BDS and Palestinian Rights: An Assessment

No letters have become more synonymous with global rights activism for Palestine than “BDS.” But while Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions tactics have become a mainstay of Palestine rights activism at present, they far predate the Israeli-Palestinian question. In fact, boycotts predate modern Zionism and have been used throughout history. The word “boycott” originated in the 1800s and comes from the name of an English land agent, Charles Boycott, who was targeted for boycott by Irish tenants objecting to evictions and the high price of rent. Since then, boycotts and other forms of economic action have continued to be used to advance social movements. From the Indian struggle against the British Raj, to the civil rights movement in the United States, to the global anti-apartheid movement against South Africa, these tactics have been central.

Activists in solidarity with Palestinians were initiating boycott and divestment campaigns for decades before the turn of the millennium.

It is from the struggle against apartheid South Africa that Palestinian civil society drew inspiration to launch its own boycott call. For decades, economic and cultural boycotts had played an important role in the marginalization of South Africa and, ultimately, helped bring an end to the racist system of rule that subjugated the vast majority of the population on the basis of the color of their skin. Economic protest action has its own history in Palestine, too, one that predates the state of Israel; the 1936 general strike was perhaps the most prominent example. Globally, activists in solidarity with Palestinians were initiating boycott and divestment campaigns for decades before the turn of the millennium. The 2005 call by Palestinian civil society, however, played the key catalytic role for the worldwide solidarity movement to adopt BDS tactics. The call did this in two important ways: first, it outlined Palestinian human rights demands, making it clear what solidarity with Palestinians actually entailed; and second, it did so in a broad non-factional Palestinian voice that granted legitimacy to the effort. This allowed global solidarity actors to follow the lead of Palestinian civil society, even when the Palestinian political leadership was divided and ineffective.

What Is BDS?

The call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions came from a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations that asked international civil society to use nonviolent economic actions to hold Israel to account for its denial of Palestinian rights. Specifically, the call’s aim was to pressure Israel to abide by international law, focusing on three principal demands: an end to military occupation and rule over Palestinians, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a right of return for Palestinian refugees. These three demands have long been part of the Palestinians’ prerequisites for any peace agreement and enjoy wide support among the Palestinian public.

Global civil society’s role in the Israel/Palestine issue has expanded as the international state system failed to advance a just peace. Despite decades of an ostensible peace process led by Washington, any objective assessment of the situation today is likely to conclude that the parties are as far apart as they have been in decades. These failures continue to lead activists to seek other avenues through which to influence the situation. BDS campaigns serve as popular and inspiring tools.

BDS tactics also strike an important balance that has widespread appeal: they are nonviolent and effective. This approach recognizes the dramatic power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians it dominates and the need to compel Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians. At the same time, this nonviolent economic action evades the moral muddying of the waters that comes with armed action, especially when civilians are killed or injured. The result is that BDS encourages more people around the world to get involved while, simultaneously, forcing Israel to defend its policies in a moral arena where it cannot effectively dismiss these nonviolent critics as criminals or terrorists.

The Israeli government began to perceive the real risks of international marginalization after its massive bombardment of Gaza in 2009.

Though BDS is often described as a movement, that is a misnomer. Rather, boycotts, divestment strategies, and political or economic sanctions are three disparate tactics that were embraced by, and helped to energize, a preexisting global movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights. Today, Palestine activism centers around BDS campaigns often in a global and coordinated fashion. For example, corporate divestment targets like Hewlett-Packard, Veolia, G4S, and SodaStream have all been subject to targeted campaigns in which activists and organizations around the world have participated. With the state system effectively stuck with a defunct peace process, these corporate targets gave civil society actors ways to hold Israel accountable along with those profiting off its human rights abuses.

Is BDS Working?

The impact of BDS has been the subject of diverse research and commentary. It is common to point to economic indicators and ask how BDS tactics could be working if Israel’s economy continues to grow. This approach to assessment, however, is likely misguided. One need only to look at South Africa as an example. Anti-apartheid divestment initiatives started in the 1960s, but they took over 20 years to have a significant impact on the state’s economy. According to the World Bank, South Africa’s GDP in 1960 was $7.5 billion and increased more than tenfold by 1980, reaching $93 billion. The trajectory of GDP growth did not flatline until after 1980; even then—and after the passage of comprehensive sanctions by Washington in the late 1980s—South Africa’s economy continued to grow.

Anti-apartheid divestment campaigns reached their peak in the 1980s, and this would not have been possible without the groundwork activists and civil society actors laid in the 1960s and 1970s. The first comprehensive South Africa sanctions bill was introduced in Congress in 1972 by then-Representative Ron Dellums (D-California). It would not be until 14 years later that this legislation would be passed into law.

While South Africa’s GDP grew into the 1980s, despite a brief dip in 1985, it is not clear what the country’s economic trendline would have looked like had the divestment campaigns not targeted it. One can assume that, all things being equal, the state’s economy would have been more dynamic and attracted greater investment if it were free from controversy.

