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BDS momentum grows

Shayma Bashawieh

April 26, 2014

The non-violent movement known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005—which calls upon the rest of the world to boycott Israel and other institutions and companies that are complicit in Israel’s oppression and human rights violations of Palestinians—has been gaining increasing support from around the world. There has been heightened negative and positive attention regarding the movement’s goals and its supporters.
Along with growing awareness of the BDS movement has come increasingly detailed and in-depth debates regarding the merits of BDS. It's helpful to remind ourselves about BDS’ aims. As Omar Barghouti, one of the founding members of BDS has expressed in a number of interviews, the movement has three central and intimately interconnected goals. 
BDS goals and momentum
Firstly, BDS aims to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—which also includes East Jerusalem. Additionally, BDS aims to procure the equal treatment of Israel’s "non-Jewish" citizens, or the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, the movement aims to guarantee the right of return of the displaced Palestinian refugees, as stipulated under UN Resolution 194.
What started off as a modestly sized peoples-based, grassroots movement—as an alternative to the hitherto state-sponsored and led initiatives towards the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict—has been accumulating notable allies and supporters from around the globe. Referring to it as a “qualitative leap” Barghouti, in an interview with the Real news, discusses the increasing support BDS has come to enjoy—especially in the years 2012 to 2014—from a wide variety of allies. These include South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), student unions from across the U.S. and Canada, labour unions, and pension funds such as the Netherland’s largest pension funds company PGGM—all of whom have passed BDS.
As Rafi Gozlan, chief economist for Israeli investment bank Leader Capital Markets, wrote in Haaretz, “a spate of announcements of boycott actions by European banks and pension funds, as well as the controversy around Scarlett Johansson’s appearance in an Israeli company’s ad campaign, had drawn attention to the boycott efforts and may have scared off some investors.” The article ends with quoting Gozlan warning about the impact of the BDS movement on the Israeli shekel especially in the future if the movement continues to grow as it has. Thus it comes as little surprise when one hears senior ministers in the Israeli Knesset planned a top secret meeting in February of this year to decide “whether to launch an aggressive public campaign or operate through quieter, diplomatic channels” to challenge the gains made by the BDS movement. According to the Middle East Monitor some possible avenues proposed to counter the BDS campaign is to sue in “European and North American courts against pro-BDS organizations and take legal action against financial institutions that boycott settlements...and complicit Israeli companies". 
Canadian universities and student unions
In Canada alone, between the years 2012-14, almost a dozen student unions endorsed BDS. These include York University, University of Toronto, Carleton University and University of Windsor’s student unions, to name but a few. Following this momentum, Ryerson University passed BDS on April 2 during Ryerson Student Union’s (RSU) annual general meeting. Congratulating its members and allies on its Facebook page, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) largely attributes the successful endorsement of BDS by RSU to the six months of campaigning done across campus by the club’s members, which resulted in SJP collecting over 1600 signatures in support of BDS. 
Although the tide certainly seems to be changing in favor of BDS one must take care not to overestimate the reach of the student unions endorsements of BDS. Although student unions may pass BDS, university administrations and student unions are separate entities with different perspectives and influences. This point was made clear by Ryerson University’s President Sheldon Levy who expressed cynicism about RSU’s endorsement of BDS becoming an official Ryerson policy. He is quoted in the Ryersonian, a campus newspaper, saying “Ryerson doesn’t support it. It doesn’t play any role at all because the RSU is a separate entity." The same message is echoed by SJP: “Our work is unfortunately not over and there is still much to be done. Now comes the actual work of figuring out what unethical investment Ryerson is making and pressuring them to divest.” 
Debunking false accusations
At the same time, there is also increasing resistance put up by anti-BDS organizations and individuals who have not shied away from expressing their opinions regarding the campaign. For instance, following the University of Windsor’s student union endorsement of BDS, a local engineering firm’s president who is also an alum of Windsor University, Richard Spencer, wrote a letter to the president of the university expressing his objection to the student union passing BDS. In that letter Spencer states his firm, which provides Windsor University’s engineering students with work experience and training that amounts to over $500,000, will withdraw its support if the university’s administration does not make efforts to stop the referendum from passing. Calling it “an expression of anti-Semitism” Spencer writes “I am reasonably certain that the majority…of this small percentage of the student body are of the Muslim faith, which promotes violence and hatred toward the Jews in the Middle East.” 
Despite the frequent accusations and of branding BDS supporters as anti-Semitic and predominately of the Muslim faith, the evidence over the years suggests the contrary. BDS has come to enjoy support by organizations and individuals from all around the world and from a variety of backgrounds. Indeed, after comparing the slandering of BDS supporters with McCarthyism, Barghouti in a Democracy Now interview states “the Israel lobby and its spokespeople are making it absolutely forbidden to speak about Palestinian rights and to attack Israeli policies.” Furthermore, Barghouti continues, “any attempt to say that calling for a boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic is an anti-Semitic statement, because it’s making Israel and the entire Jewish existence one and the same. It’s saying that all Jews are the same, all of them support Israel, and Israel speaks for them. And that ignores the massive diversity among Jewish opinions around the world.” As Hanan Ashrawi, an executive member of the PLO, explained in The New York Times, “BDS does not target Jews, individually or collectively, and rejects all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism.” 
In fact, BDS merely attempts to guarantee that Israel respects the same international laws other nations must abide by. This point is brought home in Ashrawi’s letter when she writes, “BDS is, in fact, a legal, moral and inclusive movement struggling against the discriminatory policies of a country that defines itself in religiously exclusive terms, and that seeks to deny Palestinians the most basic rights simply because we are not Jewish." 
Yet BDS supporters are optimistic especially considering how much the campaign has spread globally in the past few years. As Barghouti said in an interview with Democracy Now “BDS is indeed spreading tremendously. We have major support from large trade unions in Britain, Norway, Spain, France, Italy, Canada and many countries. And increasingly it’s entering the United States. There’s a huge movement supporting BDS that includes several Jewish groups… There’s a disproportionately high number of conscientious Jewish citizens of the Western countries that are not just acting, but leading some BDS movements around the Western world.”
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