What is the meaning of BDS? Why do people boycott Israel?

The anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement markets itself as a non-violent movement to get Israel to withdraw from its pre-1967 borders. While many members of the movement sincerely want peace and are lured in by this human rights façade, BDS leadership in fact seeks nothing less than the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.

Here are some of the tough questions about the BDS movement answered.

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Can one support Israel’s existence but express objections to Israeli policies by participating in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement?

While one can support Israel and also criticize Israeli policy, supporting the BDS movement is a step too far given the movement’s stated goals. Omar Barghouti, co-founder, and leader of the BDS movement has stated, “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine… [only] a sellout Palestinian would accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”

Indeed, the BDS movement draws its roots from Arab boycotts of Jews in Mandatory Palestine dating as far back as 1945, before Israel was even established. While that boycott eventually failed, with several Arab states now recognizing Israel’s right to exist and establishing official ties, Palestinian NGOs came together in the early 2000s to form the BDS movement with the stated aim to “end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” to “recognize the rights of Arab-Palestinians citizens of Israel” and for the “return of Palestinian refugees to their homes.”

These stated aims are ambiguous and do not make it clear if they object to Israel’s “occupation and colonization” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands it gained control over in the 1967 Six-Day War (Israel relinquished control of the Gaza Strip in 2005), or the “occupation” created by Israel’s very existence.

BDS leaders have also endorsed methods of armed Palestinian resistance including physical violence. The movement uses inflammatory and baseless terms such as labeling Israel an “apartheid” state or accusing it of “genocide” and “white supremacy” that only demonize the Jewish state and seek to undermine its existence. Furthermore, some supporters use terms that cross the line into antisemitism, like comparing Israeli soldiers to “Nazis” and referring to the Gaza Strip, which borders Israel and Egypt, as “concentration camps” or “ghettos.”

While some BDS supporters may support a two-state solution or another sort of compromise between Israelis and Palestinians, and seek to boycott or divest from Israeli settlements to protest the Israeli control of the West Bank, known as the historical Jewish homeland of Judea and Samaria, the BDS movement, through its goals, rhetoric, and actions inherently hinders collaboration and peacemaking efforts.

I’ve heard and read that college campuses are a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment, especially where BDS is on campus. Is that true?

In recent years, anti-Israel activity has indeed increased on campus. There have been dozens of incidents across the country that have contributed to a climate of incitement and growing antisemitism on campus, including anti-Israel activists shouting down Israeli guest lecturers, passing anti-Israel legislation through student government, and imposing campus-wide boycotts on Israeli products and Jewish organizations. According to AJC’s State of Antisemitism in America 2021 report, in the last five years, 42% of American Jewish college students or parents of college students reported that they have known someone who experienced antisemitism in a college setting. 54% said anti-Israel campaigns, such as the BDS movement, were a problem for Jewish students. While this is a troubling trend, it must be noted that Jewish campus life – including engaging with Israel – is still vibrant. Most campuses have a variety of groups through Hillel, and other on-campus groups such as AJC’s Campus Global Board, to learn about and travel to Israel. Many universities even have Israeli studies departments and travel abroad programs to Israel.

With this in mind, it’s critical to understand the root causes of the anti-Israel sentiment that does exist in certain areas of campus life. Several factors contribute to this type of sentiment.

The conflict is framed in terms of oppressed and oppressor, falsely portraying Israel as a white settler-colonial state that discriminates against Arabs and undermines their fundamental rights. Israel is not a white settler-colonial state, but instead a multi-ethnic and multi-faith democracy that was founded as a homeland for the Jewish people, who have lived continuously in the land of Israel for thousands of years. Nevertheless, this type of narrative, however inaccurate it may be, is highly appealing and shocking to those who know little about the conflict. By putting the conflict into easily digestible terms, these anti-Israel narratives can garner widespread support on campus. In addition, the large presence of BDS on social media platforms means that student organizations can quickly and effectively spread the word about anti-Israel initiatives on campus.

Why are American social movements like Black Lives Matter becoming a space in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is prevalent?

Anti-Israel activists often attempt to portray the Israel-Palestinian conflict in racial terms by falsely claiming that Israel is a white colonizing enterprise that subjugates and oppresses native Arab Palestinians. This kind of narrative evokes false comparisons with the ongoing struggle against racism in the United States, where the idea is that racism ingrained in American society is part of the larger global struggle against racism, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, this analogy is wrong for a variety of reasons. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a racial one but a national one, with two nations each claiming the land as their own. In addition, Israel extends full rights to all citizens— Jewish, Arab, or otherwise, with Arab representation within the Israeli government.

Anti-Israel activists have also gone so far as to blame Israel for American police brutality, by claiming that Israeli police train American police to promote and extend discriminatory and repressive policing practices, including racial profiling. This claim, known as Deadly Exchange, argues that Israeli and U.S. law enforcement exchange security practices and ideologies to purposely target people of color. The truth is that, after 9/11, there was an urgent need for American law enforcement to address gaps in counterterrorism knowledge. The exchanges, which are hosted by the Israel National Police, focus on effective counterterrorism techniques. Scapegoating Israel for long-standing issues of American racism, even within segments of our police force, is problematic, if not antisemitic.

Do laws combating the BDS movement infringe on First Amendment rights?

The question of whether anti-BDS laws are constitutional remains controversial, as proponents argue that boycotts of Israel are forms of discrimination because they target a specific group with the intent of inflicting economic harm, while critics contend that boycotts are a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. A recent ruling in Arkansas Times v. Waldrip sheds light on the issue.

On June 22, 2022, a federal appeals court ruled that an Arkansas law that requires state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel did not violate the First Amendment. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law, which was challenged by a newspaper that received advertising from a state college, fell within the state’s power to regulate commercial activity and did not infringe upon constitutional free speech protections. The court determined that economic boycotts, such as BDS, did not implicate the First Amendment as they were neither speech nor expressive conduct. As the court noted, Arkansas has broad power to regulate economic activity, and taking a position on a boycott does not inhibit free speech.