These frequently asked questions and answers have been compiled by quite a few members of the group but need not represent the views of all the members of the group. Any disagreements or reservations should be sent to the moderator and will be posted as messages written by specific individuals, unless otherwise specified.
(1) What is BDS?
BDS is an acronym for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It refers to an international economic and cultural campaign against a state that refuses to desist from a pattern of criminal behavior: in our case - Israel. Our support of BDS is a direct response to the call for such a strategic campaign from a large and diverse group of Palestinian human rights organizations.
Boycott is a tool of protest, to be exercised through refusing to do business with, or purchase the products of, an offending country, company, or institution. A boycott against a state is to be implemented from the outside, by individuals, governments, and businesses. In our case, it is directed at Israeli institutions, not individuals.
Divestment, or “disinvestment” as it was known during the South African struggle against Apartheid, describes the stripping away of economic investments as a mechanism of protest and pressure. Divestment is to be implemented from outside, by other countries - mostly by businesses and institutions.
A sanction is a penalty or fine, incurred for the failure of one party to uphold laws or agreements. Sanctions are to be implemented by international bodies, such as the UN.
(2) Why should I, as an Israeli, support BDS?
Israelis support BDS as a direct response to the Palestinian call for a boycott. We believe that measures such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions are necessary steps toward pressuring the Israeli public and establishment to bring the state into alignment with international laws and agreements. Since Israel flouts international law and gets away with crimes against humanity, while powerful states and governments continue to treat Israel favorably, it is left to the citizens of the world to mobilize and apply this kind of pressure.
This is an initiative by Israeli activists who have worked for many years to try to change the situation through various actions and campaigns. We decided to support the Palestinian call for a boycott when we realized that our other efforts, while important and necessary, are not enough to bring real change. Israeli public opinion and the country's political agenda will change only when the price of continuing the status quo becomes too high. We hope that the BDS campaign will eventually have this effect. We believe that ending the occupation and establishing equal and just political arrangements in Israel/Palestine are also in our interest as Israelis.
We are asking the world to intervene not only because the continually escalating brutality and illegality of the occupation justify intervention, but also because the current levels of apathy in our society render this move necessary.
(3) Is it not unfair to compare Israeli policies to the openly racist policies of Apartheid South Africa by calling for BDS?
No. Ever since its formation, and especially since the 1967 war, Israel has been colonizing and annexing Palestinian homes and lands, driving their owners and residents out by force and prohibiting their return, building settlements on their lands and, more recently, constructing a separation wall which annexes land and prevents villagers' access to their natural resources and their livelihood. Demolishing houses, terrorizing and harassing civilians on a daily basis, imposing sieges, curfews and closures on whole towns and agricultural lands, and severely restricting freedom of movement are all part of the routine oppression of the Palestinian people carried out by Israel. All these violations of civil rights are accompanied by killing, wounding, maiming, and imprisoning thousands, including many children.
Toward those Palestinians who remained in the territory seized by Israelafter the Nakba of 1948, Israeli authorities pursue racist and discriminatory policies, segregating them in their towns, villages and neighborhoods, denying or limiting their access to higher education and jobs, excluding them culturally, and oppressing them economically.
All this makes it clear beyond doubt that Israel is, in effect, an Apartheid regime.
While Israeli politicians never tire of declaring their commitment to reaching a solution, the reality is that all Israeli governments have practiced racist and discriminatory policies. This situation became extreme when, in 1967, Israel gained control over what remained of pre-1948 Palestine and became an occupying power, controlling millions of now stateless Palestinians. Paradoxically, since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel has audaciously deepened the separation of Palestinians from their own people in the occupied Palestinian territory and from the outside world by implementing a permit system and stringent, discriminatory restrictions on movement. Similar to the restrictions implemented in South Africa, these make up an important component of an Apartheid regime. The serious human rights violations inflicted on Palestinians by the state of Israel have been observed and described by many prominent figures - Israelis and others - as fully deserving the title ‘Apartheid’ (see for example; Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, John Dugard).
(4) What does the Palestinian BDS campaign expect to achieve?
The Palestinian BDS initiative calls for:
a. putting an end to Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and to dismantling the Separation Wall; for
b. Israeli recognition of the fundamental right of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and for
c. Israeli respect, protection, and promotion of the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
(5) As a person residing in Israel, how can I possibly boycott Israel or Israeli institutions? Shouldn’t I start by resigning my own job?
The call for BDS is addressed, not to Israelis themselves, but to non-Israelis. It is a call for people outside Israel to boycott Israeli institutions, companies, products, etc. Boycott operates through applying economic and cultural pressure for an end to Israel's occupation. Such pressure can mainly, if not only, be implemented from outside.
