BDS in the United States

Kumars Salehi

Increasingly, the success of BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movements in the United States is shifting the terms of the debate on Israel and Palestine. In 2014, UAW 2865 became the first major US labor union to pass a resolution urging divestment from companies involved in the Israeli occupation.

Is it possible in 2015 to deny that the peace process has failed to offer a way past the Israeli-Palestinian impasse? Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, impartially brokered by the government that gives Israel upwards of $3 billion a year in military aid, once again succeeded only in providing diplomatic cover for Israel’s violence against Palestinians.

2014 witnessed not only the death throes of the peace process paradigm, but also the emergence in the United States of the growing movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as a viable alternative to high-level negotiations. In the shadow of an Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip unprecedented in its scale and intensity, a wave of successful campaigns brought BDS unprecedented political attention in the United States.

While not all of the campaigns explicitly take up Palestinian civil society’s 2005 call for BDS, American companies and other organizations are joining their international counterparts by cutting institutional ties to Israeli occupation and human rights abuses.

Funds belonging to Bill Gates and George Soros have sold their shares in boycott targets G4S and SodaStream, while the latter was pressured into closing its West Bank factory, located in an illegal settlement. Sustained protests at US ports against the largest Israeli shipping company, Zim, ultimately led it to drop Oakland, Los Angeles, and Tampa from its schedule altogether, forcing it to operate through subcontractors.

On university campuses, professional organizations like the American Studies Association started endorsing the academic boycott of Israel in 2013, followed by a flurry of student votes last spring for divestment on US campuses, including on six of nine University of California (UC) campuses.

And on December 4, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the UC graduate employees’ union (representing over 13,000 teaching assistants, tutors, and other student-workers) became the first major US labor union to pass, by member vote, a resolution urging divestment from Israeli occupation and human rights abuses. The resolution passed overwhelmingly, winning on all but two UC campuses, with a majority of voters also making a personal pledge “not take part in any research, conferences, exchange programs, or other activities” sponsored by Israeli universities complicit in the occupation of Palestine.

While UAW 2865 doesn’t have investments of its own, both our umbrella organization, UAW International, and UC are currently invested in companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. UC, for example, is invested in Caterpillar, which manufactures armored bulldozers the Israeli military has used to conduct some 28,000 demolitions of Palestinian homes since 1967.

UAW International is invested in Lockheed Martin, which sells Israel Hellfire missiles, known for their imprecise 15-20 meter blast radius and their tendency to incinerate or shred their victims into unrecognizable bits of flesh. UAW International also has investments in other defense contractors, like Raytheon, which makes Maverick missiles, and Northrop Grumman, which provides Israel Hellfire II missiles as well as parts for F-16 jets and Apache helicopters.

We saw what Israel does with these weapons in the summer of 2014, when “Operation Protective Edge” left over 2,100 Palestinians dead, 75% of whom were civilians, according to a UN estimate. Missiles made by Lockheed, Raytheon, and Northrop were used to flatten entire neighborhoods like Shajaiya and Khuza’a; they were used to bomb four hospitals, two UN shelters, and Gaza’s only power plant. More than half of Gaza’s 11,000 wounded need rehabilitation, but can’t get it, because Israel also bombed Gaza’s only rehabilitation center.

Steadfast US government backing (diplomatic as well as financial) has shielded Israel from accountability, making the next such incursion all but inevitable. It is in light of this status quo – characterized by massive institutional support for Israeli policies – that UAW 2865 calls on UAW International and UC to divest, and on the US government to end all military aid to Israel. As Americans, our tax dollars; as University of California students, our tuition; as graduate student employees, our collaboration with Israeli universities all enable the continued oppression of Palestinians.

Challenging the academy’s active role in occupation

The academic boycott component of BDS targets a different kind of institutional support: the direct collaboration between US and Israeli universities. Since 2013, the academic boycott has been endorsed by numerous professional academic organizations, like the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. Crucially, academic boycott does not forbid exchange with Israeli academics: The guidelines specify it targets only institutions, not individuals.

