(AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

What Israel fears with the successes of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement

Amendments in the House and Senate target the BDS movement. It must be doing something right


David Palumbo-Liu
May 8, 2015 12:59AM (UTC)

Most people understand how politicians use the amendment process to tack on seemingly unrelated, but politically potent, messages, to otherwise routine and innocuous legislation. Who would have imagined that an ordinary trade bill would be used to take a controversial, even radical position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in particular the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement? And yet that's exactly what has happened.

Recently, the House and the Senate passed similar amendments to the bill authorizing negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe that in one stroke of the pen attempt to make legal the Israeli settlements that are recognized as illegal by both the U.N. and international law.  Conversely, the amendments punish companies for adhering to international laws intended to protect against colonization.

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The House amendment, co-sponsored by Peter Roskam of Illinois and Juan Vargas of California, inserts language declaring that the “principal negotiating objectives of the US” would now include discouraging both “actions by potential trading partners that directly or indirectly prejudice or otherwise discourage commercial activity solely between the United States and Israel,” and “politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel and to seek the elimination of politically motivated non-tariff barriers on Israeli goods, services, or other commerce imposed on the State of Israel.”

The Senate amendment does largely the same; both amendments clearly target the burgeoning Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement launched in 2005, a perfectly legal, nonviolent effort to honor international law and human rights conventions, and grant and restore rights to Palestinians. Both amendments also attempt to erase the inconvenient truth that the Occupation is illegal, and so is doing business with companies on the West Bank.

These amendments seek not only to facilitate, but also to normalize trade with West Bank and East Jerusalem settlement companies, under the guise that such trade is effectively as legitimate as trade with Israel itself. This move seeks to elide the actual, internationally recognized illegality of the Occupation and the specific illegality of doing business with settlement companies. Using the phrase “in Israel or in territories controlled by Israel,” the amendments merge the two as if they were one and the same.  And eerily, as J. J. Goldberg points out, the phrase is "identical to the language of an Israeli anti-boycott bill that was adopted by the Knesset in 2011 and upheld by Israel’s High Court of Justice days ago, punishing Israelis who advocate either type of boycott.”

At the level of the states, we find a similar effort to defeat BDS.  In Tennessee, the Algemeiner reports that Senate Joint Resolution 170 declares that the BDS movement is “one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism and advocating the elimination of the Jewish state.” Furthermore, the resolution states that the BDS movement and its agenda are “inherently antithetical and deeply damaging to the causes of peace, justice, equality, democracy and human rights for all the peoples in the Middle East.”

If this language sounds familiar, that's because it is: The virulent attacks on BDS in Congress and in Tennessee precisely ventriloquize the words of Benjamin Netanyahu.  In a 2014 speech before AIPAC Netanyahu criticized BDS no fewer than 18 times:  “Attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on Earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism. Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned.”  Netanyahu’s comments simply rehearse the by-now-familiar equation between critics of Israeli state policies and anti-Semites in order to grant Israel immunity from reasonable questioning -- like, for instance, contesting the claim that Israel is the “most threatened democracy on Earth,” when now we have coupled to that quote Netanyahu’s alarmist evocation of “droves” of “Israeli Arabs” coming to vote in the recent elections.  We now know who he feels is the greatest threat to “democracy,” and it’s not BDS. In a double-move, then, we find the collapsing of the distinction between Israel and its settlements, and between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.  The question is, do people buy this, and if so, for how long will they continue to do so?

And now the Indiana state Legislature has followed Tennessee’s in condemning BDS with its own resolution, in response to the success of students at the Quaker institution, Earlham College, who passed a divestment bill, and on Friday Illinois lawmakers will take up two anti-boycott measures:

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According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Illinois House Bill 4011 and Senate Bill 1761 contain a provision that requires state pension funds to “create blacklists of companies that boycott Israel because of its human rights violations, and mandates that they withdraw their investments from these companies.”The measure passed on the House floor and in the Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday.

CCR says that these bills “must be opposed in order to protect the right to engage in boycotts that reflect collective action to address a human rights issue, which the US Supreme Court has declared is protected speech and associational activity.”

It is clear that pressure from students on campuses across not just the United States, but also worldwide, along with boycott movements in professional organizations and unions, is drawing these reactive measures.  And as these measures are presented for votes, this is creating a dilemma for Democrats and liberals.

It is notable that after Netanyahu’s controversial appearance before Congress, which openly alienated the Obama administration and many congressional Democrats, and after his remark during the recent election that there would be no two-state solution under his watch, there was a supposed wedge driven in American politics with regard to the formerly solid support for Israel. Now, while Republicans are staunchly continuing or even increasing their support for Israel, grass-roots Democrats are beginning to split on the issue.  Yet the congressional amendments seem to indicate that an appreciable change has yet to occur at the leadership level, with even a Democrat such as Vargas signing on to this outlandish shell game.

Despite this, while in our Congress and statehouses we can see such efforts as testifying to the power of the Israel lobby, from outside these spaces we can see even more the tremendous effectiveness BDS actually has (why else center so much attention on it?).  It is indisputably the single most identifiable and powerful alternative to conventional diplomacy, which has for decades proven to be utterly ineffective in addressing the issues of Israel’s long-standing violations of international law and human rights conventions and covenants.  There is no doubt that with Netanyahu at the helm, any change will have to emanate from outside Israel, via an international consensus.  And that is what Israel is afraid of when it sees the successes of BDS.

In a statement released by Jewish Voice for Peace, Rabbi Joseph Berman noted: “This legislation, which actually encourages illegal settlement building while strengthening the far right in Israel, shows that BDS is an increasingly powerful means to challenge Israel's impunity when it comes to Palestinian rights. We urge Congress to reject this legislation."

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What we find here is a battle for the political will of Democrats, and Democratic congressional leaders are increasingly likely to find themselves out of step with constituents unhappy with legislative support for colonization of the West Bank.


David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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