You can, however, contribute to efforts within Israel by calling on others to follow the call and boycott Israeli institutions. In Apartheid South Africa, the voices of anti-Apartheid South African activists who supported BDS played an important role in putting an end to Apartheid. Such voices coming from Israel, today, can help the international campaign respond to accusations of practicing “anti-Semitism” or “the denial of Israel’s right to exist”.
Obviously, those living in Israel cannot entirely avoid cooperation with Israeli institutions, companies, or products. This, however, does not imply they should leave the country that is their home. They should, instead, strive to make Israel a better place for both Palestinians and Israelis alike. Supporting BDS is one important way of doing this.
(6) Shouldn’t the universities be exempt for being progressive institutions?
As institutions, Israeli universities are an integral part of the Israeli political-military-industrial complex. Like virtually any other Israeli institution, racism and discrimination are prevalent in them, and so their “progressiveness” is not the issue. Like other major institutions in Israel, the academy remains captive to, and often an active partner in the pervasive apparatus of Apartheid. Its complicity, willing or otherwise, is not altered by a given university's tolerance of some token dissident students, faculty, or staff, or by its formal endorsements of academic freedom (but not in Palestinian universities), its declared commitment to freedom of speech (but not for protesting Arab artists in the Galilee), etc. In general, individuals are not the intended target of the boycott. The institution itself, however, is.
(7) Exactly how should I deal with my foreign academic contacts? Which type of cooperation constitutes a violation of the boycott?
The guiding principle for what is or is not a violation of the boycott is the distinction between individuals and institutions. In practice, though, this distinction is not always clear cut: a certain activity could be both a form of institutional cooperation and an interaction with an individual. Thus, we might face dilemmas. For certain questions there are no clear-cut answers even in the Palestinian call and people will have to make their own decisions about what constitutes violation of the boycott. For example, publishing articles by Israeli academics representing Israeli institutions contributes to the prestige of the institutions but at the same time it is also an interaction with an individual. A detailed discussion of the issue can be found in the call by PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) and their guidelines for applying the international cultural boycott.
Although any cooperation that involves funding of Israeli institutions is a violation of the boycott, this does not mean that academics outside Israel cannot exchange ideas and work with Israeli academics. Foreign academics should, however, be encouraged to decline any invitation to visit Israeli institutions and to add a statement that they can’t do business with Israeli universities given the current political situation. These statements can then be made public. (For more details.)
(8) What about the work of dissidents “from within”? Should it be boycotted too?
The call is not directed at individuals, regardless of their political orientation: it is directed at collaboration at the institutional level. The call for boycott also excludes activities and organizations that are specifically aimed at ending the occupation and promoting justice for the Palestinians:
“…Unless violating any of the above criteria, in the absence of official Israeli sponsorship, the individual product of an Israeli cultural worker per se is not boycottable, regardless of its content or merit.”[PACBI]
(9) Does the call ask foreign artists not to come here at all? What about politically supportive artists? Is there a way they can come here without violating the boycott?
Foreign artists should refrain from participating in any events that are organized by mainstream institutions, and also in “ordinary” cultural events that are purely commercial. When in doubt, they should consult with the Boycott National Committee or the PACBI position on visits of International delegations and individuals to the OPT and Israel. Artists who come to participate in a political event in support of the Palestinians should be advised to perform in Palestinian towns and villages (in the 1948 area) and also in the occupied Palestinian territory. They should also be encouraged to make a clear statement with regard to their position, even at the risk of being denied entry by Israeli authorities. In general, no “business as usual” approach should be acceptable, even if artists are “for peace”.
(10) If I cannot boycott the corner store what CAN be done “from within”?
Most importantly, support the BDS call and take a clear stand from within, in order to put pressure on the Israeli government. You could also boycott products which are identified as especially linked to the occupation industry (such as settlement products or products which exploit Palestinian captive labor, see WhoProfits).
(11) A boycott may achieve the opposite of what it intends to achieve. Won’t Israeli society feel that everyone is against it and toughen its position?
A certain amount of internal backlash in Israeli public opinion following growing international pressure is an expected outcome. Israelis tend to see themselves as the victims and this will not change soon. The myth of Israel being “the only democracy in the Middle East” has to be challenged and Israelis will not let go of it easily. However, boycott is an effective way to raise awareness by causing people to think of why they are being boycotted and excluded. The initial responses will always be “because they hate us”; “because they are anti-Semitic”. But greater economic pressure should prompt more people in Israel to begin considering ways to reduce that pressure, so as to restore their country's full participation in the normal life of the international community. At the governmental level, such pressure was found effective in the very few cases in which it was applied (for example in forcing Israel to enter the 1991 Madrid negotiations or to temporarily stop house demolitions in Jerusalem).
It is quite clear today that our ability to change the Israeli public discourse is limited and that the local anti-occupation movement alone cannot change the regime’s policy. Therefore, international pressure is absolutely necessary to change the Israeli/Palestinian reality – hopefully, a change in reality will change public opinion.
