Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (better known by its acronym, BDS) is an international campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel as the expression of the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination by isolating the country economically through consumer boycotts, business and government withdrawal of investment, and legal sanctions. Critics allege that the group crosses the line from opposition to Israeli policy or to the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into open anti-Semitism.
The movement, which claims to have originated in a 2005 call from Palestinian civil society groups, seeks to apply the pressure tactics used by activists against the apartheid regime of Cold War-era South Africa against Israel. It also echoes the Arab League’s failed boycott of Israel, which the organization has claimed to maintain since 1948 amid numerous defections.
In the United States, BDS focuses its efforts on left-of-center university campuses, academic organizations, and cultural figures. The movement has limited support from the mainstream center-left, with the most major known institutional funder of organizations which support BDS being the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Notable organizations supporting the BDS campaign include Jewish Voice for Peace, National Students for Justice in Palestine, and the American Friends Service Committee—the public policy arm of the Quaker religious movement.
Opponents of the existence of Israel have rejected its legitimacy and sought to use boycotts and political sanctions to end the Jewish State since its establishment. To this day, Israel has diplomatic relations with only 158 of the 192 other United Nations member states: Most of the nations which do not maintain or have never established diplomatic ties with Israel are leftist regimes or Muslim-majority nations.
Since 1945 (when the League declared a boycott against Jewish-controlled entities in the Holy Land), the Arab League, an intergovernmental organization of 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, has maintained a formal boycott of Israeli goods and services; in the past, the League has attempted to enforce a “secondary boycott” against any company engaging in commerce in Israel. The U.S. government has passed numerous laws prohibiting American companies from complying with the boycott and requiring American companies to report any demands by a state to engage in the boycott.
The Durban Conference
The modern private-sector BDS campaign evolved from the fallout over the controversial 2001 United Nations-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held at Durban, South Africa. In a sidebar to the controversial intergovernmental negotiations, an NGO (nongovernmental organization) Forum resolved that Israel was committing “genocide” and “apartheid” against Palestinians. Observers have noted that the Final Declaration of the Durban NGO Forum “has served as a blueprint for the well-financed NGO network that aims to demonize and isolate Israel internationally,” which has centered on the BDS movement.
Amid widespread bipartisan criticism for financially supporting the Durban Conference, the Ford Foundation instituted a rule requiring grantees to agree not to promote the “Destruction of any State.” Ford had funded the Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, known as LAW, which was characterized as a “principal player in the anti-Israel agitation in Durban.”
Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS
In July 2005, the current Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign was launched. BDS activists claim it arose from a “call by Palestinian civil society organizations for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and for academic and cultural boycott of Israel”; the movement’s pro-Israel opponents tie the launch of the campaign to the Durban Conference. Opponents note that the claim of support by Palestinian civil society is at odds with some Palestinian organizations’ policy of seeking negotiation with their Israeli counterparts.
The Call for Boycott allegedly arose from the Government of Israel’s construction of the “Security Barrier,” a fortification in the disputed West Bank built to interdict terrorism during the Second Intifada terrorist campaign.
Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti is credited as a co-founder of the BDS movement. During the Second Intifada terrorist campaign, Barghouti wrote a polemic denouncing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, proclaiming that the world was entering “what may be considered the final chapter of the Zionist project.”
Modern Boycott Movement
BDS activities take place in both the private and public sectors. BDS activists focus on the left-wing industries of academia and the arts and entertainment, where they have seen some success but much opposition.
One of the most prominent BDS victories was the 2013 announcement by noted physicist Steven Hawking that he would not attend an event in Israel honoring then-Israeli President and former Prime Minister and Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres. Hawking had previously attended events in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.
BDS activists have targeted professional associations of academics, seeking to sever ties between American researchers and their Israeli counterparts. In 2013, the American Studies Association passed a resolution boycotting Israel; the decision was repudiated by the ASA’s California and Eastern divisions and led to substantial departures from the organization. Opponents of the boycott resolution have sued to have the resolution overturned.
In 2016, the American Anthropological Association narrowly rejected a proposal to boycott Israeli academic institutions. In response to a boycott proposal, the Modern Language Association of America passed a separate resolution which called for the MLA to “refrain from endorsing the boycott” of Israeli academic institutions.
In addition to attempting to sever ties between academic organs and Israeli universities, BDS activists have targeted student governments at American colleges and universities, seeking to pass resolutions endorsing the movement. In the mid-2000s, the student government at the University of Michigan-Dearborn began annually passing a resolution endorsing BDS, while in the 2010s the student government at the University of California Riverside demanded that the school stop serving Sabra hummus (Sabra is partly owned by Strauss Group, an Israeli company).
In 2017, BDS activists at Tufts University succeeded in passing a divestment resolution. The effort was criticized for the timing of the student government vote: The center-left Anti-Defamation League noted that BDS supporters scheduled the vote for the day before the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, when Jewish students might have left campus to be with family. A similar tactic was employed by BDS proponents at Pitzer College, part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, who held a BDS vote in the student government during the Passover holiday. In November 2017, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor student government passed a divestment resolution; BDS advocates censored a professor from speaking on the Israel-Palestinian conflict before the vote.
