Reflections on BDS

Protestors in Egypt stand in solidarity with Palestine and call for sanctions against Israel, May 2011. Image courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr.

In 2005, Palestinian civil society—suffering under an increasingly repressive occupation, expanding colonization by Israeli settlers, a corrupt and inept Palestinian Authority, a growing challenge by Hamas and other hardline Islamists, and a doomed “peace process” facilitated by the principal diplomatic, financial, and military backer of their occupiers—coalesced to call for an international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

By this point, most Palestinians had recognized that, in addition to being flagrantly illegal and morally reprehensible, terrorism was politically counterproductive. There was also an awareness that armed struggle against Israeli occupation forces, while more legitimate, would be utterly futile and lead to additional suffering on a massive scale.

Furthermore, any realistic hope for a diplomatic solution was being undermined by the United States’ refusal to apply any tangible pressure on a succession of right-wing Israeli governments to make the necessary compromises for peace and preventing the United Nations from enforcing its resolutions demanding Israel withdraw from its illegal settlements, rescind its annexation of greater East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, end the occupation and ongoing violations of international humanitarian law, and allow for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Mobilizing global civil society, therefore, appeared to be the best reasonable means to ending their suffering and making peace and justice possible. As a result, 170 Palestinian trade unions, political parties, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees, refugee networks, and others issue a call for an international campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The campaign in support of the BDS call has grown dramatically worldwide, including here in the United States, yet it has shown little in the way of tangible benefits for the Palestinians. Furthermore, it has in many respects increased the already high levels of political polarization regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in many cases, allowed for the debate over BDS to overshadow the debate over the occupation itself.

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Boycotts, divestments, and sanctions is not an organization or even a movement. It is a set of tactics, one which has been utilized under different names in support of a variety of human rights struggles over the years. One of the issues to which boycotts, divestment, and sanctions has been utilized historically has been as part of campaigns to pressure multinational corporations to stop illegally profiting from foreign occupations, particularly in cases where the United States or other powers have blocked the United Nations from enforcing, in accordance with its Charter, its resolutions calling for withdrawal of occupation forces. In previous decades, boycott and divestment campaigns targeted companies supporting South Africa’s occupation of Namibia and Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. A campaign is currently underway, particularly strong in Europe, in support of BDS against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. In addition, the United States and other countries have imposed sanctions on Russia for its occupation of Crimea.

There was also the large-scale BDS campaign in the 1970s and 1980s against South Africa, demanding that that country end its apartheid system and allow for majority rule. Other BDS campaigns in recent decades have targeted Burma, Sudan, and other countries with notorious human rights records.

Thus, BDS is not new. Yet, the current campaign targeting Israel has led to unprecedented controversy. Anti-BDS legislation has passed in the majority of states and in Congress and has been explicitly condemned in both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms. University administrators have publicly denounced student governments which have supported divesting from companies supporting the Israeli occupation as well as professors and academic organizations which boycott Israel, and have even banned pro-Palestinian student groups advocating BDS.

Why is there such antipathy towards BDS when it comes to Israel?

Part of this is a result of the close strategic relationship between the U.S. and Israeli governments.  Boycotts and sanctions targeting Russia for its occupation of Crimea, by contrast, is widely supported, as was the strict sanctions against Iraq during its occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91. In addition, the United States has placed sanctions on a number of autocratic governments, citing their human rights abuses, while providing security assistance to autocratic regimes with even worse human rights records. In many respects, opposing boycotts and sanctions against Israel is yet another example of longstanding American double-standards regarding violations of international legal norms by allied governments.

Another reason is the widespread anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States which is used to try to justify the conquest and occupation of Arab and Muslim nations, not only in regard to the Israeli occupation, but the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. A BDS campaign in solidarity with an oppressed white Christian population would not likely be so controversial.

There is also the growing concentration of corporate power, their ability to influence elected officials, and their means of countering such campaigns for corporate responsibility. The BDS campaign targeting the Israeli occupation threatens the profits of such powerful corporations as Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and Caterpillar and encourages other campaigns for corporate responsibility.

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Concerns regarding the BDS campaign targeting Israel are not restricted to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigots, right-wing supporters of U.S. and Israeli government policies, or defenders of powerful corporate interests, however. Many progressives who oppose the Israeli occupation and are supportive of Palestinian rights have also raised concerns regarding aspects of the BDS campaign.

