'The EU must ban all products from Israel'
Frank van der Linde, a Dutch political-social activist who spent a long time in Israel and has dozens of friends in the country, is the face of the BDS campaign in the Netherlands. In a special interview to Yedioth Ahronoth, he explains why he doesn't recognize Israel as a state, dismisses claims of hypocrisy in light of the other injustices taking place in the world, and says he supports the rights of both Palestinian and Jewish refugees.
"Be there to support Israel and the positive ideas it represents," the invitation read. "We celebrate life, humanity and creativity."
The event was the highlight of the "Israel Theater Week" celebrations in Amsterdam. The first lady of Israeli theater, Israel Prize laureate Lea Koenig, was invited as the guest of honor to receive a special citation from Israeli Ambassador to the Netherlands Haim Divon and then perform a one-woman show.
"We got hold of the invitation," says Frank van der Linde, a leading political-social activist in the Netherlands and one of the leaders of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in the country, "and quickly reached the conclusion that it would be an excellent event to demonstrate against the occupation and in favor of Palestine's liberation. We don’t want to give Israel a chance to brand itself as a normal country. There is no such thing as 'business as usual.' We started getting organized."
Protesting against Israel is one thing, but what has Lea Koenig done? Do you see her as part of the occupation government too?
Van der Linde says Koenig was initially not a target. The target was the entire event, "which was presented as a show of support for Israel," but as part of their preparations the activists conducted an investigation on Koenig.
"We checked her out very well and saw that she had never spoken against the occupation or in favor of Palestinian rights. Then we found out that the plays in which she performs the lead role are also presented in the occupied territories. As far as we were concerned, this discovery was enough to turn her into a legitimate target."
The activists walked around the streets of Amsterdam and shot a video, which would be posted that evening on the Internet, on van der Linde's blog. Then they hid the sign and kaffiyehs, bought tickets and entered. The event began, speeches, congratulations, a cordial exchange of words, the ambassador and Koenig on the stage, and the show itself. Then, half an hour later, the 10 group members pulled out the signs and the kaffiyehs and began shouting, "Boycott Israel" and "free Palestine."
"We were immediately attacked, first by parts of the audience and than by both the Israeli security guards and by Dutch police officers in plain clothes," van der Linde recounts, "it became very messy."
A commotion erupted, documented on video by two other activists who were planted among the audience. The documentation shows the embarrassment on Koenig's face as she remained seated on the stage. A short struggle began between the police and van der Linde and his friends. They were handcuffed, put in police cars and sent to a police station, where they spent a few hours. One of van der Linde's friends, who was accused of using violence against police officers, spent the night there.
The event resumed a long while later, in an unpleasant atmosphere, and ended on a weak note. Charges were filed against all the group members for disrupting the public order, but their voluntary lawyers got them all out with nothing.
Following the incident, and additional conflicts, van der Linde filed a claim against the Dutch police about a month ago, demanding that the court order the police to stop using the "chokehold" technique of grasping a person by the neck while conducting an arrest, arguing that it could lead to death.
"As far as we were concerned, the event was a success. We achieved all our goals," van der Linde says with satisfaction. The extensive documentation of the event from several cameras was edited and posted online, aired on a number of television stations and provoked many reactions.
As far as the embassy in The Hague and the State of Israel are concerned, such an incident is naturally perceived as a big problem, a further sign of the growing strength of anti-Israel movements and the BDS campaign in Europe.
A Foreign Ministry official involved in the issue told me this week, "As far as we are concerned, such incidents are serious because they touch on the areas of life - culture, theater, sports, academia - which are not directly linked to the government's policy or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The more the anti-Israel campaign touches on these areas, the more complicated the situation as far as we are concerned."
The series of interviews with van der Linde was conducted in Tel Aviv two weeks ago. He came here in order to disrupt Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan's visit to Israel. In some of the activities, van der Linde was assisted by Ronnie Barkan, the head of Israeli organization Boycott from Within, which uses methods similar to those used by the BDS movement.
Barkan was present in one of our meetings alongside an Israeli activist in his organization, who had a kaffiyeh tied around her bag and was watching them both with dreamy and admiring eyes, as if they were Dany le Rouge, who had fought for justice and peace between the nations in Paris in the 1960s.
Even before the mayor arrived here, and when the anti-Israel activists learned of the visit, van der Linde and his friends launched a series of activities. 'We entered Amsterdam's city hall and lay on the floor there, dozens of activists, with pro-Palestine posters, pretending to be dead in order to remind people of those massacred in Gaza. We had to be forcibly evacuated."
