Why boycott, divestment, sanctions against Israel

reprinted from the January/February Handful of Salt

By Myrta Ladich

Boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel would “begin to soothe the pain, attend the sorrows of a people wrongly treated for generations.  This action would also remind Israel that we have seen it lose its way…” Alice Walker

The movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS for short) against Israel was launched in 2005, a year after the International Court of Justice (the World Court) found that the portions of Israel’s apartheid wall built on occupied Palestinian territory were illegal, that they must be dismantled and Palestinians affected by the wall be compensated.  After a year had passed and there was no sign that the ruling would be enforced, a coalition of more than 170 Palestinian organizations issued a call for boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel “until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.”

Israel’s successive governments have refused to heed United Nations resolutions, criticism by human rights activists, and decisions of the World Court.  An economic boycott is a legitimate moral and non-violent form of political action.

Today the BDS movement is loosely coordinated by a Palestinian-led body called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign National Committee (BNC). The BNC is not affiliated with any political party and does not take positions on issues that fall outside the specific principles of the “call.”  Thus, it does not take a stand on issues such as a one-state or two-state solution to the conflict.  It opposes all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and is committed to nonviolence.

The specific demands of the “call” are threefold.

1.       That Israel respect, protect and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated by UN Resolution 194 of 1948.

2.      That Israel end the occupation of all Palestinian lands, the siege of Gaza, and dismantle the Wall.

3.      That Israel respect and promote equal rights for non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

BDS is not a principle, a dogma, or an ideology, but a strategy, a tactic.  It is not opposed to Israel, but against Israeli policies.  When the policies change, BDS will end.

BDS employs three strategies.

1.       Boycotts can take several forms.  They may be of a) products made in Israel or by Israeli companies located in Israeli occupied territories 2) products or services of any company that profits from Israel’s military occupation 3) performances and academic events of Israeli artists and academics who support Israeli policies of occupation and discrimination.

2.      Divestment is an activity utilized by institutions.  It is the opposite of investment and calls for selling off or disposing of existing investments.  Churches, colleges, universities, pension fund groups and others are encouraged to divest any investments they may have in Israeli-owned companies or companies that profit from the ongoing occupation such as Caterpillar which makes the infamous D9 bulldozer used to demolish Palestinian homes and fields.

3.      Sanctions are used by governments as a punitive measure against another nation which is violating international law, in this case Israel.

The movement has won adherents by saying that it will accept any gesture of boycott or divestment that is made.  “If you only want to boycott an egg, we want you to boycott an egg,” said Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which is a part of the BNC.

Since the war of aggression on Gaza and the flotilla attack, BDS has experienced unprecedented growth.  People of conscience seem to have crossed a threshold and are less willing to tolerate Israel’s status as a state above the law.  If governments and politicians will not curb Israel’s unlawful actions, perhaps ordinary people through boycott and divestment can.

Corporations and trade unions around the world have joined the BDS campaign.  The French multinational company Veolia Transport, under international pressure to do so, stopped building a light-rail system which would have connected West Jerusalem to illegal settlements in the occupied territories..

The US investment firm Black Rock divested itself of stock in Israeli diamond merchant Lev Leviev’s Africa-Israel company because of its funding of settlements.

Britain’s largest trade union promotes a policy of divestment from Israeli companies along with a boycott of Israeli goods and services.  Dock workers around the world have blocked offloading of Israeli ships.

In August 2010, The Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global divested from two Israeli companies over their involvement in construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Churches and college campuses are actively debating support for Israel.  Since 2005 the Presbyterian Church (USA) has undertaken a “phased selective divestment” from five companies benefiting from the occupation.  Last June the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to divest from Caterpillar, General Electric and Terex—all who profit from the occupation.  In July 2010 the British Methodist Church voted to boycott products from Israel’s settlements in occupied Palestine.  The World Council of Churches has reiterated the need for international boycott of Israeli settlement products.

