Israel’s War Against ‘BDS’ Movement

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 2014.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 2014.

The boycott aimed at Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands emerged as a peaceful way to challenge Israel’s abuse of Palestinians, replacing violent acts that killed civilians. But Israel’s lobby has now made the so-called BDS movement a target of its political muscle, as Marjorie Cohn explains.

By Marjorie Cohn

Thanks to Scarlett Johansson, the American Studies Association (ASA), and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has entered our national discourse.

Representatives of Palestinian civil society launched BDS in 2005, calling upon “international civil society 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 African in the apartheid era . . . [including] embargoes and sanctions against Israel.”

The call for BDS specified that “these non-violent punitive measures” should last until Israel fully complies with international law by (1) ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the barrier Wall; (2) recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their land as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Johansson is a spokesperson for SodaStream, a seltzer-making company whose major factory is located in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. SodaStream generates the highest volume of settlement exports to Europe. Until recently, Johansson was also an ambassador for Oxfam, which, like many other international organizations, opposes all trade from the Israeli settlements in the West Bank because companies are operating there illegally.

Shortly before Johansson’s commercial for SodaStream aired during the Super Bowl last month, Oxfam forced Johansson to choose between SodaStream and Oxfam. She chose SodaStream, stepping down from her post with Oxfam.

Additionally, the ASA recently endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which emerged “from the context of U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and finally, the support of such a resolution by a majority of ASA members.”

In its statement of support for the ASA boycott, faculty members at the American University in Cairo cited Israeli policies that “have rendered the Gaza Strip the world’s largest open-air penitentiary.” The ASA is the third major U.S. academic organization – together with the Asian American and Native American and Indigenous Studies Association – to endorse the academic boycott of Israel during the past year.

And, earlier this month, when he delivered the keynote address to the annual meeting of the powerful Israel lobby in the United States, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Netanyahu spent almost as much time attacking BDS as he did explaining why he thinks Iran is a strategic threat to Israel. Clearly disturbed by the proliferation of BDS worldwide, Netanyahu claimed, “Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot.”

Is BDS Anti-Semitic?

But, in the words of Rafeef Ziadah, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, “The BDS movement is opposed, as a matter of principle, to all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

In January, Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti wrote in the New York Times, “Arguing that boycotting Israel is intrinsically anti-Semitic is not only false, but it also presumes that Israel and ‘the Jews’ are one and the same. This is as absurd and bigoted as claiming that a boycott of a self-defined Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, say, because of its horrific human rights record, would of necessity be Islamophobic.”

Barghouti also noted, “BDS doesn’t pose an existential threat to Israel; it poses a serious challenge to Israel’s system of oppression of the Palestinian people, which is the root cause of its growing worldwide isolation.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu concurs. “My voice will always be raised in support of Christian-Jewish ties and against the anti-Semitism that all sensible people fear and detest,” Tutu wrote in the Tampa Bay Times. “But this cannot be an excuse for doing nothing and for standing aside as successive Israeli governments colonize the West Bank and advance racist laws,” he added, noting “Israel’s theft of Palestinian land” and “Jewish-only colonies built on Palestinian land in violation of international law.”

Tutu cited the 2010 Human Rights Watch report, which “describes the two-tier system of laws, rules, and services that Israel operates for the two populations in areas in the West Bank under its exclusive control, which provide preferential services, development, and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians.”

Tutu writes, “This, in my book, is apartheid. It is untenable.” He called on “people and organizations of conscience to divest from . . . Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard,” which profit “from the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.”

Moreover, if BDS were anti-Semitic, why do so many Jews support it? In her recent piece in Tikkun Daily, Jewish Voice for Peace board member Donna Nevel mentioned that “respected members of the liberal Jewish community” and “a few liberal Zionist groups,” formerly opposed to BDS, are now calling for boycotts of products made in the settlements.

She points out that groups like Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace – “a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights” – are “resonating with increasing numbers of Jews who support BDS as a natural outgrowth of their commitments.”

