By Emily Schaeffer
The call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel is gaining momentum. At the same time, it is widely misinterpreted, unfortunately by skeptics, opponents and proponents alike.The basic premise behind BDS movements initiated by civil society is that they are a grassroots, international, non-violent means of expressing stern disapproval of a country’s choice to oppress or discriminate against a group of people in contravention of international law and principles of equality, humanity and justice – with the hopes of bringing about positive change. The idea is to refuse to normalize interactions with such a country until it aligns its behavior with these laws and standards. Ideally, it is a short-term action because the change sought is achieved. Such was the case in South Africa, and so too do BDS supporters aspire regarding Israel.
Israel is being targeted for its violations of international law and failure to meet standards of equality, non-discrimination and human rights in the occupied territories as well as within Israel. There are many countries that violate the same or similar norms, and should the oppressed populations in those countries call for the international community to impose BDS on the governments controlling them, then much of the same Israeli and international community that has decided to heed the Palestinian call for BDS against Israel would follow their lead as well.
Unfortunately, however, there are a lot of misconceptions about the Palestinian BDS call. The aim of the call is to target the Israeli government and entities that operate on its behalf or with its support. So, for instance, if enough people around the world spread the truth about the beauty products corporation Ahava’s unlawful practices, then perhaps Ahava will be forced to end its operations in a settlement in occupied territory and stop plundering natural resources from that territory — all of which are done in contravention of international law and with the financial, legal and logistical support of the Israeli government. If enough major investors divest from corporations like Caterpillar for its provision of D9 bulldozers that raze homes and injure civilians, or Motorola for its provision of security and surveillance equipment and services that are key in maintaining the oppressive occupation, or the dozens of banks that provide loans for settlement construction, then perhaps these corporations will call on the Israeli government to change its practices in order to preserve their profits. If enough academics are called out for their affiliation with Israeli universities that are major players in research and development for the security industry and military activities in the West Bank, Gaza and beyond, then perhaps they will call on their universities to “divest” their time and energy from the occupation and “invest” more in healthy debate about how to promote peace, justice and human rights both within Israel and under occupation. The potential damage to profits, to images, and to feelings is real, but it is intended to be short-term — and moreover, it is incomparable to the damage that has been done and continues to be done to those who suffer from Israel’s policies and practices. In other words, “a small price to pay.” And much to gain. For everyone involved.
And in fact, it’s already happening. More and more corporations (including Veolia, Caterpillar and Africa-Israel) have withdrawn businesses involved in violating international law in the occupied territories, and artists and authors (including the Pixies, Elvis Costello, Annie Lennox, Sarah Shulman, Gil Scott-Heron, and Naomi Klein) have expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian BDS call by not performing in Israel for profit until Israel upholds international law.
In the meantime, these grassroots campaigns are an excellent means of raising awareness about the reality on the ground for Arab, Palestinian and Bedouin communities within Israel (against whom Israeli law discriminates in over 30 laws and numerous policies, nevermind the overt cultural exclusion they experience) and in the occupied territories, where rights to land, movement, family unification, education and protection from violence and property destruction (to name but a few) are regularly violated. No one wants to see the Pixies, Elvis Costello and the Alvin Ailey dance company perform in her home city more than I do. But when they cancel their performances — or are simply asked to — questions about why (and even anger and resentment toward the artists and the BDS call) spur essential discussions about Israel’s unjust actions.
But unfortunately, even BDS supporters often confuse the issues, boycotting anything and anyone associated with Israel. These kinds of sweeping boycotts are often counterproductive and spoil the very simple, strong message of the BDS movement, which calls for Israel to observe international law. For instance, the Israeli baker in downtown NYC should not be boycotted just because his country of origin is Israel (unless the bakery is somehow Israeli government supported, which seems quite unlikely). The Jewish klezmer band in Toronto should not be boycotted simply because its members may (or may not) be Zionists, unless the performance is sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Culture. The Israeli filmmaker whose film is featured in a Portland Israeli-Palestinian film festival should not be asked to withdraw from the festival if his film was funded by non-Israeli official sources.
Just because Israel and the Zionist movement have long encouraged every Jew and Israeli across the globe to stand with Israel no matter what it does, and to want a state that unapologetically grants preference and privilege to Jews at the expense of others, does not mean that every Jew and Israeli worldwide follows suit. And boycotting people based on their origin is a form of the same kind of unjust discrimination that the BDS movement seeks to end.
At the same time, just because a person supports BDS and aspires for major change in Israel does not mean that said person cannot love a million and a half aspects about the life, culture, landscape and even politics of Israel today and historically. Nor does it mean that Israelis need to boycott themselves (something that is neither possible nor part of the Palestinian call). The only thing that is black and white in the BDS movement is that the call will remain in effect until Israel — with a lot of help from its friends — ceases to violate international humanitarian and human rights law.
This confusion must be straightened out in order for the simple and strong message of BDS to be heard and for its goals to be reached sooner than later. In that same spirit, just as debate and critique surrounding Israel are healthy and important (and do not equate anti-Semitism), I would encourage anyone who wants to see positive change in the region but is critical or skeptical or dubious regarding the BDS movement not to shun it or feel alienated by it — but to engage in the debate around it.
There’s more than one way to advocate for justice and equality in Israel/Palestine, and BDS is only one strategy. But of the many possibilities, wouldn’t we all prefer those, like BDS, that are non-violent, bottom-up, of the people and for the people, and that have a simple and just goal? After all, aren’t critics of the Palestinian cause constantly asking where the non-violent movement is? Well, here is just one example of where you can find it (among others, such as the Popular Struggle Coordinating Committee whose work is often mentioned on this blog). And so I would just ask those who oppose BDS, but truly believe in justice and equality over profits and oppression: what are they afraid of — or what they are defending?