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What to know about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement

By Spring Chenjp     4/2/24 11:12pm

Debate during Student Association meetings and a town hall hosted by Rice Students for Justice in Palestine followed Rice’s tabling of a proposed SA resolution to withdraw SA-disbursed funds from Israel-aligned companies. The resolution, S.RES 02, was developed in accordance with guidelines created by the international Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement. 

What is BDS?

The BDS movement says it institutes “non-violent pressure on Israel” through targeted boycotts and divestment from Israel and companies perceived to support it, until Israel “end[s] its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantl[es] the Wall” around Gaza, recognizes equal rights for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and advocates for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. 

The BDS movement said it is inspired by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Associate professor of history and Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair in Arab Studies Abdel Razzaq Takriti said BDS was created in response to the perception that states engaged in human rights violations are unlikely to change their policies without international pressure.

“[Boycotting] is one of the only nonviolent means [of protest] available while resisting colonialism,” Takriti said. “BDS … raises the social cost and the political cost of an occupation or a colonial project. 

“There are other forms of protests available, of course, but this one is very tangible,” Takriti continued.

Takriti said the BDS movement is notable as a call to action from the “oppressed population calling for that boycott.” 

“The BDS call of 2005 was issued by Palestinian civil society organizations,” Takriti said. “The workers unions, the feminist unions, different human rights groups, and they’re, of course, all under military occupation.” 

The Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen’s Rights, Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and General Union of Palestinian Women are among the listed signatories on the BDS movement’s July 2005 call.

“Many people say, ‘Why are you just boycotting Israel, not boycotting everything that happens anywhere in the world?’” Takriti said. “The answer is there’s a specific call coming from that place, from the people who are affected by Israeli policy, saying, ‘Please, support us by stopping your support for the state.’”

Criticism of BDS

Some Jewish groups say the movement’s aim of “eradication of the world’s only Jewish state” is antisemitic. 

“The rhetoric about human rights, they cover the wish to annihilate the State of Israel,” Gilead Sher, Baker Institute fellow and former chief of staff to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said. “This is the true objective of BDS.”

“It’s difficult for me not to see [BDS] as just outright antisemitism,” professor of religion David Cook said. “The moralistic perspective and singling out [of] Israel that the BDS movement has, in my opinion, is entirely unjustified, and it lacks all historical and even contemporary context.”

The BDS movement says it opposes all forms of racism, including antisemitism.

“BDS campaigns target the Israeli state because of its responsibility for serious violations of international law and the companies and institutions that participate in and are complicit in these Israeli violations,” the BDS website reads. “The BDS movement does not boycott or campaign against any individual or group simply because they are Israeli … Israel is a state, not a person. Everyone has the right to criticize the unjust actions of a state.”

Economic impact of BDS

According to Takriti, “the impact of [a] boycott is something that is unclear.” 

The BDS movement claims it has impacted the European Union’s 2013 declaration of “Israeli entities and their activities” operating outside of pre-June 1967 borders to be ineligible for “grants, prizes and financial instruments funded by the EU.” It also claims to have played a role in the 2021 divestiture of Norway’s largest pension fund from 16 companies with “activities linked to the Israeli settlements” in the West Bank and General Mills’ 2022 exit from its Israeli joint venture. 

Though the European Union and Norwegian pension fund explicitly cite Israeli settlements in the West Bank as reason for divesting, General Mills does not, instead citing resource prioritization and product portfolio management.

Takriti said boycotts against South Africa were helpful “in the process of democratizing the country” and said there are “similar dynamics” in the case of Gaza. 

“Had the apartheid regime [in South Africa] still been welcomed by all the major Western powers and had it been treated as a state that should be supported, then [it] would have been very difficult to end apartheid in that country,” Takriti said.

Historical campus divestiture from South Africa can serve as an example for activists seeking to implement BDS in the present day, Takriti said. Numerous American universities divested from companies operating in South Africa during the 1980s.

“[BDS] is not impossible to implement,” Takriti said. “It’s been done before, in relation to South Africa [on] many different campuses.”

Cook said he felt “there is some level of exaggeration as to how effective” boycotts were in ending the South African regime. Additionally, he pointed out parallels to regimes accused of committing human rights violations, such as Russia and Iran, saying contemporary sanctions against them have not been effective.

“It’s true that a certain section of the business class has been hurt in Russia,” Cook said. “But the war effort of Russia has not collapsed at all, even though sanctions have been pretty intense against the country for the last two years … and [the] same way we can say, with Iran, too. Iran has been under sanctions for the last 25-some years. Where is the collapse?”

Legislative and institutional response

Texas is one of over 30 states with anti-BDS laws. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote “Texas law prohibits state agencies and political subdivisions from contracting with businesses that … boycott Israel,” in a legal advisory issued October 2023. 

“The Israeli state takes BDS very seriously because it's been combating it extensively, including on U.S. college campuses,” Takriti said. “The supporters of the Israeli state, including the government of Texas, the governor and the legislature, have instituted anti-boycott policies in the past. And they continue to vigorously fight it in Texas and elsewhere.”

Alongside anti-boycott legislation, Abbott issued an executive order March 27 “relating to addressing acts of antisemitism in institutions of higher education.” The executive order directs Texan higher education institutions to address a “sharp rise in antisemitic speech” in free speech policies through “appropriate punishments, including expulsion from the institution” and “ensure … groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine are disciplined for violating these policies.”

In response, Rice SJP co-signed the the University of Texas at Dallas SJP chapter’s statement saying the executive order “resort[s] to racist misrepresentations to justify the blatantly discriminatory violation of our First Amendment right.”

Cook said he was not surprised that Rice ordered the SA to table S.RES 02. He pointed to potential donor concerns beyond the discrimination complaint filed against three SA members.

“There would be a severe reaction in terms of donorship [were BDS implemented],” Cook said. “In general, donorship of Rice is pretty conservative … I doubt that very many of them have very much sympathy for the BDS movement.”

Takriti said he opposes university intervention in student affairs, including S.RES 02.

“Students have to follow their conscience and have to implement a democratic process that represents them,” Takriti said. “If they feel they're committed to boycott, they should be able to boycott. If they don't feel they are, that's up to them, but the student body needs to decide.”

Alternatives to BDS

For those “uncomfortable supporting” BDS, Cook said an alternative is contributing to aid and advocating for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

“I recognize that Israel wants to finish off Hamas and wants to recover its hostages, mainly,” Cook said. “But I also recognize that [Prime Minister] Netanyahu is, in my opinion, a bad apple. And I think that he is prolonging this war in order to prolong his political life.”

Takriti said BDS is notable for being an economically tangible form of protest.

“BDS … raises the social cost and the political cost of an occupation or a colonial project,” Takriti said. “There are other forms of protests available, of course, but this one is very tangible.”

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