What You Need to Know About BDS

The global, nonviolent movement for Palestinian freedom.

In These Times Editors

Demonstrators against Israeli Military violence towards Palestinian protesters in Gaza are arrested in New York City on April 9, 2018. Members from American Jewish activist group IfNotNow blocked the doors of U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer’s office for 90 minutes as they called for him to condemn this violence. DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

Boy-cott, Di-vest-ment, Sanc-tions, (BDS)

noun

1. An international, nonviolent movement to advance the rights of Palestinian people

They’re trying to say [BDS is] anti-Semitism. That’s the way they’re trying to discredit the fact that … under Netanyahu’s régime, human rights violations have gotten worse.” — U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D‑Mich.)

What’s behind the BDS movement?

Israel took control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. Since its occupation, numerous human rights violations (mostly targeting Palestinians) have been documented, including the prosecution and imprisonment of protesters and the military targeting of unarmed civilians. Many Palestinians have fled Israel, seeking refuge elsewhere.

By 2005, a hodgepodge of boycott movements (organized as a response to these human rights violations and inspired by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa) coalesced under the newly formed Palestinian BDS National Committee. The BDS movement seeks to end the occupation, win back rights for Palestinians and allow refugees to go back home — by pressuring outside groups to end their support of Israel until Israel complies.

Is it working?

BDS counts more than 250 wins” in the United States since 2004 — such as college campuses divesting their endowments from Israel companies — but the bigger victories seem to be in terms of public relations. A 2019 University of Maryland poll reveals, for example, that 45% of Americans (and 66% of Democrats) would now support sanctions or more serious actions against Israel to halt the expansion of new settlements, trending up from 39% support in 2014.

And while criticism of Israel has long been considered an untouchable third rail in U.S. politics, we now see progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) speaking out more forcefully for Palestinian rights. In September, AOC pulled out of an event celebrating the legacy of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, known to some as a peacemaker but to others as the bone-crusher,” antagonistic toward Palestinians. 

What’s the deal with the anti-boycott” law in my state?

As the BDS movement grows, so too has its backlash. Since 2014, state and local legislatures and the U.S. Congress have enacted more than 100 measures penalizing groups and businesses that boycott Israel. Thirty states now have so-called anti-boycott laws. Legal challenges to some anti-boycott bills are still pending, on the grounds that boycotting is a constitutional right and a key part of American history. (Hello, Boston Tea Party.)

What impact has the Trump administration had on BDS?

A bad one, not surprisingly! Following a January 2020 executive order, for example, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos now has authority to investigate (and, potentially, halt) federal funding for universities with active BDS campaigns on campus. The Trump administration is justifying these moves by criticizing BDS as anti-Semitic — an arguably transparent smokescreen for a president with a well-known record of Islamophobia, and who relies on Christian voting blocs known for their support of Israel.

In the event of a Trump loss, however, the BDS movement will still likely face an uphill campaign. Turning a blind eye to Israeli human rights abuses has long been a bipartisan tradition.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in action, see, Israel’s Scheme To Defund the BDS Movement” I’m Palestinian. Like Rashida Tlaib, I Am Barred From Seeing My Family” and The Repression of BDS Shows How the American and Israeli Ruling Classes Are Deeply Enmeshed.”

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