The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meets in Washington this week for its annual police conference, the issue of the BDS movement—Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions—will certainly be a topic for discussion.
Modeled after the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS is a grassroots human rights movement which aims to apply economic and political pressure to the Israeli government to end the apartheid system of Palestinian occupation, comply with international law and give rights to Palestinians. Initiated in 2005 by Palestinian civil society, BDS has emerged as a global movement that has demonstrated success. For example, G4S, the world’s largest security company, recently announced it would sell off its Israeli business and its youth detention services in the US and the UK. The cosmetics company Ahava also announced it will leave the West Bank. In addition, the worldwide BDS coalition submitted over 140,000 signatures to Airbnb for advertising illegal settlements in the occupied territories for rent.
While there is an honest agreement even among anti-occupation and human rights groups regarding the tactics of BDS, economic boycotts remain a constitutionally protected form of free speech in the U.S. From the Montgomery bus boycott during the Civil Rights movement, to the campaign for divestment from apartheid South Africa, this nation has a proud history of social justice activism that has only served to broaden the democratic process.
However, in Congress and in state legislatures across the nation, anti-BDS legislation—a joint effort of Israel lobby groups such as AIPAC and other mainstream Jewish groups, along with Christian Zionist organizations–is gaining momentum. Such measures, which forbid governments from doing business with companies that boycott Israel, serve to criminalize human rights advocacy and legitimize the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people and the settlements themselves. The anti-BDS campaign represents a backdoor effort by the Israeli government and rightwing neocons to stifle the movement for Palestinian rights by quelling human rights activism in the US, UK and elsewhere, and provide cover to Islamophobes. This, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum, forming alliances with the Palestinian solidarity struggle and fomenting opposition.
“The anti-BDS campaign represents a backdoor effort by the Israeli government and rightwing neocons to stifle the movement for Palestinian rights by quelling human rights activism in the US, UK and elsewhere, and provide cover to Islamophobes.”
AIPAC outlines its own attitude towards the movement on its website. “Israel has long been the target of economic warfare designed to weaken the Jewish state and isolate it from international investment and trade. Today’s boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign is the latest iteration of this nefarious effort,” the group says. “This international attempt to isolate, pressure and delegitimize Israel seeks to sanction all those interacting with Israel.” Further, AIPAC believes “BDS represents a new and unique challenge to Israel,” and is “an international, decentralized effort to delegitimize, stigmatize and isolate Israel, and it pirates the language of international law in its pursuit.”
In February, President Obama signed into law the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, which was recently passed by Congress. The legislation, among other things, “opposes politically motivated actions that penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel, such as boycotts of, divestment from, or sanctions against Israel.” Obama also issued a signing statement opposing provisions of the Act that conflate Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories” and therefore target boycotts of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights.
According to righttoboycott.org, 21 states have introduced bills this past year, in an aggressive effort to punish businesses, organizations and even individuals or the right to boycott, creating what advocates characterize as a blacklist of Palestinian rights activism.
According to Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the leading groups in the BDS efforts, the right to boycott is sacrosanct, and the legislation, which is likely unconstitutional, is designed to have a chilling effect on those who wish to speak out on human rights. Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of JVP, argued recently that the anti-BDS measures reflect the burgeoning success of the boycott movement. “As those campaigns gain power, and as we’re starting to win those campaigns, our opposition is getting more and more worried. So while they used to be able to assume that people would oppose this kind of work, now that we’re trying to gain strength, they’re actually trying to legislate against this,” she said. “So in some ways this is really a sign of our growing strength that they’re trying to create laws to keep us from doing what we’re doing,” she added, noting that this is the right moment to fight back against the legislation. As Human Rights Watch has reported in recent months, the Israeli economy is fully intertwined in the occupation, regardless as to which side of the green line that businesses operate.
“The groups involved in the effort to silence BDS have created an NRA-style operation from state to state, creating facts on the ground.”
The groups involved in the effort to silence BDS have created an NRA-style operation from state to state, creating facts on the ground. And they are a who’s who of mainstream Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC, American Jewish Congress, the rightwing organization StandWithUs, which has a $11 million budget and a team of lawyers to fight BDS, and the Jewish Community Relations Councils. These organizations are partnering with Christian Zionist organizations such as the Nashville-based Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, which purports to educate “Christians around the world about the biblical responsibilities to act against the ‘new anti-Semitism.’” The group proclaims: “Together with Bible in hand, we came to understand 9/11 through the prism of ‘good vs. evil’ and we made a plan to answer God’s call.”
