In April the student senate at the University of California, Berkeley, twice held all-night sessions to debate a proposal urging the school to divest from two US military companies "materially and militarily profiting" from the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Hundreds of people packed the hall, and statements in support of the measure were read aloud from leaders, including Noam Chomsky, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein and Alice Walker. In the end the divestment measure failed (the senate majority of 13 to 5 was not enough to overturn the student government president's veto), but the outcome was surely less significant than the furor over the issue. Following related battles last year at Hampshire College and the Toronto International Film Festival, the Berkeley measure was yet another signal that the divestment initiative, part of a broader movement popularly known as BDS, for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, has become a key battleground in the grassroots struggle over the future of Israel/Palestine.
"We're at a super-exciting moment, truly a turning point," says Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace, an activist organization that supports selective divestment from companies profiting from the occupation. "For the first time we're seeing a serious debate of divestment at a major public university." BDS supporters say the movement has the potential to transform international opinion in much the way that the divestment movement in the 1980s isolated the South African apartheid regime. Or as Tutu wrote to the Berkeley students:
The same issue of equality is what motivates the divestment movement of today, which tries to end Israel's 43 year long occupation and the unequal treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them. The abuses they face are real, and no person should be offended by principled, morally consistent, nonviolent acts to oppose them. It is no more wrong to call out Israel in particular for its abuses than it was to call out the Apartheid regime in particular for its abuses.
Opponents of BDS see just that threat—that Israel will be isolated. They say that BDS unfairly singles out Israel for conduct that other states are also guilty of and that it seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state in the eyes of the world, thereby threatening Israel's existence. Some argue that grassroots actions put the emphasis on the wrong target. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center said on Democracy Now! in March, "It's the United States government you've got to look to, not private industry or private commerce. So that's one really big difference simply at strategic and tactical levels."
When did the BDS movement begin, why is it growing and what does it want?
The campaign traces its origins to a July 2004 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (the World Court), which found Israel's separation wall in the West Bank to be "contrary to international law." The ICJ also recommended that the parts of the wall built inside the occupied territories be dismantled and that Palestinians affected by the wall be compensated. When a year passed with no sign that the opinion would be enforced, a wide-ranging coalition of more than 170 organizations representing Palestinian civil society issued a call for boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel "until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights." Compliance meant three things: ending the occupation, recognizing equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194 of 1948.
The "call" (which can be found at bdsmovement.net) was notable for unifying the Palestinian grassroots and for the simplicity and coherence of its platform. BDS was seen as an "essential component" for shifting the playing field in the Palestinians' favor after the slow death of the peace process, the Israeli settlement expansion and the inability of the international community to hold Israel accountable.