One reason is that the official BDS call from Palestinian civil society organizations calls not just for the end of the Israeli occupation but for equality for Palestinians within Israel, including the right of return for Palestinians in the Diaspora (a right currently limited under Israeli law to Jews only). If Palestinians were allowed to return in such large numbers, it would presumably mean that Israel would no longer have a majority Jewish population. So, while this is not a call for “the destruction of Israel” in a violent sense, as many opponents of BDS imply, it would certainly mean that Israel would no longer be the “Jewish state” as we know it today. Even among the growing numbers who believe that Israeli colonization of the West Bank has reached a point where a viable two-state solution is no longer possible and some sort of binational state with guaranteed rights for both peoples should be the goal, this failure to make the important legal distinction between Israel within its internationally recognized borders and territories under foreign belligerent occupation is a tactical mistake. Focusing on the stronger moral and legal case against Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands seized in the 1967 war, illegal colonization of occupied territory, siege of the Gaza Strip, and denial of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination—positions which have much greater popular support—would seem to be far more effective if not distracted by divisive arguments regarding Israel’s “right to exist” or the nature of Zionism.

A BDS campaign focused on ending the occupation would therefore have a much greater impact than one focused on the dissolution of a Jewish state of Israel. Among the few major successes of the BDS campaign has been in getting some major religious denominations and pension plans to divest from companies that support the occupation and settlements and forcing some companies, such as Soda Stream, to end their operations in illegal settlements. By contrast, no companies have withdrawn from Israel itself and a number of entities which have divested from companies supporting the occupation have explicitly noted that they are not advocating a total boycott of Israel. Similarly, a number of prominent individuals who have pledged to support the academic and cultural boycott have stressed that they will do so until Israel ends its occupation and is not contingent on granting the wholesale right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, which—despite is moral appeal and sound legal basis—is not as attainable or widely-supported.

Supporters of the BDS call have cited the successful BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa as a precedent. There are, however, some key differences. For example, while the situation on the ground in the occupied West Bank does indeed resemble apartheid in many important respects and there is certainly discrimination against Palestinian citizens within Israel, Israel (at least at this point) is not yet what could reasonably be considered an “apartheid state” or anything close to the uniquely horrendous system that existed at that time in South Africa.

Another key difference is that, at the time of the BDS movement targeting the apartheid regime, the United States maintained an arms moratorium on South Africa and at least nominally called for majority rule; U.S. military aid to Israel continues to increase and the U.S. government fails to call for an end of the occupation and settlements, much less equal rights for Palestinians. Successive administrations and Congressional resolutions with huge bipartisan majorities have defended Israeli bombing and incursions into neighboring countries despite widespread civilian casualties, whereas no such resolutions were passed in favor of South African attacks on its neighbors or on black townships within the country. There were no statements or resolutions coming out of Washington denouncing the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, or reputable international jurists and human rights organizations for criticizing South Africa’s violations of international humanitarian law as there have been repeatedly in regard to such criticism of Israeli transgressions.

During the final decades of apartheid, foreign direct investment was the single most important way that the United States and other Western countries propped up South African minority rule, so a campaign focusing on boycotts and sanctions made a lot of sense. By contrast, foreign investment plays a relatively minor role in making possible Israel’s ongoing occupation, colonization and repression in the occupied territories. As a result, while campaigns targeting Western corporations supporting the occupation are certainly one way of challenging the occupation, it is not the only way, nor is it necessarily the most effective.

For example, polls show a sizable majority of Democrats and independents believe the United States should utilize sanctions and challenge Israel’s obstruction of United Nations peace efforts in order to pressure Israel to end its settlement drive and make the necessary compromises for peace, but the Democratic Party platform and the vast majority of Democrats in Congress oppose such measures. Launching a campaign similar to those which forced Democrats to shift their similarly initial hawkish positions regarding the Vietnam War, the nuclear freeze, U.S. intervention in Central America, U.S. support for the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, and backing the Iraq War would seem to be a higher priority than BDS. Working to change U.S. policy, therefore, would appear to be a more direct means of influencing Israeli policy than opposing corporate investment policy or academic and cultural exchanges.

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One concern which has been raised about the BDS campaign here in the United States and other nations, even by those who acknowledge ongoing Israeli violations of human rights and international law, is why the focus on Israel, the world’s only Jewish state?

One reason is that there are few cases where civil society organizations have come together so explicitly to call for such a campaign, as with the case in Palestine.

