RAMALLAH – As Israel’s cabinet ministers would have it, the security of Israelis today is threatened not only by Palestinian stabbing or shooting attacks but by the non-violent activity across the globe of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
As BDS marks more than a decade since it was founded by an array of Palestinian civil society organizations, it is getting more and more attention from leaders in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, something its activists point to with satisfaction as an indication that the movement is hitting its target.
Only a week ago, Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees government efforts to combat BDS, likened a hypothetical university professor who supports BDS to Palestinian youths who, motivated by Islamic extremism, stab or shoot Israelis. “While he dare not admit it, the BDS leader has more in common with the terrorist than with genuine human rights activists,” Erdan told a conference organized by the Jerusalem Post in New York. “Their shared goal is simple and explicit:the destruction of the state of Israel.”
”BDS and terror are two sides of the same coin,” Erdan was quoted by a pro-Israel website as saying.
This parallel was drawn about a month after another minister, Yisrael Katz, implied that Israel should treat BDS leaders with the same vigor it uses against those targeted for preemptive assassination by the Israeli security services. ”Israel must carry out targeted civilian thwartings of the leadership and activists of BDS through activation of intelligence capabilities,” he said at a conference called to combat BDS, according to Ynet.
Katz later clarified that he was not suggesting military action against BDS leaders, but was advocating the use of advanced intelligence capabilities, “exposing” and “isolating” them.
Soon afterward, Israel refused to renew the travel document of BDS founder Omar Barghouti, making it impossible for him to campaign abroad, a move that elicited an onslaught of condemnations, including those of organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But Interior Minister Arye Deri said he was considering the more stringent act of revoking Barghouti’s Israeli residency.
The BDS movement’s global reach arguably puts Israel and its supporters on the defensive as it zeros in on diverse targets. Last fall, its activists successfully maneuvered a boycott motion through a conference that resulted in the American Anthropological Society’s 8,000 members currently voting on the measure.
In Durham, North Carolina, activists recently persuaded the city council to end a contract with the G4S security company that works in Israeli prisons and checkpoints.
In Paris last year, executives of the Orange company decided to terminate relations with Israel’s Partner communication company, a leading cellphone provider. And in a more modest BDS gain in Wales last September, an exhibition on Israeli soccer at Cardiff Central Library was cancelled under pressure from BDS forces.
“We’re at the beginning of the isolation process,” Mahmoud Nawajaa, the West Bank-based general coordinator of the BDS National Committee, made up of 26 Palestinian organizations, unions and networks, told the Media Line. “We haven’t yet isolated the apartheid settler colonialist regime and this is the idea: we need to isolate Israel until it complies with international law and respects Palestinian human rights and stops its violations and this is what happened with the South African apartheid regime. We want to reach the same level of isolation, like South Africa, meaning states doing sanctions against Israel, and the UN doing sanctions against Israel.”
All of this began in 2005, when against the backdrop of the failure of the Oslo peace process and a 2004 International Court of Justice ruling declaring Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank to be illegal, and after calls to boycott Israel were issued by the fledgling Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel organization, a campaign was launched with the backing of more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations to encourage the international community to apply boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel on the South African model until Israel ends “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”; dismantles the separation barrier; recognizes the right of its Arab citizens to full equality; and endorses the “right of return” of Palestinians who were expelled or fled in 1948 from homes in what became Israel.
BDS movement backers range from persons of international renown such as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and author Alice Walker to activists unknown outside of the West Bank who serve in the organizations that make up the BDS national committee. The committee sets the overall guidelines for the movement, which prides itself on being decentralized and which chooses its targets on the basis of “context sensitivity,” meaning, Barghouti explained in an email to the Media Line, that “activists anywhere decide what to target, how to target it and what kind of coalition they can build to achieve their goals.”
It is the targeting of companies that has come to prominence in recent years after an earlier stress on academic and cultural boycotts dominated the movement. In addition to Orange’s withdrawal from Israel, BDS also claims victories in decisions by SodaStream, Veolia and G4S to leave Israeli post-1967 locations or the Israeli market as a whole. Veolia, a French energy services and transportation company faulted by BDS supporters for building the Jerusalem Light Rail, the route of which in part traverses territory Israel conquered in the 1967 war, announced last year that it was “stepping back from the Israeli marketplace” after some European banks and other investors divested, apparently because of BDS efforts.
