18 May 2011 — U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation
By Anna Baltzer, National Organizer, US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation
Are boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) proving effective at isolating Israel as a form of pressure to end its violations of Palestinian rights? We at the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation think so, but you don’t have to take our word for it.
Two recent articles in The Jewish Daily Forward and the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz have affirmed the power of the growing BDS movement in placing a cost on Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies. The Forward’s piece, “Survey of Campus BDS Finds Few Serious Cases,” sets out to diminish concern over the recent surge in campus BDS campaigns, but ends up making the case as well as anyone could for how and why ongoing BDS campaigns—on-campus and off—are succeeding!
The Forward’s article reassures BDS opponents that in no instance has a North American BDS campaign resulted in a campus divesting from corporations or de-shelving products. But further down, former human rights director for the American Committee on Africa reflects on the BDS movement against Apartheid South Africa: “It took a good 20 years to get to the height of the movement.” The reality is that within the first five years of the 2005 Palestinian civil society BDS call, the movement had arguably achieved more victories than the corresponding anti-Apartheid South Africa BDS movement could count in its first 15 years, especially taking into account BDS successes worldwide, particularly in Europe.
Apparently, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agrees that the success of the BDS movement will take time, explaining in an interview with Ha’aretz:
This will not happen overnight.… It will start coming at us like a glacier, from all corners. There are people in the European Council that [sic] deal with export and import, and they are capable, without any government decision, of inflicting significant damage on the Israeli economy. We will see this taking place in academia, we will see this taking place in dockworker unions, consumer groups, and this will seep into governments.… To me, this uncontrollable process looks more dangerous than what the [Israeli] public perceives at the moment.
In addition to being a long-term struggle, BDS is much more than economic; it’s about changing the discourse around Israel. On this front, the movement has been wildly successful, pushing the discussion beyond the question of whether Israel is committing crimes to the question about what the world is going to do about it. It frames the discussion around three fundamental, indisputable Palestinian rights—freedom from occupation, equality in Israel, and the right of return—rather than any particular solution. It is proactive in nature, unifying and mobilizing allies around points of unity and a common, concrete way to action.
Far from failing on campuses, BDS has proven itself to be one of the best tools there is to educate people about Israeli occupation and apartheid. Last year’s divestment campaign at the University of California at Berkeley is a case in point. UC Berkeley’s student senate voted overwhelmingly for a resolution calling on university divestment from companies involved in the Israeli occupation. Although the senate president and outside opposition succeeded in stopping the resolution, the battle for the hearts and minds of the UC Berkeley community had already been won. With all the surrounding controversy, by the time the final vote came around, likely every student and faculty member on campus had encountered the association between “Israel” and “apartheid.” This is a tremendous victory. Campus campaigns that fail to pass a resolution often win instead by rectifying Israel’s exceptional status in public discourse as immune to criticism, promoting debate on the real issues and thereby educating people.
American Israel Public Affairs Committee executive director Howard Kohr described the power of BDS during the committee’s 2009 conference:
We need to recognize that this campaign is about more than mere rhetoric. This is the battle for the hearts and minds of the world… left unchallenged, allowed to go unchecked, it will work.
As illustrated in The Forward’s article, the effectiveness of the BDS movement has not gone unnoticed, with a new $6 million initiative to counter BDS, funded by the Jewish Federations of North America. The Reut Institute, an influential Israeli think tank, has also called on the Israeli government to direct considerable resources to “attack” and possibly engage in “sabotage” of the BDS movement and related campaigns. Earlier this spring, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) approved its first reading of an anti-boycott bill, imposing harsh fines on Israeli citizens who call for academic or economic boycott. It is precisely the reactions of BDS opponents that illustrate the effectiveness of the BDS movement.
While failing to convince the reader that campus BDS organizing is not a force to be reckoned with, the article sets up a false and highly problematic distinction between BDS organizers and Jewish groups. The BDS campaigns referred to within the article (including the TIAA-CREF Campaign, initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace) have enjoyed widespread support from the growing number of Jewish individuals and organizations advocating for BDS. The attempts to claim that BDS erases “the Jewish narrative” does a great disservice to American, Israeli, and international Jews and Jewish organizations. Many of these organizations are mobilizing for BDS and challenging the monolithic Jewish narrative co-opted by Israeli official rhetoric. They include, Jewish Voice for Peace, American Jews for a Just Peace, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, the Coalition of Women for Peace, and Boycott!: Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within.
The Forward’s article not only ignores Jewish BDS activism but also omits a number of non-divestment campus BDS campaigns that have proven successful, such as last month’s cultural boycott victory at Washington University in St. Louis. Organizers of a Middle Eastern hip-hop event on campus were compelled to disinvite Israeli hip-hop artist Marvin Casey, whose dance troupe is funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel, following opposition from Washington University students, the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, and Arab hip-hop artists also slated to perform.
BDS opponents attempting to downplay the success of the movement in The Forward’s article repeatedly refer to BDS as a delegitimizing campaign, without specifying precisely what is being delegitimized. A rights-based movement focused on equality and freedom for all, BDS indeed delegitimizes occupation, discrimination, and apartheid. Those delegitimizing Israel’s transgressions and impunity have nothing to apologize for. And despite the wishful thinking of some, it is increasingly clear that those trying to hold back this long-established and respected nonviolent tactic of BDS as a vehicle for achieving equality and human rights for the Palestinian people are fighting a losing battle.
Anna Baltzer is an award-winning lecturer, author, and activist for Palestinian human rights. She works as national organizer with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.