On July 8, 2014, the day Israel launched its most recent Gaza offensive, “Long Live Palestine boycott Israel”, a Buycott app campaign that helps consumers avoid purchasing products seen to profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, had attracted a mere 470 supporters. A little over a month later, with the Palestinian death toll creeping toward 2,000, and horrific images of dead and maimed Palestinians filling mainstream and social media platforms, “Long Live Palestine boycott Israel” had surpassed a quarter-million followers, making it the fastest growing campaign on Buycott’s platform.
That groundswell is just one measure of the growing reach of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a global, citizen-led movement that advocates using economic pressure to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands, tear down the West Bank barrier, grant full rights to Palestinians living in Israel and uphold the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
Launched in 2005 by Palestinian groups frustrated by the failure of Western governments to persuade Israel to tear down the West Bank barrier (deemed illegal by the International Criminal Court), the BDS movement harnesses citizen power to advance its goals. “It’s a way to put pressure on the Israeli government, similar to the South African anti-apartheid movement, when governments have been unwilling to do so, like our government has,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a nonprofit that spearheaded the US-based BDS coalition We Divest.
BDS advocates a three-pronged approach that includes boycotting products, companies and sporting, cultural and academic institutions seen as profiting from Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights; divesting from corporations viewed as complicit with such policies; and sanctioning Israel.
Nine years on, the campaign has done no measurable damage to Israel’s economy but it has amassed an international following and scored some high-profile PR victories. Massive Attack, Elvis Costello and Roger Waters are just a few of the artists supporting BDS by refusing to perform in Israel. Steven Hawking threw his scholarly cachet behind an academic boycott of Israel last year when he withdrew from a conference in Jerusalem, while the Netherlands’ second biggest pension fund divested from five Israeli banks that have branches in the West Bank and/or finance settlement construction there.
In the United States, the movement has won support from the American Studies Association, which endorsed the academic boycott of Israel. Earlier this year, the campaign scored a coup when the Presbyterian Church voted to divest from three US companies they consider complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestine; Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. “It’s a major church in the United States so the fact that they were willing do that shows a breaking into the mainstream. I think that is very, very significant,” said JVP’s Vilkomerson.
The BDS movement also claims victory when investors flee companies it targets, even when an explicit link can’t be drawn. For example, carbonated home drinks maker SodaStream, criticized by BDS for operating a plant from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, saw its stock plummet in a year in which a major UK retailer shunned its products and its “global brand ambassador”, actress Scarlett Johansson, was forced into a public split with Oxfam over her contract with the company.
While BDS is successful at grabbing headlines, scholars who have studied divestment movements say the campaign is still missing a crucial element of support. “The boycott of South Africa was eventually partly legislated and coordinated across the world,” said Ivo Welch, professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. “There is not a chance that the US or the EU will pass anti-Israel laws, nor that it will spread wide.”
BDS may not pose a serious threat to Israel’s economy, but earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu did mention the campaign more than a dozen times in a keynote address to AIPAC, the US’s largest pro-Israeli lobbying group. Warning the audience not to be complacent, he charged that BDS is “about making Israel illegitimate”, a view echoed by Georgetown University lecturer Moran Stern.
“When you look at BDS activities, BDS and alike, you see zero energies dedicated to actually how to solve the conflict,” said Stern. “Behind the liberal message that they try to propagate hides a very thick layer of anti-Israel, modern anti-Semitism and ignorance of the conflict.”
But JVP’s Vilkomerson insists the campaign is not about rejecting Israel’s right to exist. “I think what it’s hoping for is a transformation of Israel very similar to what happened in South Africa,” she said. “No one was trying to have South Africa not exist. They just wanted all people who live inside South Africa to have rights and that’s what this campaign is about too.”