"No justice, no chickpeas" is the slogan student activists from the BDS movement adopted when they discovered a hummus brand that supports the Israeli military. The conflict of Israel and Palestine runs closer than you think—it’s sewn into the clothes we wear and intertwined with the food brands in grocery aisles. Choosing to not consume certain products that buyers find morally conflicting is an internationally recognized concept, but what happens when young activists decide to protest an entire country? Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is perhaps one of the most popular forms of protest across the world today, arguably a byproduct of Arab League Boycott of Israel. This student led protest responds to the ongoing territorial war between Israel and Palestine through economic means, as it calls for the diffusion of international support of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.
In order to understand the current political climate of this Middle Eastern region, we must first discuss the timeline that set the stage for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Although the Israeli-Palestinian war may be advertised as a fight rooted in religion or nationalism, much of the tension is simply territorially, economically, and humanitarianly driven. Historians mark the start of the conflict directly after World War II, but it is crucial to note the initial development of Zionism nearly a century before that, a retaliation to the growing anti-Semitism in Europe during the 19th century.
The 1948 Arab-Israeli war left Palestine partitioned into three sections: the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip, and of course, the State of Israel. (Egypt later regained the Sinai Peninsula from Israeli occupation, and Syria still has not regained Golan Heights).
The United Nations initially promised Zionists 56% of the territory, but by the end of the war, the state of Israel possessed roughly 77% of what was previously Palestine, and roughly 700,000 Palestinians became refugees. It was also after this war that Israel declared its full independence. Israeli occupation began in 1948 but expanded in 1967 following the Six-Day War, and today there are roughly 500,000 Israeli settlements in Palestine. To put casualties into perspective, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs recorded that of the thousands of deaths related to the never-ending conflict, about 87% of the deaths are Palestinian, and 13% are Israeli.
The BDS movement takes inspiration from the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement under Nelson Mandela, in that their motives are geared towards “action to pressure Israel to comply with international law.” International law refers to agreements made under international treaties such as the Geneva Convention and the UN. The most commonly referred to example used by anti-Zionists as evidence of this incompliance is Israel’s failure to follow article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This 1949 article states that “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.” Israeli occupation continues in the West Bank, complete with weapons and other instruments of control, frequent checkpoints, and even a wall. There are currently about 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The Israeli military has also been accused of committing a number of war crimes in the last century. In December of 2017, the UN sponsored an Arab-proposed condemnation of Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights. The U.S. and the EU also supported this.
Most recently, the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the embassy there is a clear violation of international law. When Israel attempted to declare Jerusalem its capital in 1980, the Security Council deemed the statement “null and void.” Countries across the globe accepted the council’s decision for years—of course, until Trump’s recent foreign affairs. Many countries, such as Italy, plan on maintaining their embassies in Tel Aviv, the original location. Regardless of whether or not Israel is complying with internationally agreed upon laws, BDS activists are focused on ensuring countries in power will keep the region in check.
The BDS movement is not merely boycotting, however, as there are also the Divestment and Sanctions parts to it. Boycotting is quite self-explanatory; it boils down to avoiding all international Israeli companies or services, including academic institutions. For the most dedicated protesters, this often means researching where the money from the products they are purchasing is heading. The Divestment portion is far more tricky than pulling out your phone in the supermarket, though. Divestment campaigns pressure institutions of all sizes such as churches, mosques, universities, banks, farms, and councils to withdraw or maintain avoidance of investments in companies that are either A) Israeli or B) supportive of Israeli settlements and the Zionist movement.
This portion of BDS is arguably the most effective, as it is attributed with stirring up socio-political issues in Israel as well as the U.S. and EU over the past few decades. According to the UN, Israel’s exports to the Palestinian economy dropped by 24% in the first quarter of 2015 and experienced a 46% drop in foreign direct investment in 2014. Both of these outcomes are possibly influenced by the BDS Movement. Much of this data has been dismissed by BDS opponents and proponents, however, and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) records little to no difference on the Israeli prosperities. In the assumption that BDS has not negatively impacted the Israeli economy, its constant anti-Zionism lobbying in the U.S. and UK—countries notorious for supporting Israel militarily, politically and economically—has led to social and political disputes. In 2015, the European Union mapped out guidelines for European companies, instructing them to mark settlement products as such. This form of economic clarity got the ball rolling for U.S. senators Ted Cruz and Kirsten Gillibrand, who then voiced their opinions against what they felt was a “play into the narrative of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement.”
The Koontz v. Watson case in Kansas also speaks to the ongoing debate of whether or not punishing boycotters violates the U.S. Constitution. Esther Koontz is a member of a Mennonite Church that boycotts the consumption of Israeli products. When she failed to provide contract evidence that she was not taking part in any such matters, Koontz was denied a position at the Kansas Department of Education’s Math and Science Partnerships. Several organizations and activists found the state law to be directly insulting the First Amendment right to protest and practice beliefs freely under the law. The issue lies in the fact that the U.S. is a major supporter of Israel, as it agreed to a ten-year plan that provides the small country with a $38 billion package of funds in 2016. This ties into Sanctions, as it refers to pushing for governmental support of the anti-Zionist movement and calling for an end in trade with Israel. The movement eventually hopes to reach a point in which Israel is not acknowledged to be a legitimate state and loses its seat in the UN and FIFA.
Many politicians have argued that BDS hinders any possibility of achieving peace. When protesting on the streets, there is a direct subject for which the cardboard signs are advocating and a direct audience being called out. The same cannot necessarily be said for boycotts, however. Assuming not everyone involved in the economic market is in a position of power, not everyone is capable of making a legitimate decision. Ultimately, boycotts prevent access to products or technology that may simply be more convenient or beneficial to humans. Moral dilemmas trouble such movements when financially punishing outside parties becomes a real possibility. With that said, the youth movement is not stopping; it is continuously expanding internationally through unions, academic associations, churches, and other grassroots efforts. The BDS movement’s hope of Palestinian liberation presents a prime example of what student activists are willing to do for their cause—even from the other side of the planet.