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Rebecca Vilkomerson thinks that BDS is both legitimate and effective

Earlier this week, an Israeli security company named Hashmira has announced it will stop supplying equipment to the West Bank. Hashmira is owned by Danish giant G4S, which was under considerable pressure due to its projects in Israel. This was another success for the boycott campaign, which seems to gain momentum, especially when it targets activities directly involved in the occupation.

The Boycott is extremely controversial in Israel. While there is some tolerance, especially on the left, for the boycott of the settlements, supporting the BDS is a political taboo. Furthermore, a new Knesset bill would make it illegal for Israelis to support all kind of political boycotts against the occupation.

I would like to bring here things said by Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson during J Street’s panel on BDS. Rebecca makes some very good points, especially with regards to the nature of the boycott as a none-violent, grassroots action (Bernard Avishai, who also spoke at the J street Panel, makes the case against BDS here).

I want to take a moment to make sure we all are clear about what BDS is.  BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It’s a Palestinian led, globally active, non-violent movement in support of equality and freedom for the Palestinian people.

As Kathleen mentioned, I lived in Israel from 2006 to 2009.  My husband and children are Israeli, so obviously I am deeply invested in what will happen in Israel.  I actually learned about BDS largely through Israeli activists and friends, who had increasingly come to support it, especially in the wake of the Gaza War. I find it to be the most hopeful strategy that we can engage in — a way to act on principles of equality and human dignity that I value as a Jew and as a human being.

In the last month or so, three events, in particular, have reinforced this for me.

1) The Palestine Papers revealed that the “peace process,” which has been going on for 19 years now, is bankrupt.  The U.S. is not an honest broker, Israel is not willing to compromise, and the PA is too weak to fight for Palestinian rights, willing to make enormous concessions –which still were not considered enough by Israel.  Throughout this almost 20 year process the settlements have grown enormously, creating de facto bantustans that make a two state solution hard to imagine.

2) The U.S. vetoed a resolution at the U.N. which was an exact reflection of its own foreign policy.  The U.S. is simply unwilling to use any of the many tools it has at its disposal to force Israel to stop violating international law, to stop violating human rights, and to stop violating U.S. policies.  Obama stood in Cairo and said that settlements must end—and yet he has proven that in this case he believes only in words, not action.
Frankly,  we need to be realistic about the current power dynamics.  The strategy of relying on governments –our government—to bring about change on its own has shown itself to be completely ineffective.

3) In contrast: the Arab uprisings. Many of us watched in awe as Egyptians took to the streets in their millions, to non-violently call for freedom, democracy, and dignity.  Now from Bahrain, to Libya, and Yemen, thousands more are doing the same.  Last night, Mona Eltahawy’s call for solidarity for Arab struggles for freedom and dignity got a standing ovation.  The Palestinian BDS movement is part and parcel of the Arab Spring sweeping the region, and deserves the same respect.

So on the one hand we have government-driven processes that have shown themselves to be corrupt and hypocritical, and on the other we have a movement rooted in civil society, in principles of non-violence, which draws on the long and noble history of BDS efforts against apartheid, for civil rights, for many other righteous struggles.  These are the tools of our heroes—Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez.

BDS is an opportunity for each of us, personally, to act on our values.  To express, directly, our support for freedom, democracy and dignity.   It can create—is creating—the pressure that will eventually be much more successful than current lobbying tactics have been to create a true change in U.S. foreign policy, to create the conditions for negotiations that are between equals.

I want to highlight just one company that is being targeted in a global boycott campaign as an illustration.
Veolia is a French company, one of the largest in the world, which manages transportation systems, waste systems, and water treatment around the world (including here in D.C., where it manages the bus lines).  It operates a land fill in the West Bank (using Palestinian land and resources to serve the settlements), runs bus service to the settlements on road 443, which was built on Palestinian land but is only open to Israelis, and had a contract to build and manage the light rail to connect West Jerusalem to the settlements around it, effectively annexing Palestinian territory.

Veolia has been the target of a boycott and divestment campaign worldwide , and as a result Veolia has lost literally billions of dollars in new contracts.  In June, 2009, Veolia announced that it was withdrawing from its contract to build the rail, though it is still managing its implementation, and continues to lose contracts because of it.

