Few activist movements in history have inspired such a well-funded, disproportionate backlash as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, the Palestinian-led effort to pressure Israel using tactics from the 20th-century anti-apartheid movement. From the movement’s founding in 2005, the Israeli government and its allies abroad have taken extraordinary — and often unconstitutional — steps to prohibit speech even remotely aligned with BDS. Even though the boycott itself has had virtually no impact on the Israeli economy, its detractors continue to spend millions stamping out dissent in academia and lobbying for anti-boycott legislation. A Jerusalem Post op-ed last week even looped Conan O’Brien into the controversy, saying that the comedian’s recent trip to Israel was conducted with a “joy that surpassed most celebrity visits” and that could be an indication that the BDS movement “is really a feeble dog with a lot of bark but little bite,” as far as keeping late-night talk-show hosts out of Israel goes.
The BDS movement was founded in the wake of the five-year Second Intifada, a violent Palestinian uprising beginning in 2000 that failed to force significant concessions from the Israeli government despite mass casualties on both sides. In 2005, a wide coalition of Palestinian civil organizations opted to start resisting Israel’s occupation nonviolently, using the international effort to end apartheid in South Africa (which contributed to the end of white minority rule in 1994) as a blueprint. The Palestinian organizers outlined three goals: an end to the West Bank wall and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, both of which violate international law; a guarantee of equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the right of Palestinian refugees displaced since 1948 and their descendants to return to their former homes. The movement has grown since 2005, particularly on college campuses in the U.S. and U.K., but it remains relatively obscure.
Boycotts of Israel and its settlements — some explicitly associated with BDS, some not — have occasionally been successful. The U.K. revoked several arms export licenses to Israel after 2009’s disastrous Operation Cast Lead, and Spain temporarily enforced an arms embargo with Israel during the 2014 Gaza war, which left 2,104 Palestinians and 67 Israelis dead. In 2010, Norway’s government pension fund disinvested from two Israeli companies with ties to illegal West Bank settlements. European Union guidelines released in 2015 instructed member states not to label products manufactured in occupied Palestinian territory “Made in Israel.” Israeli company SodaStream (and its brand ambassador, Scarlett Johansson) received an onslaught of bad press for maintaining a factory in a West Bank settlement — until 2015, when the factory was moved. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum explicitly blamed the closure (and, as he emphasized, the subsequent Palestinian job losses) on BDS.
Though the BDS movement remains a minor nuisance to Israel’s booming economy, the Israeli government and its allies in America have made it a priority to stamp it out at all costs. America’s AIPAC-friendly politicians regularly denounce BDS with a stridency usually reserved for rogue states and terrorist groups. In 2015, Sens. Ted Cruz and Kirsten Gillibrand penned a joint open letter vociferously condemning the EU’s guidelines instructing Europeans to label settlement products as settlement products. “The proposed labeling guidelines play into the narrative of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, which is an effort to delegitimize Israel rather than promote a resolution of outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians,” Cruz and Gillibrand wrote. In reality, the EU’s decision had nothing to do with BDS; they were simply following international consensus on the illegal settlement of Palestinian land. The conflation of any and all critique of Israeli policy with BDS allows stalwart defenders of the Netanyahu government to portray opposition from the UN and the EU as being part of a disorganized protest movement. In this way, it resembles the modern Republican tactic of making “masked antifa thugs” the face of Trump’s 60 percent disapproval rating. Twenty-five Republicans and nine Democrats co-signed the letter, putting a bipartisan stamp on a dishonest and depressingly common argument.
Though the BDS movement remains a minor nuisance to Israel’s booming economy, the Israeli government and its allies in America have made it a priority to stamp it out at all costs.
When not forcefully inserting themselves into other countries’ discussions over product labeling, pro-Israel politicians around the world often abuse their power to pass broad anti-BDS legislation. In response to the (somewhat meager) growth of BDS and external pressure from the United Nations, several governments have attempted to protect Israel by blatantly infringing on free speech. In 2011, Israel itself banned boycotts and calls for boycotts, even if directed specifically at the settlements. In 2015, Canada’s former prime minister Stephen Harper threatened to use hate-crime laws to prosecute groups boycotting Israel, and in 2016, the Parliament of Canada voted to “condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.” (Despite this, Canada’s largest private-sector union announced yesterday that it was joining the movement.) In February 2017, the U.K. government issued a guidance banning local councils from boycotting or divesting from Israel. In June, the courts ruled that guidance unlawful.
The U.S. is on the cutting edge of unconstitutional laws making it illegal not to buy Israeli goods. This year, the New York State Senate passed comprehensive legislation to prohibit colleges from using state aid to fund any entity that boycotts Israel; to block public funding for student groups that “participate in hate speech,” the only example being BDS; and to prohibit the state from contracting with any organization known to support BDS. Nineteen other states have similar legislation on the books. In March 2017, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, and 48 co-sponsors introduced the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, an audacious law that makes it a felony for Americans to boycott Israel or its settlements. The text of the bill names the United Nations Human Rights Council as the primary actor behind actions “designed to stigmatize and isolate Israel internationally,” namely that they are “considering a resolution...to withhold assistance from and prevent trade with territories occupied since 1967.” Again, even though the UNHRC is unaffiliated with the BDS movement — and though its calls for a blacklist of companies working in the settlements only overlaps with a portion of the BDS platform — the law codifies “the opposition of the United States to actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel.” For these actions, the penalty would be up to $1 million in fines and 20 years in prison. According to the ACLU, the bill is “in direct violation of the First Amendment.” Despite widespread backlash, the only co-sponsor to back out so far is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who pledged not to support the bill “in its current form.”
Whenever bipartisanship like this arises in the U.S., it can be safely assumed that money from big donors is pouring into both sides. Public opinion is not nearly as voraciously pro-Israel as the Senate consensus would imply. Polling by the centrist Brookings Institution shows 60 percent of Democrats and 46 percent overall agreeing that “the U.S. should impose some economic sanctions/take more serious action with regard to new Israeli settlements,” with both on an upward curve. Meanwhile, senators are moving in the opposite direction at the behest of a group of wealthy donors with a vendetta against Israel’s critics and BDS in particular. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, for instance, has donated tens of millions to opponents of BDS, particularly those focused on opposing pro-Palestine campus activists. (Adelson also donated $35 million to GOP Senate races alone in 2016.) On the Democratic side, Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, who once co-chaired an anti-BDS initiative with Sheldon Adelson, donated more than $16 million to Democrats in 2016. Meanwhile, J Street, the only political action committee with an Israel-Palestine take remotely left of center, could only muster up $3 million in total contributions.
Public opinion is not nearly as voraciously pro-Israel as the Senate consensus would imply.
The BDS movement is flawed, but it has good intentions. By combining several political goals with varying degrees of popular support into a single movement and giving it a single name, the architects of BDS were able to consolidate pro-Palestine messaging and increase the prominence of their cause. Unfortunately, this consolidation provided an opening for wealthy pro-occupation donors and disingenuous politicians to lump all critics of Israel, including the United Nations and the European Union, in with the most passionate adherents of the movement’s most extreme tenets. As a result, we’re left in a situation in which any and all criticism of Israeli policy has become synonymous with BDS — and BDS necessarily means radical Imams and crazed anti-Semitism. The question, then, is whether the now-toxic BDS framing should be eliminated from the discourse entirely. Maybe, but given the intention of Congress to punish adherents of BDS with 20 years in prison, that question may soon be decided for us.