Some Jews in Israel have also engaged in non-violent resistance to Israeli government policies. Sixty youth recently signed an open letter to Netanyahu announcing their refusal to serve in the Israeli military due to the dehumanization of Palestinians living under occupation.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, they wrote, “human rights are violated, and acts defined under international law as war-crimes are perpetuated on a daily basis.” The signatories cite “assassinations (extrajudicial killings), the construction of settlements on occupied lands, administrative detentions, torture, collective punishment and the unequal allocation of resources such as electricity and water.”

The Spreading BDS Movement

The BDS movement is spreading throughout the world. European pension funds are divesting from banks and companies that operate in settlements, and European markets are labeling Israeli goods made in the West Bank.

In January, PGGM, the Netherlands’ second largest pension fund, decided to divest from five of Israel’s largest banks because they financed companies involved in the construction of settlements. PGGM is the second Dutch company to recently break ties with Israeli companies. Also in January, two of Europe’s largest financial institutions, Nordea and Danske Bank, agreed to boycott Israeli banks with branches in the West Bank.

Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, a multibillion operation, has blacklisted Africa Israel Investments and Danya Cebus due to their ties to settlements in the West Bank. Argentine authorities have suspended a proposed $170 million water treatment plant’s deal with Israel’s state water company Mekorot, in response to local trade unions and human rights organizations that connected Mekorot’s role in Israel’s illegal theft of Palestinian water resources. Many Western artists and bands refuse to perform in Israel.

In his final report to the United Nations, Richard Falk, Special UN Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, called on the international community to comprehensively investigate the business activities of companies and financial institutions registered in their own respective countries, which profit from the settlements in Israel and other unlawful Israeli activities.

Falk advocated that they “take appropriate action to end such practices and ensure appropriate reparation for affected Palestinians.” Significantly, Falk wrote, “Member States should consider imposing a ban on imports of settlement produce.”

Israel’s Maariv newspaper reported that the international boycott of Israeli settlement products has already led to financial losses of $30 million. Indeed, last August, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that Israel could face a boycott campaign “on steroids” if it continues to build settlements in the occupied West Bank.

In a recent interview, President Barack Obama asked, “Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis that run counter to Israel’s traditions?” These are bold words. But it is unlikely Obama will follow them with bold action.

Israel remains the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, over $3 billion a year. And Elbit Systems Ltd., Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, has just been awarded a $145 million contract by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border and Protection to deploy border surveillance technology in southern Arizona. Elbit is the Israeli military’s largest supplier of drones, which were involved in the killing of 29 children during Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008-2009, and the ongoing bombing of Gaza.

In light of Israel’s documented human rights violations, U.S. assistance and the Elbit contract are unacceptable. “Those who turn a blind eye to injustice actually perpetuate injustice,” Tutu said. “It doesn’t matter where we worship or live.”

Anti-BDS Legislation

Nevertheless, there has been a vigorous campaign to pass anti-BDS legislation, both in Israel and in the United States. In 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed an anti-boycott law which would sanction anyone who declares a commercial embargo on Israel, and label any boycott a civil offense subjecting its initiators to litigation.

Several Israeli and U.S. human rights groups asked that the law be annulled and a special panel of the Israeli High Court of Law held a hearing on the bill in February. The New York Times opposed the bill, noting, “this is a fundamental issue of free speech.”

Anti-boycott legislation introduced earlier this year in both New York and Maryland which would punish institutions that endorse the boycott were withdrawn after several educators and legislators criticized the bills as an attack on academic freedom. But a revised version of the New York bill has been introduced that would punish colleges that use public funds for activities that support boycotts of Israel.

In early March, the Protect Academic Freedom Act was introduced in the House of Representatives, which would deny government funding to any U.S institution that endorses the academic boycott of Israel.

And bills have been introduced in several state legislatures to penalize universities if their faculty members participate in professional organizations that express a political viewpoint by endorsing a boycott. More than 150 scholars and others signed a statement recognizing boycotts as “internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression.”

Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Frank wrote, “A law targeting the boycott today cannot be differentiated from the laws that punished boycotts in the U.S. civil rights movement or those that compelled academics to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of employment.”

In another campaign against the BDS movement, some universities, including Northeastern, have banned Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) from campuses and threatened disciplinary measures against some SJP members. This appears to be “part of a coordinated effort by the Israeli government and the Israel lobby to blacklist all student groups that challenge the official Israeli narrative,” according to Chris Hedges.