The campaign against Veolia is a great example of why BDS is so exciting and so effective:

It works.

It educates people about the way corporations are implicated in the settlement project and in building and expanding the infrastructure of occupation

It enables people to take action once they understand what is happening—Veolia is in local communities all over the country, collecting garbage, operating buses and trains, and all over the country people are organizing campaigns  in their own cities and campuses to build the pressure on Veolia to stop profiting from the Occupation.

This is just one example.  One of the strengths of the BDS movement is that it is both loose and broad, all sorts of campaigns and targets fit within it, depending upon local priorities and conditions.

BDS movement is inspired by a call that was put out by Palestinian civil society in 2005, but it is a very diverse movement of acts of nonviolent resistance occurring every day in ways big and small.

Some just do it quietly by bypassing settlement goods at the store-which is common in Israel among my friends and family, and I would guess in this room. Israeli artists boycott performances in Ariel, and U.S. artists, like Steven Sondheim, Tony Kushner, and Mandy Patinkin, support them. Some picket in front of stores, or ask artists not to play in Israel, or like JVP, focus only on companies that profit from the Occupation.

We have groups in Israel like Boycott from Within, that have been supporting the full Palestinian call, and groups like Peace Now that ask supporters not to invest in the occupied territories.. Here in the U.S., Meretz USA, recently put out a statement supporting BDS in the occupied territories.

It really varies and not everyone agrees on every campaign. But we all have in common a belief that Israel must abide by international law, must be a true democracy for all of its citizens, and cannot continue to subjugate another people.  That stand for democracy and freedom is what motivates the BDS movement, just as it motivated the movement for civil rights in the U.S. in the 1960s, and what we are seeing today in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

One of the beautiful things about watching those movements unfold has been watching people under dictatorial regimes who suddenly found the courage to take their governments, and their lives, back.  The BDS movement strives to fulfill these same basic human needs and in the same spirit of non-violence.  After years violent attacks on civilians that were rightfully condemned, how could we not respect and encourage these non-violent means, that bring together Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists in common cause?

It is very encouraging to have this conversation in a Jewish space. It’s great that J Street has rejected the attempts of right wing groups to split progressive Jews from one another, and is not following the lead of groups like Hillel (and Ameinu, if I want to be brutal!), that are creating political litmus tests for inclusion in the Jewish community. Its exciting to be able to sit together and have this discussion about tactics—there should be room for all of our approaches.

But is also of utmost importance to recognize that to have this conversation only in this space is not enough.  Many of us in this room have been to Bilin or Sheikh Jarrah.  These places are inspiring, because though led by Palestinians, as is appropriate since it is the Palestinian’s struggle to be free, they are joint Palestinian-Israeli efforts. In those places you can imagine a future in Palestine and Israel where all people are free to be full citizens, and where life is richer for everyone for it.

One of the strengths of BDS is that it actually requires conversation and coordination. So as a next step, I would put out a plea and a challenge that we not have this conversation only among Jews, but respect the agency of Palestinians in this struggle.  They are the ones most affected, they are the initiators of the call, and they need to be able to represent themselves in this debate.

More on BDS:

Roi Maor: BDS is ineffective.

Joseph Dana and Max Blumenthal: BDS targets the right group in Israeli society.

Video of the BDS debate in Princton. Debating: Max Blumenthal, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Dan May, Daniel May.

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    1. Amin Nusseibeh

      I support BDS and find it very effective for an additional reason. “Israel” is an illegitimate nation founded on the theft of land from the Palestinians. Therefore, everything produced in “israel” is illegitimate and stolen property. All of its so called accomplishments in medicine and technology are thus fraudulent. One of my friends with multiple sclerosis wont take copaxone because it is made in “israel”
      One Palestine from the River to the Sea!!!!!

      Reply to Comment
    2. @AMIN NUSSEIBEH you are visiting an Israeli site – I hope your friend doesn’t find out.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      In 1967, just before the Six-Day War, France announced it was halting the shipment of military supplies to Israel, including those that it was under contract to continue to supply. Nasser interpreted this as France cutting Israel loose, so he escalated his threats against Israel.
      After the war, Israel secretly was able to get the Dabur-class gunboats already bought and paid for out of Cherbourg harbor and bring them to Israel. Also, as a result of the French embargo, Israel developed its own military industries which later provided the springboard for the development of its world-class high-tech industries.