Every Friday Amsterdam's mayor gives an interview to "Talk with the Mayor" in the local television station, talks about the past week in the city and answers journalists' questions. Van der Linde made sure that one of them would ask him about his upcoming visit to Tel Aviv, and what steps, meetings and statements he was planning to make there in order to mention the Palestinian problem.
The interview caused quite a lot of embarrassment to the mayor, who promised to talk to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai about the issue of human rights. According to van der Linde, it also led to inclusion of more Human rights and Palestinian content in the Israel trip. The journalists who escorted the mayor on his journey asked him whether he had already spoken to Huldai about the Palestinians' rights.
That didn’t satisfy the activists. Van der Linde sent an email to all members of the Tel Aviv City Council, requesting to meet with them (they turned him down). The meeting and interview he asked for with Mayor Huldai were also left unanswered. "What was left was to stick to the mayor when he arrived in Tel Aviv and try to confront him with what he is supposed to do on such a visit."
Van der Linde estimated that the Shin Bet would detain him at Ben-Gurion Airport and made all the required preparations, including keeping one Dutch lawyer and one Israeli lawyer on alert, as well as a prepared appeal to the Netherlands Embassy in Tel Aviv to release him.
The Shin Bet didn’t do him this favor, and van der Linde continued to follow the mayor around. He documented the wreath laid by the mayor at the commemoration site near the municipality building where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, and shot a film in which he strongly criticizes van der Laan and suggests that he walk two more blocks in order to lay a wreath on the ruins of an Arab village "behind Ibn Gabirol Street."
The pressure didn’t end here. During his visit, the Amsterdam mayor discussed the possibility of signing a twin city agreement with Tel Aviv. Another initiative of the anti-Israel boycott people is to thwart the plan. "Why should such a thing happen? There is nothing worse for the Amsterdam Municipality than forming ties with a city involved with a government which is afflicted by war crimes."
That may be the reason why Israelis should listen to what van der Linde has to say, with surprising openness, about the campaign in which he plays a major part. Van der Linde is not just another person talking about BDS. He is the BDS. There are many others like him, and their number is increasing all the time.
Whoever wishes to understand the BDS and the anti-Israel campaign which is gaining momentum, should read what he has to say and maybe even understand just how different his profile is from what the Israeli propaganda system is trying to portray.
He is not a Muslim and he has nothing to do with Muslims. He is not the son of an anti-Semitic family. He has spent a long time in Israel. He has dozens of friends here, and he has no funding or any connection to Arab or Iranian elements. Van der Linde really believes in what he is doing, and he is willing to sacrifice quite a lot for it.
I have known him for about 10 years, through mutual Israeli friends. I was always impressed by his education and worldwide independent thought, his excellent English, his desire to contribute and change and his anti-establishment conduct. I had the chance to meet him several times in Europe and in Israel. I saw how much he loves Israeli men and women, how comfortable he feels with them, and how comfortable they feel with him.
In the past five years, I have, with some grief, watched the anti-Israel radicalization process he been going through. He did it on his own, without anyone brainwashing him. Frank is a very non-naïve person. And that, if you wish, is the most concerning thing for Israelis.
Van der Linde, 47, was born in Staphorst, a small village in the central-northern Netherlands. After many years as a business entrepreneur and organizational consultant in Lisbon, he started working in 2001 for a series of non-governmental organizations, "because I reached the conclusion that there is so much injustice in the world and I want to do something about it."
He worked for Amnesty and for Fairfood, an international organization which aims to pressure large food companies to manufacture their products without polluting, without employing children and without exploiting employees. He served as the organization's executive director for three years.
"We used the carrot and stick method, but in a much more moderate way than how I operate today. The food companies knew that by accepting our advice and our requests, they would also receive the carrot. They would be able to say, 'We talk to Fairfood, which means we do good things.' If they didn’t accept the demands, we knew how to use the stick - protests, articles in the media, social media campaigns, etc."
But that was not aggressive enough for van der Linde either. He wanted to act firmly against a large food company. "I realized that when I really want to kick international companies in the ass, I am not allowed to do so because of the elements funding us. I felt as if I had been shot in the back and decided to quit. I realized that in the world of NGOs, even the director is incapable of making a real change."
Van der Linde decided to take some timeout to think, and chose a particularly exotic place to spend it in: Tel Aviv. It was his third visit to Israel. From mid 2012 to early 2013, he lived in a rented apartment there and thought about "how to fulfill myself in the best way possible."
He has always had an interest in the Middle East. "I wanted to see what it looks like up close. I arrived with a critical approach towards the government's policy, but I thought it would be unfair to take this approach without living here and talking to people on all sides. After half a year, and a series of visits to the West Bank and Gaza, I left with an even worse feeling. Israel is doing horrible things. When I arrived in Israel, I would never use the term 'ethnical cleansing.' When I left after half a year, I didn't have problems anymore to use that term."