The same is true for Israel today. While indicators show that the Israeli economy is growing, it is clear that BDS actions have succeeded in several corporate divestment campaigns. One might ask, how many other investors are steering clear from Israel to avoid the controversy such investments would invite? Perhaps only the Israelis know the true extent of the impact of BDS as they can internally assess which economic opportunities are being turned down. To be sure, they also have an incentive to stay quiet so as not to provide added momentum for the movement. The Israeli government did not seem to take the global BDS initiative seriously in the early stages, after the 2005 civil society call; it was not until 2009, after Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza that left hundreds of civilians dead that the Israeli government began to perceive the real risks of international marginalization. This was further compounded in 2010 by the killings on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish boat that was part of a flotilla of ships with humanitarian supplies attempting to break the naval blockade of Gaza, which left nine civilians dead and drew international condemnation.

civil liberties established in US constitutional law and upheld by American courts have complicated the lawfare effort to repress Palestine activism.

Since economic indicators do not necessarily reveal a full picture and only Israel is in a position to gauge the extent that divestment strategies are depriving it of economic opportunities, perhaps the best indicator of the significance of BDS tactics is Israel’s response to them. The Israeli state has tasked its Ministry of Strategic Affairs (MSA) with combatting BDS activism for Palestinian rights. As the Jerusalem Post reported in 2017, the ministry has the “ability to coordinate with the pro-Israel community” around the world, brings “information to the pro-Israel community that no other organization can bring,” and “infuses anti-BDS efforts with money.”

In addition, the amount of money dedicated to countering BDS efforts is growing. MSA announced in late 2017 that it is creating a public shell company in partnership with Jewish philanthropists to pump more resources into the global effort to fight BDS. That the Israeli state continues both to allocate increasing resources into this international effort and play a central role in coordinating it demonstrates that it is taking the movement seriously. In addition, it is clear that Israel understands the lengths it must go to try to slow this global push before it reaches the threshold moment that the South Africa divestment effort achieved.

From a Palestinian perspective, assessing the impact of BDS strategies is complicated. Primarily, the Palestinian civil society call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions is outward facing and aimed at garnering solidarity from international civil society. Internally, it is important to note that making socially just economic choices presupposes that one actually has choices. For Palestinians living under Israeli rule, such a range of choices is often limited or nonexistent, so the expectations vary. In captive market situations like the West Bank, and especially in Gaza, it is unreasonable to expect people to be as willing to boycott Israeli goods since those are the only goods that are accessible to them. Nevertheless, boycott as a tactic has received strong support from Palestinian society. In a 2015 poll, 86 percent of respondents said they support the effort to boycott and divest from Israel. Virtually no other issue in Palestinian society receives such widespread support. Indeed, on many other tactical questions there is significant variation in opinion, but on the question of boycott, support is overwhelming. This is likely because the principles of boycott and divestment transcend factional politics—the most divisive variable in Palestinian society today—without compromising on Palestinian rights.

Challenges and Opportunities

Activists and actors using BDS tactics face a number of different and evolving challenges. At present, the most significant of these are the repressive campaigns coordinated and funded by the Israeli government in cooperation with pro-Israel interest groups around the world. In some places, these efforts have succeeded in using existing laws or helping to forge new laws that would criminalize BDS efforts. In France, for example, BDS activities have been targeted by anti-discrimination laws. Legislation to suppress BDS activities have also popped up in other European cities like Munich.

The attempt to quash Palestinian rights activism through lawfare—the use or manipulation of the legal system to attack enemies—is not new, and while it has had some success in Europe, the most significant arena where it could have impact is in the United States. Anti-BDS laws have been enacted in some US states and have gained traction in federal legislation as well. Unlike Europe however, civil liberties established in US constitutional law and upheld by American judicial review in the nation’s courts have complicated the lawfare effort to repress Palestine activism. Political boycotts have been ruled as protected speech under the First Amendment. As a result, the Israeli effort has been forced to adjust legislative advocacy around First Amendment limitations. While this has not prevented laws from advancing, it has meant that Israel’s anti-BDS activities can advance only so far before being open to legislative challenges, some of which have already begun. Still, First Amendment protections do not completely prevent the chilling effect the legislation aims to inspire. At the same time, pro-Israel supporters of such repressive legislative efforts are seen as authoritarian actors who are seeking to shut down debate, thus alienating the very liberal communities they want to persuade. Coming to a decisive unity on the right to practice boycott is likely to be the next stage in Palestine rights activism in the United States, especially as coercive efforts backed by the Israeli state intensify.

Despite this formidable challenge, there are numerous opportunities on the horizon for Palestine rights activism, particularly in the United States. Over the past 10 years, BDS campaigns have helped ignite discussion and shape opinion around Palestinian rights, particularly in liberal and progressive institutions like universities, trade unions, and professional associations as well as churches. This month, the Episcopal Church joined almost a dozen other American mainline Christian denominations in taking some form of economic action for Palestinians rights. Furthermore, public opinion on Israel/Palestine indicates important demographic shifts are underway. The younger, more liberal, and more racially diverse a community is, the more likely it is to be sympathetic to Palestinians and critical of Israeli policies. As this younger demographic continues to assert itself into leadership roles in American institutions over the next 10 to 15 years, opportunities to turn accountability for Israel’s human rights abuses into policy are increasingly likely to emerge.