It’s Time for Israel to Take the BDS Movement Seriously

It’s Time for Israel to Take the BDS Movement Seriously
(AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File)

Five days after the killing of George Floyd, Israeli police fatally shot Eyal al-Hallaq, a 32-year old, unarmed Palestinian man, in Jerusalem. The handful of outraged op-eds and protests in response has fallen well short of the global support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  

The invocation of Palestine in BLM rallies was far more widespread when the movement first emerged. This time around, it has so far mostly been limited to intellectual circles. Yet the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, or BDS, which has had limited economic or diplomatic impact in its first 15 years of calling for economic, political, and academic sanctions against Israel, may now finally be positioned for a BLM moment.

Activists have long connected oppression of Blacks in the United States and Israeli oppression of Palestinians. At times, this connection slips into antisemitic tropes that blame Jews for societal ailments in other parts of the world. Such was the case last week, when British Labour politician Rebecca Long-Bailey retweeted an unsupported claim that Minnesota police learned the chokehold technique that killed Floyd through training with Israeli forces. But to dismiss the entire BDS movement as antisemitic is a strawman fallacy.

Israel has for some time treated the BDS movement as a threat to national security. It has taken aggressive measures in an attempt to blunt the movement's success. Its response to BDS, marked by subtle and overt attempts to limit free speech, has drawn accusations of illiberalism. Such an approach is antithetical to the value system that drives citizens to march in the streets today, and whose hearts and minds Israel must win if it hopes to effectively combat the BDS movement tomorrow.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that nearly twice as many liberal Democrats sympathize with the Palestinians than with Israel, and since 2001, the share of liberal Democrats who sympathize with Israel has dropped from 48 percent in 2001 to 19 percent in 2018. Younger, more diverse liberals -- those marching in support of BLM -- are even less sympathetic to Israel than previous generations.

The BDS movement has been able to penetrate previously pro-Israeli strongholds in American politics. Recently elected members of Congress who support BDS include Democrats Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Longtime Democrat and staunch Israeli supporter Eliot Engel lost his primary for New York’s 16th District to progressive school principal Jamaal Bowman. Bowman has expressed support for conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel on the latter’s protection of Palestinian human rights.

Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank while denying Palestinian residents citizenship is a flashpoint for more strident protests; BDS organizations held demonstrations across the United States against Israel. Bernie Sanders signed on to Ocasio-Cortez’s letter threatening to cut U.S. military aid to Israel should the latter go forward with its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Not only are U.S. liberals overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, but the European Union has threatened to sanction Israel over the issue.

Currently, 29 U.S. states prohibit boycotts of Israel, but that might change. Younger Americans, especially the growing progressive ranks of the Democratic Party, are keenly aware of the similarities between the BLM and BDS movements, and this could signal a reckoning for Israel.

Given international outrage over the oppression of minorities in the United States, it could be only a matter of time before the clamor for Palestinian equality reaches a tipping point similar to BLM. It would be a mistake for Israeli officials to underestimate this possibility as they press on with annexation plans -- plans that can be seen as yet another encroachment on the beleaguered human rights of Palestinians.

Instead of debating the extent of the annexation of Palestinian territory, it’s time for Israelis to prepare for their own BLM moment, which might come in the form of a consolidated and effective BDS campaign.

Ronnie Olesker is an associate professor of government at St. Lawrence University and affiliated professor at the University of Haifa. The views expressed are the author's own. 

 

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