There are a number of other important reasons as well. While there are a large number of other governments which also violate human rights, there is a much stronger legal case for international mobilization against human rights abuses in occupied territories. For example, international law prohibits, under most circumstances, foreign companies from exploiting labor or natural resources within such non-self-governing territories. There are also clear international prohibitions against occupying powers transferring civilian settlers onto lands seized by military force and, by extension, supporting such colonization efforts economically. Similarly, there are a host of legal issues regarding the export of weapons and other military resources to countries that utilize them in suppressing the rights of those under what is recognized as a foreign belligerent occupation, particularly when the use of such weapons results in large-scale civilian casualties.

In addition, Israel gets far more U.S. aid than any other country; the United States has used its veto power in the United Nations on scores of occasions to protect Israel from international accountability, as many times as on all other resolutions combined; and, many U.S. officials rationalize for human rights abuses and violations of international law committed by Israel that they would condemn if committed by many other countries. Using BDS to challenge Israeli policies is one way of attempting to redress the ways in which Israel is already being singled out by the U.S. government—for support.

Despite this, supporters of Israel’s right-wing government and its occupation and colonization of the West Bank are fighting back, with both Republican and Democratic leaders denouncing the BDS campaign as “anti-Semitic.” In state capitols across the country, governments have passed laws forbidding state contracts with companies and other entities which boycott Israel. In a number of these cases, as well as in Congress, “Israel” is re-defined in the legislation to include “territories controlled by Israel,” thereby targeting even those who support boycotts and divestment only in regard to the occupation and settlements, not Israel itself. This is why such legislation has been opposed by J Street, American Friends of Peace Now, and other liberal Zionist groups which oppose BDS: they point out that in conflating Israel with the occupied territories, these bipartisan legislative initiatives are not “pro-Israel” bills, but pro-occupation and pro-settlements bills. Just as some elements of the BDS campaign have been criticized for failing to distinguish between Israel and the occupied territories, so are many Republican and Democratic elected officials opposed to BDS.

One result of this failure to distinguish between state of Israel and its occupation of conquered lands of its neighbors is that Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and religious denominations which have voted to divest from companies supporting the Israeli occupation and settlements which have previously received state funding to operate homeless shelters, soup kitchens, emergency relief operations or other subsidized services will no longer be able to do so. Some of these state laws apply to individuals as well. For example, a well-respected high school teacher in Kansas who supports her Mennonite congregation’s call for boycotting and divesting from companies supporting the occupation and settlements was denied a contract she had initially been offered to lead a pedagogical workshop for other teachers. The University of Houston, a public institution, has refused to pay honoraria or reimburse expenses for guest speakers who boycott Israel or the settlements. A lawyer in Arizona who had been providing legal support for indigent inmates was denied a renewal of his state contract because of his support of boycotting companies that support the occupation. In Arkansas, newspapers which accept advertising from state agencies have to sign a no-boycott pledge. In several states, professors at state institutions can no longer get funding to attend scholarly conferences of organizations which have endorsed the academic boycott.

Many of these anti-boycott bills appear to be designed to establish a precedent in suppressing other campaigns for corporate responsibility, such as those targeting other corporations backing other repressive governments allied with the United States, major carbon emitters and other polluters, arms manufacturers, sweatshop owners, union busters, and others. Had similar anti-boycott laws been on the books prohibiting boycotts of non-union grapes and lettuce, bus lines with segregated seating, Woolworth’s and other retailers with discriminatory practices, J.P. Stevens and other manufacturers suppressing unions, or companies investing in apartheid South Africa, it would have seriously hampered these important social justice campaigns. It is no accident that many of the anti-BDS laws are also backed by ALEC and other lobbying groups tied to corporate interests, recognizing how these laws could create an important precedent in protecting corporations to act with impunity without the fear of a consumer boycott.

Some BDS proponents see this extreme reaction as a vindication that their campaign is having an impact and that even negative publicity moves the discussion on the occupation forward. However, given the support of these measures by many prominent liberal Democrats, the dangerous precedent of such legislation, and the impact it is having on socially-conscious individuals and organizations which have been impacted by such legislation, it raises the question as to whether the BDS campaign is strong enough to resist the powerful interests arrayed against it and the damage the pushback may have on other struggles for social, economic, and environmental justice.