Resistance to the banning of student groups that criticize Israeli policies should cite the well-established Supreme Court precedents protecting academic freedom of speech, including Healy v. James (“[t]he college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas”), Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of N.Y. (“the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools [of higher learning]”), and Snyder v. Phelps (“speech on matters of public concern . . . is at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection”).

But unless and until Israel ends its brutal occupation of Palestinian lands, grants full equality to all its people – including Palestinians – and recognizes the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land, the non-violent BDS movement will continue to grow and cripple the Israeli economy. A system based on inequality and oppression cannot survive.

Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild, is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.


  9 comments for “Israel’s War Against ‘BDS’ Movement

  1. yoni
    March 24, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Until the Palestinians (and the middle east in general) agree to recognize Israel’s right to exist and stop seeking Israel’s destruction, a boycott is a much lesser threat.

    Also, you suggest that Israeli Jews should leave the West Bank, yet you mention nothing that says Arabs should leave Israel. Is this fair?

    I could be wrong on many things, but perhaps you are too?

    • B Drizzle
      March 24, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      Israel won’t be happy until they’ve ethnically cleansed the entire area through this slow-motion genocide. Collective punishment=terror & Netanyahu is a criminal. Israel will become increasingly isolated if they continue these blatant violations of law, deservedly so. It’s funny how the answer to this peaceful resistance is to squash free speech. It just means it’s working & the zionists are getting desperate & isolated. I have a lot of respect for Jewish people & culture, but they must overcome the racist, criminal zionists in their midst.

      • ab
        March 26, 2014 at 9:34 am

        I don’t think you know what a genocide is.

  2. Rehmat
    March 24, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Last month, Netanyahu in a statement on his Facebook page compared BDS with new Holocaust.

    “I think the most eerie thing, the most disgraceful thing is to have people on the soil of Europe talking about the boycott of Jews. I think that’s an outrage. The founders of the BDS movement make their goals perfectly clear. They want to see the end of the Jewish state. They’re quite explicit about it. And I think it’s important that the boycotters must be exposed for what they are. They’re classical anti-Semites in modern garb,” wrote Bibi.

  3. John
    March 24, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    Yoni, there are international laws and they apply not just to countries but to communities. The settlement of Gaza and the West Bank is illegal. Most Palestinians want to live as equals as was done before Zionism was invented. There were Jewish terrorists who accepted Zionism before the creation of Israel and before the time of Hiltler’s abominations. They were brutal and used letter bombs to threaten politicians who got in their way. Similarly there are some Palestinain terrorists many of whom probably have reacted to the aggressions imposed upon them by Zionists.
    And excuse me, but Arafat did accept a two state solution, but he couldn’t persuade his people because Israel continued to build roads and settlements on land which was to be Palestinian. So what Israel are they to accept?
    Being a Jew is a religious choice, it is not a race. Those Jews who remained in the Middle East are very much related to to Palestinians, I doubt you could tell them apart. But Christians who missed the Biblical message and were bitter, blamed the Jews for murdering Jesus who they believe was the son of God. If he existed I think he was a rebel against the elite treading over the poor, but that is besides the point. The friction was there and it grew especially during the depression. In time, many Jews who had no connection to the Middle East fled for safety. They were more related to east Europeans along with the regions of Europe to which they had moved. Some powerful Jews in America and no doubt eleswhere pressured their governments not to accept the Jewish refugees of WWII in order to enforce the Zionist ambition. A modern version of this occured when a Jewish American spy gave secrets to Israel which in turn passed them on to the Russians with the payback being Russian Jews to Israel to settle the occupied territory because Jewish immigration from more western countries was not big or fast enough.
    And yes Palestinians to some degree looked to Germany in WWII but it wasn’t because they liked what Nazis were doing, it was the hope that they would gain their independence because as Lawrence of Arabia had hoped and what was happening after WWI gave them no faith the British or French would help them and they didn’t.
    And excuse me, but once Palestinians had a most enviable record for educating their children. This, whilst Zionist leaders keep perculating the memories of the atrocities using fear to enslave vulnerable Jews into a political mire. Palestinians aren’t wicked, any people who have been displaced by fanatics would react the same. North American Indians are a prime example. Once they helped the immigrants, showing them how to survive the winters and grow a crop called maize which eventually allowed the immigrants to sail more freely about the world. America was the immigants Exodus target and nobody was going to get in their way.
    And so I support BDS, and have passed Israeli fruit and some other items hoping
    that by doing so will allow a little rationality to enter Israeli minds, and perhaps they put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians and try to see the world from their eyes.

