In the Footsteps of Mandela and King

A Non-Violent Movement Gains Ground Ten Years On

In a historic development last November, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) became the latest in a rapidly growing number of groups to add its support to the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) campaign protesting Israeli human rights violations. The resolution asserts that “injustice and violence…severely impact the daily lives and working conditions of Palestinian scholars, students, and the society at large.”

The vote comes on the heels of another movement victory: the passage of a pro-B.D.S. resolution at the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) annual meeting. The AAA resolution joins a string of such resolutions worldwide responding to the call from Palestinian academics to “boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law.” The growing list of academic B.D.S. supporters includes professional associations and student governments as well as luminaries like theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and philosopher Judith Butler. In August 2015, a historic statement signed by more than 1,000 African-American activists, artists and scholars declared full support for B.D.S.

Inspired in part by the B.D.S. movement against South African apartheid and previous Palestinian non-violent campaigns, a coalition of Palestinian civil society representatives from the occupied territories and Israel formed the Boycott National Committee in 2005, which launched the current movement. The demands include an end to the Israeli “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” occupied during the June 1967 war; dismantling the separation wall; Israel’s recognition of “the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”; and “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194.”

The boycott guidelines distinguish between institutions and individuals, emphasizing that many Israeli civil and governmental institutions closely cooperate in ways that have a direct impact on Palestinian lives. As American Anthropological Association member and Barnard College professor Nadia Abu El-Haj points out, Israeli universities have aided the military in research and development of weapons systems and in “formulating the Dahiya doctrine…that calls for the use of disproportionate force to destroy civilian property and infrastructure.”

In addition to the expanding academic boycott, the B.D.S. movement has seen gains in commercial and cultural boycotts, as well as in divestment and sanctions initiatives. Succumbing to boycott pressures and the loss of $20 billion in contracts, the French multinational company Veolia has withdrawn entirely from the Israeli market. In September, the popular home seltzer machine manufacturer, SodaStream, moved its factory out of its prior West Bank settlement location and into the Negev Desert inside Israel. Meanwhile, pressure is building on the United Nations to divest from multi-million dollar contracts with the private security firm G4S, which operates prisons in Israel and North America. Supporters argue that Americans have a particular responsibility to push for B.D.S., citing close diplomatic ties and roughly $4 billion in annual United States aid to Israel — more than to any other country.

The cultural boycott component of the movement has also made remarkable strides. Led by such figures as Alice Walker, Roger Waters, Naomi Klein, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, well-known musicians, including Lauryn Hill, have canceled their performances in Israel. Organizers argue that performing in a country that is conducting a military occupation of Palestinian lands is a form of complicity with state violence. They note that many Israeli cultural institutions receive state funding and act as de facto cultural ambassadors to promote what Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Arye Merkel has identified as “Israel’s prettier face.”

While support for B.D.S. among Jews and Israelis goes back to its beginnings, increasing numbers have signed on in recent years. These include staunch Israel supporters such as Harvard professor Steven Levitsky and University of Chicago professor Glen Weyl, who recently noted in The Washington Post, “Israel is settling into the apartheid-like regime against which many of its former leaders warned.”

The movement’s mounting success has alarmed Israeli politicians and their lobbyists and supporters in the United States. Funded by national power brokers like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and financier Lewis Eisenberg, lobbyists have spurred attempts to pass anti-B.D.S. legislation in some states similar to recent Israeli laws. The advocacy group Palestine Legal has also noted over 300 incidents of efforts to silence Palestinian rights activists who support B.D.S., mainly on college campuses.

Despite concerted opposition, the movement continues to expand unabated both in the United States and Western Europe. As Levitsky and Weyl declared, “The only tools that could plausibly shape Israeli strategic calculations are a withdrawal of U.S. aid and diplomatic support, and boycotts of and divestitures from the Israeli economy.”

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