      Mi She’yavin, yavin.

      Reply to Comment
    4. O.Selznick

      @Noam Sheizaf – I think theres a growing need to stress the point that BDS applies only for products and services inside the territories.
      theres alot of confuesion on that point – hence Amin’s remark. also, it would get broader exceptance in Israeli society.

      Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      O.Silznick – your assumption is faulty. The BDS movement is divided on this point. While many advocates of BDS want to limit the boycott to the occupied territories, other, more clear-eyed advocates recognize that the problem of the occupation lies in the official Israeli institutions that support it, and thus extend their BDS activity to the entire state.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Amin Nusseibeh

      My friend has no problem with me visiting this site. I have high hopes for this site, because it might convince other israelis that the zionist experiment is over. If 972 magazine can convince 6 million “israelis” to follow the example of exisraeli and shoded yam and leave Occupied Palestine, it would earn the Nobel Peace Prize

      Reply to Comment
    7. BDS only in the OPT

      The problem is clear – and the “one Palestine from the river to the sea” posts clarify it, since Rebecca Vilkomerson chose to avoid it in her speech. BDS does not distinguish between the legitimate existence of a state of Israel and the illegitimate occupation of territories conquered in 1967 and prevention of Palestinian self-determination there. Israelis have a legitimate concern about that, because millions of people continue to aspire to the destruction of the entire state of Israel, as Amin Nusseibeh would like us to understand. If BDS was clearly and decisively targeted only at the occupied territories and companies/institutions that quite clearly and directly participate in the occupation – it would win much more support among Jews, Israelis and people who recognize the legitimate existence of a state of Israel. But that is not what they are interested in – they don’t care about those constituencies in the slightest, and that is why Jewish supporters of BDS are and will remain a marginal minority. And to argue that Meretz USA supports BDS is disingenuous – they, like most left Jewish/Israeli groups, support BDS specifically targeted against the occupation and they oppose a sweeping boycott of Israel and Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Why to boycott products from Israel or the west bank when you can do much more effective non-Violante acts ?

      you can ban all the export to Israel.
      that way they will realize the term civil rights.

      Libya too. -and Egypt
      -and Qatar
      – and Syria and Saudi Arabia
      …Oh wait, too much oil at risk.

      you can’t banned them.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Ben Israel

      Nusseibeh-Dream on. I personally know dozens of Jews who made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel from the US, France, UK and other WESTERN countries. Aliyah is INCREASING from western countries. Israel is doing fine and will even do better. Maybe if you get over your jealousy we could even make peace sometime. You would only benefit from it. One of the reaons the Arab countries are so far behind is because of the tendency to nurse ancient grievances for generations.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Yitzhak

      “I support BDS and find it very effective for an additional reason. “Israel” is an illegitimate nation founded on the theft of land from the Palestinians. Therefore, everything produced in “israel” is illegitimate and stolen property. All of its so called accomplishments in medicine and technology are thus fraudulent. One of my friends with multiple sclerosis wont take copaxone because it is made in “israel”

      By that logic, you should be sure to not use any products that are produced in the United States. Enjoy.

      Reply to Comment
    11. RichardNYC

      There’s no need to discuss whether BDS is a legitimate tactic because its state goals are not. The “right of return” is not sanctioned under international law, so why take any measures, peaceful or not, to implement it? A few minutes of scrutiny of Omar Bargouti’s statements reveals that BDS is an attempt to galvanize opposition to the occupation into a campaign to boycott Israel out of existence. He makes this perfectly clear. So what are you arguing about tactics?

      Reply to Comment
    12. David

      A video in which a BDS organizer talks clearly what BDS is about for her. Clearly the destruction of Israel as we know it, as I understand the lady.
      check it out
      This video of a prominent BDS/anti-Israel campaigner in the US North West brings up some important points. Namely the apparent confusion or disinformation amongst some regarding the precise aims.
      For me the BDS people range from Iran Mullahs, to Hamas, to Western academics, to “human rights” people, to desperate activists and just plain house mums. A rather motley crew.

      Reply to Comment