(12) What about the argument that the disadvantaged will be hurt most by BDS.
This dilemma exists and it is two-fold, involving the possible impact on several million people: on economically vulnerable Palestinians and also on economically vulnerable Israelis. Note that the “disadvantaged” Israeli group encompasses Palestinians living in poverty in Israel along with impoverished Jews, imported laborers and others in Israel.
Since the current BDS strategy focuses on institutions with strong international ties, the immediate impact may first be felt among social and economic elites (who will then, theoretically, be more motivated to act for change). In an economic crisis, of course, elites generally try to offload the cost onto the less powerful classes: hence BDS, if successful, will at some point create more hardship for those least equipped to deal with it. The latter would be justified in demanding compensation from the Israeli government for such hardship.
Palestinian workers: Trade unions and other organizations representing ordinary working Palestinians are publicly supporting the BDS campaign, despite the anticipated economic price in the short term. No Palestinian construction workers, for example, have called for a continuation of construction in the settlements just because working to build settlers’ houses has also put bread on the table for the workers’ own families. When sanctions against South Africa were called for, the ANC likewise supported them, despite the obvious economic hardship for black workers in the short term.
Workers in Israel: With regard to the impact on Israeli workers (Palestinian, Jewish, or others) in today’s situation, it is worth remembering that the status quo also involves hardship – increasingly so, in recent years. Economic and social analysts in Israel (e.g., Yagil Levy and Shlomo Swirsky) have repeatedly pointed out that Israel's extreme militarization -- allegedly justified by the continuing conflict and perpetuated, to a large extent, by occupation -- has functioned to divert public attention from, and to preempt public protest against, the process of galloping neo-liberalization of Israel's economy since the early 1990s, thus benefiting the very rich and further impoverishing the poorer classes.
No free lunch: Changes that reduce inequality (political, social, and economic) in Israel and Palestine, broadly speaking, will involve both costs and benefits for people currently more privileged. The somewhat analogous South African situation is instructive. White people in apartheid South Africa, whatever their income and social class, once enjoyed tremendous advantages and privileges stemming from the apartheid regime. When apartheid ended, all whites suffered. Boer farmers no longer had black serfs on their farms who were not allowed to leave the farms. Factory owners had to pay wages agreed on with the formerly illegal black trade unions. White workers performing unskilled or semi-skilled work found it difficult to compete with black workers, who then often replaced them. But the net change was positive for everyone, because the entire apartheid economy, built on a morally untenable foundation, had become unsustainable. To arrive at something more just and sustainable, the white population as a whole was indeed obliged to relinquish their “God-given” privileges. In Israel as in South Africa, there is no way around this inevitable transition except to tackle it honestly and to plan as intelligently as possible.
Meantime, just as post-apartheid South Africa has not magically eliminated poverty, existing economic disparities in Israel and Palestine will not be magically resolved by BDS, nor by ending the occupation, dismantling the separation wall or repatriating the refugees. In the short term, things may get worse.
The point to bear in mind is that the status quo ante has not been without hardship either. With Palestinian non-citizens excluded and Palestinian-Israeli citizens marginalized by today’s Israel-dominated economy, the high-tech militarism underpinning that economy also punishes the most vulnerable members of Israeli Jewish society, in ways often taken for granted (those huge military-industrial budgets) or partly invisible (underfunding of education, health & social services).
Political justice and economic justice are interactive. Promoting a healthier and more humane economic order in Israel and Palestine will require reordering the governing economic (and political) priorities so as to foster everyone's potential to contribute, as well as everyone’s right to benefit. BDS, which aims to act nonviolently against existing injustices and create pressure for change, is the prelude to this longer-term campaign. As with all worthwhile campaigns, the process will require vision and faith and probably sacrifice.... But think of what so many people are sacrificing already to maintain a perverted system.
(13) What makes people think that such a boycott can work?
Ties to Western countries are very important to Israeli society, not only for purely economic reasons. This is evident from the highly hostile reactions to even the most modest BDS initiatives taken by Western civil society. Israel's foreign ministry is investing huge resources in PR, toward promoting a positive image of Israel. This is seen as a top priority and it demonstrates the Israeli establishment's vulnerability and dependency. The boycott campaign is also a tool to reach public opinion in the world and to keep the Palestinian plight on the agenda. When public opinion outside of Israel shifts, Israelis might start to see themselves in a different light.
Around the world more and more local campaigns are achieving results demonstrating that BDS is an effective way to influence companies, governments, and individuals to revise their approach towards their involvement and dealings with Israel.
Furthermore, at this stage, the global support for BDS is strong enough to withstand attempts to silence or stop it. Slander and intimidation no longer slow down the growth of this movement. On the contrary, the power and effectiveness of BDS surprises even its supporters, time and time again.
For more information:
· PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel)
· Global BDS Movement