I’ve wanted to write about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for a while, but I haven’t had a real reason that’d be worth the inevitable barely-coherent shouting in my direction.
Then came Tuesday’s release of a report by Human Rights Watch titled “Occupation, Inc.” The gist of the report is businesses cannot both maintain a commitment to human rights and operate or invest in commercial activities within the territories Israel illegally occupies.
It seems fairly straightforward, but in today’s warped discourse, the very idea that businesses and people should divest from Israeli economic activities in the occupied West Bank, or even the idea Israel is capable of doing wrong at all, is inflammatory and controversial.
Here’s where we enter the debate over BDS: a political movement that calls for businesses and consumers to boycott products manufactured in territory illegally occupied by Israel.
I continue to use the adverb “illegally” because it is an indisputable fact that, since 1967, Israel has engaged in activities in the West Bank that violate numerous codified and recognized standards of international law. Namely, the Israeli military has transferred Israeli civilians from Israel into suburb-style settlements built on land that has belonged to Palestinians for centuries, displacing residents and destroying farmland and villages in the process. This isn’t merely immoral. It’s a flagrant violation of the law — you know, a crime.
But the big point, where BDS comes into play, is that these crimes are facilitated by the practice of businesses and investors shifting production and investment activity into the illegally occupied areas on the Palestinian side of the border, expropriating natural resources and setting up industrial zones. A major reason for these transfers is the abundance of Palestinian laborers, who are hired at exploitative rates — often as low as one-third of the Israeli minimum wage — with zero benefits. But the situation gets better for businesses: Since Palestinian laborers in the West Bank are subject to Israeli military law without any civil rights (totally not apartheid!), workers in the illegally occupied territories have no right to sue or even bargain with their employers.
Through multiple incursions of human rights and international law, Israel and the companies that pursue economic activity in the West Bank turn a profit. The goal of BDS is to minimize or eradicate the profit turned through peaceful boycotts and economic pressure. By disincentivizing the occupation, BDS activists hope to bring about its end.
That is BDS. A peaceful and humanitarian effort using economic leverage to safeguard peace and human rights. The movement is growing in support from figures like Jewish Voice for Peace, Israeli human rights groups and humanitarian activists around the world.
The problem with BDS is the campaign is perhaps the most wildly misunderstood and maligned political movement of the 21st century, perhaps next to Black Lives Matter.
Now that it’s been embraced on many college campuses, BDS has been raised as a spectral vision of corrosive campus leftism, or anti-semitism, or as a front for radical Islamist terror groups.
This is not a coincidence; there exists a well-funded and well-organized campaign to intimidate and cajole BDS activists into submission. This is exemplified by Canary Mission, an uber-creepy McCarthyist website that collects profiles on Palestine/BDS activists — be they Jewish, Muslim, Arab or black — with the explicit intent to smear them and hinder future job opportunities.
Many state legislatures, including Florida’s, have passed resolutions condemning BDS. What is, in reality, a sensible economic boycott against illegal activity has been smeared and silenced across the globe.
What I find interesting about the BDS debate is that people who are usually quite quick to stand up for free speech are conspicuously quiet when the speech of BDS activists is silenced with legal intimidation and blacklisting. Folks who proudly proclaim their disdain for political correctness’ silencing effects often have no problem silencing and attacking people who hold incorrect opinions on Israel. And, when France criminalized BDS activism altogether, there was nary a peep from the we-must-defend-free-speech “Je suis Charlie” crowd.
“The Palestine Exception to Free Speech” is thought-provoking, especially as Israel’s Likud government continues its rightward slide to despotism and un-democratic behavior. True to its name, the Likud (“consolidation”) party exploits the inherent tensions in Israeli society to its own benefit. Economic pressure against its policies can embolden Likud’s opposition in Israel. BDS is a pragmatic, humane and nonviolent way to reverse the tide and make Israel the humanitarian and multicultural society it should be.
Alec Carver is a UF history junior. His column appears on Fridays.