The Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement is succeeding in many places, most recently in the form of a robust academic boycott in Italy, where over two hundred academics from dozens of Italian universities pledged to boycott Israeli academic institutions until Israel ceases its pervasive violations of international law.
Because of its success, BDS has also been met with fierce opposition both within Israel (the Israeli government recently committed over $25 million dollars to countering the effects of BDS), as well as internationally. Most notably, the United States has been exerting considerable effort to combat BDS by putting pressure on pro-BDS activists at the state and federal levels.
As journalist Alex Kane reported for Mondoweiss, several state legislatures, including California, New York, Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida, are considering legislation designed to hamstring burgeoning BDS movements in their states. These efforts are in line with the many, similar anti-BDS bills introduced last year, like Illinois’ new law requiring the state to divest from foreign companies supporting BDS.
What all these laws have in common is that they prevent state money from going to any organization or business that is involved in the boycott movement. Some bills, such as the one in New York, go as far as to create lists of individuals and organizations, which are pro-BDS, for publication on government websites. As activists have argued, these sorts of bills would effectively create blacklists reminiscent of anti-communist, McCarthyist efforts from the Cold War era.
Congress has been no less vociferous in actively promoting anti-BDS legislation. This month, two bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress, which authorize states to penalize BDS activists and businesses in ways typically reserved for the federal government. Mirroring the Illinois legislation, these bills allow state and local governments to divest from or prohibit investment in any entity that “engages in a commerce or investment-related boycott, divestment or sanctions activity targeting Israel.” According to Josh Ruebner, Policy Director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, these actions are blatantly unconstitutional.
This time last year, Congress introduced a bill, crafted by The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which aimed to use American trade negotiations with Europe as leverage to defeat the BDS movement, both stateside and overseas. As writer and activist Annie Robbins explained in Mondoweiss, the bill would accomplish this objective by allowing American companies to divest from pro-BDS companies not only in the United States, but also in the EU. In addition, it would make important trade agreements between the United States and the EU contingent on the EU’s cooperation in the fight against the BDS movement. Though President Barack Obama has expressed some disagreement with parts of the bill, he has no choice but to sign it, since it has received support from more than two-thirds of Congress and is, therefore, veto proof.
Concerns for free speech have been used to justify this and other anti-BDS bills. Indeed BDS has been wrongfully accused of being hateful, undemocratic, and exclusionary. BDS opponents have unfairly conflated anti-Zionism with anti-semitism and inaccurately accused the movement of promoting polarizing, hateful politics.
This could not be farther from the truth. BDS is, first and foremost, about promoting human rights and rejecting institutions that embrace racist, oppressive policies. Because of its strong moral focus, the BDS movement has received support from many Jews and Israelis, as well as from countless academics and artists who object to Israel’s atrocious treatment of Palestinians.
Indeed, it is not BDS, but the efforts to quash it that are limiting the rights of all Americans to express their point of view. For Palestinians, BDS is a response to Israel’s systematic violation of their human rights, including freedom of expression. Attempting to destroy BDS collectively imperils the free speech rights of all those who dare speak out about Israel’s human rights abuses, whether in the United States or abroad.
Instead of responding to BDS by engaging in free discourse and debate on the merits, Israel and its supporters simply want to eliminate it. By embracing this approach, the American government is doing little more than reproducing Israel’s own repressive, undemocratic tactics for silencing dissent.