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 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.