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 SodaStreama 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 is 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.
How extensive is the 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. He 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 suppliers 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 and blacklisting student groups
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.