A year ago Hampshire College hosted a divestment organizing conference of student leaders from more than forty campuses. The movement won a victory in June when the student body of Evergreen College in Olympia voted to call on the college to divest from companies profiting from the occupation and ban the use of Caterpillar equipment on campus. The resolution passed.

The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (founded in 2009) announced that more than 500 academics have signed on as endorsers to its initiative—a major victory for the growing academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

A cultural boycott movement by Jewish and Israeli artists and actors is also gaining momentum.  A boycott statement, drafted by the US group Jewish Voice for Peace, was signed by over 200 theater and film professionals including Stephen Sondheim, Julianne Moore, Mira Nair, Tony Kushner, Harold Prince, Theodore Bikel, and Ed Asner.  Composer Daniel Barenboim and world renowned architect Frank Gehry have both signed a boycott statement written by Israeli actors.

The Palestine Human Rights Committee of PJALS is examining the ways BDS can be incorporated into its work for human rights in Palestine and Israel.

It worked in South Africa; it can work in Palestine and Israel.


I cannot support this because of the inclusion of the right of return. Such a demand has not been made of any other country following a war. It is unfair to apply a different standard to Israel than to other countries. Were it not for the “right of return,” I could agree with the boycott.

The”right of return” is a principle of international law. It was codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the United Nations in December 1948. This Declaration was a response to the horrific events of World War II and represents the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are entitled. Article 13 of he Declaration specifically states that everyone has the right to leave their country of origin and then return and reenter it. It is a standard to which ALL nations are to be held, not just Israel, and a right accorded to ALL refugees, not just Palestinians. A CASE IN POINT IS THE RETURN OF BOSNIAN SERBS AND MUSLIMS TO THEIR ORIGINAL HOMES.
The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, to which Israel is a signatory, established laws concerning treatment of civilian populations during and after conflicts. These laws state that the defeated population is to be treated respectfully and humanely, that it is illegal to confiscate their property and to move the victor’s population into the territory of the defeated, and that compensation is to be given to the defeated population for its loss of property.
Beyond these bodies of laws which apply to ALL refugees in the world, the UN General Assembly, in 1948, specified the Palestinian case in Resolution 194. This resolution states that Palestinians should be permitted to return to their homes or be compensated for their properties if they do not return. This resolution has been reaffirmed by the United Nations over 130 times since 1948.
The state of Israel was created and exists in accordance with a resolution passed in the UN General Assembly in November 1947. Both its statehood and its admission to the UN in 1948 were contingent upon their acceptance of all UN resolutions and their agreement to treat its indigenous population humanely and fairly.
Israel, however, has refused to aide by established international law and its agreement to accept UN resolutions. Between 1947 and 1949, 750,000 Palestinians were either driven from their homes or fled from them in fear for their lives. Over 530 of their villages were destroyed, their names erased from Israeli maps. To date, these refugees have not been granted their legal right to return to their homes and properties, nor have they been compensated for their losses.
Israel, on the other hand, has established its own “right of return” policy. ANY Jewish person, regardless of national origin, can gain automatic Israeli citizenship, while Palestinians are denied their right to return to their homeland and to properties which their families had inhabited for generations.
The Palestinian demand for the “right to return” is a legitimate one and one accorded to them and ALL refugees by international law.

I never really looked at this an issue of applying a different standard to Israel than to other countries but rather as an issue of justice and, essentially, reparation. In point of fact, a different standard applies to Israel on many, many points and issues, in part because both Israel and the US demand that different standard. One example is the continued refusal to acknowledge the existence Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal and to treat it accordingly. Another area is its war crimes and human rights abuses which, were they committed by certain other nations, would result at the least in an official US government boycott or sanctions or other official action, not just a people’s boycott.

I support the boycott as a means of bringing concrete, palpable outside pressure on Israel and as a means of educating a US population subjected to very one-sided information about Israel and its apartheid policies towards Palestine.

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