Activists boycott Israel, Congress boycotts America?

Destruction in Gaza City, after Israeli shelling and air strikes  during the war last summer. (Photo from REUTERS / Mohammed Salem)
Destruction in Gaza City, after Israeli shelling and air strikes during the war last summer. (Photo from REUTERS / Mohammed Salem)

The Boycott Divest Sanctions movement seeks to make a stand for Palestinian rights by boycotting Israeli companies and universities complicit in the occupation.

In the last decade BDS, as it is known, has gone from an obscure pacifist thesis to a global movement, now considered by some American politicians to be a strategic threat to Israel.

The origins of BDS are often traced to a 2002 statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“If apartheid ended so can this occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first, though not necessarily the only, move in that direction.”

Palestinian intellectual Omar Barghouti has become a major voice for the movement with the publication of several articles and the book Boycott Divest Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. 

BDS has gained plenty of press recently with several American universities, academic organizations and churches endorsing the boycott. The University of California at Berkley, the American Studies Association and the United Church of Christ, have all endorsed divestment from companies that support the occupation. (A student BDS resolution at the University of Washington was defeated by a large majority in 2014.)

BDS has certainly gathered enough steam to get the attention of the pro-Israel lobby and a Congress that unflinchingly obeys it. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson is pouring millions of dollars into efforts to combat the boycott. At a Las Vegas conference funded by the casino mogul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz stated “we need a president who will stand up and say if a university in this country boycotts Israel then that university will forfeit federal taxpayer dollars.”

Cruz is one of a slew of U.S. politicians who claim to be shocked by a boycott of Israeli institutions, but seem to support a boycott of participating American institutions in response. Indeed legislation has been introduced that echoes the right wing senator’s sentiments. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley recently signed into law H3583 which will “prohibit the state or a political subdivision of the state from accepting a proposal from or procuring goods or services from a business which engages in a boycott of a person or an entity based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin.”

In March a bill was introduced by Republicans in Congress called the “Boycott Our Enemies not Israel Act,” which would create a similar blacklist in regards to government contracts nationally, with language specifically related to Israel.

The irony of legislation that seeks to suppress BDS by boycotting American companies and universities is not lost on BDS proponents at UW. Vincent Calvetti-Wolf is a student at UW and a member of SUPER-UW a pro-Palestinian student group. He sees this legislation as a new form of McCarthyism.

“H3583 essentially aims to create a blacklist of companies that not only participate in boycotts of Israel, but of organizations that avoid links with Israeli companies within the West Bank that profit from military occupation — that exploit resources of the Palestinian land and a captive Palestinian labor force,” he said.

Despite his criticism of the new legislation, Calvetti-Wolf actually sees it as an extremely positive sign.

“This sort of legislation shows the growing strength of the Boycott Divest Sanctions movement to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights. Pro-Israel advocates simply are unable to defend Israeli policies towards Palestinians,” he said. “Rather than defend these policies pro-Israel advocates prefer to shut down debate or discussion.”

The CEO of French-owned Orange mobile company recieved death threats last month after he made comments that were counstrued to support a boycott of Israel. (Photo from REUTERS / Ronen Zvulun)
The CEO of French-owned Orange mobile company recieved death threats last month after he made comments that were counstrued to support a boycott of Israel. (Photo from REUTERS / Ronen Zvulun)

To emphasize his point, Calvetti-Wolf points to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that pro-Israel groups have poured into opposing even minor victories of BDS. A group called StandWithUS devoted nearly half a million dollars to suing a small food coop in Olympia, Washington after it decided to support the boycott. StandWithUS also stood behind efforts to pass a resolution effectively banning debate of of BDS in the University of Western Washington student government.

The policies of the current ultra-right government in Israel has lead many activists who once opposed BDS to support it. Richard Silverstein is a Seattle Based blogger whose blog “Tikun Olam” seeks to circumvent the Israeli military censor by reporting on issues which are under gag order in Israel.

Silverstein describes himself as coming from a “Liberal Zionist” tradition. He says he once opposed a boycott but he says that the actions of the current government in Israel have drastically changed his views

Silverstein describes himself as being “as supportive as possible with reservations.”

“BDS is a hammer and my preference is for a scalpal,” he says “That being said the circumstances on the ground are extremely harsh and desperate for Palestinian people. The current circumstances are so immoral that you are willing to adopt tools that you would feel weren’t warranted in a less severe situation — Any tool that can oppose Israel’s brutal policies.”

But, Silverstein says, “BDS shouldn’t boycott [Israeli] individuals unless they are acting in a way that is state sponsored.”

And what does he think about the American legislation that seeks to punish those who boycott Israel?

“Thats a trash law!” he says, laughing, “This is what the lobby is doing — throwing things at the wall like spaghetti and seeing what will stick. I am confident this will be found unconstitutional.”

He shares Calvetti-Wolf’s sentiments that the backlash to BDS is a testament to its importance.

“BDS is certainly worth something if people are willing to spend millions to oppose it,” he said. “Israel has created a ministry specifically to address this concern”.

Legislation like the proposed “Boycott Our Enemies not Israel Act” has so far gone largely unnoticed in American national discourse. The federal bill picked up 11 co-sponsors but hasn’t made it out of committee. But as the BDS movement grows, it is likely to become a bigger issue in the future, so the response is troubling. The bill would effectively require businesses to sign a loyalty oath to a foreign nation, and the vague language can lead to a broad variety of companies being blacklisted arbitrarily. In some ways it’s worse than McCarthyism, which at least targeted people based on perceived disloyalty to America, rather than to a foreign country.

While BDS has gained support from activists around the world it has also proved challenging for Israeli liberals who don’t want to be seen as supporting a movement which could be harmful to their own country.

Gil Bar-Sela is a former Israeli soldier and Chair of the J Street Seattle Young Professionals Program. Bar-Sela believes that BDS will have unintended consequences and offers a compelling argument as to why.

“I do not think BDS is the right course of action. It is ineffective and will only make Israel feel more isolated which, in turn, would be used as another scare tactic by Netanyahu and his right-wing government,” he said.

Bar-Sela concedes that “Israel’s political situation seems bleak: Netanyahu won another term after disavowing his commitment to a two state solution and making racist remarks about Israeli Arabs”.

However he believes that there is hope for change through the system.

“The left still lacks strong leadership and after decades of violence and political stagnation the Israeli public has become wary and mistrustful of a political solution to this intractable conflict,” he said. “There are many things that need to change in Israel’s politics and culture but I firmly believe they will. I think there is a lot of work for Israel’s progressives to build a strong, cohesive and credible left-leaning leadership and restore the hope for peace among Israelis who have lost it.

Despite firmly opposing a boycott Bar-Sela does not agree with some of the harsher criticism of BDS.

“I am a proud Jew and I love my country, and I think it is my responsibility to act and voice criticism when it is due. That’s how democracy works and BDS is an expression of that,” he said. “I do disagree with that course of action, but I think simply framing it as anti-Semitic is to ignore the core issues the movement is responding to. those issues are well worth our criticism — though through different means”

It looks like the debate that BDS has created is only heating up. And frankly, it’s about time.