Is a boycott of Israel an effective strategy for changing the government’s policy? Those in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement think so. BDS has seen several victories in recent years. In academia, 12 US universities’ student governments, including those of Columbia, Princeton, and Stanford, voted to divest from Israeli companies in 2015. That year also saw the National Women’s Studies Association, the American Anthropological Association, and the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies all endorse boycotts of Israeli academic institutions. The United Methodist Church and the US branch of the Presbyterian Church voted overwhelmingly to boycott Israeli settlement products. Over 1,100 black activists, artists, scholars, and organizations issued a statement entitled “2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine,” intending to link the black struggle in America with the Palestinian struggle. Signatories included Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, Angela Davis, and Cornel West. R&B singer Lauryn Hill canceled a performance in Israel in response to calls for her to boycott the country. In August, United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers became the first national union in the US to endorse BDS. At the highest level of influence of any of these examples, 60 members of the US Congress publicly elected to boycott Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress, after demands from constituents that they skip the speech.
Widely supported by Palestinian activists, civil society, and trade unions, some see the movement as the nonviolent solution to ending occupation in a political climate where Palestinians are accused of using violence to achieve their goals. Others see the movement as hardline and militant despite its nonviolent strategies. Pro-Israel group The Anti-Defamation League claims that “the BDS campaign is a global effort to isolate and punish Israel because of its policies towards the Palestinians” that “place[s] the entire onus of the conflict on one side: the Israelis.” Opposition to the movement by the Israeli right-wing is self-evident, but opposition to BDS is shared by liberal Zionists alike. J Street, a self-described liberal Zionist organization, states that BDS is anti-Israel in that it “does not support the two-state solution, recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state, or distinguish between opposition to the existence of Israel or…to the occupation of the territory beyond the Green Line.” J Street goes on to describe the movement as “a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism.” However, Jewish BDS activists deny the claims of the movement being anti-Semitic. “Once someone compared my rhetoric to that of a Nazi hate group,” said Boston University Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) member Marlo Kalb. “As a Jewish woman and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, this was extremely painful and deeply hateful.” Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national organization dedicated to promoting human rights for Palestinians from a Jewish perspective, actively promotes the tactics of BDS in pressuring the Israeli government. “For BDS in particular, I take inspiration from a legacy of Jewish women’s nonviolent resistance,” says Liza Behrendt, an organizer with JVP.
Many of those who oppose the movement favor dialogue and discussion in place of a boycott, such as Israeli author Etgar Keret, who told Newsweek that “there’s nothing easier than boycotting. Boycotting is basically saying I’m going…to do nothing.” Palestinian activists, however, feel more optimistic. “[BDS] is a way of raising awareness, strengthening unity, and renewing hope by having some specific measurable and achievable goals…it allows Palestinians to resist in socially approved, nonviolent ways that have actually lead to some tangible results,” says Ayah, a Palestinian student at Northeastern University involved in the campus SJP group, who asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons. “As a Palestinian woman with a Saudi passport, it is difficult for me…when you don’t have the freedom of speech, you have to pick and choose your words and align them with your country’s approach to the topic,” said another member of Northeastern SJP, who asked to remain anonymous. “[Boycotting] allows me to perform…a form of resistance without putting myself or my family at risk.” In response to the call for dialogue, Fida Adely and Amahl Bishara, members of the American Anthropological Society and supporters of the society’s BDS resolution, argued that dialogue fails to take into account power asymmetries between Israelis and Palestinians. “Dialogue that takes place under the current system is simply not a free exchange of ideas,” they argue. “Many dialogue initiatives…act as a kind of marketing tool rebranding the reality of separation and apartheid as a fantasy of co-existence.”
The BDS movement models itself on the South African divestment movement organized in the 1970s and 80s. The movement saw universities, corporations, and government localities divest from holdings in South Africa in an attempt to wage a campaign of economic attrition against the apartheid state—something BDS activists are hoping to recreate in the case of Israel/Palestine. The demands as outlined by the official BDS declaration state that Israel end expansion of settlements in the West Bank, acknowledge the right of Palestinian refugees to return, and remove the wall separating Israel from the West Bank, a wall referred to by Israelis as the “security fence” and by Palestinians as the “apartheid wall.” Given current attitudes, many of the challenges presented to BDS seem insurmountable: according to a March 2016 study from the Pew Research Center, nearly half of Israeli Jews say that Arabs, regardless of religion, “should be expelled or transferred from Israel, including roughly one-in-five Jewish adults who strongly agree with this position.”1 In light of this, BDS activists turn towards the precedent of the past. In 1985, nine years before its end, only 45 percent of white South Africans described themselves as being unhappy with apartheid. Groups like J Street are right in their statements that the principles of BDS run counter to a two-state solution, and the ADL is right in saying that the movement and what it represents present an imminent threat to the status quo in Israel. In order for BDS to serve as a viable solution, the broken promise of the two-state solution would have to be discarded, with the movement advocating for the space where Israelis and Palestinians can conceive of a future—a democratic, rights-inclusive future—together.
- Israel’s religiously divided society. Pew Research Center [online] (March 8, 2016). http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/.
- Clymer, A. Poll in South Africa shows a rise in whites’ distaste for apartheid. The New York Times [online] (August 3, 1986). http://www.nytimes.com/1986/08/03/world/poll-in-south-africa-shows-a-rise-in-whites-distaste-for-apartheid.html.