  4. borat
    March 24, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    New Israel Fund (NIF) Director of Communications Naomi Paiss “Don’t Divest; Invest” makes an important statement by rejecting the global boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and its accompanying “apartheid” rhetoric. Paiss reaffirms the notion that BDS is totally incongruous with Jewish values, and demonstrates that progressives within the community cannot tolerate its “inflammatory and counter-productive” agenda.

    Her piece is a sharp blow to the very legitimacy of BDS campaigns, particularly those conducted by Jewish groups (see “Peace Process or Land Grab?” by Rebecca Vilkomerson).

    However, although her argument is compelling, Paiss significantly understates the case against BDS. Yes, attempts to isolate Israel “penalize the innocent along with the guilty, push moderates towards right-wing nationalism, and spur rejection of progressive and humanist values.” But, more importantly, BDS is the antithesis of universal human rights values, rooted in immoral double standards that single out and condemn Israel as a pariah state.

    The BDS movement also rejects the very existence of Israel as a Jewish entity. Inasmuch as BDS activists seek to eliminate Jewish self-determination, the movement (as a movement, not necessarily every individual linked to it) is anti-Semitic.

    The core goals of the BDS agenda expose the true nature of the movement. One of them is the “rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes,” falsely portrayed as a “precept of international law.” There is no such legal obligation, nor is the right of return a peaceful goal. Rather, it is an attempt to reverse partition, refight 1948 – at least demographically – and overturn the right to Jewish sovereignty.

    It is, therefore, no surprise that proponents of BDS resort to racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. A particularly offensive and common theme – exemplified by the hate speech of PACBI’s Omar Barghouti, Electonic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, and others – is identifying Israel with Nazi Germany and the IDF with Nazi soldiers. The Palestinian Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) known as Sabeel claims that “Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him,” persecuted by an “Israeli government crucifixion system.” These pronouncements revive classic anti-Semitic theological themes.

    BDS methods are also emblematic of the anti-Semitic goals. BDS targets Israel, its businesses, academics, cultural activities, and even companies that do business with it – not the settlements.

    This is an extension of the Arab boycott and refusal to recognize Israel. Changes to specific policies or actions of the Israeli government will not end the attacks, and they will continue until the maximalist demands are met – the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.

    Yet, these realities are nowhere to be found in Paiss’ discussion, which identifies “tactical” and strategic problems with BDS: it “embodies the message that Israel cannot and will not change itself…it is inflammatory and counter-productive.” But even if BDS messaging were improved and there was no backlash among “besieged” Israelis, BDS would still be immoral and inherently wrong.

    Given NIF’s lack of a moral argument against BDS, it is not surprising to learn that NIF is misguided when it comes to funding groups that are active in the global BDS movement. For example, the Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP) has received significant grants from NIF since 2006. CWP runs a project – “Who Profits?” – which lists Israeli and international companies that are located in or directly profit from investments in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

    The project was “initiated in response to the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel” and is used by BDS activists to identify corporations to target with anti-Israel divestment. Who Profits? receives tax-deductible donations through NIF’s offices in the US, UK, and Switzerland.

    Contrary to the façade of targeted boycotts against “products and services that come from the settlements” that Paiss endorses in her article, CWP attacks the institutions of Israeli business because “it’s impossible to separate the occupation economy… from the normative economy of Israel.” In other words, when we say “occupation,” we mean all of Israel. (This follows directly from Palestinian rhetoric that labels Tel Aviv and Haifa “settlements” and views all of Israel as built on stolen land.)