Israeli universities help devise and sustain the government’s policies of ethnic cleansing, discrimination, and segregation. Take Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology, where military research and development keeps Israel’s occupation forces up-to-date with the latest in drones and other automated weaponry. Technion’s drone technology program, for example, is responsible for the weaponized “stealth drones” and discreet “Dragonfly” surveillance drones Israel both uses in its occupation and exports around the world. It was also at Technion that researchers developed remote-operation capability of Caterpillar’s D-9 armored bulldozer, Israel’s weapon of choice in its ongoing demolition of some 27,000 Palestinian homes since 1967.

Another example is Tel Aviv University: In particular, the university’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is notorious as the birthplace of the Israeli military’s “Dahiya doctrine,” which sanctions the wholesale flattening of neighborhoods to retrieve an Israeli soldier – a war crime under the 4th Geneva Convention. First put forward in a 2008 policy paper by Gabi Siboni, the Institute’s Director of Military and Strategic Affairs, the “doctrine” has been explicitly adopted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and implemented in three separate assaults on the Gaza strip: in 2008-9, 2012, and 2014. Neither the paper’s author, nor the INSS, nor the university at large have denounced or distanced themselves in any way from the policy’s application. Israeli academic institutions are willing and, when called for, silent participants in policies of occupation and discrimination.

These institutions are reflections of the policies they enable: None of Israel’s eight universities teaches in Arabic; Israeli Jews are three times more likely to be offered admission than Palestinians; and while Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 20% of the population, they constitute only 1% of academic faculty.

As long as we collaborate with Israeli academic institutions, we uphold the academic boycott no one is talking about: the Israeli state’s boycott of Palestinian academics and students.

Israel massively underfunds schools for its Palestinian citizens while maintaining hundreds of transportation checkpoints throughout the West Bank, which allow Israeli Jews to pass freely while Palestinians can be detained for hours or even days. This makes freedom of movement impossible for Palestinian academics and students, who are regularly prevented from attending conferences, studying abroad, or even just making it to class.

As long as we collaborate with Israeli academic institutions, we uphold the academic boycott no one is talking about: the Israeli state’s boycott of Palestinian academics and students (which, unlike BDS, does target individuals). That boycott, however, can be rendered invisible by Western media’s stenographic deference to the Israeli government’s increasingly half-hearted claim to the status of “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

That 52% of UAW 2865’s voters nonetheless made a personal pledge to boycott Israeli universities – on top of the 65/35% margin by which the comparatively uncontroversial divestment resolution passed – is worth unpacking.

The call for academic boycott entails what is for many the most radical ask that the movement makes of ordinary Westerners: Collaboration with individual Israeli scholars must occur outside of Israel and without financial or support from Israeli academic institutions. BDS has demonstrated an internal dynamic that explains how so many graduate student-workers across California (who may have known little or nothing about the academic boycott a year ago) now support it.

Boycott as a historical mechanism of struggle

BDS presents a mechanism for external pressure that can cite as precedents the influential role of boycott tactics in ending the British occupation of India, Jim Crow in the US South, and apartheid in South Africa. While the boycott of British goods was not the primary tactic through which Indian resistance was able to throw off the yoke of colonial rule, it nonetheless played an important and recurring role in the independence movement’s various stages: From the Swadeshi movement in protest of the 1905 partition of Bengal by the Viceroy of India; to the 1919-1922 Civil Disobedience campaign which focused on the boycott of British cloth; to the 1930-1931 escalation of the boycott, kicked off by the famous Gandhi-led Salt March, which succeeded in bringing the British to the negotiating table.

The historical example of the power of boycott best known to Americans is the boycott targeting the Jim Crow regime of segregation and discrimination in the US South. Most notably, the boycott of segregated transit – a tactic of black resistance in the South since the turn of the 20th century – succeeded in desegregating buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, marking the beginning of a period of black political action and (eventually) white solidarity which split white America and dismantled the racist policies (if not practices) of the Southern states.

