Nov 13, 2010

#BDS: An open letter to participants in the Arava Institute’s online event “With Earth and Each Other”

Dear Participants in “With Earth and Each Other,”
We are writing because we’ve uncovered very troubling new information to add to the information that we have already publicized[1] about Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies[2] and the online event “With Earth and Each Other: A Rally for a Better Middle East.”[3] We fully understand that many of you are participating in the event from a sincere desire to build “a better Middle East.” Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear to us that supporting the Arava Institute and this event will actually damage the causes of justice and peace in the Middle East because Arava is a close and seemingly uncritical partner with right-wing institutions that continue to dispossess Palestinians from their homes and communities. Any efforts by Arava and the November 14th event to foster dialogue and improve the environment are just minor sideshows to the larger projects of Palestinian dispossession implemented by Jewish National Fund[4] and the Israeli government that Arava is serving to legitimize. Therefore, the best action that you can take to help create a better Middle East is to withdraw from this event.
Recap of reasons to boycott the event: We’ve previously explained that, modeled on the movement against apartheid South Africa, Palestinian civil society has overwhelmingly called for a boycott of businesses and academic and cultural institutions[5] that are complicit in denying Palestinian rights. The Jewish National Fund is one of the primary institutions involved in taking over Palestinian land, erasing Palestinian communities by planting trees over Palestinian villages that were destroyed by Israel, and thereby privileging the rights of Jews and discriminating against Palestinians. Arava and the JNF are close partners, and the JNF helps to fund Arava. According to the Arava Institute, Arava and “the Jewish National Fund (JNF) share a common mission to protect and preserve the land of Israel. This common mission has resulted in a formal partnership.”[6] Arava does not speak out against the JNF’s projects to secure Palestinian land for Israeli Jews, including this summer’s demolition of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Al Araqib in the Negev,[7] the home of Arava. Arava claims that it is “nonpolitical,” and that the purpose of November 14th event is “not to take a side.” However, self-described “neutral” efforts to foster “dialogue” that fail to confront oppression merely serve to further an unjust status quo.
Arava Leaders featured at JNF Conference: Arava Institute Director David Lehrer notes on his blog that the Arava Institute has worked to keep folksinger and social justice activist Pete Seeger in the November 14th event, despite a number of public letters to Seeger calling on him to withdraw. In addition to Seeger, other participating entertainers include Ian Anderson, Dan Bern, Mandy Patinkin, Tuck and Patti, David Broza and Shuly Nathan. Lehrer explains on his blog that he met with Pete Seeger and Seeger’s daughter Tinya on October 8th at Seeger’s Beacon, New York home where “I also discussed the concerns raised about the Jewish National Fund's sponsorship of "With the Earth and With Each Other."[8]
Lehrer’s blog includes many of his daily activities. However, what he omitted from his blog, and what has just come to our attention, is that just two days after his visit with Seeger, Lehrer was a “Featured Speaker” at the Jewish National Fund’s National Conference in Atlanta, along with Friends of the Arava Institute Executive Director, David Weisberg, according to JNF’s program for the event.[9]Lehrer was rubbing shoulders with other featured speakers like JNF Board Chair Ronald Lauder, Likud stalwart and Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, a leader in implementing the Judaization of Jerusalem, and described by JNF in the conference program as "a rising political star." Barkat unequivocally promotes a “united Jerusalem” under Israeli rule. On “60 Minutes” in October,[10] Barkat angrily defended the blatant takeover by Jewish settlers of the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.
Arava silent on demolitions while others protest: Jewish activists protested both outside[11] and inside the JNF Conference,[12] and Jewish groups delivered a letter from 28 Israeli organizations and eight American Jewish organizations criticizing the JNF's policies in the Negev and the JNF’s destruction of Bedouin villages like Al Araqib.[13] The JNF responded to the letter with an angry rebuke, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.[14] David Weisberg has claimed in emails to Adalah-NY that Arava supports the Bedouin residents of the Negev, but Arava did not sign the letter to the JNF, and made no public comments supporting the protests. Instead, as mentioned above, Arava’s leadership spoke alongside leading right-wing Israelis.
Arava partners with the Israeli government: David Lehrer never mentioned on his blog or elsewhere, the repeated demolitions of Al Araqib by Israeli forces between July and October, though these events occurred in Arava's "backyard.” Instead, in his blog, Lehrer highlighted Arava's negotiation "with the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs's Development Aid Department (MASHAV) on an expanded program for 2011." Lehrer wrote that members "were thrilled to hear about these global developments taking place in their own backyard.”[15] In another blog post during the same period, Lehrer wrote that on "August 24th, Dr. Shmuel Brenner, straight back from Brazil, Dr. Clive Lipchin and I met in Jerusalem at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs,"[16] to discuss once more strengthening Arava’s partnership with the Israeli government. Lehrer’s actions and words clearly demonstrate that Arava has prioritized strong partnerships with the JNF and the Israeli government, the main actors in dispossessing the Bedouins in the Negev, over actions in support of the Bedouins. It appears clear that Arava has taken a political stand with the oppressors.
Recap of Israeli government and JNF Role: The Israeli government’s denial of rights and dispossession of its Palestinian citizens, including the Bedouin in the Negev, and the JNF’s role in that process, have been carefully documented by human rights organizations like Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and Human Rights Watch.[17] The JNF has been engaged in the “Judaization” of Palestine[18] for more than 100 years. After the 1948 expulsion of two-thirds of the Palestinian people from their lands, the JNF planted[19] fast-growing non-native trees on the ruins of Palestinian villages in a deliberate attempt to prevent refugees from returning to their land. Today, the JNF directly controls 13% of the land in Israel and effectively controls more than 93% of the land, renting and leasing only to Jewish citizens of the state in violation of the rights of the Palestinian minority.[20]
The growing boycott movement: In comments that are directly applicable to “With Earth and Each Other,” the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has emphasized that “Under conditions of colonial oppression… joint projects claiming to be ‘apolitical’ or aimed at promoting music, science, environmental protection, etc. as domains that are ‘above politics’ are misleading and injurious to the struggle against injustice. By overlooking the oppressive reality of Israel's atrocities and gradual ethnic cleansing, these projects in effect legitimize and contribute to perpetuating and normalizing oppression.... More than twenty years of such projects in Palestine... have led to nothing but further entrenching Israel's colonization and progressive denial of Palestinian rights.”[21]
Palestinian civil society has issued a boycott call because close examination showed that so many businesses and academic and cultural institutions, including many that claim neutrality or appear well-intentioned, are actually complicit in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. Many organizations and artists are now refusing to conduct business as usual with a country that places itself above international standards. Elvis Costello,[22] Gil Scott Heron, Carlos Santana, Roger Waters,[23] Devendra Banhart,[24] and the Pixies are but a few of the artists who have refused to perform in Israel in the past year.
Our research has demonstrated that the Arava Institute is yet another Israeli institution that is deeply complicit in Israeli oppression, and therefore deserves to be boycotted. If you participate in the November 14th event, you will share in Arava’s complicity.
Thank you,
Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel (New York)
American Jews for a Just Peace (US)
Artists Against Apartheid (International)
Boycott! supporting the Palestinian call for boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) from within (Israel)
Educators for Peace and Justice (Toronto)
International Solidarity Movement – Palestine (Palestine)
Jews Say No! (New York)

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