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Why the BDS Movement Is Effective and Right

October 30, 2012

by Donna Nevel and Dorothy M. Zellner
As Jewish activists working to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, we take exception to Philip Mendes’ criticism of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in “Why BDS is Ineffective and Worse: But the Issue of Palestinian National Rights Will Not Go Away” (Summer, 2012).
Mendes says not a single word about the realities of life for Palestinians living under occupation. Here are some of them:
• Palestinians are denied basic human rights: Israel has built a so-called “separation” wall that takes approximately 15 percent of Palestinian land, locking them in. Israel has created hundreds of checkpoints, where Palestinians are routinely harassed and humiliated, inside Palestine and at the borders; a separate roadway system for Israelis and Palestinians; and a permit system for Palestinians to secure entrance to Jerusalem and obtain necessary medical treatment at Israeli hospitals. Israeli army forays into Jenin and other cities are routine.
• Israel controls the air space, commerce, and water and electricity supplies in the West Bank and Gaza, as well the outlets to the Mediterranean Sea.
• Israel holds nearly five thousand Palestinian prisoners, many not charged with any crime and without access to legal assistance.
• As a result of Israeli government occupation policies, approximately five hundred thousand settlers reside in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem (illegally under international law, since they are living on land that is not theirs). This has involved extensive expropriation of Palestinian land, demolition of Palestinians’ homes, and uprooting of their olive trees.
Palestinians are a civilian population, and unlike Israel, have no army, navy, aircraft, airport, missiles, drones, tanks, jeeps, helicopters, tear gas grenades, “stink” bombs, or sound bombs. The Palestinian resistance takes place in the face of extreme violence perpetrated by the Israeli government.
Space limitations prevent us from elaborating on additional problems, but these include widespread discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and the terrible effect of the occupation on Israeli society itself.

More than twenty years have gone by since Oslo and the situation has only gotten worse. The U.S. government, Israel’s staunchest ally and supporter, funds Israel (with our tax money) to the tune of at least $3 billion a year and makes toothless criticisms of the settlements and the occupation.
Given this situation, BDS is a necessary and ethical response to an illegal and brutal occupation. Period.
Is BDS ineffective, as Mendes says? No. BDS is growing. In the eight years since hundreds of Palestinian civil society organizations called for BDS — similarly to the boycott/divest movement against South African apartheid — Norway, Sweden and Holland have pulled their retirement funds from Israeli companies, and pressure is now on for U.S. retirement funds like TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that support the occupation. In May, the United Methodist Church voted overwhelmingly to boycott settlement goods, and, in the Presbyterian Church, the vote for divestment lost by the narrowest margin of 333 to 331, with two abstentions.
There is also support for boycott in the Jewish community and in Israel itself, which ranges from support for full boycott of all Israeli products to boycott of settlement projects. Some sixty leading Israeli actors and playwrights recently refused to play in the new theatre in Ariel, one of Israel’s largest settlements, and were supported by one hundred and fifty leading Israeli academics and writers when they were attacked by the Israeli government. An Israeli organization, Boycott from Within, organizes for BDS. Jewish Voice for Peace, which continues to grow across the U.S., focuses on boycott and divestment campaigns that directly target Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Partners for Peace in Israel (formerly Meretz USA) and Americans for Peace Now have endorsed the settlement boycott.
In any case, BDS cannot be judged by economic success alone; it is a potent international political tactic.

And why, according to Mendes, is BDS worse than ineffective? His major objection to BDS is that he thinks it seeks the destruction of Israel, an argument that rests on one of the campaign’s demands — the right of return (the others are ending the occupation, dismantling the wall, and full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel). In fact, the equation of the right of return with the destruction of Israel is as emotionally overwrought as it is misleading. There is general agreement among historians, including Israelis, that approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians were expelled from their homes. International law gives them an indisputable right to return. That is the starting point of any discussion. Does that mean ending state policies that are anti-democratic, and insisting on a state based on equal rights for all — principles on which presumably all of us agree? Yes, that’s what it means. There are lots of possibilities for what that might look like, and no shortage of creative minds and committed people to make that happen. But, unless one wants to ignore history or international law or fairness/justice, the starting point is the right of return.
Further, in his discussion of the two-state solution, Mendes says it is being embraced now by most Jewish organizations and by the Israeli government (though he admits the “Netanyahu government has shown little intent to pursue [it], despite its being official Israeli policy”). It seems ironic (and worse) that, after massive settlement expansion has eaten up much of Palestinian land and destroyed any contiguous land mass, the Israeli government is now supposedly talking about two states. What Mendes fails to mention is that as far back as the late 1980s when a wide range of Palestinian leaders and Israeli and US Jewish peace leaders were having these very discussions based on self-determination for both peoples, it was members of the Jewish establishment and the Israeli government, not the Palestinian movement, who opposed it. (One of us participated in these discussions.)
Our immediate solution? Open up genuine discussions in the Jewish communities around the world about the occupation, the wall, and the right of return. Stop the tactics of calling one’s opponents anti-Semitic or claiming that they advocate the “elimination of Israel” when they are simply examining problems that must be addressed to eliminate injustice and uphold our tradition of “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.”
Long term, whether there is one state or two states or a federation of states or some kind of binational arrangement, what matters is that it must be a just solution based on equal rights and respect and safety for all. Until that happens, BDS is here to stay.

Donna Nevel and Dorothy M. Zellner are long- time activists for Palestinian/Israeli peace and justice, and are founding members of Jews Say No!, a New York group working to end unjust policies of the Israeli government. Nevel was a coordinator of the 1989 Road to Peace Conference that brought together PLO officials and Knesset members for the first time in the U.S.