On-campus BDS efforts are led by the entity Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), an advocacy group with over 115 chapters at U.S. universities. The organization promotes “Israel Apartheid Weeks” propagandizing against the Jewish State on numerous college campuses. SJP chapters have partnered with campus groups aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, attempting to analogize Israeli security practices to American police brutality; they have also sought to attack Israel’s socially liberal policies as “pinkwashing”—using pro-LGBT policy to distract from alleged violations of Arab rights. SJP chapters have been known to explicitly refuse dialogue with defenders of Israel, a practice known as anti-normalization.
Polling has found BDS activities are unpopular with American college students; a 2017 survey at four schools (including the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor) found that fewer than 15 percent of non-Jewish students supported an academic boycott of Israel.
BDS attempts to use left-wing entertainment figures to promote its agenda with mixed results. Roger Waters, former front-man of the band Pink Floyd, is a leading supporter of BDS and leads pressure campaigns against musicians considering performances in Israel.
BDS activists have published letters signed by artists and entertainers calling for Israelis to be excluded from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, one of the largest performing arts festivals in the world, and asking the Lincoln Center to not perform a play (ironically, one opposed to war) written by an Israeli. In 2017, New Zealander singer Lorde cancelled a performance scheduled for Tel Aviv after pressure from BDS activists.
While there is limited support among left-wing entertainers for BDS, other prominent entertainers are vocally opposed to the movement. Actress Scarlett Johansson disassociated from a role with Oxfam after the organization criticized her for being a spokesperson for SodaStream, a beverage company which operates a factory in the disputed West Bank that employs Palestinian workers. Thom Yorke of the band Radiohead said a demand from BDS supporters “patronized” the musicians, who played a show in Tel Aviv. Nick Cave, an Australian singer, scheduled a Tel Aviv show after BDS supporters asked him to sign a pro-BDS petition.
In November 2018, the official BDS Twitter account tweeted out “[h]ow the tourism industry underpins illegal Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land,” asserting that “[t]ravel agencies. . . and booking sites like @Airbnb and @bookingcom profit from and normalize Israel’s illegal land grabs” (Image available here).
Some left-wing religious denominations, most prominently the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Presbyterian Church (USA), have officially endorsed the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. The refugee assistance, political, and policy arm of the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), is a leading participant in organized BDS activism in the United States.
AFSC is led by a West Bank-born Palestinian activist, Joyce Ajlouny. Its BDS activity predates Ajlouny’s appointment: AFSC was reportedly a member of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a pro-BDS coalition in 2015. In 2014, AFSC cosponsored a “BDS Summer Institute” to promote on-campus activism against Israel. The organization has also taken an active role in federal anti-Israel legislation, endorsing legislation which would restrict U.S. military aid to Israel.
Organization and Funding
Most major left-wing funders avoid explicit support of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. The most prominent funder of BDS groups and BDS activities is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), which has provided over $1 million to BDS-supporting groups since 2013. RBF’s support for BDS organizations has all been conducted under Fund president Steven Heintz, formerly president of the left-wing think tank Demos.
A major recipient of RBF grants is an organization called Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization which works to make it appear that the Jewish community supports anti-Israel activities, including BDS. RBF made its first contribution to JVP in 2015; in 2017, RBF made an additional two-year grant of $140,000 to JVP. Since that contribution, JVP has led numerous anti-Israel demonstrations, including disrupting New York City’s Celebrate Israel parade in Jun 2017.
Despite its professions of peace, JVP has had associations with Palestinian extremists: Rasmea Odeh, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine extremist convicted of involvement in the murder of two Israeli students in a terrorist bombing, addressed the group’s annual member’s meeting in March 2017.
Rockefeller Brothers Fund contributed an additional $50,000 to American Friends Service Committee; it has also supported the “U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights,” an anti-Israel coalition of which many RBF grantees are members. RBF has also supported a Tel Aviv-based organization, Zochrot, which advocates against Zionism.
RBF denies taking a position on BDS; however, its grants to BDS-supporting organizations have been for “general support,” allowing those organizations to use grants for any purposes, including BDS.
Other funders of BDS groups include the Firedoll Foundation, the personal foundation of major Democratic Party donors Sandor and Faye Straus. Firedoll has given substantial funding to JVP; in 2014, support totaled $25,000. The Tides Foundation also provided JVP with slightly less than $50,000.
The Government of Israel has issued a regulation forbidding the entry of foreigners who “knowingly [issue] a public call for boycotting Israel” into Israel. In addition to the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace, persons associated with American Muslims for Palestine, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, National Students for Justice in Palestine, and Code Pink are barred from Israel on grounds of advocating BDS.
U.S. Political Support
Support for BDS in the United States is extremely limited, however some far-left organizations have endorsed the anti-Israel campaign. Most prominently, in 2017 the far-left political organization Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — which represents socialist supporters on the left-wing of the Democratic Party — endorsed BDS at its national convention. A Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois changed running mates after it emerged that Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a DSA-supported Chicago city alderman, had spoken in favor of BDS.
