Yesterday evening, Derek Penslar was in town and gave a talk on BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign launched in 2005 on the first anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the illegality of the Israeli West Bank barrier. The blog below is not a record of Derek’s talk, but rather my own take on BDS with comments that arose from points Derek made or from some of the questions and comments. Needless to say, Derek’s talk was excellent as his talks always are.
In much of the public mind who are aware of the BDS campaign, the purpose is thought to be about West Bank settlements and objections to them. In fact that campaign has three stated purposes:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
This is a program far more extensive than opposition to West Bank settlements. Derek thought the goals were ambiguous since, given the goals as stated, according to Derek, no country, especially Israel, could know when it had satisfied the wishes of the BDS protesters. By parsing what the stated goals are and from talks with some of the proponents of BDS 4 or 5 years ago, I suggest that the goals are not as ambiguous as Derek suggested; rather, the ambiguity arises from the various ways different parties have interpreted the BDS campaign and how they apply it, for, as Derek noted, the BDS campaign is a movement not an organization and one with a bottom-up buy-in that allows different people and groups to use the BDS campaign for their own purposes.
As I read the goals of the BDS platform, the Israeli political right is correct in its interpretation. For BDS, Israel is considered to be on occupied Arab land. The program opposes the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”. (my italics) Though the program does not go as far as calling for the expulsion of Jews from the land, with the call for return of the refugees to their original homes (NOT stated in UN Resolution 194, though subsequently interpreted by UN resolutions to mean that), the object of the BDS plan is both the delegitimation and elimination of Israel as a political entity because Israel is considered a colonial and colonizing state occupying Arab lands. The campaign is not just about the current government’s policies and practices — however much many of us may disagree with them. Nevertheless, many supporters of the BDS campaign believe that the focus of the campaign is the West Bank settlements and have either ignored or not bought into its longer range goals.
In response to my original draft of this blog, Stuart Schoenfeld sent the following explication of those goals that clarify the vision embraced by those goals. On the goals of BDS: The three stated objectives were written to be inclusive of the three Palestinian constituencies
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; WEST BANK AND GAZA
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; ARAB / PALESTINIAN ISRAELI CITIZENS and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. THE DIASPORA
The intention was to have a campaign that would bring these constituencies together rather than have their issues addressed separately, avoiding the “divide and conquer” situation in which Israelis have more leverage. It also allows those who come from these different constituencies to work together in Europe and North America without in-fighting over their separate interests.
As a consequence of this coalition strategy, the only way to fully realize the interests of all three constituencies would be the maximalist position – a binational state with a Palestinian majority. This is a hard sell in public relations terms or as an achievable goal, but it seemed fairly clear a few years ago when reading the material for the “one state” conference written by the same people leading BDS. There seem to have been fewer “one state” conferences recently, but this is tactics, the strategic goal has not altered.
Calls for BDS go back to the origins of Jewish settlements in Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century. They really took off after the 1948 War of Independence or what the Palestinians call the Naqba with the boycott led by Arab countries, a boycott which the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf ended following the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords. Ironically, the BDS campaign took off after many Arab states began to covertly or overtly engage in cooperation with Israel.
The campaign has three thrusts: 1) an economic Boycott of businesses, academic institutions and artists from Israel and artists refusing to go to Israel; 2) a Divestment of investments in or loans to companies initially focused on businesses operating in or servicing or undertaking manufacturing in the West Bank; and 3) a Sanctions campaign. The campaign underway currently has not only these three main tools but three main foci: business, academia and culture. In the business campaign, the main tool is the boycott since sanctions are largely a state responsibility. Perhaps this is because, as Derek suggested, boycotts resonate so much with the disempowered for it allows them to do something to advance their cause and to feel that they are accomplishing something. As one of the students present last evening said, the BDS movement has a romantic rather than a realist appeal.
