In 2005, Palestinian organizations initiated the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to encourage businesses, universities and other global entities to pressure Israel into ending the occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights, giving full equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and recognizing the Palestinians’ right of return to land they had fled when Israel became a state.
In the United States, some college campuses have seen protests and student-backed resolutions calling for their schools to divest from companies that do business with Israel. An increasing number of state governments are combatting BDS and showing support for Israel through legislation.
Just how much support does BDS have and to what degree has it affected Israel?
On April 22, New York University’s graduate student union, a 600-member organization, voted to approve a measure urging the university to end its exchange program with Tel Aviv University and called on the United Auto Workers, its parent union, to divest from Israeli companies.
Four days later, NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, rejected the student group’s proposal, stating that it would be “contrary to our core principles of academic freedom, antithetical to the free exchange of ideas.”
The same month, Vassar College students voted in a referendum to reject a resolution supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement after the student council had passed it.
These two recent incidents at NYU and Vassar help illustrate the dynamics of BDS on campus. Student-backed resolutions relating to at least one element of BDS have seen the light of day at 34 universities in the United States between 2013 and 2015, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Of these, 13 passed. Despite the activism at these universities, these numbers constitute a fraction of the more than 4,500 institutions of higher learning in the United States.
Nevertheless, BDS on campus has caused alarm from the organized Jewish community. In the spring of 2015, Eric Fingerhut, CEO of Hillel International, the campus student organization, said the lives of American Jewish students and the integrity of the university were at stake.
“And so some Hillel directors who might not have experienced it may find that they experience it in the future. And our job is to be proactive,” he told Washington Jewish Week.
Fingerhut put in place a controversial set of guidelines about which positions on Israel are acceptable in the organization’s activities. Groups that advocate any form of BDS violate those guidelines.
Last summer, billionaire Sheldon Adelson raised $50 million to create an organization, called Campus Maccabees, to fight BDS. David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, was named to head the group. The Maccabee Task Force Facebook page has some 20,000 likes.
Central to the BDS mission is to hit Israel economically and damage it so it will withdraw from the occupied territories. SodaStream, a do-it-yourself carbonated beverage company, was in the BDS spotlight for months after it opened a factory in the West Bank in 2014.
An interfaith coalition of organizations announced a boycott of SodaStream. The company eventually closed the plant and moved to a larger facility within Israel. More than 500 Palestinian jobs were lost in the process.
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum said the move had nothing to do with BDS or politics. But BDS advocates declared victory upon hearing the news.
“SodaStream’s announcement today shows that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is increasingly capable of holding corporate criminals to account for their participation in Israeli apartheid and colonialism,” said Rafeef Ziadah, of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee.
But the SodaStream boycott appears to have done no long-term economic damage.
“The impact of BDS is more psychological than real so far and has had no discernible impact on Israeli trade or the broader economy,” Kristin Lindow of Moody’s Investor’s Service told the business magazine Forbes. “That said, the sanctions do run the risk of hurting the Palestinian economy, which is much smaller and poorer than that of Israel, as seen in the case of SodaStream.”
Foreign investments in Israel now total $285 billion, three times what they were 11 years ago when BDS was launched, Israel Bonds Chairman Izzy Tapoohi wrote in The Jerusalem Post on July 6.
That has not daunted Palestinian activist Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Munayyer said BDS is working even if the economic results are not apparent.
“It’s not just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s a matter of corporations that are profiteering off of a system of injustice,” he said. “When you have debates over whether or not to boycott or to divest in an institution or a church, that conversation is happening, and that conversation would not be happening if people were not using these [boycott] tactics.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year launched a $25 million effort to combat BDS by monitoring the activities of pro-BDS organizations. The plan was not implemented due to infighting in the Israeli cabinet.
Isolating and delegitimizing Israel
Opponents of the occupation want to distinguish Israeli products made in the West Bank and Golan from those made within the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. BDS goes farther. It wishes to stop the sale of Israeli goods from the territories and often from Israel itself.
In response, Israel supporters in this country have spearheaded anti-BDS legislation in U.S. states. Ten states passed laws in the last three years. Another 15, including Virginia, have them on their agendas.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently signed a bill into law that creates a blacklist of companies engaging in BDS tactics. “If you boycott Israel, New York State will boycott you,” he declared.
At the federal level, the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 30 passed the Combatting BDS Act of 2016. It would authorize state and local governments to divest funds from companies that engage in BDS activity that targets Israel.
Roz Rothstein, CEO of the conservative pro-Israel group StandWithUs, calls the legislation “victories against bigotry.”
BDS loses “as they play the game because they appear to be so extremist, and they’re losing because [U.S. governments] recognize that [BDS is] spreading bigotry,” she said.
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, has proposed a litmus test for whether words or actions critical of Israel cross the line from anti-Israel to anti-Semitic.
He calls it the “Three D’s test” — delegitimization, demonization and double standard.
“We have to fight to convince others of why it [BDS] is absolutely wrong,” Sharansky said in an interview in March with WJW. “And in this BDS movement, the most important thing is not to convince our enemies that they are wrong. We have to tell the Jews that they have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Marketing to millennials
BDS also marks a generational divide that is highlighted in a study released in May by the Pew Research Center. It examined American attitudes toward foreign policy, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pew found that 43 percent of millennials, people born between roughly 1980 and 2000, were likely to sympathize with Israel compared with more than 60 percent of people born before 1964.
Simply put, Israel is not the miracle for millennials that it is for their parents and grandparents. The BDS movement, with its argument on justice for the Palestinians, is tapping into the passions of the millennials.
“In my generation, Israel may have been the first driver of Jewish identity,” Jay Sanderson, the president of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, told Ha’aretz. “But it’s not going to be any more in the same way. Israel’s too complicated. So our approach has to be to connect these students to Jewish life and then find a meaningful way to engage them with Israel.”
The growing support for BDS among young people can partially be attributed to the effectiveness of Palestinians in making their appeal in a similar way black South Africans did during the anti-apartheid movement, said political analyst Peter Beinart.
“It makes sense that this is going to be strongest in the places where there is such strong political activism,” he said, noting that pro-BDS sentiments have taken root in particularly left-leaning areas of the United States like New England and California.
Beinart, who himself opposes BDS, said that because the Israeli government is “erasing the Green Line” [with its settlements policy] and because there has been little progress in the Middle East peace process over the last 20 years, BDS has become an alternative for the Palestinians in their efforts toward achieving their goal of a state.
Rabbi Alana Suskin, director of strategic communications for Americans for Peace Now, a pro-Israel group that opposes the occupation, said younger people are becoming attracted to the BDS movement because they are more engaged with social media and have not had to deal with the levels of anti-Semitism their parents faced.
“Younger people have much broader connections,” she said. “They’re reading tweets from people all over the world. When they’re having revolutions in the Middle East, people can see it on Twitter,” she said. “You’re looking at all of these things and you’re thinking, what can I do?”
BDS supporters only constitute a small percentage of Israel critics, said political theorist Michael Walzer. But if the movement continues, it could have negative long-term effects, he cautioned.
“We have to acknowledge that this is a political movement of some importance,” he said. “This is not a movement that can do serious damage to the state of Israel, and its importance often is exaggerated for political purposes on the right. But it could turn the next generation of the American foreign policy elite against Israel.”