Ten years after Palestinian civil society issued the call for Boycott, Divestment from, and Sanction of Israel (BDS), people around the world have taken heed, building an international campaign for human rights that is acknowledged by supporters and foes alike as an increasingly powerful force.
"Effective grassroots BDS campaigning has forced some of the world’s largest corporations, including Orange, G4S and Veolia, to gradually withdraw from Israeli projects that violate international law," reads a statement released this week by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, comprised of 27 Palestinian organizations, including the General Union of Palestinian Women and Federation of Independent Trade Unions.
"From major U.S. churches to private European banks, divestment from Israel is becoming acceptable and understood as necessary to bring about freedom, justice and equality," the statement continues. "In Latin America, major state contracts with Israel companies have collapsed after grassroots pressure."
What's more, the academic boycott of Israeli institutions is gaining steam, bolstered by the formal support of prominent associations, including the American Studies Association. Also, increasing numbers of student and campus communities are joining the movement, as exemplified by the British national student union's alignment last month.
Well- and lesser-known artists and musicians are joining in the effort in response to grassroots pressure. "Lauryn Hill, Thurston Moore and other prominent performers have recently cancelled scheduled performance in Tel Aviv, adding their names to a growing and illustrious list of artists, including Roger Waters, Faithless, Elvis Costello, among many others, who refuse to perform in Israel," notes the Palestinian BDS National Committee.
The call for BDS was issued by more than 170 Palestinian-led organizations on July 9, 2005 in a bid to win self-determination and freedom from occupation, using tactics similar to those levied to transform apartheid South Africa. The declaration invokes "fundamental human rights" in the face of colonialism and apartheid—including the rights of refugees to return.
The BDS movement's large roster of international supporters includes the rapidly growing U.S.-based organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which argues that BDS is more important now than ever.
"After the collapse of peace talks last spring, the assault on the people of Gaza last summer, and the recent re-election of the most right-wing government in Israeli history, it is clearer than ever that outside pressure will be needed to create change in Israel," said Ariana Katz, a rabbinical student, youth educator, and Philadelphia-based organizer with JVP, in a press statement released Tuesday. "More and more students, churches and especially young Jews, are turning to the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a way to take action for justice."
The BDS call has also attracted considerable support from organizations and people in South Africa, including prominent and unsung anti-apartheid heroes. "People who are denied their dignity and rights deserve the solidarity of their fellow human beings," declared Archbishop Desmond Tutu last year. "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
The growing movement has also captured the attention—and angry rhetoric—of U.S. and Israeli policy makers.
In a July 2 letter to donor Haim Saban, former U.S. Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sought advice about how to counter the BDS movement and falsely claimed that the global campaign aims to "undermine" Jewish people.
"In the United States, Israel's supporters are mobilizing in a very heavy-handed way to try to stamp out this grassroots movement through top-down legislation at the federal and state levels," Josh Ruebner, policy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told Common Dreams. "However, legislatures in the United States cannot impede our First Amendment-protected right to continue advocating for and organizing BDS campaigns."
Meanwhile, Israeli officials are escalating their rhetoric against BDS. In early June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the Palestinian-led BDS movement a "first-rate strategic threat."
According to Ruebner, "The decision by the Israeli government to label the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement a 'strategic threat' and the recent comment by Israeli parliamentarian Anat Berko that BDS is 'terrorism' show that Israel is becoming increasingly unnerved and unhinged by the growing successes of this Palestinian civil society-led campaign to isolate and delegitimize its separate-and-unequal policies toward Palestinians."
In fact, journalist Ali Abunimah argued last month that BDS is replacing Iran as Israel's main "bogeyman."
"Israel's repressive reaction against BDS is not even very original in the annals of settler-colonial regimes," wrote Abunimah. "In the mid 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid regime made it illegal to call for boycotts or foreign sanctions, just as Israel has recently done."
Amid its undeniable, growing strength, the BDS drive is grabbing increasing headlines in major media outlets, in the latest sign the campaign is shifting public discourse. On Monday, the Associated Press ran an article titled, "Boycott drive gains strength, raising alarm in Israel."
The piece quotes Omar Barghouti, a longtime organizer with the Palestinian BDS campaign: "We are now beginning to harvest the fruits of 10 years of strategic, morally consistent and undeniably effective BDS campaigning. BDS is winning the battles for hearts and minds across the world, despite Israel's still hegemonic influence among governments in the U.S. and Europe."
However, the Palestinian BDS National Committee emphasized that there is still much work to do: "Governments, particularly in the West, continue their collusion with Israel’s regime, protecting it from sanctions and continuing business as usual with it, in most cases against the democratic will of their respective citizens."