The main focus of the boycott is business. Ahava products are boycotted. They have been produced from products from the Dead Sea since 1988 with little relationship to settlement activities in the heart of the West Bank, unlike Dexia Bank, SodaStream (its stock fell 25% when it became the focus of the BDS campaign) and Veolia. Ahava products are produced in Mitzpa Shalem, a kibbutz located on the Dead Sea. There have been a number of successes here with an independent Ahava store forced to close its outlet on a fashionable London shopping street because of the disruption of picketers. Selfridges Department Store, the leading department chain in Norway and the second largest in the Netherlands have all removed Ahava products from their store shelves. One year ago, the Norwegian retail chain, VITA, that is the major outlet for Ahava products in Norway, decided to boycott all products originating from settlements in “occupied Palestine”.
Britain’s Trade Union Congress supported the BDS campaign since 2009. Three British universities – Edinburgh, Kent and Dundee – have also boycotted some businesses as a result of BDS. So did the Irish Congress of Trades Unions. In the area of business boycotts, the BDS campaigners boast significant successes. Veolia purportedly lost a four and a quarter billion dollar operating and maintenance rail contract in Massachusetts because of the BDS campaign which targeted Veolia. However, the MBTA/MassDot Board of the Massachusetts commuter line said it awarded the contract unanimously on the recommendation of the General Manager to Keolis for a superior proposal in terms of pricing, operations and maintenance. Similarly, a $63.5 million contract was purportedly lost in Canterbury, UK, allegedly because of the BDS campaign, but the truth is that the municipality simply renewed its contract with Serco.
Second, the campaign involves a boycott of Israeli academics and institutions, but initially focused on Israeli institutions (and not individual academics) who are linked in any way with the West Bank settlements. As academics, this is the one of which we are most aware. Indirectly, a boycott campaign against academic institutions affects individual academics as Derek noted, but individual Israeli academics have been targeted in any case and many Palestinian academics now refuse to sit on panels with Israeli academics. However, as Derek also pointed out, almost ALL academics engage in personal boycotts of some kind. The BDS campaign, however, is of a different order.
Third, the BDS campaign entails a cultural boycott of artists from performing in Israel and a boycott of Israelis artists, but notably without any explicit relationship at all with West Bank settlements, who perform abroad. The most famous or infamous of these was the disruptions of the tour of Israel’s Batsheva dance company at the Burmingham Hippodrome and the Edinburgh International Festival (Don’t Dance with Israel Apartheid). The disruptions imitated those against the Soviet Union cultural tours of the Bolshoi and the Red Army Chorus to support the campaign to permit the emigration of Soviet Jews. The Israeli dance company Batsheva has been picketed throughout its tour and three protesters disrupted the performance in the theatre in Rome until they were removed and one protester in Theatre Royal in Plymouth used a megaphone to disrupt the performance. Disruptions took place in Edinburgh, Leicester, in the Birmingham Hippodrome with a banner dropped during the performance. With respect to Batsheva, they have affected performances from Turin to Aukland New Zealand, but have largely earned the BDS movement a negative backlash.
Individual artists scheduled to perform in Israel, such as the Rolling Stones Tour, have been lobbied and pressured extensively but resisted as have most artists. Some, like Chris “Daddy” Dave cancelled his appearance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. Ireland was the leading country in the artistic boycott campaign with 237 artists committed to boycotting performing or exhibiting in Israel but Riverdance resisted the pressure to cancel its show. There are a long list of other artists who have not resisted pressures by BDS. Artists seem to constitute one of the most susceptible groups to the BDS effort.
Support for BDS and the Divestment Campaign
Supporters of the campaign are varied but are concentrated in four institutional spheres, religious organizations, student and faculty unions and associations at and from universities and colleges, unions and, finally, states like Norway. The latter is important because Norway played such a critical role in getting the Oslo process going and concluded, erroneously in my analysis, that Israel was solely to blame for the failure of Oslo, a process in which Norway invested enormous personal resources and commitment. Norway was one of the first countries to support the BDS campaign when in December 2005, the Norwegian Sør-Trøndelag regional council supported a call for a comprehensive boycott of Israeli goods.
