BDS and anti-BDS Primer

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What is BDS?

BDS is an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that opposes, on principle, all forms of discrimination, including anti-semitism and Islamophobia. In 2005, Palestinian civil society issued a call for a campaign of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights.

Boycotting applies to individuals and organizations and is broken up into three types:

1) The economic boycott, which is directed against companies that participate in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

2) The cultural boycott, which urges individuals and organizations to boycott and work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions.

3) The academic boycott, which urges academic associations, student governments and unions as well as individual academics to boycott Israeli academic institutions complicit in Israel’s occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid.

Divestment focuses on high-profile organizations with large financial holdings such as universities or churches and urges them to disinvest their portfolios and economic holdings from Israel, Israeli companies, and/or any companies that are complicit in supporting the occupation.

Sanctions applies to countries and calls on governments to meet their legal obligations to not be complicit in Israeli crimes and not to provide aid or assistance that help Israel maintain its regime of settler colonialism and apartheid

The signatory organizations to the call for BDS represent Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinians in exile (predominantly refugees). BDS aims to end international support for Israeli violations of international law by forcing companies, institutions and governments to change their policies. As Israeli companies and institutions become isolated, Israel will find it more difficult to sustain its oppression.

The Palestinian call for BDS urges nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands:

1) Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall.

2) Granting Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel their right to full equality

3) Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194

In the twelve years since the original call for BDS, the movement has grown dramatically and has gained support on every continent by unions, churches, NGOs and movements representing millions of people all across the globe. The list of successful BDS campaigns is long and growing. According to a UN report, in 2014, BDS was a major factor behind a 46% drop in foreign direct investment in Israel.

What is the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and Why is It Bad?

On March 23, 2017, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rob Portman (R-OH), and Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Juan Vargas (D-CA), introduced the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720 and H.R.1697). This bill, backed by AIPAC, the largest and most powerful Israel lobby group in the United States, seeks to impose fines, criminal penalties, and deny government loans to corporations refusing to do business with corporations complicit in the illegal Israeli occupation. This bill, if passed into law, seeks to legitimize Israel’s settlements and would infringe upon every American’s First Amendment right to participate and promote boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The potential penalties for violating this bill are steep. Simply for refusing to be complicit in the oppression of Palestinians, individuals, institutions, and companies would face a minimum $250,000 civil penalty and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years imprisonment.

This bill expands its scope to include boycotts of “Israeli-controlled territories”. This means settlements would be protected from boycotts, divestments, and sanctions. For the past 50 years, official US policy has held that Israel’s settlements are violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention and illegal under international law. The bill seeks to undermine this determination by penalizing companies refusing to do business with Israeli settlements and conversely attempts to legitimize their status.

Criminalizing BDS and boycotts in general is not new to the political scene in the United States. These bills are the result of an ongoing and long-running campaign to suppress Palestine human rights activism in the United States.As of August 2017, 21 states had already passed anti-BDS legislation, including:  Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York (through an executive order issued by the governor), North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Texas. Currently, Anti-BDS bills are pending in some states, including Minnesota and new bill in Massachusetts.

However, it has not been all bleak. In 2016, activists defeated anti-BDS bills in Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts. In New York, activists successfully stopped two anti-BDS bills from passing the legislature before Governor Cuomo signed an anti-BDS executive order. And more recently, in 2017, activists in Maryland again defeated an anti-BDS bill, as did activists in Washington State and Montana.

Whatever your views on Israel and Palestine, these bills should concern you because they threaten the rights of everyone in the United States to take collective action to address injustice. Moreover, we should all be alarmed that a foreign government, Israel, is lobbying US politicians to restrict our constitutionally protected rights.

What Should I Do About This?

  • Town Halls: Show up at town halls and asking your Member of Congress why they support the restricting of our fundamentally protected rights. This has already been successful in getting a senator to pull her name off the bill
  • Confronting the Member of Congress in person, whether at public events, at their office, etc.
  • Op-eds and Letters to the Editor
  • Emails: Having constituents email their Members of Congress
  • Call-in: Calling into the Member of Congress’ local and national offices and expressing concern
  • Networking  and standing in solidarity with people who have already taken action and building this movement.