In the case of South Africa, although the anti-apartheid movement called for boycott as early as 1958, it wasn’t until the 1980s that BDS campaigns by international solidarity movement began to gain serious traction in the West. Tactics like the boycott of consumer goods (such as those manufactured by Polaroid, which was involved in the South African government’s racist ID card system) and divestment campaigns at universities amplified and compounded the decades of internal pressure and armed struggle by the African National Congress.

The BDS movement answers the question posed to many critics of the peace process paradigm – “Well, what’s your alternative?” – with a historically-grounded model for nonviolent resistance.

The boycott movement (and, of course, the horrors of apartheid) was so effective in undermining US support for its white settler ally that Congress actually passed sanctions against South Africa in 1986 – over President Ronald Reagan’s veto. By the end of the decade, deepening isolation forced the conservative government of F.W. de Klerk to negotiate away South Africa’s future as an ethnically-exclusive state.

In Palestine as in South Africa, the BDS movement answers the question posed to many critics of the peace process paradigm – “Well, what’s your alternative?” – with a historically-grounded model for nonviolent resistance. In offering one possible answer, however, BDS also reformulates the question: The core of BDS is not a particular tactic but an analysis of the problem.

Aims, tactics, and the transformation of the debate

The BDS campaign is structured around three core demands: an end to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (illegal under international law); an end to Jim Crow-style discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel (which meets the UN’s definition of “the crime of apartheid”); and recognition of the right of the five million expelled Palestinian refugees worldwide to return to their homeland.

Particular tactics like divestment and academic boycott are meant, directly or indirectly, to put pressure on Israel, isolating it politically and economically, as South Africa was, until it changes its policies. But BDS also functions in another capacity: to provide an alternative analysis to the segregationist paradigm of “two states for two peoples”, a vision rendered utopian by Israeli settlement expansion and rooted in an understanding of Israel-Palestine as a timeless religious conflict pitting Jews against potentially genocidal Muslims.

BDS tactics act not just to isolate Israel concretely in the global community, but also to normalize the isolation of Israel on the level of public discourse by grounding the case for boycott historically in an analysis of Israel-Palestine as a colonial occupation rather than as a “conflict” between comparable parties. In particular, it’s the demands for equality within Israel and the right of return for refugees that address the rights of the majority of Palestinians, setting the framework of BDS apart from the stated position of the US government and liberal Zionist groups.

The second and third demands, in their very formulation of the problem, reveal Israel to be not an exemplar of democracy but a haven of ethnic privilege for mostly European settlers, founded on the violent expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949.

As in all colonial occupations, the privilege of the occupiers depends on the denial of rights to indigenous populations, a point reflected in the campaign’s core demands. Each of the demands is a demand for rights. Together, their fulfillment – in one state, two, or three – would constitute an ethical form of decolonization, whereby equal citizenship rights are extended to all, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation.

This analysis guides the particular tactics of the BDS movement. Israel’s ability to sustain its occupation and discriminatory policies is contingent upon its seamless integration into global capitalism. Corporations, Israeli as well as international, are the lifelines that tie Israel to the “international community” of world trade.

Far from an “honest broker”, the US government plays the most crucial partisan role of all as unconditional sponsor and financier of Israel’s colonial enterprise. In calling for sanctions on Israel by national governments and the UN, the BDS movement calls for an end to longstanding US policies of direct military aid to Israel and vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that could lead to further sanctions for war crimes and other international accountability.

To isolate Israel is, in the first instance, to target retrograde Israeli policies whose continuation into the 21st century is made possible by unconditional Western support. To normalize the isolation of Israel is to target, in addition, that unconditional support: This is especially crucial in the US, where public opinion is much closer than in Western Europe to the deferential pro-Israel line of the government and mainstream media.