Ironically, just at a time when Norway has reversed course under a new centre-right coalition government (96 seats versus 72 for the opposition), Norway lifted its 2010 ban on investments in two companies in Israel, Africa Israel and Danya Cebus, on August 2013. The coalition backing the ban — including: Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC); Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel; The Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem; and The Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign – called on the Norwegian government to reverse the decision since it claimed that the revocation was based on false information provided by Africa Israel in support of its claim that they were no longer building housing in Gilo. (Note where the housing was being built — in Jerusalem that in all the peace talks on land that will be ceded to Israel.) Norway’s leftist Minister of Finance in his 2010 decision determined that all land east of the 1967 Cease Fire Line was occupied land and, therefore, came under the purview of the fourth Geneva Convention.” In contrast, Africa Israel’s affidavit to Norway referred only to the West Bank. However, the BDS campaign in the end targets all Arab land usurped by the colonial Israeli state.
The trade unions in Norway have stepped up their support for BDS. The Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees (NUMGE) lobbied and succeeded in getting the Nordea Bank to resolve not to invest in Cemex, an Israeli company in the building materials industry, since Cemex allegedly uses material from the West Bank to manufacture cement. The University of Oslo, and subsequently the University of Bergen, decided not to use the security company, G4S Secure Solutions (Canada), even though it was the lowest bidder because critics claimed the use of G4S would cost the university 2.5 million NOK in reputational losses because of using the allegedly controversial G4S security company, a fifty year-old CANADIAN company, and the leading one in the provision of security, because of its work in the West Bank. A Norwegian government pension fund divested itself of Elbit Systems because of its business activities in the West Bank. This year, Dutch pension fund PGGM divested its investments in Israeli banks and Danish Danske Bank divested from Israeli Bank Hapoalim for their investments in the West Bank as well as Africa Israel Investments and Danya Cebus.
Support for BDS in Canada
Allan Dershowitz’s offer to lecture free on Norwegian campuses was turned down even though Ilan Pappé, a strong advocate of BDS, was supported in his tour of Norwegian universities. So some countries are particularly susceptible to the BDS campaign, countries with a record and reputation as a middle road country promoting peace. The BDS movement has had a few academic successes. Denmark’s Technical University dropped out of a scientific collaboration project with Ariel University on the analysis of its laboratories. Danish Foreign Minister Villy Søvndal stated: “We do not want to Danish scientific institutions participating in activities that may help to maintain the illegal settlements.” But overwhelmingly, the efforts have been a failure.
In Canada, BDS has been endorsed by, in Derek’s count, 9.5 student unions, the half point granted to McMaster because the students voted in support of BDS but the meeting giving that support lacked a quorum. The York Federation of Students, a university where I taught for 37 years, and the University of Toronto Scarborough Students’ Union voted to support BDS. The F4P, Faculty for Palestine, formed in the spring of 2008 as a sub-committee of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) includes over 550 faculty of all ranks (tenured, contract, emeritus, independent researchers, retired, visiting scholars) in support of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israeli (PACBI).
Thus, Canada was not far behind Norway in supporting BDS. In May of 2006, the Ontario section of CUPE endorsed the BDS campaign. I believe more university student and faculty unions in Canada than anywhere else support BDS. (Windsor students, have joined the BDS campaign.) The BDS campaign is supported by the United Church of Canada by boycotting products of Israeli settlements. However, the effort to boycott Shani Bar-Oz soap products in Vancouver backfired and sales went up. Friends of Simon Wiesenthal started a campaign today against the McMaster University student union campaign in support of the BDS on the grounds that it has stirred up an anti-Semitic campaign on the campus.
