BDS movement: “put your money where your mouth is” August 11, 2010

by William McKeithen  -  Palestine Note -  10 August 2010

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement has been winning converts in Europe for years, but now after several recent victories in American have caught headlines, more are starting to question whether BDS in the US will be a watershed movement or just a fad.

The Institute for Middle East Understanding held a press briefing Tuesday to address just that question. The roundtable was comprised of Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada news blog, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, recognized as one of America’s top 50 most influential rabbis, and Noah Sochet of the Olympia, Washington food co-op, which recently took the symbolic step to be the first grocer in the US to boycott Israeli products.

The BDS campaign solidified in 2005 following the International Court of Justice’s decision to condemn the illegality of the separation barrier Israel is still constructing along its border with the West Bank. Immediately following the ICJ’s announcement, civil society organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories called for broad BDS measures.

BDS has very defined goals, Abunimah said, and is targeted not blindly at Israeli citizens but instead at the oppression of the Palestinian people. BDS aims to pressure Israeli leadership to end the occupation of the West Bank and resume its pre-1967 borders, end all settlement building beyond the Green Line, recognize and make reality full equality for Palestinian Israelis, and respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their property. When these goals are achieved, said Abunimah, then all BDS efforts can end.

The BDS movement has two facets to its campaign. While much of the grassroots BDS work focuses on economic divestment and boycotts of Israeli goods, the headlines have magnetized much more fiercely to instances of cultural boycotts. In recent months, several high profile musicians have canceled shows in Israel, including Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and Carlos Santana. Abunimah defended such cultural boycotts, saying Israel has for years used cultural campaigns to try and improve its image around the globe.

The colorfully bespectacled Elton John defied calls to boycott and continued with his concert, saying “[m]usicians spread love and peace, and bring people together. That’s what we do. We don’t cherry-pick our conscience.”

Within the United States, however, much of the BDS work has focused on the economic aspect of boycotts. This is the route the Olympia food co-op took when it voted last month to remove all Israeli products, excluding fair trade olive oil, from its shelves. Noah Sochet has been an employee and owning partner of the co-op for years and spoke about the decision and its fallout.

Olympia is a progressive community, said Sochet, that for a long time has cared about the suffering of Palestinians. The co-op, which has two grocer locations, has a long history of “encourag[ing] economic and social justice,” and boycotts have always been a part of that, he added. Olympia is also symbolic because it is the hometown of Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in 2005 while trying to stop a bulldozer from demolishing a Gaza home.

Responding to criticisms that the Olympia boycott is singling out Israel and is silent about other oppression in the world, Sochet defended the co-op’s record. The co-op has boycotted products from China over its policies in Tibet, from Colorado over LGBTQ discrimination, from Norway over whaling, and the list goes on, said Sochet.

Sochet said that around six products were removed from their shelves, including a lotion and gluten-free ice cream cone.

Many have responded with positive support, said Sochet, including some Israelis they have been in contact with. And last week, Nobel Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu spoke out in support of the Olympia boycott and of BDS at large.

But the grocers have also experienced a maelstrom of negative opinions. Some were moderate and tempered, said Sochet, but there have also been hundreds of death threats. And many have specifically targeted the co-op’s Jewish members, like Sochet, who support the boycott.

Accusations of anti-Semitism have been popular in opposition to BDS, the speakers said.

These condemnations are often used as a form of silencing dissident Jewish opinion, said Rabbi Gottlieb who is also a leader in Jewish Voice for Peace. “Tens of thousands of Jews around the world…are silenced [and] are horrified by what is going on in their name,” said Gottlieb. “[And we] feel like we have to speak out. There is an alternative voice [of Jews around the world] that has to be heard.”

Muslim and Arab voices are also being silenced, said Sochet. “Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian voices need to be central” to the debate on boycotts, but they are often “silenced in this country and in Olympia.”

When asked about how the BDS movement has transformed since the May 31 flotilla crisis, Abunimah said the campaign had received a serious boost, similar to the adrenaline injected into it following the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. It has been “like a snowball,” he said. The flotilla crisis has pushed more Americans to consider BDS, said Abunimah, because they can see themselves having joined the flotilla.

Abunimah also pointed to recent successes in ports around the world, where dock workers in Sweden, South Africa, India, and even Oakland, California have refused to unload Israeli goods or ships.

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions is not the only economics-based campaign out there, however. Palestine Note asked the speakers to discuss their views on the “Invest for Peace” campaign, which pushes for investment in joint Israeli-Palestinian projects.

Such campaigns are little more than a distracting effort to “sabotage” the BDS movement, denounced Abunimah. “What we want to avoid is a false symmetry,” he said. There is a perception that Palestinians and Israelis are equal in power, which is the message “Invest for Peace” promotes. This “obscures a vast power imbalance,” added Abunimah.

Gottlieb expressed little faith in the “Invest for Peace” movement, as well. “’Invest for Peace’ is a kind of humanitarian aid… but it has not changed anything on the ground,” she said. One Presbyterian movement accepted the “Invest for Peace” initiative a few years ago, cited Gottlieb. While contemplating divesting from Caterpillar, the construction company whose bulldozers demolish scores of Palestinian homes every year, the Presbyterian group didn’t actually invest any money in the holy land, for Palestinians or Israelis, she said.

“If people want to invest in peace they should try to exert pressure through BDS and other means [so that] Palestinian businesses [have] the same export rights [as Israeli ones],” Gottlieb added.

Condemnations of the BDS movement from Israel have been vehement. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has denounced BDS movements, including those supported by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, saying “Israel is aiming for peace and economic prosperity” and the settler goods boycott in the West Bank “in the end hurt themselves.” In the past, Netanyahu has proposed a separate initiative at economic peace, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected any such separate agreement, saying it would detract and inhibit a real political peace solution.

The BDS movement explicitly traces its roots and inspiration back to the anti-apartheid boycott and divestment campaigns in South Africa and also in the civil rights movement in America under Martin Luther King, Jr. And though many have questioned in recent years whether the Palestinians have or can muster a King or Gandhi to be the champion of a nonviolent liberation movement, Abunimah insists many Palestinians already exist to lead the nonviolent movement, but many are in Israeli jails. Pointing to weekly protests in East Jerusalem neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and in the no-go zone along Gaza’s border with Israel, Abunimah highlighted how everyday Palestinians protest nonviolently all the time.

But now the non-violent movement is moving beyond the boundaries of Palestine, said Abunimah. BDS is a “tried and tested” way for the rest of the world to participate, he said. But it also now forces the rest of the world to answer the demand for change. As Abunimah phrased it, the time has come for the world to “put your money where your mouth is.”

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