Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – a productive path to peace? Part 2

Simply, I don’t know what I think about the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. I believe passionately that the Israeli government must be held to account for its actions (in the same way any government should) but I am not (yet) convinced that boycotting all aspects of Israeli life is the way to bring about change.

As such I have asked two people to put forward different arguments on BDS – one broadly in favour and one broadly opposed.  I hope that this exercise will help me, and possibly others, to think about the impact of the BDS campaign.

This is a second article which follows Sarah AB’s argument that the BDS movement is counterproductive to peace.

This article is by Jane Harries, a Quaker and a human rights activist.

“Many thanks to Steve for asking me to contribute – I do so as a member of Women to Women for Peace, a grassroots women’s peace organisation which has been actively working with Israeli and Palestinian peace women since 2004, as a recently-returned Ecumenical Accompanier, and a Quaker.

Action, partial action or inaction around BDS is fraught with dilemmas. What is the ‘right’ thing to do? What are the likely effects of our action, and could we – by having a negative impact on trade with Israel – actually be hurting those we wish to benefit – the Palestinians? Is BDS efficacious, or could it lead to more hard-line attitudes and ways of evading restrictions? As so often, we would like things to be clear-cut – but they are not. I believe that we all have to work through these dilemmas for ourselves. Here are some suggestions as to how we can do this.


The first question to ask is ‘Why might individuals and organisations choose to adopt BDS as a strategy?’ The answer, for me, would be that this is the right thing to do. If we believe that the Occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements are illegal under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), if we abhor the violations of human rights which stem from this occupation, then this is one way in which we – consumers and organisations – can show our public and concrete disapproval of the Israeli government’s policies and actions – particularly other actions have proved ineffective.

It is important to state clearly that this has nothing to do with anti-semitism – as is sometimes alleged. For me, BDS is a campaigning tool which aims to put pressure on governments which infringe human rights. As the present Israeli government is doing by continuing to occupy the West Bank and impose a blockade on Gaza, condemning the Palestinian people to a daily reality of control, harassment, restrictions and deprivation. This has nothing to do with Israel’s right to exist within its own borders, or about anti-Jewish prejudice, but everything to do with a willingness to move toward a just solution where two states can live together in equality and peace.

The second answer to the ‘why’ question is because people affected by the Occupation have asked us to do this. There have been several calls for the international community to consider adopting some measure of BDS – for instance from the World Council of Churches, Sabeel and in the Kairos Palestine document. There are also calls for BDS from within Israel, despite the controversial Anti-boycott law, passed in July 2011, which made it a civil offence to call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of people or institutions in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

What do we mean by BDS?

It’s important to be clear what we mean by BDS, what extent of activities we are willing to undertake, and why.

The first question to address is whether we are calling for a boycott of all Israeli products or just those from the illegal settlements on the West Bank.

Although there are arguments in favour of an all-out boycott, it seems to me consistent with a position based on respect for IHL and human rights to support a boycott of products from the illegal settlements only. This position was endorsed by a judgement of the European Court of Justice in February 2010, which established that goods originating from the illegal settlements are not covered by the EU-Israel Association Agreement, and therefore cannot be imported into EU countries without appropriate duties.

We might ask our MEPs to go further by pressing for a complete restriction on the import of such goods into the EU. Uri Avnery of the Israel peace organisation Gush Shalom has also urged boycott campaigners to make the distinction between the legitimate state of Israel and illegitimate settlements, arguing that an all-out boycott can play into the narrative that ‘everyone is against Israel.’

The decision to boycott just products from settlements still leaves me with dilemmas. Faced with a label on a supermarket product that says ‘Israel’ or even ‘West Bank’, how do I know whether it has come from a settlement or not? Nothing is straight forward.

Can we go further with BDS?

There are areas where the moral argument for the divestment from companies is clear: particularly those exporting arms to Israel, and those which support and resource the occupation in various ways – for instance by supplying materials for the Separation Barrier, providing infrastructure which links the settlements, or vehicles involved in house demolitions.

Another category would be companies which support the economic life of the settlements – and this list would be more far-ranging, including banks, retailers and construction companies. Information about such companies is available, but getting involved in such campaigns may depend on energy levels and how likely we think our efforts are to have an impact.

