A movement protesting Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and human rights abuses gains steam — possibly enough to finally force Israel to confront and correct its actions.
In Milwaukee, Wis., the People’s Books Cooperative, a seven-year-old community-based initiative established to save a local mainstay from closing, has taken a pronounced stance against Israel.
“People’s Books Co-op has voted to join the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement against Israel, instituting a consumer, cultural and academic boycott of the Israeli state due to significant human rights concerns involved with Israel’s policies against the Palestinian community,” the cooperative wrote on its website.
The cooperative is one of the latest to participate in the growing BDS movement — an international protest criticizing Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights and Israel’s alleged violations of Palestinian human rights. Encouraging a boycott of Israeli-made or -funded goods, the withdrawal of investments in Israeli firms and a protest against Israeli academic and cultural institutions, the eight-year-old movement has gained traction in recent months.
“For Israel there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up,” said Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year. “People are very sensitive to it. There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary.”
A world in protest
The effects of the BDS can be seen throughout the world. Israel’s “Brand Israel” campaign, designed to promote the cultural integrity of the nation and show the world “Israel’s prettier face,” has failed. A 2013 BBC poll found that Israel is competing with North Korea as the third or fourth worst-perceived country in the world. Israeli firms are losing government bids in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States. Many of the major international trade union federations have offered their support to the BDS, as has the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Canada and the Mennonite Church USA.
The Dutch and British governments both disencourage their nations’ businesses from investing in the disputed area, and the European Union has issued guidelines against the funding of Israeli projects in Palestinian territories. Romania has an active ban against its citizens working in the West Bank.
Yair Lapid, the Israeli finance minister, has admitted that the boycott has made Israeli politics perilous.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he told a conference of security experts in January in Tel Aviv. “The world listens to us less and less.”
“If negotiations with the Palestinians stall or blow up and we enter the reality of a European boycott, even a very partial one,” Lapid warned, 10,000 Israelis would “immediately” lose their jobs. Trade with the EU, a third of Israel’s trade portfolio, would be slashed by $5.7 billion.
The BDS movement, which some estimates say has caused Israeli exports to drop 20 percent, has created a situation in which Israel is facing the same level of international isolation that eventually led to the collapse of the Apartheid State in South Africa.
“It won’t end there. The boycott is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially,” said Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Justice Minister, in regards to the movement’s influence on the West Bank. “Those who don’t want to see it, will end up feeling it.”
“If there’s no Palestinian partner, then we need to make an agreement with the world. The negotiations are not only with the Palestinians,” Livni said of Israel’s seeming disregard of Palestine, despite saying it seeks a two-state solution. “Or we could try ignoring the world, wrap ourselves in the justice of our cause, and support ridiculous and radical laws that damage the peace process and democracy.”
According to one estimate, more than two-thirds of all Palestinians are refugees or internally displaced persons. This makes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people — including denial of property rights, racial discrimination and the creation of Israeli colonies in internationally-recognized Palestinian territory — an issue of grave concern. According to 2011 statistics, 38 percent of the Palestinian people live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, while another 12 percent live under apartheid conditions throughout Israel.
“Fifty seven years after the state of Israel was built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian owners, a majority of Palestinians are refugees, most of whom are stateless,” read the 2005 call for BDS from the Palestinian Civil Society. “Moreover, Israel’s entrenched system of racial discrimination against its own Arab-Palestinian citizens remains intact.”
Despite Israel’s illegal occupation of sovereign lands and alleged human rights violations, the U.S. protection of Israel has made any attempt to make Israel accountable a failure. The U.S. has vetoed in the Security Council every resolution to date authorizing sanctions or the use of force to remove Israel from the occupied territories. This support is due, in part, to an active pro-Israel lobby within the U.S. In addition, because Israel is religiously significant among many fundamentalist Christians, there has been a push from the conservative right to attack and try to stall the BDS Movement.
In January, the New York state Senate voted, by an overwhelming majority (51-4), to pass a bill that would prohibit any public or private university that is participating in the BDS movement’s academic boycott or any “official action boycotting certain countries or their higher education institutions” from receiving state funds. This move was in reaction to the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli universities as part of the BDS movement. The ASA represents approximately 2,000 colleges and universities nationwide.
This move to ban the boycott on university campuses also comes as universities are increasingly removing themselves from implicit or explicit support of Israel. One example of this is the University of Michigan-Dearborn, which recently approved a student government resolution calling for the university to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation. Last month, UM-Dearborn’s sister school, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, saw its resolution for divestment die after massive online and in-person protests, including a week-long sit-in by members of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.
“This legislation sends a very simple message, which is that we should never ask taxpayers to support religious, ethnic, or racial discrimination,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, state Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein. “We need to marginalize the politics of intolerance whenever it rears its ugly head. I will not allow the enemies of Israel or the Jewish people to gain an inch in New York. The First Amendment protects every organization’s right to speak, but it never requires taxpayers to foot the bill.”
New York’s condemnation came at the same time that the Philadelphia City Council adopted a resolution in opposition to the ASA boycott. Recently, the Illinois state Senate failed to pass an anti-boycott bill, but Florida and Maryland still have similar bills up for consideration.
“In legislatures in Maryland, New York, Illinois, Florida, and even the United States Congress, bills have been proposed that would either bar funding to academic associations or seek to malign those who have taken a stand against the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” wrote Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu regarding the recent rash of opposition to the BDS from the U.S.
“I have witnessed the systematic violence against and humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation and pain is all too familiar to us South Africans.”
“The right thing to do”
Despite the pushback, however, the movement to hold Israel accountable for its actions seems to be continuing to gain momentum. For many, the call for justice and for change has been enough to turn what was once seen as a questionable trend into a movement with the potential to change the world.
“In our cooperative community, I feel that our decision to join the boycott has raised awareness,” Brian Rothgery, co-founder of the People’s Books Cooperative, told MintPress News. “I know that at least one other co-op was asked to join the boycott and they were intimidated by those opposed to the boycott from taking any action. In fact, one of our fellow co-ops was considering the boycott and a number of individuals opposed to the boycott joined that co-op just to harangue and harass board members from joining the boycott.
“But, when we opened up our decision-making process to our members, some of the leaders of that other cooperative contacted us to tell us that they couldn’t muster the support from their board to support the boycott, but they encouraged us to do so because it is the right thing to do.”