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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