How do we campaign?

The question of how we campaign for an end to the occupation and a just and sustainable peace is directly related to the ‘why’ question – our motives for undertaking actions under the BDS banner.

For me, this is definitely not about Israel-bashing or a black-and-white portrayal of the situation – but springs from a desire to see a just and sustainable peace for everyone in the region – Israelis as well as Palestinians. We need to recognise that aggressive stances are counter-productive, and may widen rifts rather than working towards solutions, forcing people into defensive positions.

When talking to supermarkets, and companies, our aim should therefore be to inform and discuss from an ethical standpoint. At the same time we may sometimes need to ‘speak Truth to power’, as Quakers say. One way of showing disapproval is by withdrawing financial support.

In relation to academic, cultural and social boycotts, we need to consider when and how to act. As far as academic boycotts are concerned, it depends what area of academic life we were addressing. Would we, for instance, wish for academics to be cooperating regarding ‘security’?

In general, however, a more productive approach in these fields is to foster and encourage positive links with Palestinian individuals, groups and institutions. We can do this by encouraging twinning arrangements between schools and universities, and inviting Palestinian musicians and actors to tour the UK. Maybe one of the problems with the BDS campaign is that is seen as being negative – against trade with Israeli settlements, against companies that invest in them.

By undertaking more positive actions under the broad BDS umbrella may help to give the campaign a more human face.


Filed under Human rights, Middle East

9 responses to “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – a productive path to peace? Part 2

  1. Pingback: Social Politics and the ‘Home Front’ of Consumer Boycotts « Chomping at the Bloodied Bit

  2. While I acknowledge that Jane clearly has a desirable goal in sight, I feel uncomfortable with some elements of her argument. She says that this ‘has nothing to do with antisemitism’. I sometimes write posts against Islamist extremists but I would not assert that opposition to Islamism has *nothing* to do with anti-Muslim bigotry/Islamophobia. It may in both cases just be an *intersection*, nothing more, but if you deny it you can’t police it.

    The post refers to a need to avoid taking steps which might not help those ‘we wish to benefit – the Palestinians’ – and also talks about fostering links with Palestinians. I’d rather benefit and interact with both sides.

    I don’t object to things being labelled more fully and am instinctively opposed to Israel’s anti-boycott laws.

    Would any readers boycott goods from Gaza?


    • Dear Sarah / Zkharya

      Thank for this. I totally agree with you about forsting links with people on both sides. I certainly aim to do this myself, and am in touch with both Palestinians and Israelis. I wiould condemn violence and violations of human rights wherever they happen. At the moment, however, it is largely the Palestinian population who are the victims of human rights abuses.

      I do not agree that citing IHL and contraventions of human rights is wishy-washy. This refers to actual Articles of Conventions which are aimed at protecting civilian populations – such as Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention. Is it idealistic to ask a state to abide by articles of a convention it has signed up to?


      • I agree that the Palestinians are the victims of human rights abuses. I do not think though that this is all Israel’s fault, even when clearly it might be if you just look at the close up (a Palestinian kept waiting at a checkpoint for absolutely no reason by an Israeli say) rather than the bigger picture. I think Palestinians must take some share of the blame – Palestinian leaders I mean – for not doing more. I am not sure how to assign blame for peace deals not succeeding so far, but I don’t think it is right simply to blame Israel. Other neighbouring states also have a poor record when it comes to safeguarding Palestinians’ rights.

        And of course plenty of other countries have human rights issues, eg China.

        I am really most concerned by the way in which the BDS movement seems used to demonise people, so I am not terribly worked up about more moderately framed calls for a boycott with some kind of end in mind which is not eliminationist. However I am doubtful boycotts will do any good – Israel has genuine security concerns and I don’t think being boycotted will make them all suddenly vote for left of centre parties. It certainly doesn’t seem to be having that effect so far. Supporting the Statehood bid, by contrast, might achieve something – whether positive or not I’m unsure, but I am quite swayed by the arguments in favour – particularly those which point out that the moderate Palestinian voices are being squeezed about by Hamas – even though I think there are dangers too.


