we just give up?
The answer from Palestinian civil society is a clear "no." All of us can play a role in ending this terrible situation and securing equal rights for Palestinians rather than superior rights for Jewish Israelis.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands, ruled that the wall Israel built across Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank was illegal and was aimed at confiscating more land. Frustrated by the inaction of governments, 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, including labor unions, student groups, and cultural and social organizations, came together to issue the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel in 2005.
Modeled explicitly on the tactics used to help end apartheid in South Africa, Palestinians urge that Israel be sanctioned until it respects Palestinian rights and international law in three specific ways: an end to the occupation of all Palestinian lands seized by Israel in 1967; full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and full respect for the rights of Palestinian refugees.
This call doesn't prescribe a specific political solution - for example, a single democratic state, or a two-state solution - but it recognizes that full rights have to be at the core of any resolution. And implementing these rights does not threaten any legitimate rights of Israelis, unless one considers discrimination against Palestinians simply because they are not Jews to be a "right." In just the same way, granting full legal and political rights to African Americans in the United States did not threaten any legitimate rights of white citizens.
The all-too-frequent claim that the BDS goal is to "destroy Israel" or "incite violence" - rather than win rights - or that it is motivated by "anti-Semitism," is just as offensive and simplistic as saying that participants in the Montgomery bus boycott wanted to "destroy Alabama" and simply "hated white people."
And just like that celebrated bus boycott, BDS is not an end in itself; it is a tactic designed to bring about change. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in support of a divestment effort on behalf of Palestinian rights, "We could not have won our freedom in South Africa without the solidarity of people around the world who adopted nonviolent methods to pressure governments and corporations to end their support for the apartheid regime. Faith-based groups, unions, students, and consumers organized on a grassroots level and catalyzed a global wave of divestment, ultimately contributing to the collapse of apartheid."
But let us remember that in the 1980s, not everyone supported sanctions on South Africa. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were strongly opposed to sanctions and insisted on "constructive dialogue" that went nowhere, just like the U.S.-brokered Middle East peace process. What helped turn the tide in the United States was a young member of Congress who broke ranks with Reagan to support boycott and sanctions on the apartheid regime. His name was Newt Gingrich.
Tragically, Gingrich today notoriously contends that the Palestinians are an "invented people" - a way of suggesting they have no rights, and certainly no claim to the land they've tended since long before Israel existed.
As the growth of such extremist rhetoric diminishes the chances for a constructive U.S. role, it is all the more important that we as citizens take action. That's what our conference is about, and everyone who shares a belief in human equality is welcome to attend.