In his address to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took special care to condemn the growing international movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
As frequent readers of this blog will recall, BDS has three core demands: an end to Israel’s illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; an end to ethnic discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel; and recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.
In short, the goal of BDS is the nonviolent dismantling of Israeli apartheid, a system of segregation and discriminatory laws that (not just in the Occupied Territories, but also in Israel proper) guarantees special rights for Jews, at the expense of an indigenous population. As I’ve written previously, BDS provides a crucial alternative to the rigged “peace process”, in which the rights of the majority of Palestinians are not even on the table, and which serves only as a cover for Israel’s continued construction of Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land.
Mentioning BDS no less than 18 times, Netanyahu argued that the acronym really stands for “Bigotry, Dishonesty, and Shame”, and that “those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned. The boycotters should be boycotted.”
It’s not a coincidence that attacks on the movement have intensified as its successes begin to mount: Israeli politicians and businesspeople are increasingly warning of the threat BDS poses to the Israeli economy should the “peace process” continue indefinitely. And not without reason: In 2013, the economic boycott of settlement products by businesses, unions, churches, and other groups – primarily in Europe – cost Israel around $29 million in agricultural exports from the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. The government of Turkey has already cut all military ties with Israel, and South Africa has instructed its ministers not to travel there.
In a few short months, BDS has become a mainstream political issue in the US: One notable symptom of this trend is the unprecedented scrutiny and criticism actress Scarlett Johansson faced for her decision to resign as Global Ambassador for Oxfam in order to continue as Global Ambassador for illegal settlement profiteer Sodastream. But as I’ve pointed out on this blog, the most active battleground for Palestine solidarity in the US is the college campus.
It was in academia that, in December, the recent media coverage and debate surrounding BDS was kicked off by the national organization for academics in the field of American Studies. In a historic decision that prompted hysterical backlash from Israel’s apologists in the US, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted by a 2:1 margin to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, which targets Israeli institutions (not, as some critics claim, individuals) that have not spoken out against their government’s policies.
In response to the ASA vote, legislation has been introduced in New York, Maryland, Illinois, and at the federal level that would cut off government funding to academic groups that endorse BDS. These bills would effectively punish academics for publicly supporting BDS – they’re an assault on free speech and anathema to academic freedom in the US.
But this wave of political repression also impacts the efforts of students who are involved in Palestine solidarity work on our campuses. As I wrote in February, the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups spend millions every year on lobbying and propaganda to suppress Palestine solidarity in the West. More and more, that money is poured into efforts to suppress the activities of student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP, an organization of which I am a member).
Across the country, students have led campaigns to pressure their schools to divest from companies complicit in the occupation. In the past several weeks, the student governments at UC Irvine and Loyola Chicago have both passed divestment resolutions, adding to a list that already includes UC Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Under every version of the anti-BDS legislation proposed thus far, if the administration of a public university acts on a non-binding divestment resolution passed by the student government, the university could lose its funding for an entire year.
While this legislative threat looms ahead, solidarity activists are already facing political repression of a sort rarely (if ever) experienced by other student groups, no matter how left-wing. Last month, the SJP chapter at Northeastern University was suspended for distributing mock eviction notices (a direct action meant to call attention to Israel’s routine demolitions of Palestinian homes).
Justifying its decision, the university administration claimed that SJP had put up the notices without approval – a feeble excuse, since students distribute unapproved flyers at Northeastern (and at every other campus) every day. On March 18, more than 200 activists and their allies (including from other SJPs and over 30 Northeastern student groups) marched in protest of NU SJP’s ongoing suspension.
That same week, at the SJP chapter at the University of Michigan (called Students Allied for Freedom and Equality or SAFE) succeeded in bringing their divestment resolution to the floor of the Central Student Government. The resolution had the support of a coalition of 36 UM student organizations, including the Michigan Student Union, the Black Student Union, Amnesty International, and United Students Against Sweatshops.
Still, in an unprecedented decision, the CSG moved to table discussion of the bill indefinitely, frustrating the activists and their supporters who had turned up in record numbers to support divestment. Refusing to be silenced, SAFE and its allies occupied the chambers of the CSG (rechristened the Edward Said Lounge), demanding increased transparency and a vote on the resolution.
I was lucky enough to be in Ann Arbor (for an unrelated reason) the next week, on March 26th, the very night that the CSG – responding to the sit-in – reconsidered the bill. The turnout was a record for CSG meetings, a testament to SAFE’s efforts to publicize their campaign and build coalitions with potential allies. As only the first 500 people made it into the CSG’s makeshift chambers in the Michigan Union ballroom, I (having broken away from a dinner with grad students) watched the livestream of the meeting with SAFE members and allies in the occupied Lounge.
Community speakers in opposition to the resolution stuck to the official Zionist talking points: smear the (predominantly Middle Eastern) BDS activists as violent; claim that “singling out” Israel for criticism is motivated by anti-Semitism; refer repeatedly to the equal responsibility of “both sides”; paint BDS as a threat to “peace” and “dialogue”. But as one of the bill’s authors pointed out, far from shutting down “dialogue”, SAFE’s divestment campaign has led to more dialogue about Israel-Palestine and BDS than there ever was before. After a grueling five hours of discussion, around 1:45 am, the student government showed its cowardice by voting down divestment by secret ballot, 25-9 (with 5 abstentions).
Student representatives argued the divestment resolution was too “divisive”, but what I witnessed before, during, and after the meeting suggests that BDS’s radical demand for justice unites more than it divides: SAFE’s initiative drew mass support by reaching out not only to other social justice and political groups but also to cultural organizations like the Black Student Union and the Muslim Student Association. It’s only through forging bonds of trust and responsibility that parallel struggles become shared struggles.
That’s what the Israeli government and its defenders fear most: that the struggle of Palestinians against apartheid should become inseparably linked to struggles for freedom and justice around the world. They chalk up the increasing momentum of Palestine solidarity to Israel’s “image problem”, which they attempt to correct by pouring 100 million shekels into lobbying and propaganda overseas. Despite those efforts, the issue of BDS has, since December, moved forward more quickly than anyone expected. In some instances, activists themselves are only now starting to catch up. How can that be?
The answer is that Israel doesn’t actually have an image problem. Israel has a reality problem: the reality that the work of activists, journalists, and academics is undermining blind support for Israel, even in the belly of the beast; the reality that there are 5 million Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – and they want their rights.