The Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement
BDS represents three strategies: boycotts are commonly carried out by individuals, divestment by institutions and sanctions by governments. For example, organizers have called on people to avoid buying products made in Israeli settlements; on churches to sell stocks of companies such as Caterpillar, which makes the infamous D9 bulldozer used to demolish Palestinian homes and fields; and on politicians to make conditional or end US aid to Israel. BDS's proponents argue that unless Israel experiences material, political and moral pressure, it will maintain the status quo. Nobel laureates Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire (Corrigan), Rigoberta Menchu Tum and Jody Williams made this point in a letter supporting the Berkeley divestment bill:
We stand united in our belief that divesting from companies that provide significant support for the Israeli military provides moral and strategic stewardship of tuition and taxpayer-funded public education money. We are all peace makers, and we believe that no amount of dialogue without economic pressure can motivate Israel to change its policy of using overwhelming force against Palestinian civilians.
The movement has won adherents by saying that it will accept any gesture of boycott or divestment that Westerners are willing to make. "If you only want to boycott an egg, we want you to boycott an egg," said Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which is part of the BNC, during a tour of America last year to drum up support.
Even the Palestinian Authority—never celebrated for its connection to the grassroots—has made a nod toward the movement, with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad vowing to empty Palestinian homes of goods made in the settlements. But BDS's biggest victories have come in the West and have involved divestments from businesses profiting from investment in the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live under an occupation whose hundreds of armed checkpoints and separate roadways for Jewish colonists have led some South Africans to declare that the system is worse than apartheid. French multinational Veolia Transport was targeted for its role in building a light-rail system that will connect West Jerusalem to settlements in the occupied territories. Veolia dropped out of the project following an escalating international campaign against the firm, during which the Dutch ASN Bank severed ties to Veolia. Israeli diamond merchant Lev Leviev was also targeted because of his funding of settlements. Last year the US investment firm BlackRock divested itself of stock in Leviev's Africa-Israel company, and Britain canceled plans to move its Tel Aviv embassy into a Leviev-owned building. Similarly, the Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank recently divested its shares in the Israeli military contractor Elbit Systems, which supplies components for the separation wall. Wiltrud Rösch-Metzler, vice president of Pax Christi Germany, who helped lead the campaign, called it "a huge success.... [Deutsche Bank] went out of their way to list numerous standards and international ethical commitments to which the bank is party, highlighting how Elbit investments would violate them all."
The immediate aftermath of the flotilla attack saw a surge in BDS activity across Europe. Most notably, Britain's largest union, UNITE, passed a motion to "vigorously promote a policy of divestment from Israeli companies," along with a boycott of Israeli goods and services. At the same time, the Swedish Port Workers Union announced it would refuse to load or unload any ships coming to or from Israel for nine days, to protest the flotilla raid.
In the United States, BDS has been percolating among activist groups, churches and campuses for several years. Since 2005 the Presbyterian Church (USA) has undertaken what it calls a "phased, selective divestment" process aimed at five companies benefiting from the occupation [see Hasdai Westbrook, "The Israel Divestment Debate," May 8, 2006]. Again, the West Bank is the focus. Adalah-NY, a New York–based justice group, regularly leads pickets of Leviev's Madison Avenue jewelry store and pressured UNICEF and the humanitarian organization Oxfam to distance themselves from Leviev. The peace group Code Pink has led a campaign called "Stolen Beauty" that targets Ahava, a cosmetics company based in a West Bank settlement that uses ingredients from the Dead Sea.
"What we've seen in the past two years is a rapidly growing, diverse movement dedicated to universal human rights and international law," says David Hosey, a spokesman for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of grassroots organizations that supports BDS. "On campuses and in communities across the United States, people are sending a clear message that if the US government won't hold Israel accountable for violations of Palestinian human rights, then civil society will step up and do the job."
Two of the biggest divestment fights in the past year in some ways could not have been more different—Hampshire College in Massachusetts and the Toronto International Film Festival. One year ago Hampshire students ignited a firestorm with a campus divestment campaign that drew national attention, including calls from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to student organizers on their cellphones. The Hampshire board of directors voted to divest from six military companies involved in the occupation and to adopt a "social responsibility" screen for Hampshire's investments. Though the administration denied that the divestiture was specifically aimed at the Israeli occupation, the headlines helped catalyze the national student BDS movement. In November the college hosted a divestment organizing conference of student leaders from more than forty campuses, including Berkeley; UC, San Diego; the University of Arizona; and Carleton University in Ottawa—whose campaigns all made news this past spring. The movement won a notable victory in June when the student body of Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington—Rachel Corrie's alma mater—voted to call on the college to divest from companies profiting from the occupation and to ban the use of Caterpillar equipment on campus. The resolution passed with nearly 80 percent of the vote. Evergreen junior Anna Simonton explained that the issue resonated across the student body because of the US role in the conflict. "This issue is something we're all complicit in," she said. "It's our money and our taxes."
At the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, movie premieres were overshadowed by the controversy over a "city to city" promotion by the festival that paired Toronto with Tel Aviv. In a "Toronto Declaration," critics said the showcase had been pushed by the Israeli consulate as part of its efforts to "rebrand" Israel after the horrific public relations fallout from the Gaza war months earlier [see Horowitz and Weiss, "American Jews Rethink Israel," November 2, 2009].
The response from Israel's supporters was immediate and forceful. Big-name stars, including Sacha Baron Cohen and Jerry Seinfeld, came out against the declaration, and so did filmmakers David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman. Dan Adler, a former executive at the Creative Artists Agency, worked with the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and United Jewish Appeal of Toronto to push the claim that the declaration was a boycott of the festival and a blacklist of Israeli artists. The declaration was neither, but the response was a sign of where the battle was headed, with many Israel supporters describing BDS as a Trojan horse aimed at delegitimizing Israel as a Jewish state.