Monday, May 25, 2020

BDS Momentum and Debate in 2013

By Mike J.C. - December 28, 2013
Section: [Main News] [BDS] [Features]
Tags: [BDS] [European Union] [settlements]

In December, a major European business firm and an important American academic association made headlines when they endorsed sweeping boycott measures against Israeli institutions, capping a momentous year of growth and debate surrounding the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and freedoms.

December boycotts and “the political context” 

On 10 December, the Netherlands-based water corporation Vitens—employer of thousands with millions of customers and profits of near half a billion Euros per year—abruptly severed its budding commercial ties with Israeli national water company Mekorot, which has been implicated in discriminatory water distribution in its West Bank operations. Facing strong domestic pressure at home, the Dutch Vitens said in a statement that it “attaches great importance to integrity and abides by national and international law,” adding that “these projects cannot be seen separately from the political context.” Earlier in the year, the Netherlands made similar news when some of its largest retailers decided to pull products that originate in Israeli settlements off their shelves.

Outside of Israeli law and US-Israeli politics, the “political context” is clear. According to international law and global consensus, all Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem and the West Bank, are illegal. The territories have been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967, and Jewish settlers, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands and equaling approximately one sixth of the population of the West Bank, enjoy full legal and political rights as Israeli citizens, while the Palestinian majority is permitted neither representation within Israel nor political independence. 

Across the Atlantic, on 16 December, the American Studies Association (ASA), representing almost 5,000 university scholars, voted to support the BDS movement against Israel. The organization cited, “the systematic discrimination” of the occupation, settlements, and separation barrier, which have had a “devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians.” The ASA is not the largest American academic association, but it is the most influential one to adopt BDS thus far. The first was the Association for Asian American Studies, which staked its historic position in April of this year. And just days after the ASA’s highly publicized December vote, the Native American Studies Association followed suit

The BDS campaign began in 2005 when a sweeping coalition of hundreds of Palestinian civil society and human rights groups launched an international appeal for “organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.” The resolution adds, “These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.” Since then, the movement has grown in fits and starts, enduring condemnation from pro-Israel quarters as well as degrees of criticism from some prominent Palestinians and their supporters. 

BDS in 2013 and beyond

In addition to the economic boycotts initiated in the Netherlands and the professional academic boycotts that emerged in the US, 2013 was a landmark year of growth for the BDS movement. 

For example, the United Kingdom Trade & Investment governance body recently warned British businesses and entrepreneurs of “clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements,” stating that “we do not encourage or offer support to such activity,” due to the “legal and economic risks stemming from the fact that the Israeli settlements, according to international law, are built on occupied land and are not recognized as a legitimate part of Israel’s territory.”

The announcement may have been influenced by the European Union’s striking decision in July to exclude all Israeli institutions associated with the occupied territories from access to its new 80-billion-Euro research and development fund, a move that Israeli officials feared could reduce overall Israeli R & D “budgets by around 40 percent” (though a subsequent compromise is expected to soften this impact).

Also this year, the government of South Africa, still mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, iconic anti-apartheid leader and strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle, reaffirmed its support for Israeli boycott measures when its Minister of International Relations told reporters that its government staff will not meet with their Israeli counterparts inside Israel "until things begin to look better," adding that, "The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle."

Some major international church bodies also adopted boycott measures in 2013. In November, the United Church of Canada launched a campaign called “Unsettling Goods: Choose Peace in Palestine and Israel,” an initiative that urges members “to take concrete actions to support the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories,” by adhering to a consumer boycott of major Israeli companies with operations in the settlements.

Similarly, the board of directors for the US Mennonite church announced in March that it would divest from all “companies that benefit from products or services used to perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians,” producing a list of companies implicated in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

In April, the Teacher’s Union of Ireland with 14,000 members became the first major European academic trade union to adopt stringent boycott measures, unless and until Israel “lifts its illegal siege on Gaza, ends its illegal occupation of the West Bank, and agrees to abide by international laws and all UN resolutions in this regard.”