Upon his return to the Netherlands, van der Linde began publishing opinion articles in Dutch newspapers, and quickly formed a new world-view and profession, with which he signs the emails coming out of the MacBook Pro he carries wherever he goes - "Activist." He is referring to something deeper than the actual word - an activist in the sense of a person who works for goals and ideologies, almost always against the establishment. Any establishment.
Van der Linde chose a series of goals, including arms trafficking, the deprivation of minorities and women in Saudi Arabia, and above all, the trendiest goal in today's world of activists: Israel.
"Before leaving the country, I tried to look into the possibility of operating here, but I was met with angry reactions from Israelis saying that my advice is not needed, that I am a foreigner, that I have nothing to do here.
"A Palestinian in the West Bank said to me, 'If you really want to help us, pressure your government.' So my line of action is not against the Israeli government, but against the Dutch government and the actions it takes or doesn’t take in regards to Israel and Palestine. In order to fulfill this, I was forced to return to the Netherlands, although I really don’t like the culture there and prefer the Mediterranean countries."
He has also chosen a way of complete transparency. "For years, the world of activists in the Netherlands was completely dead. Everyone thought we had solved the problems. It all changed in the past decade. A radical right-wing government made it clear that nothing had been solved. Geert Wilders (the radical right-wing leader) uses the freedom of expression argument to make racist statements against Muslims. A double moral standard has been created. One can say horrible things about Arabs, but if someone says the same thing about Jews, he will immediately find himself in a police interrogation.
"I have the perfect profile of an activist: I have no family, I don’t have a house with a mortgage and all other kinds of things which make you vulnerable. Albert Camus said that "the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion." In the organization I headed, the donors held me in a sensitive spot. Today, what can they do to me? Arrest me? That doesn’t scare me. I have nothing to lose.
"Unlike the days of the student revolt, we live today and a surveillance state where it's very difficult to hide actions and organizations. Whoever tries to hide, it will eventually act against him. When Shimon Peres visited Amsterdam, an activist who intentionally did not use Facebook or send emails was arrested. The police managed to pick on him because he operated in the dark. The publicity protects me. Everything we do is immediately sent to the media. Today the police find it much more difficult to deal with me because they know I will turn every such incident into a media event."
Van der Linde says he dedicates 30 percent of his time today to anti-Israel activities. Last year, he was among the organizers of an anti-Israel protest in Amsterdam during Operation Protective Edge.
"I recently reached the conclusion that I don't recognize the State of Israel as a state. It's a very serious thing to say, and I understand that as an Israeli it's difficult for you to hear this too. But it's important to stress that it doesn’t affect my attitude towards Israelis or Jews. The statement that whoever criticizes the Israeli government is anti-Semitic is nonsense. It’s an insane statement. I have no problem with Israelis.
"It's clear that when you challenge the actual legitimacy of the State of Israel, people immediately come to you and say, 'You don’t recognize the Jews' right to self-determination, their right to establish their own state.' But that's nonsense too. Of course I recognize that, but I also recognize the Palestinians' right to self-determination. These are two people which want their right to the same piece of land to be recognized. It’s a problem. The freedom of a person or a government ends in the place where they violate someone else's freedom."
Why are you focusing on Israel? There is quite a lot of hypocrisy in the fact that you activists are not protesting against the genocide in Syria or the Islamic State horrors or countless other injustices in the world.
"If I have two neighbors who both beat up their wives, am I allowed to tell one person to stop beating his wife only if I say it to both of them? I chose to act against the Israeli government and the occupation. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t many other problems and crimes in the world. It only means that I decided to focus my attention on this issue, alongside some other issues.
"Beyond that, the ISIS issue is being handled by the West quite intensively, so there is no need for our intervention. The situation in Israel and Palestine is not being handled and is greatly affecting the relationship between the West and the billions of Muslims in the world. We citizens should act on this issue, because the governments have completely failed."
And why isn’t Israel legitimate? The Arab states and the Palestinians are the ones who rejected the 1947 UN's partition resolutions and tried to annihilate the young state.
The fact that you say 'whatever' proves that you are only focusing on one side and ignoring the other side's bad deeds.
"And why should they accept the UN resolution which divided the land by half, although the Arab were a majority here? Of course they won't agree to it."
Okay, and according to that logic we are now the majority, so why should we agree to a bi-national state, the right of return, etc?
"Someone told me, 'You don’t recognize the United States because it is also built on moving the original population.' I replied, 'You are definitely right theoretically, but in this case it is simply too late to try and bring the remaining Indians back to their original land. That is not the situation yet between the Jews and the Palestinians."