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BDS supporters are not a monolith. Just as with the movements in opposition to the Vietnam War, intervention in Central America, and apartheid in South Africa, BDS advocates range the gamut from religious pacifists to far left ideologues; long-time human rights activists to those new to activism; those currently involved in numerous progressive causes to those for whom this is their number one issue. In this respect, the range of views is not unlike earlier movements challenging U.S. policies in Vietnam, Central America, and South Africa, which—while including hardline elements—were primarily made up of Americans with decidedly moderate views. While there are undeniably extremist elements who advocate for BDS in some circles, including anti-Semites, they are a tiny minority. Despite this, however, U.S. supporters of the Israeli government have been remarkably successful in portraying the BDS campaign as its most extreme elements. The result has been near-universal condemnation of BDS by leading liberal politicians, the Democratic Party, and others who have previously been more sympathetic to campaigns in support of human rights, international law, and corporate responsibility.

While some of this can certainly be attributed to concerted efforts by various right-wing Zionist organizations allied to the Israeli government, the failure of the BDS campaign to gather more traction may primarily be the result of the fact that, while Israeli violations of international humanitarian law are no more justifiable than those committed by other repressive right-wing governments, Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, thereby raising concerns as to whether Israel is being unfairly singled out. History is replete with examples of Jews being scapegoated to deflect criticism from those who really held power and being unfairly blamed for misdeeds primarily committed by Gentiles. This has led even those critical of the policies of Israel’s current right-wing government to become defensive in response to BDS campaigns.

For example, if there was only one Black state in the world, even if (like Israel) it had invaded and occupied its neighbors and was engaging in repression and colonization in the lands they had seized by force, there would be a lot of African-Americans—along with white liberals—who would likely be somewhat defensive about advocating boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, even when justifiable. In addition, the fact that historically boycotts of Jewish businesses have long been part of anti-Semitic campaigns—including in Germany immediately preceding the Holocaust—calls for boycotting Israel and companies investing in Israel (and even just the occupied territories) can quite understandably bring up fears and suspicions among many Jews and their allies.

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While there are certainly other governments with even worse human rights records than Israel, the vast majority of such human rights abuses take place within these countries’ internationally-recognized borders. Though such repression is immoral regardless of which side of an internationally-recognized boundary it takes place, the international community does have a particular legal obligation to defend the rights of those under foreign belligerent occupation, including their right to national self-determination. And multinational corporations have certain unique moral and legal responsibilities regarding investing in non-self-governing territories, including those recognized as being under foreign belligerent occupation.

Today, there are only two countries that are engaged in what the United Nations, the World Court, and virtually the entire international community recognize as a foreign belligerent occupation of entire nations: Israel and Morocco. (There are some nations, such as Ukraine and Azerbaijan, in which some parts of their territories are occupied by foreign countries. There are also such nations as Tibet and West Papua, which are entirely under the control of other governments, which arguably have a moral right to independence but are not recognized by the international community as under occupation. Currently, however, Western Sahara and Palestine are currently the world’s only legally-recognized captive nations.)

As with the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a number of companies support Morocco’s ongoing illegal occupation of the nation of Western Sahara. And, as is the case of the Israeli-occupied territories, U.S.-based arms manufacturers have provided weapons to Moroccan occupation forces engaged in what independent human rights groups have described as gross and systematic human rights violations. U.S. mining companies and other extractive industries have signed contracts to exploit the natural resources of Western Sahara, thereby violating international legal prohibitions against such operations in non-self-governing territories where the indigenous population do not have a say in the process or is able to benefit financially.

The credibility of the BDS campaign against the Israeli occupation would be considerably strengthened if, instead of calling for divestment specifically from companies supporting the Israeli occupation, the call was for divestment from companies supporting all recognized foreign belligerent occupations of captive nations. Given that Moroccan universities are even more closely tied with their government than Israeli universities, advocates of academic boycotts should target Morocco as well. As with Palestine, Western Saharan civil society supports such efforts. Since it would effectively mean just one additional country and only a small number of companies and academic institutions, it would not take much attention away from the Israeli occupation and their corporate backers. And, more importantly, it would help move the debate away from a divisive pro-Israel vs. anti-Israel dichotomy, where people often end up just talking past each other, to where the debate belongs: human rights, international law, and the right of self-determination. While both anti-occupation campaigns are worthy of support on their own, honoring both BDS calls would strengthen both struggles.

Morocco is a predominantly Arab Muslim country. By including Western Sahara along with Palestine, BDS advocates could then avoid the accusation that it is unfairly singling out Israel. Morocco, like Israel, is in violation of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice regarding their occupation, has illegally moved tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory, engages in gross and systematic human rights abuses in the occupied territories, has illegally built a separation barrier through the occupied territories, relies on the United States and other Western support to maintain the occupation by rendering the UN powerless to enforce international law, and is able to maintain the occupation in part through the support of multinational corporations. And just as Palestine is recognized by scores of countries and is a full member of the Arab League, Western Sahara is recognized by scores of countries and is a full member of the African Union, thereby insuring international support.