Overall, the BDS campaign has been a general failure. It is a minority movement from the left often with union (CUPE) and United Church support, but overwhelmingly ignored by the vast number of faculty and students. More to the point, there has been little if any measurable effect on the Israeli economy. This raises the question of why have such a campaign if it only serves as an irritant and falls into the segment of 80% of boycott campaigns that fail?
Theorizing BDS – Judith Butler
One impact that I witnessed on my own campus, York University, was a coarsening of debate and discussion on campus. Judith Butler (UC Berkeley), who comes from a family whose Jewish roots go back to eastern Europe, is a leading proponent of BDS from the high intelligence rather than the mob side. Yet she backed a meeting restricted to pro-BDS supporters and banned anyone opposed. Heavily influenced by Derrida, Judith is a leading well-known philosopher of the postmodernist critical theory school who writes on gender and queer studies; her theory of defining gender in terms of performance rather than a natural essence is at the core of most modern gender theory. Though she roots her theories in an interpretation of the section of Hegel’s Phenomenology dealing with desire and life and with Lordship and Bondage that has been heavily influenced by the French Hegelian philosopher, Alexandre Kojève (cf. Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth Century France), it is a school of thought which the Toronto School of Hegelians (to which I myself belong) directly challenged in our close readings of Hegel that tried to show how this Marxist interpretation of Hegel inverted Hegel’s meaning.
Judith has a chair in a Department of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature rather than a traditional philosophy department in keeping with the fact that the Modern Language Association (MLA), an association dominated by postmodern theory, has been a leading exponent of the BDS campaign. (See a previous blog, Academic Boycotts and Israel, that I wrote last year that focused on the MLA vote.) As Derek pointed out, academic BDSers come from Literature, Philosophy and sometimes Anthropology but not history and certainly not international studies.
Judith Butler is not only a leading proponent of BDS and activist as an executive member of the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in the United States, but a leading theorist of the movement. Just as in her theory of censorship as an instrument of the state’s effort to control language and discourse, one of her main rationales for the BDS movement is that it takes away from the power of the state to monopolize and control who can and who cannot be sanctioned and hands it over to the people themselves. This complements Derek’s thesis that BDS is adopted by youth who feel disempowered. Judith merged the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, largely relying on Theodore Adorno’s aesthetics, and French and postmodernist thinkers, to develop a theory in which the individual develops his or her individuality and character in contention with the dominant norms of society. Hence the appeal of BDS practices to young adults on the cusp of self-definition who are permitted to pick and choose their focus since the BDS movement lacks any top-down structure to define and determine the agenda of any group. Her ability to arouse the ire of the right was most evident when she received the Adorno Prize in Germany and the awarders of that prize were taken to task for that award by the German Council of Jews supported by Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel’s Ambassador to Germany, and Dr. Efraim Zuroff, Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.
One of the interesting items that came up in the discussion last night was the fierce opposition of two Of Israel’s most formidable critics, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, to the BDS campaign. Finkelstein called the BDS movement a cult. Chomsky has not opposed BDS, however, contrary to what was said last night, but has opposed its implementation and the harm it causes to those who should be protected, namely Palestinians. As Chomsky said in a 2010 interview just when BDS had started to take off, “BDS actions are both principled and most effective when they are directed at our crucial contribution to these crimes [of Israel], without which they would end; for example, boycott of western firms contributing to the occupation, working to end military aid to Israel, etc.” In other words, BDS is well intentioned but relatively frivolous because it is not rooted in an economic analysis of capitalism and Israel’s role and undermines a two-state solution. As someone said last night, the criticism of BDS by Finkelstein and Chomsky represent the Old Left versus the youthful new new left.
As Derek suggested, the BDS movement should be combated but it is nothing to become hysterical about. The approach should be to understand its goals, motives and sources of support. It is an educational campaign aimed at consciousness raising rather than a serious effort to damage Israel economically. It is a psychological tool, an irritant like a horde of Lilliputians picking at the body of an economic and creative giant.