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Boycotting Israel: Fighting a Tough Battle

BDS supporters protest outside British security company G4S
BDS supporters protest outside British security company G4S at the Excel Centre in London, United Kingdom. 4 June 2015. Photo Demotix
Israel has a new enemy. According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is “anti-Semitic” while opposition leader Isaac Herzog compared it to “a new intifada“. Palestinians know it as “BDS”: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

The movement has its origins in 2005, when 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations launched a campaign calling for an end to the Israeli occupation, equal rights of Arabs in Israel and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The boycott targets products and companies, both Israeli and international, that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions. BDS has adopted Handala, the famous cartoon character created by the Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali, as its mascot. Handala, a ten-year-old refugee, is a symbol of the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice and self-determination. Through the years, BDS has gained international support. Prominent figures including scientist Stephen Hawking, author Naomi Klein and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have rallied behind the movement.

Although BDS is yet to celebrate any major successes, the movement seems to have reached a critical mass in 2015. According to Mark LeVine, a history professor at the University of California at Irvine and co-editor of One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, there are four different reasons for this. “First, the occupation of the West Bank has become so concentrated that it can no longer be dissolved into a larger narrative of a modern, Western Israel. Israel’s matrix of control is so dense that it is simply impossible to hide from the occupation or pretend it doesn’t exist.” The second reason, says LeVine, is that with the  demise of the Oslo Accord, the motivation behind the occupation is now clear: With over half a million settlers, hundreds of settlements and outposts, the discourse of security no longer fools anyone. “It’s not about security. It’s about settlement.”

The third reason is the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. “Israel can claim all it wants that the war was purely defensive and even exonerate itself for the killing of women and children. But to the rest of the world, the level of carnage it unleashed was unmistakably disproportionate.” The fourth and last reason is the evolving attitude among the Jewish diaspora, especially in the United States. “Today, leading voices of the new American Jewish generation openly call for boycotting settler products, and the fastest-growing Jewish organization in America is the explicitly BDS-supporting Jewish Voice for Peace.”

Naturally, artists who decide to cancel an appearance in Israel in support of the boycott attract a lot of media attention. After cancelling a Tel Aviv concert scheduled for 27 April 2015, the former Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore explained that the nixed gig was due to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. “It was with serious deliberation that I eventually arrived at the personal conclusion that to perform with my band in Israel was in direct conflict to my values,” Moore told music website The Quietus.

In May, Lauryn Hill confirmed she had cancelled her 7 March concert in the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion because she could not organize a parallel performance in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and did not want her appearance only in front of Israelis to be a “source of alienation” to her fans. Yet there are many other artists who do perform in Israel. In May, Robbie Williams gave a show in Tel Aviv, as did OneRepublic. The members of the American  boyband even paid a visit to the Israel Defense Forces to show their support and appreciation.

Opposition to BDS

It may not come as a surprise that a lot people oppose BDS. One website features “anti-BDS recipes” that contain Israeli products as well as tips advising students how to deal with BDS at their campuses.

A typical anti-BDS argument was provided by the renowned American jurist Alan Dershowitz. “Whenever I debate BDS, I always throw out the following challenge to my students all over the world,” Dershowitz told The Jerusalem Post. “Name a single country in the history of the world faced with internal and external threats comparable to those faced by Israel that has ever had a better record in human rights; a better record with compliance of the rule of law; a better record of concern for civilians? I have been asking that question now for 20 years probably to a million people around the world, and I’ve never gotten a single person even to stand up and name a country, because you can’t do it.”

The fiercest opponent of BDS is, of course, the Israeli government. This partly stems from Israel’s fear of delegitimization. Although the majority of the international community regards the 48 years of occupation as illegal, it has so far allowed Israel to get away with it. Even the expanding settlements, which are illegal under international law, seem to provoke little international ire. If the BDS movement succeeded in planting the notion of the illegality of the settlements in the hearts and minds of the Western public, however, Israel would have a problem.

Another argument to crack down on the BDS movement is domestic politics. Israeli voters favour politicians who take a hard line on national defence. Hence, the vast majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, from the centre-left Zionist Camp to the ultranationalists of The Jewish Home, has demanded that the boycotters be boycotted themselves. Meanwhile, not a word is said about the occupation.

However, not everyone who opposes the occupation is a BDS fan. Dmitry Shumsky, an Israeli academic and writer, for example, argues that BDS will never have the upper hand, for two main reasons: “First, despite any cries about stolen land, to the vast majority of the international community, Israelis’ right to self-determination is a given. Ever since the PLO’s historic recognition of Israel in 1988, this right is also recognized by the oldest key segments of the Palestinian national movement.” Second, he points to what he calls the “Israelization of the occupation”, to which the boycott movement is lending a hand. He argues that BDS consolidates the idea that the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are second- or third-class Israeli citizens, instead of citizens of their own lands. “This makes it possible for the cleverest and most demagogic propagandists of the Israeli whitewashers of the occupation to evade confronting the occupation and settlements and escape into the type of comparative apologetics they’re so fond of, in which they contrast Israel to a number of “ordinary” countries like Iran or North Korea, which systematically violate their citizens’ rights without anyone threatening them with a boycott.” The answer, he says, lies in a boycott of the Israeli occupation, not of Israel as a whole.

Be that as it may, the BDS movement has a long road ahead of it. In June, the United States Congress approved a law that makes the rejection of BDS a key objective in trade talks with the European Union. Peter Roskam, a Republican Congressman and co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus, stated: “We have decided to fight back against the BDS movement and ensure the continued strength of the US-Israel relationship.” Both Americans for Peace Now and J Street opposed the legislation.

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