Prior to the movement’s institutional phase, which we’re only now entering, BDS unfolded in the US primarily as a critique of the old colonial ideology (still prevalent in mainstream discourses on Israel-Palestine) of Manifest Destiny – in other words, of ethnic cleansing as “self-determination.” From this ideology springs the ubiquitous conflation of the right of Jews to live in Israel-Palestine with the right of Jews, wherever in the world they may be, to an ethnically-exclusive state.

It’s not a coincidence that, in a year that saw the BDS movement in the US win victories both symbolic and material, Americans themselves moved dramatically to the left on the issue of Palestinian rights. A December poll by the Brookings Institution shows that 34% of Americans favor a single democratic state with equality in Israel-Palestine, as compared to 24% last year and 39% who favor a two-state settlement. If two states are impossible, more than 70% of Americans favor one state to either the status quo or a single state in which Palestinians are legally disenfranchised – including almost two-thirds of Republicans.

It’s worth noting that most Americans believe the Israeli government’s claim that Palestinian citizens of “democratic” Israel enjoy full citizenship rights, an assertion intended exclusively for foreign consumption and disproven by Israel’s more than 50 Iaws (compiled by the civil rights group Adalah) discriminating against non-Jews. As BDS continues to reset the terms of the debate, and as the practical improbability of a contiguous Palestinian state grows, the conversation in the US will center less and less on the number of states in a final settlement and ever more on what rights Palestinians will have when that day comes.

A Gallup survey of Americans taken during Operation Protective Edge last summer found that only 25% of Americans aged 18-29 considered Israel’s actions “justified”, compared to 55% of those 65 and older. The discourse of BDS framed many Americans’ view of the Gaza assault, challenging the dominant narrative of a war between two sides and revealing it to be, instead, the domination of an indigenous population by its colonial occupier.

Younger people, getting their news directly from reporters and civilians on the ground via social media, found those reports far more consistent with the BDS movement’s critique of Israel than with the country’s projected self-image. Before long, even mainstream media were forced to question the Israeli government’s rationalizations for the deliberate targeting of civilians.

The generational chasm in the Gallup poll, like the 10-point jump in support for equality, gives Israel-Palestine the character of a social issue in the US – and as we see with regard to issues like same-sex marriage and drug prohibition, the issue can move forward more quickly than even activists themselves could have predicted.

Confronting and overcoming continued obstacles

The critical function of BDS, its capacity to dispel the myths of Israel’s ongoing creation, compounds the more that concrete BDS victories legitimize the movement in the eyes of Americans. What BDS actions do is, in a certain sense, enable Palestinian perspectives to intervene in an otherwise one-sided, often Islamophobic debate. Critique, in turn, gives Palestinian and solidarity activists the analytical tools to assess and improve upon our tactics.

The results of UAW 2865’s BDS vote are, in this light, a sign of what’s to come: more major unions (not to mention corporations, churches, and other large organizations) cutting their institutional ties with Israel.

The primary historical obstacle to US unions joining their counterparts in Europe, South Africa, and elsewhere in endorsing BDS is the influence of organized Labor Zionism, in particular the Histadrut (the main Israeli trade union body) and its US counterpart, the Jewish Labor Committee. Originally founded as an antifascist resistance group in the 1930s, the JLC has since gone on to take the most reactionary positions on social and racial justice issues ranging from demonizing the black freedom movement in the 1960s to supporting the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Today, the JLC functions mainly to enforce a pro-Israel line among labor and Democratic Party leaders.

Organized labor in the US is likely to remain divided on the question of BDS for some time, even as the movement continues to pick up steam. Opposition to BDS within labor, including opposition to the UAW 2865 resolution, appeals to the interest of US workers in avoiding possible lost jobs due to boycott and divestment campaigns. It is, naturally, the case that the labor of some UAW 2865 members involves financial and institutional support from Israeli universities: That’s the point. It’s precisely these jobs – the labor that cannot take place without an institutional relationship to Israeli universities – that Palestinian civil society, including our fellow students and workers, has asked us to forego.