The movement’s supporters also claimed victory when the Irish building materials corporation CRH announced its exit from the Israeli market earlier this year. A few months ago, PFA, the largest private pension and insurance fund in Denmark, divested from German company Heidelberg Cement, which is active in the West Bank. In January, the pension and health benefits fund of the United Methodist Church declared the five largest Israeli banks off limits and divested from two banks in its portfolios.
Longstanding BDS campaigns in the U.S. against Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard continue.
But in economic terms, BDS does not yet seem to be making much of a dent on Israel. A report last year by Israel’s parliamentary investigative arm, the Knesset Research and Information Center, said BDS was having no discernible impact on the Israeli economy. The Israel Manufacturers Association six months ago set up a hotline to assist businesses coming under pressure from BDS. The hotline offers legal advice and puts businesses in touch with Israelis who can assist them, according to Dan Katarivas, head of the foreign trade division at the IMA. But the number of firms asking for help is smaller than expected, he told the Media Line.
“The reality is that the number of boycotts in the field is very small. There’s a lot more noise in the media than there are actual manifestations. We have to combat it, but one shouldn’t overdo it,” he said.
Katarivas said it is hard for BDS to target Israeli exports because in many cases they are components of products made elsewhere rather than the finished products themselves. ”We’re talking about electronics, medical devices, irrigation equipment, chemicals, and technologies – and not shelf products,” he said.
The academic boycott is proving to be more effective, Israeli academics say. In a blow to the prestige of Tel Aviv University, British historian Catherine Hall, of the University of London, last week turned down a $300,000 (US) prize from the Israeli institution, saying she had reached the decision “after many discussions with those who are deeply involved with the politics of Israel-Palestine.”
But despite the minimal economic impact and some legal victories, it is the future potential of the BDS movement that many find alarming. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a Tel Aviv University scholar of Arab politics, told the Media Line that BDS “is having some effect and there is concern that it will be a bigger effect.”
Requests from Israeli academics for letters in support of tenure or promotion from foreign scholars often remain unanswered with greater frequency than in the past, he says. “The feeling is that the pool of recommenders is shrinking and may shrink further.” The organizing of international educational and vocational conferences is also being impacted, he says. “People say ‘I won’t come to a conference sponsored by an Israeli institution.’ That’s already part of the calculation.”
And debating and voting abroad on boycotts of Israeli academia “is putting Israeli humanities on the defensive,” he says.
All of this is what Nawajaa calls “grass roots isolation.” The task of BDS in the years ahead, he says, is to convert this into state sponsored sanctions.
“Public opinion is the thing that can change everything,” he says. “Raising public awareness and global awareness of what is happening in Palestine is a vital role of what BDS is doing.”
“We generate awareness by using mainstream media, social media groups and everyone involved in the BDS movement,” he adds.
Time and patience, too, are on the side of the BDSers. Even if a boycott does not succeed in meeting its stated goal, it can still have an advantageous effect from the BDS movement’s point of view, Nawajaa says. “At least it can generate a debate, an argument, and tell people about what is happening in Palestine.”
Nawajaa says that in coming years, much of the BDS movement’s efforts will be directed against Israel’s defence industries with the goal of dissuading clients from buying from them. “We’ve started with [the Israeli company] Elbit and are also going to target other companies,” he said, referring to the Haifa-based international corporation that produces and exports the drones used in Israel’s Gaza war in 2014. “We want to persuade governments to stop buying from Israel,” Nawajaa said, an effort that follows a 2011 call for an embargo on arms sales to Israel.
Seen through the eyes of those combating it, BDS is in a constant chase for publicity. “The bar is set very low for BDS,” says Michael Dickson, executive director at the Israel office of StandWithUs, an international non-profit organization that seeks to build support for Israel. “What they want is publicity so running a campaign in and of itself may achieve their aims whether or not they get a certain Israeli product banned or they get support for a boycott of Israeli goods.”
BDS activists engage in a lot of “street theatre” on British campuses, Dickson told the Media Line, recalling that they set up a mock checkpoint earlier this year at the London School of Economics that featured activists dressed as Israeli soldiers carrying out inspections of Palestinians.