In 2014, Occupy Oakland, a branch of the Occupy Wall Street left-wing activist movement, blockaded the Port of Oakland preventing an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the Zim Piraeus, from unloading.
While mainstream liberals have not typically endorsed BDS, some have expressed sympathy for BDS goals and limited support for BDS tactics. In October 2016, a number of left-leaning intellectuals and commentators (most prominently pundit Peter Beinart) proposed a boycott of all Israeli-owned or Israeli-produced goods and services from Israeli-controlled territory outside the 1949 armistice line (in practice, the disputed West Bank and Golan Heights and portions of Jerusalem).
J Street, a liberal Middle East policy advocacy group created to rival the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), claims to “not advocate for or support any boycott, divestment or sanctions initiative whatsoever”; however, it has also expressed, “We do not oppose boycott, divestment, or sanctions initiatives that explicitly support a two-state solution, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and focus only on occupied territory beyond the [1949 Armistice] Line.” The organization has condemned American and Israeli efforts to counter the BDS movement.
The opposition to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions in the United States and Israel is widespread across the political spectrum. National public opinion polling shows that Israel maintains strong favorability among the American public and that Americans largely side with Israel over the Palestinians in the continuing conflict.
Bipartisan Political Opposition
Both major political parties formally oppose boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. In the 2016 election, both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms opposed BDS. The Republican platform was more strident in its rhetoric, calling BDS one of a number of “alternative forms of warfare” employed against the Jewish State.
Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, leading Democratic and Republican political donors respectively, briefly collaborated on a project to counter BDS activism on college campuses; Saban later broke the partnership amid a dispute with Adelson over support for conservative-leaning pro-Israel groups. The American Jewish Committee secured the support of all 50 then-serving U.S. state governors and the Mayor of the District of Columbia (Muriel Bowser, a Democrat) for a letter condemning the BDS movement as “antithetical to our values and the values of our respective states, our support for Israel as a vital U.S. ally, important economic partner and champion of freedom.”
Right-of-Center Political Opposition
Republicans and conservatives have become staunchly supportive of the State of Israel since the early 2000s. The Republican Jewish Coalition, a constituency group representing American Jews in the Republican Party, has encouraged the passage of legislation restricting state agencies from supporting businesses engaged in BDS activities. In 2018, the Trump administration appointed a leading critic of BDS, Kenneth Marcus of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, for a senior position in the federal Department of Education.
Left-of-Center Political Opposition
While Democrats and liberals have become less supportive of Israel in recent years, the institutional Democratic Party and major liberal donor infrastructure — with the notable exception of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — opposes BDS. The 2016 Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote a letter to liberal donor Haim Saban and other prominent Jewish Democrats condemning BDS and asking for Saban’s assistance in developing counter-BDS strategies. Other Democratic elected officials, including U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and former U.S. Representative Shelley Berkeley (D-Nevada) have condemned BDS.
In 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) issued an executive order barring state agencies from entering into business arrangements with groups that boycott Israel. The move came shortly after Democrats in the California legislature weakened a state effort to counter BDS and the Democratic-controlled New York State Assembly failed to pass counter-BDS measures.
Left-of-center finance billionaire and donor to numerous political causes George Soros does not appear to support the BDS movement, though his Open Society Foundations have supported non-governmental organizations that have sought to isolate Israel in the international arena. In 2014, BDS activists called for boycotts against Soros after Soros Fund Management and Open Society Foundations made investments in two Israeli companies, Teva Pharmaceuticals and SodaStream.
Allegations of BDS Anti-Semitism
The BDS movement and the program of boycott, divestment, and sanctions has been accused of anti-Semitism both in movement supporters’ conduct and in the principle of targeting Israel for delegitimization. The U.S. State Department characterizes “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” as an example of anti-Semitism; the U.S. Congress has considered codifying the State Department’s definition into law as a directive to the Department of Education.
In 2015, BDS movement supporters issued a call for an “International BDS wave of solidarity with Palestinian Popular Resistance” that coincided with the beginning of a wave of stabbing attacks against Israelis by Palestinian extremists.
Roger Waters, the former Pink Floyd front-man who has been a leading advocate for BDS among musicians, was criticized for anti-Semitism after he compared Israeli policy to “what went on in the ’30s in Germany” and used an inflatable pig with a Star of David to equate Israel with totalitarian regimes. Waters’ anti-Semitic rhetoric has seen German radio and television stations refuse to broadcast his concerts.
BDS activists in the Spanish region of Catalonia were criticized after they issued a statement suggesting Europeans bore “responsibility” for an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist attack against the region’s capital and largest city, Barcelona.
On March 7, 2018, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) denounced BDS during a speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for the group’s condemnation of Israel:
“We must continue to stand firm against the profoundly biased campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel through [BDS],” Schumer said. “While Iran publicly executes its citizens, Turkey jails its journalists, scores of Arab nations punish homosexuality with imprisonment and torture, why does BDS single Israel out alone for condemnation?”