One year ago, Philly BDS was founded as the first group in Philadelphia focused on advancing the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. That foundation followed the July 2005 call by 171 Palestinian civil society organizations to implement a global BDS struggle to hold Israel accountable until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinian refugees.
Now, on our first anniversary, we find ourselves reflecting beyond the milestones in our local consumer boycott of Sabra hummus and Tribe hummus to the remarkable events in the BDS movement over the last year or so globally. The BDS movement has continued to grow by leaps and bounds, and significant challenges have presented themselves as well.
Globally, there have been a number of noteworthy concrete successes. To highlight a few:
From November 2007 – 2010 US-based Adalah-NY initiated a global campaign against Israeli billionaire, diamond mogul, and settlement-builder Lev Leviev that led to his renunciation by UNICEF, denunciation by Oxfam, the removal of a promotional section of his website featuring actors like Salma Hayek, Drew Barrymore, and Halle Berry at some of their requests, and a UK government decision not to rent embassy space from his company. In November 2010, Leviev’s Africa Israel company announced it would no longer be involved in settlement construction.
Responding to appeals from Palestinian civil society after Israel’s attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza, in June 2010 dockworkers in Oakland, California, Sweden, and Norway all refused to dock and unload Israeli ships, imposing a blockade so-to-speak on Israeli goods. Similar historic action was taken by South African dockworkers in February of 2009.
Also in the summer of 2010, the Olympia Food Co-op Board of Directors in the Washington State capital decided to boycott Israeli goods. The OFC has continued the boycott in the face of a storm of opposition, including a recently filed lawsuit in which Israeli government officials have likely been involved, at least behind the scenes.
Major blows have also been dealt to Carmel Agrexco, Israel’s largest exporter of produce, and Veolia, the French multinational company operating in the fields of water, waste management, energy and transport services. Agrexco markets 60-70% of the agricultural produce of Israeli colonial settlements and plays a key role in the development of large-scale, industrial Israeli agribusiness and has exploited its close relationship with the Israeli occupation authorities in order to secure a monopoly-like status in the export of Palestinian produce from Gaza. Agrexco faced massive boycott activity in Europe, its main export market, causing it to file for bankruptcy. Veolia, involved in a number of Israeli projects, including the infamous light-rail project to link colonial settlements in the West Bank with Jersualem, lost a number of significant public contracts in Europe due to BDS campaigns and has announced surprising declines in profits.
The positive side of the ledger, indicates more groups and initiatives advocating BDS have continued to spring up all around the world, including on campuses. One example is right here in Philly, where a BDS group at the University of Pennsylvania is now active. Similar initiatives have garnered attention at DePaul, University of Michigan, Columbia and elsewhere. While these efforts have had varying degrees of success, their increasing prevalence points to a strong wind at the back of the BDS movement.
Major success has been experienced in the Academic and Cultural Boycott as wellIn March 2011 The University of Johannesburg voted to sever its relationship with Israel’s Ben Gurion University as a result of the university’s role in the Israeli occupation.
The growing list of recognized public figures endorsing BDS, includes music legend Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. In 2006, Waters was scheduled to perform in Tel Aviv but was asked not to by Palestinians and rights activists around the world. In response he traveled to Palestine, an experience he described as transformative. He cancelled his Tel Aviv show and eventually came out fully in support of the boycott, writing, “[w]here governments refuse to act people must, with whatever peaceful means are at their disposal.” Other notables who have chosen to observe the boycott and not perform in Israel include: The Pixies, Elvis Costello, the late Gil Scott-Heron, guitarist Santana, and rapper Snoop Dog. Also, The Yes Men withdrew their film from the Jerusalem Film Festival and film director, screen writer, and critic Jean-Luc Godard canceled plans to attend a Tel Aviv film festival.
There are significant divestment successes that also merit attention, more than will be documented here, To name a few: In February 2009 Hampshire College, a pioneer in the 1970s by becoming the first U.S. university to divest from apartheid South Africa, decided to divest from some 200 companies that “violated the college’s standards for social responsibility,” including six companies with close connections to Israel’s occupation. In June 2010: Students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, voted to divest the college foundation’s funds from companies profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation And in July 2010, Jewish Voice for Peace activists presented over 15,000 petitions and postcard signatures to one of the world’s largest retirement funds, TIAA-CREF, asking them to divest from companies documented as profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
These developments have shown that people all around the world, including the United States, are growing more aware of the need for genuine, grassroots pressure on Israel to end its Apartheid policies, and are standing up to do something about it. Considering that the full-fledged BDS movement is barely half a dozen years old, the achievements thus far have been remarkable and encouraging. And the trend points toward greater action in the future.
There is no better indication of the increasing relevance and success of the global BDS movement than all the attention and attacks directed at it. Yet still, the movement faces significant challenges in coming years. The Israeli government and pro-Israeli groups and institutions around the world have stepped up efforts to combat BDS. Garnering the biggest headlines recently is the passage by the Israeli parliament of an anti-BDS law. The bill was introduced by Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin and passed on July 11, 2011.
The law allows citizens to bring civil suits against persons and organizations that call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts against Israel and Israeli institutions—including corporations and universities. It also prevents the government from doing business with companies that initiate or comply with such boycotts. According to Elkin, the final version of the bill that passed was “vegetarian,” because provisions criminalizing the boycott had been stripped out. The law caused a great row both inside and outside Israel. It has been denounced far and wide. Indeed, even a large number of Israeli parliamentarians spoke out openly against it.
Nor was the law the only example of a BDS “backlash.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, has become increasingly outspoken on the issue of BDS. So has the Anti-Defamation League. In March of this year, news organizations announced that Israel’s Military Intelligence has established a new unit responsible for tracking groups abroad, and in the West Bank and Gaza aimed at “delegitimizing the State of Israel.” The unit will monitor, among a seemingly endless array of possible targets, BDS activists.
Perhaps most ominously, just last month, 11 students from the University of California, Irvine, the “Irvine 11,” were convicted of conspiracy to disrupt and of disrupting a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.
Some may see this backlash as a frightening omen of what is to come in this country and abroad. Others, including Philly BDS, see it as something else – an unequivocal sign that the BDS movement is on the map can no longer be ignored. It is going mainstream.
Israel’s leadership has signaled its fear of the BDS movement in the clearest language possible—by outlawing it. And while we e do not minimize the genuine hardship endured by our courageous allies , like the Irvine 11 and the numerous BDS activists in Palestine who have been jailed for their activism we prefer to view this backlash as an affirmation that we are making a difference, building an unstoppable and sustainable movement for justice in Israel-Palestine.