Not only would including all recognized occupations of captive nations (Palestine and Western Sahara) in the divestment campaign help protect BDS advocates from spurious charges of “anti-Semitism” and broaden its appeal, it would help bring attention to the little-known but important self-determination struggle of the Sahrawi people against the illegal and oppressive Moroccan occupation of their country, which was invaded by the U.S.-backed kingdom in 1975, eight years after the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and other Arab territories. Given the intense polarization, harsh polemics, and suspicions regarding Israel and Palestine, a campaign based more on universal legal and moral principles against occupation, rather than targeting a particular country that has a strong and influential domestic constituency, would be far more effective. And, given the suffering of both the Palestinian and Sahrawi peoples and the complicity of the U.S. government and U.S. corporations in their oppression, they deserve nothing less.

This does not mean that there won’t continue to be controversy. Even when divestment and boycott efforts, such as those endorsed by the student government at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the New Orleans City Council, have been broad-based and not even mentioned Israel, they have been reversed or defeated by charges of anti-Semitism for not explicitly excluding Israel. Indeed, as far back as 1986, a sanctions bill in Congress targeting apartheid South Africa was considerably weakened when its passage was threatened because of language which could have negatively impacted the Israeli diamond industry.

There will always be controversy when challenging Israeli policies. However, as with any effort opposing the Israeli occupation and supporting justice for the Palestinians, there are ways of advocacy which can lessen opposition and minimize triggering negative responses from Jews and sympathetic liberals without compromising the fundamental message.

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Perhaps the biggest problem with the BDS campaign is one that has plagued pro-Palestinian struggles for decades: many of the more public advocates of BDS take rather extreme anti-Israel positions, sometimes even bordering on anti-Semitism. These include the tendency to portray Zionism as some kind of monolithic ideology made up of its most extreme manifestations. It is not fundamentally wrong to identify as anti-Zionist on the grounds that the emancipatory aspects of Zionism as a national liberation movement for Jews has been outweighed by its racist, militarist, and settler colonial aspects. However, the failure to recognize the broad ideological spectrum among those who consider themselves Zionists—including those who oppose the occupation and support certain forms of BDS to pressure Israel’s right-wing government to change its illegal repressive policies—is quite unfair and makes it difficult to build the broad alliances necessary for the BDS campaign to achieve the needed political impact.

A related problem has been the tendency to blame “Zionist” pressure exclusively for the backlash against BDS and for U.S. support for the Israeli occupation, thereby ignoring the longstanding tendency for the U.S. government and corporate interests to fight back against calls for a more ethical U.S. foreign policy and greater corporate responsibility elsewhere in the world as well. Portraying opposition to BDS as a result of certain powerful Jewish interests rather than also recognizing the role of far more influential non-Jewish corporate, military, and foreign policy elites demonstrates a profound ignorance of the obstacles faced by previous human rights campaigns against repressive U.S. allies and therefore uncomfortably parallels anti-Semitic scapegoating.

It is not unusual, particularly on college campuses, for solidarity movements in support of national liberation struggles in the Global South to take rather hardline positions, including romanticizing armed struggles and providing uncritical support for resistance movements with authoritarian tendencies. However, in this case, the state engaging in the repression is not a military dictatorship but a democratically-elected government of the world’s only Jewish nation. While this does not mean that the policies of that government shouldn’t still be challenged—including through advocacy of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions—it is particularly important to do so in a manner that can build a broad-based movement rather than alienate potential liberal allies. This means categorically condemning attacks against civilians and acts of bigotry by all sides. Similarly, whether one still believes a viable two-state solution is possible or one supports the establishment single bi-national state, it is critical to underscore the rights of both Arabs and Jews in Israel/Palestine to peace and security, including the right to immigrate or return. This is not only a moral imperative, but critical to challenging the widespread notion that support for BDS is somehow a threat to Jews.

The ability to successfully utilize BDS as a tactic in support for peace and justice will therefore be greatly enhanced if put forward not from an ideological agenda against Zionism and Israel, but as one component of a multifaceted campaign for peace, security, and equality for Palestinians and Israelis based upon universal moral principles of justice for all peoples. Otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to gain the level of popular support and effectively resist the backlash necessary to end the occupation and attain equal rights for Palestinians. In order to effectively utilize any campaign to advance a just cause, it is not enough to be right. It is also necessary to be smart.


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