Everything seems to be leading back to money these days, and the Israel-Palestine conflict is no exception. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is a global campaign to apply economic pressure on Israel in order to stop what the campaign sees as intrusions on Palestinian sovereignty by the Israeli government. Formed in 2005, the movement has become more heavily debated in recent months due to the passage of legislation disapproving the organization’s actions and goals.
Inspired by 20th century anti-apartheid movements boycotting South Africa to pressure an end to apartheid, BDS promotes boycotting Israel till they meet “obligations under international law” in relation to their affairs with Palestine. BDS demands that Israel withdraw from occupied Palestinian territories, remove separation barriers along the West Bank, and give rights and return property to Palestinian citizens in the region. Before these concessions are made, the campaign encourages companies across the world to cease all business with Israel.
The U.S. government, in defense of its beloved democratic (and stable) ally in the Middle East, has largely censured BDS. Support of a boycott de-legitimizes and destabilizes Israel; it’s rather contradictory to support the harm of an ally in such a volatile region. So far, 27 states have passed legislation condemning BDS, giving no legal pressure for, and actually legal reason against, U.S. companies to stop business with Israel. Moreover, legislation has also passed the Senate and is in the House that criticizes BDS and says federal law cannot stop state legislation against the movement.
Some, like the Anti Defamation League, say BDS is anti-Semitic in nature. The boycott singles out the only Jewish state in the world and has been compared to Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses. Legally, since U.S. companies cannot discriminate on religious grounds, they cannot participate in the boycott. Additionally, U.S. companies are barred from joining foreign boycotts, since they cannot violate or create their own foreign policy. For example, they aren’t supposed to defy U.S. sanctions.
In opposition, supporters of BDS claim participation simply calls for changes in economic activity, not active political expression. Business logically have the right to pick and choose clients and areas of operation as they please, so involvement with BDS can’t be rebuked.
Furthermore, the right to boycott is itself a form of free speech protected by the Supreme Court. BDS and its allies have taken this precedent and attacked the Senate bill as a violation of this right. In defense however, the Senate bill is argued to be constitutional by its defenders, since it is not interpreted as a direct act against freedom of speech, but instead simply does not punish relevant state laws — legislation that has less defense against the same attack.
In any case, BDS has affected discourse on the matter by exasperating and polarizing the Israel-Palestine conflict. U.S. relations with the two are made more partisan with disagreements between Republicans and Democrats and even internally within the Democratic Party on the proper course of action. All players involved are in hard positions. Should companies stay in Israel or join the boycott? Should the U.S. support BDS to elicit better behavior on Israel’s part or avoid risking potentially harming an ally? Should countries support humanitarian groups in the West Bank despite the fact that this will antagonize Israel since such groups support BDS? There is question upon question with this issue.
Most non-Muslim countries recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a state but also recognize the poor record of human rights in dealing with the Palestinian people. Global public sentiment seems to be more sympathetic to Palestinians, bolstering BDS and related movements. However, for the dignity of the Jewish people and the stability of a vital U.S. ally, it also stands that Israel should be supported. And above all this, peace between Israel and Palestine should be paramount above all other goals. In a fraught and ever devolving conflict, BDS adds more fuel to the fire and further complicates matters in the Levant.