“It’s not just businesses, it’s not just campuses, everything is seen as a legitimate target with the scatter gun attack approach of BDS,” Dickson said.
Dickson charges that BDS is anti-Semitic. “The idea that there are 193 countries in the world and the only one they seek to dismantle, the only one whose legitimacy is questioned is the world’s only Jewish country is inherently anti-Semitic,” he says. Barghouti denies this. “Claiming that boycotting Israel is anti-Semitic is itself an anti-Semitic statement as it equates Israel with ‘the Jews,’ putting all Jews into one monolithic basket, represented entirely by Israel.”
In the United States, the dovish organization Jewish Voice for Peace works to muster support for BDS. JVP director Rebecca Vilkomerson told the Media Line that alienation among young American Jews with the Israeli government in light of the 2014 Gaza war and even from last week’s appointment of far-right defence minister Avigdor Lieberman helps build support for BDS. “The news people hear that Israel is a repressive state that doesn’t give equal rights to its citizens or refugees and is enforcing a military occupation. This doesn’t meet people’s values and their perspective of Israel is changing.”
Ethan Felson, one of the key figures in the U.S. Jewish community engaged in fighting BDS, says the movement “certainly is a cause for great concern.” Felson, the New York-based executive director of the Israel Action Network of the Jewish Federations of North America, has been involved in lobbying to pass laws barring state governments from doing business with companies that participate in boycotting. Eight states have passed such laws and more are in the process of doing so, he says. “If a company chooses to cave in to a boycott call then it is in the right of the state government to determine that it is not an appropriate commercial partner,” he told the Media Line. “If you want to participate in the pernicious BDS movement, then take your business elsewhere.”
The struggle over BDS is raging with particular intensity on North American college campuses. Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish campus organization Hillel, opened the school year with a call for lobbying university administrators to shut down BDS activity. He argued in an op-ed appearing on an Israeli news site that “learning, discussion and debate” is conducive to a campus environment, not BDS.
Meanwhile in Austin, a lecture at the University of Texas Institute for Israel Studies was disrupted by students from the Palestine Solidarity Committee who charged that the guest speaker was “glorifying the beginnings of the Israeli army.” An ugly confrontation ensued involving event chair-professor Ami Pedahzur. The tense exchange became the subject of a university inquiry which exonerated Pedahzur of allegations that he had harassed the Palestinian protesters. University President Gregory Fenves criticized those who disrupted the lecture, saying, “The expression of free speech is not a license to drown out the speech of others or to shout down ideas one disagrees with.”
The BDS supporters, though, argue that it IS their opponents who are acting against freedom of speech through the anti-boycott legislative effort. “Boycott is political speech,” they insist. “Boycott is a legitimate response to unjust laws and policies,” according to Vilkomerson. “People are always trying to make Israel an exception and I don’t think it will succeed.”
Felson counters, warning that, ”We would ignore [BDS] at our peril. History is full of examples in which people sought the destruction of Jews, Jewry and the Jewish state and we underestimated the threat.”
But in Jerusalem, Emmanuel Nahshon, the Israeli foreign ministry’s spokesperson, says BDS efforts to delegitimize Israel are not gaining traction. “Those are bad people,” he says. “If someone illegitimate tries to delegitimize Israel it won’t work.”
Yet, in a contrary tone, a recent press release from Israel’s Mission to the United Nations sounded an almost alarmist tone, saying, “The BDS movement continues to make strides in its campaign to delegitimize the state of Israel. The movement is gaining increased support on campuses around the world as it promotes initiatives on local and national levels calling to divest and boycott the Jewish state.”
The statement concluded with a call to attend an anti-BDS conference sponsored by Israel’s UN Mission and Jewish advocacy groups being held at the General Assembly.
In the West Bank, a leading Palestinian academic sees a caveat to the movement’s putative success. Noting that stores are filled with Israeli products even as BDS calls on the world to boycott Israel, Samir Awad, professor of international studies at Bir Zeit University, told the Media Line that, “Palestine to start with is a market for Israel and this weakens BDS. If you are not successful in making Ramallah free of Israeli products you’re probably not going to be successful in the rest of the world.”
“The growth and progress of BDS will be slow as long as the Palestinian Authority doesn’t adopt it,” he added.