  3. zkharya

    Sorry, last comment:

    Two states, for two peoples, with two rights of return, division of Jerusalem, old and new, borders on the 67 lines or with territorial compensation

    i.e.what Ben White calls ‘apartheid’


  4. zkharya

    Here was Jonathan Freedland, co-editor of the Guardian, a pretty much all round reasonable guy, promoting the Geneva Initiative in an editorial in the same paper

    It was subsequently denounced by the leaders of PSC and the BDS movement generally, as a betrayal of the Palestinian national cause

    They still sing the same song, pretty much.

    It’s no good shouting ‘justice’ or ‘international law’, these are terms that do not exist in a vacuum without context. And justice extends to all parties, not just Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians. In the real world you have to spell out exactly what you mean, that can be achieved in the real world of practical, rather than utopian, politics. otherwise you are just an ideologue with a cause instead of a faith or religion, driving Palestinian Arabs on the same struggle-jihad with which they began the disastrous course of action that left them stateless.


  5. zkharya

    Apologies for typos, especially this

    Finkelstein calls the BDS movement a cult led by would be gurus, preaching only to the converted. People are NOT fools, he says, they can see the end result of the BDSers’ demands is no more Israel.

    Here are links on the Geneva Accord/Initiative


  6. zkharya

    ‘his has nothing to do with Israel’s right to exist within its own borders, or about anti-Jewish prejudice, but everything to do with a willingness to move toward a just solution where two states can live together in equality and peace.’

    But what are the +precise+ goals?

    The whole point of Oslo, Camp David II, Taba, the Geneva Accord, Annapolis, was that by 1988, when representatives of the Palestinian Arab nation first accepted the principle of partition,after 40 years waging war to end any kind of Israel, the clock couldn’t go back to 1947 or 1967. All developments subsquent had to be negotiated, including the settlements. The Geneva Accord, which Ehud Olmert offered to Mahmoud Abbas, but was effectively rebuffed, sees division of Jerusalem old and new, borders on the 1967 lines, or with territorial exchange or compensation. A Palestinian right of return to a Palestinian state, but not to the territory of Israel, but for a token number.

    If you read the fine print of the chief exponents of BDS e.g. PSC, they call for a full right of Palestinian Arab return to the territory of Israel, the exact 1967 lines and no other, and the evacuation of Israel even from the Jewish quarter and western wall of the Old City.

    Professor Norman Finkelstein, no great friend of Israel told the leaders of the BDS movement that these principles end ultimately in no more Israel, or an Israel with a Jewish minority which wouldn’t last long:

    PSC calls for the end of the ‘Zionist’ state, as do BDS notables such as Ben White, who not only seek implementing a Palestinian Arab right of return to Israel, but ending a Jewish one. This violates the principle on which Palestinian was originally partitioned into an ‘Arab’ and a ‘Jewish’ state, the latter with some kind of Jewish right of return.

    Many BDSers openly call for the end of the ‘Jewish state’.

    Finkelstein calls the BDS movement a cult led by would be gurus, preaching only to the converted. People are fools, he says, they can see the end result of the BDSers’ demands is no more Israel.

    Now, if the movement called for sanctioning both sides until they came to a Geneva Accord type of arrangement, thrashed out between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, 2001-2003, and the height of the 2nd Intifada, and given the general imprimatur of even Yasser Arafat, I could live with that. it is a realizable goal over which past history has shown both sides come very close to.

    The BDS movement as so constituted is, even if in denial about it, a pro-Palestinian Arab Muslim and Christian, but deeply anti-Jewish, nationalist one, whose aim is by ‘peaceful’ means (i,e, working in lockstep with groups like Hamas, who have similar goals) to reverse the alleged original sin of Zionism and the creation of Israel, by reforming it into an Israel that is only temporary at best, and sooner or later would become part of one single Palestinian Arab Muslim and Christian majority state, in which middle eastern Jews would once again be a minority.

    I don’t think it likely Israeli Jews will ever sign up to that, and the more you seek to compel, them, by war or sanction, the more they will resist, the more nationalist both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians will become, and the further off a negotiated settlement will become.

    BDS is a crusade-jihad that sees Jewish nationalism as the fundamental cause of strife in the reason, and more than a little echoes nasty imperial Christian and Islamic themes of a Jewish serpent in the garden, which if only eradicated, would restore the former eden.


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