    Whereas Paiss praises the Israeli artists who refuse to perform in Ariel, the logic of BDS dictates boycotting all Israeli artists, even the boycotters. In the words of the umbrella Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, “Israelis who oppose the occupation…must be willing to accept that there is a price to pay to end the colonial oppression being perpetrated in their names. …The price that some conscientious Israelis may pay as an unavoidable byproduct of the boycott is quite modest when compared to the price Palestinians have to pay for the lack of boycotts or any similarly effective pressures on Israel.”

    Who Profits, in fact, has become a major resource for the BDS movement, providing names of corporations that CWP alleges have connections to the settlements. An October report, for instance, named “almost all of the Israeli commercial banks” and accused them of “having a central role in the perpetuation of the current unlawful and unjust conditions.”

    For Who Profit’s primary audience, BDS activists, this publication is another target list, likely to be used by CWP and its cohorts to lobby European financial bodies in favor of removing Israeli banks from their portfolios.

    Another recipient of major NIF funding, Adalah (over $1.1 million since 2006), plays a different, but equally damaging role in the global de-legitimization campaign. Officials from this NGO co-authored “Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?,” a study that accuses Israel of placing Palestinians in “reserves and ghettoes” and criminalizes Israeli self-defense measures as “inhumane act[s] of apartheid…perpetrated in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another.”

    As noted by Paiss, the BDS movement is premised upon the “historically inaccurate and inflammatory” comparison to apartheid South Africa. Yet Adalah continues to benefit from NIF’s support.

    Adalah also promotes BDS by spearheading efforts “to portray Israel as an inherent undemocratic state and use that as part of campaigning internationally.” Indeed, in October 2009, an Adalah representative told the UN Human Rights Council that “the Israeli legal and judicial systems have consistently failed in providing any legal remedies for the Palestinian people.”

    Considering that Adalah has petitioned Israeli courts on Palestinian rights issues dozens of times, including numerous victories in the Supreme Court, the crude statement made in the UN is particularly disingenuous.

    The Need for Coherent Funding Guidelines NIF has set itself a noble, yet difficult mission: to support and improve Israel, enable and engender healthy criticism, but repudiate those that want to isolate and delegitimize Israel. However, as noted, these important goals are not always reflected in NIF’s funding decisions.

    This contradiction reinforces the need to establish firm funding guidelines that reflect ethical norms, best practices, and the organization’s vision. As noted by Washington political strategist Steve Rabinowitz, “Non-profits need guidelines, because who has the time to think about this in the heat of the moment?”

    For the mainstream Jewish community, BDS crosses a “red line” of acceptable activities. For instance, in February 2010 the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco announced a policy to refuse funding to groups that “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.”

    Similarly, in an endeavor with national implications, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in partnership with the Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA) has launched the Israel Action Network to fight de-legitimization and BDS. There is a broad consensus that BDS must be confronted and defeated, not defended and funded.

    However, when NIF announced its “funding guidelines” in September 2010, the question of BDS was glaringly absent. Naomi Paiss’ op-ed, described by Zeek as the “first public response from the New Israel Fund on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS),” is a step toward moral clarity. Perhaps she is announcing a policy whereby boycotts of “products and services made in the settlements” and “opposing government expenditures there” are acceptable, if not advised, for its grantees. But, support for the wider BDS movement against Israel, as epitomized by CWP’s activities, is out-of-bounds.

    Even before Paiss’ article, NIF had taken principled stands against BDS, including public opposition to the UC Berkeley divestment proposal – which, ironically, was backed by CWP. NIF must now acknowledge the immorality of the BDS movement and its incongruity with human rights values, and end all support for its grantees – such as CWP and Adalah – that engage in BDS and pursue anti-Israel de-legitimization campaigns.

    • F. G. Sanford
      March 25, 2014 at 10:51 am

      I guess you’re hoping that the uninformed and historically illiterate public has forgotten about the “Anti-Nazi Boycott of 1933”. I suppose by your logic, that was also incongruous with human rights values? After all, sauce for the goose and all that…

    • JoePublic
      April 1, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Your argument actually furthers the position of the BDS movement. Well done.

  5. Ojr
    March 30, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    Their claim is 1. biblical and false historical events
    2. contract based on a outcome of a world war started by them a private person and a foriegn entity
    Both being illegal and void making isrealhell illegal and no right to exist

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