At the same time, there is a long and storied tradition in the US labor movement, including UAW, of solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people. Major unions refused to facilitate business as usual for fascist Italy and Japan in the 1930s, Chile’s military dictatorship in the ‘70s, and apartheid South Africa in the ‘80s. Local 2865 has, in previous years, released statements and organized protests in solidarity with workers and student movements in South Africa, Chile, and Hong Kong. In this case, every Palestinian trade union has asked their international comrades to honor the 2005 call for BDS, which was renewed in response to the most recent Israeli assault.

BDS as critique teaches us to think of the occupation of Palestine not as a unique “conflict”, but as the leading contemporary representative of a historical legacy of European settler-colonial violence. The West, rather than reckoning with its past and present of racism and colonialism, eased its conscience in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust by facilitating the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, making indigenous non-Europeans pay for the crimes of a white supremacy that had finally subjected other Europeans to the most systematic and brutal violence imaginable.

Today, Israel is able to legitimize itself as an outpost of the West in the “war on terror” because Western governments place little value on the lives of brown Muslims – this, they demonstrate through their steadfast refusal to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses. BDS calls attention to the colonial power relations undergirding the status quo: It frames the plight of Palestinians not as isolated, but as the function of a global web of power relations linking governments, corporations, universities, unions, and other institutions to specific Israeli policies of discrimination, segregation, and ethnic cleansing.

BDS has already started to bring (back) to the forefront of our political consciousness the basic recognition that the struggles of Palestinians and of the workers of the world are linked.

The impact of this framing is clear from the advent of so-called Zionist BDS, calls by liberal Zionists in the West to boycott Israel’s West Bank settlements until the Israeli government agrees to a two-state settlement. To be sure, this phenomenon bears witness liberal Zionists’ resistance to the analysis of BDS – after all, it is difficult to find an institution that isn’t complicit in the occupation in some way – but “Zionist BDS” also makes clear the way BDS has shifted the terms of the US debate on Israel-Palestine.

The US and Israel’s two-state, peace process paradigm has been consigned to the trash heap of history by the latter’s belligerent expansionism and the former’s slavish accommodation. Anticolonial analysis confronts us with the reason: The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has no “solution” that does not also undermine its historical cause – the Zionist project of an ethnically-exclusive state and its sponsors in the West.

“But where the danger is,” goes the famous line from Friedrich Hölderlin, “there grows salvation also.” As it unfolds in practice, the movement takes this image of global structures of domination and shows us its negative: The flipside of such structures is the possibility of people of conscience organizing to, one by one, end their institutions’ complicity in Israel’s crimes.

Israel’s economy is heavily export-dependent, and Israeli exports continued to decline in 2014, after a year in which the economy lost an estimated $29 million in agricultural exports from the occupied Jordan Valley. While Israeli corporations don’t release information regarding losses due to boycott, analysts like Israeli economist Shir Hever point to boycotts by retailers and unions, as well as by the European Union, as a major factor in the loss of European markets for Israeli agribusiness.

The crucial part played by Bay Area dockworkers in the success of this fall’s Block the Boat protests shows that no institution has a greater potential to escalate the economic pressure on Israel than organized labor. Now, in 2015, unions across the US have to follow the lead of UAW 2865 and break with this country’s labor elites, whose deference to a pro-Israel line has isolated US unions from the international solidarity movement. The leadership of UAW International and the UC Regents will, like US political leaders, be the last dominos to fall: The task confronting a new generation of workers and students is to build a consensus in favor of Palestinian rights too broad and vocal for the elite to ignore.

The current phase of BDS has already started to bring (back) to the forefront of our political consciousness the basic recognition – long repressed in this country – that the struggles of Palestinians and of the workers of the world are, while not identical, linked. That Americans join the rest of the world in viewing Israel-Palestine as an issue of racial justice, imperialism, exploitation, and structural poverty; that people come to see all struggles for freedom and justice as linked: This is the nightmare of all who view equality as an existential threat. It comes true more and more each day.


Kumars Salehi is a PhD student in German Literature and Culture at UC Berkeley and a member of Cal Students for Justice in Palestine.