According to a report from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Palestine Legal, there is a larger, troubling picture of a growing and widespread clampdown on U.S.-based Palestinian human rights advocacy on the part of the fiercest pro-Israel think tanks, public relations firms and advocacy organizations.
Released last September, the report—The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.—found nearly 300 incidents of suppression, of which 85 percent were targeted against students and professors on over 65 college campuses. According to the report, the tactics used against activists by Israel advocacy groups, universities, government actors and other institutions include “event cancellations, baseless legal complaints, administrative disciplinary actions, firings, and false and inflammatory accusations of terrorism and antisemitism.” Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and wealthy donors such as Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban reportedly have participated in strategy sessions to oppose BDS.
One of the more prominent examples of pressure tactics is the example of Professor Steven Salaita, who was a tenured professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The university summarily terminated him in 2014, after giving in to pressure from donors and Israel advocacy groups who found his personal tweets on the IDF assaults on Gaza were “uncivil.” Also that year, the AMCHA Initiative—a group charged with combating antisemitism in American higher education–published a blacklist of over 200 Middle East Studies professors it deemed to be “anti-Israel.”
Recently, the president and deans of Vassar College—after stating they would not take sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict—announced they would oppose BDS after lobbying efforts by pro-Israel alumni who made charges of campus antisemitism.
“We’ve seen a wave of repression against people in the US protesting the well-documented human rights abuses against Palestinians — particularly on college campuses around the country. As we learned from our Anti-Apartheid work in the 80’s, the biggest threat to legally-sanctioned human rights crimes is international condemnation and a refusal to patronize businesses that are complicit in them,” Vincent Warren, executive director of CCR told Morpheus.
“Apparently, Clinton has drunk Netanyahu’s neocon kool-aid and has gone rightward in appropriating Likud’s policies and language on the occupation.”
Meanwhile, pro-occupation politicians are gearing up to curry favor with AIPAC. Hillary Clinton was slated to speak at the AIPAC conference. Apparently, Clinton has drunk Netanyahu’s neocon kool-aid and has gone rightward in appropriating Likud’s policies and language on the occupation. “Israel is a vibrant democracy in a region dominated by autocracy, and it faces existential threats to its survival,” she wrote in a letter to Saban. “Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world — especially in Europe — we need to repudiate forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.” The Democratic presidential candidate added that “we need to make countering BDS a priority” and said the movement “seeks to punish Israel and dictate how the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve the core issues of their conflict.”
Also among the speakers at AIPAC is Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump—known for fomenting violence at his rallies, for his racist, xenophobic, anti-Latino and Islamophobic sentiments, and support among white supremacist hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. The inclusion of Trump at the AIPAC confab provides an opportunity for a moment of reflection on the bedfellows and the goals of the pro-occupation movement.
AIPAC’s decision to invite Trump does not sit well with many Jewish groups. The Union of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., and the American Jewish Committee issued statements opposing Trump’s invitation, as a number of Jewish religious groups planned protests at AIPAC.
In a statement, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College said that “Trump’s extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric is highly reminiscent of the rhetoric deployed against Jews who immigrated to the United States, and especially, against those who were turned away.” Further, RRC said the AIPAC conference “should not be a platform for espousing hateful rhetoric and racist policies.”
“We are commanded to intervene to stop the spilling of our neighbor’s blood,” the statement read. “We ask AIPAC conference organizers to make a clear distinction, in whatever way possible, between Trump’s hate speech and the American Jewish community that AIPAC claims to represent. The majority of Americans—and this includes everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike—who care about Israel do not want to see Israel advocacy associated with the xenophobic rhetoric that Trump promotes. AIPAC’s repudiation of that rhetoric will express our highest ethical values as Jews and as Americans.”
Meanwhile, the campaign against Palestinian human rights advocacy continues, and is accelerated. “AIPAC is clearly trying to silence those efforts through opposition to the growing BDS movement, and ironically, they are trying to do so by trying to make the First Amendment inapplicable to free speech directed at Israeli policies,” CCR’s Warren noted. “Having recently led a legal delegation to Occupied Palestine, I saw firsthand the encroachment of the illegal settlements on Palestinian land and the legal efforts to try and legitimize them. AIPAC clearly doesn’t want people in the US to know what’s really happening there.”