THE MOVEMENT calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel to grant basic rights to Palestinians has suddenly moved from the margins to center stage.
Scarcely a year ago, knowledge that a BDS movement even existed was mostly confined to people who have spent years engaged in solidarity campaigns that were largely shrugged off by the mainstream media and the Israeli political establishment. When activism did take place, it was often in reaction to Israel’s repeated military assaults and acts of repression.
But as 2013 drew to a close, the controversy swirling around a lucrative marketing deal between SodaStream, which produces a home carbonation machine in an illegal West Bank settlement, and Hollywood superstar and Oxfam ambassador Scarlett Johansson captured some headlines for the movement.
Then the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to honor the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The ensuing backlash against the ASA, including denunciations by high-profile university presidents and an ill-conceived attempt to punish the ASA, proposed and then abandoned by the New York state legislature (and now revised and reintroduced), gave the BDS campaign its highest profile yet and uncorked a fierce debate about academic freedom and Palestine.
There was more to come: Secretary of State John Kerry warned his Israeli counterparts that they needed to get serious about “peace” negotiations or risk facing a growing global boycott movement. On January 31, the New York Times ran an opinion article by Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement and one of its ablest spokespeople, breaking the Times' longstanding embargo against significant articles by BDS proponents.
In February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with three of his top cabinet ministers, including ultranationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to discuss strategies for containing the boycott threat. Pointedly, however, Netanyahu didn’t invite two ministers—Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid—who have echoed Kerry’s remarks.
In the U.S., a schism is likewise emerging between Israel’s most reactionary defenders, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, and a more confident network of liberal Zionists who are sounding the alarm about the refusal of Israel’s hardliners to make even token concessions that are fully within Israeli interests.
The arrival of BDS as a factor in the geostrategic calculations of American and Israeli policymakers is, in itself, a major accomplishment for this young movement. The call from Palestinian civil society for a global BDS campaign was issued in 2005, less than 10 years ago.
Everyone involved—from pro-Israel political leaders to the activists of the BDS movement—know full well the impact of the last solidarity campaign against an apartheid system. The divestment movement against South Africa’s racist regime began in earnest in the 1970s and played an important part in galvanizing international sentiment and undermining the legitimacy of white rule. The fall of South African apartheid was a long time in coming, but it did fall.
Today, the BDS movement is poised to become the anti-apartheid movement of a new generation, capable of inspiring people around the world to speak out for justice for a historically dispossessed people—and in so doing, learn how to better speak out for themselves….