It’s important to van der Linde to explain what the BDS campaign is all about and how it differs from the campaign to boycott Israel: "The BDS isn’t demanding steps or outlining a way for a solution. Rather, it's a campaign of rights. It says that the three rights of the Palestinians are nonnegotiable and cannot be compromised - a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories, granting full rights to the Arab citizens within the Green Line and granting a right of return to the Palestinians.
"I know," he adds immediately, "that as far as those reading this interview are concerned, the third matter is the problematic one because it will create a solution of one state and a Muslim majority in this state."
And what about the rights of the Jewish refugees who were expelled from Arab states and turned into disinherited refugees?
"I fully support them and their justified struggle."
Do you really think that it's not too late regarding the Palestinian refugees? Do you believe that any government in Israel will ever let a mass of refugees to return to its country?
"Listen, I'm not naïve. The complexity of the current situation is clear to me. But no one imagined, when people like me went out to protest against the apartheid, that one day it would collapse. No one believed that the Berlin Wall would be torn down either."
If there will be a Palestinian majority here, in the situation you are preaching for, what will this place look like? Will they let the Jews live here in peace?
"Clearly, it will be very difficult for Jews and Palestinians to live together in one state. But it's not my job to outline the solution. The BDS doesn’t deal with solutions. It deals with rights which must not be compromised."
Van der Linde doesn’t argue with the figures about the prosperity in Israel, nor with the fact that had he tried to voice his harsh criticism against the government in Egypt, he would have found himself behind bars.
"So let's continue your metaphor that Israeli is a 'villa in the jungle,' a villa I really enjoyed living in and visiting. Even the mayor of my city, Amsterdam, says that Tel Aviv is a modern city with tremendous development and is gay friendly. It’s all very good, but if you look out of the villa's window for a moment, you will be able to see all the horrible things that the villa's owners have done to their neighbors."
So let's talk about the neighbors. The neighbors in Gaza don’t accept the State of Israel as an existing entity and fire missiles at a civilian population. Even if we reach a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, what kind of dialogue can we have with Hamas?
"Honestly, I have no idea and it’s not my job to tell Israel what to do. Israel has at least a key role in the situation that has been created. Please remember who supported Hamas at its inception in 1984. The Israelis have trapped themselves in a situation in which the chance of finding a solution is very slim. Why do I have to be the one to explain to Israel how to get out of the mess it created? It’s not my problem."
None of this is your problem. No one invited you to interfere.
"I am a small fly in a huge movement which is waking up. That's why you are interviewing me. I am fighting what I perceive as very serious injustice and for the Palestinians' basic rights."
And what about the Israelis' basic rights? Why haven’t you protested against Hamas, which according to the UN reports you rely on when you criticize Israel, has committed serious war crimes?
"I was actually against Hamas in the most serious manner, for example in the way they treat women. But the key interest as far as we are concerned is Israel. It's the aggressor, it's the big problem, not the Palestinians who are on the defensive.
"The solidarity with Israel in the entire world is sharply deteriorating. I believe that it indisputable. The US is also increasingly headed in that direction, and even in Jewish communities there are more and more activists joining the boycott of Israel. It may take 20 years, it may happen suddenly, but I have no doubt that it will eventually happen.
"The fact is that the Israeli intelligence is now setting up a special department which will focus on the war on BDS and invest millions in this battle. They also recognize the danger in this phenomenon and the need to do something. These steps will not help Israel in any way of course. The processes today are very reminiscent of the campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa, a campaign which suppressed that horrible racist regime more than anything else."
Who is funding you?
"We are not funded by anyone. All of us, including the lawyers representing us, work for free. We have all sacrificed a lot for our activity and are living in very difficult conditions financially. I am not complaining, just stating a fact. During my summer vacations in the south of France, I sleep in a sleeping bag on the beach because I can’t afford a hotel.
"And even if we did have funding, I am unprepared to receive funding from these horrible Arab states - neither from Iran, nor from Egypt or Qatar or Saudi Arabia. There is no way I will go anywhere near their money."
In the meantime, van der Linde and his friends are continuing to harass the Dutch government in different ways in order to understand what it is actually doing, as it claims, to help the Palestinians. "When you review the documents, you discover the truth - nothing," he says.
And now comes the next campaign: "The European Union has decided to label products from the settlements, but what's the logic in that? Let's assume that we want to pressure (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to withdraw from Crimea. Would it be right to label products from Crimea? Will it make any difference to Moscow? Of course not. We have to focus on products from Moscow, and the same applies to Israel - the target should be products from Tel Aviv."
In other words, label any product arriving from Israel?
"Why label? Boycott completely."