Throughout the year, numerous student union bodies around the world joined the BDS movement. For example, Canada’s York University, with one of the largest student bodies in the country, Australia’s Sydney University student representative council, a Belgium student federation representing 25 institutions and 100,000 students, and the Students Union at the University of California Berkeley, among others, each passed resolutions in 2013 endorsing BDS. 

Student movements in the UK and Norway also successfully lobbied their universities to end contracts with multinational firms that facilitate the occupation and settlements.

And acclaimed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking caused something of a media firestorm when he decided in May “to respect the boycott” and cancelled his invitation to a high-profile conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. 

While these cases cut against the grain of mainstream Western economic and academic institutions, they mark significant inroads.  Indeed, the movement toward Israel’s increased international isolation is likely being slowed under the remote prospect of a just solution emerging from the current round of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. For example, Norway’s largest trade union, representing a third of country’s workforce, threatened “to lead an international boycott of Israel if it did not reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.” 

More strikingly, as Haaretz reported, a top European official recently warned his Israeli counterparts that “should the negotiations with the Palestinians run aground you should expect a deluge of sanctions,” and US Secretary of State John Kerry likened the scenario to a “boycott campaign on steroids.” 

For these legion reasons, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, told The Palestine Monitor, “I believe that 2013 was one of the most successful years in the growth of the BDS movement and its effectiveness.” 

Barghouti also stressed that these changes have not originated with politicians and heads of state. “We first have the grassroots, and this affects the parliaments. The parliaments influence the governments, eventually.”

The controversies and debates of BDS

From the start, Israeli pundits have condemned the BDS movement as insignificant, misguided, anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic. Charges of anti-Semitism do not hold up to the facts that Israeli boycotts are tied to concrete violations of human rights and international law, and that the state of Israel and its institutions should not be conflated with the Jewish people and its traditions. More, BDS does not call for an end to Israel; it calls for an end to Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people. Each of these points were made last year when prominent American (and Jewish) philosopher Judith Butler spoke at a BDS conference that the Israeli lobby tried to shut down as hate speech. 

BDS does not call for an end to Israel; it calls for an end to Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

From the Palestinian side, BDS has generated controversies over the target and the goal of the movement. For example, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently shocked many Palestinians and their supporters when he told a reporter in South Africa, “We do not support the boycott of Israel […] We have relations with Israel.” Abbas went on to clarify, “But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements. Because the settlements are in our territories.” (And the PA later further clarified that it “respects” and “appreciates” the work of the BDS movement.) 

The position expressed by Abbas in South Africa is shared by many groups and organizations that have adopted various Israeli boycott measures, but it diverges from the official position of the BDS campaign, which calls for broad boycotts of all Israeli institutions for their complicity with the state’s crimes. This latter, more sweeping approach is supported by many of the groups endorsing boycott measures as a means of maximizing leverage against Israeli policies in the urgent pursuit of Palestinian freedom.  

Crucially, BDS does not endorse the boycott of people or individuals—only Israeli institutions that have not taken actively critical positions on the state’s violations of international law. BDS’s strongest supporters advocate working with individual Israeli scholars and activists, as well as institutions that meet the campaign’s criteria, such as Israeli human rights groups. 

These nuanced positions were the subject of an informative debate between Norman Finkelstein and American Jewish activist Anna Balzer. In the discussion, and elsewhere, Finkelstein, an American Jewish academic and activist—and one of Israel’s most strident critics—also criticized BDS for not explicitly endorsing the “two-state solution,” fearing that potentially implicit support for “one state” risks alienating the current international consensus around two states. However, BDS supporters like Balzer and Ali Abunimah, retort that it is not up to the movement to pre-determine the solution, but only to help generate the conditions for political change—“the movement itself is agnostic” on the details of the solution.

As these debates continue to unfold and build on the diverse accomplishments of boycott initiatives in 2013, the BDS movement will undoubtedly continue to generate momentum and controversy into the new year.  

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